Happy 2015! I wish all of you a prosperous and creative New Year. Thanks also to everyone who takes the time to read this blog.
Let’s kick off January with a post about writing book reviews.
The Art of the Review
In the Sunday, December 28, 2014 edition of the New York Times Book Review, contributing editor Alice Gregory reviews four books of essays for “The Shortlist.” Her first review is of Where Have You Been? Selected Essays by Michael Hofmann. She writes, “An underused binary when it comes to taxonomizing literary critics is to distinguish between those who write best in hatred and those who write best in love” and “there is something noble about a critic who is most brilliant when being laudatory.”
As an occasional reviewer myself, I belong with Michael Hofmann in the laudatory category. I don’t claim to be brilliant, just more comfortable landing on the side of appreciation rather than disapproval. Surely, a place exists for the negative review, but not from this writer. I’d rather not review a book I truly dislike, since I would have to write a soul-crushing piece that lives forever with my byline and the unfortunate author’s attached. I write reviews, to quote Hofmann, as “an homage (for the most part) to literature.” I want to welcome readers to books I like instead of warning them away from books I dislike.
This is not always easy. Friends send books with the hopeful query, “Can you review my book?” Which means, “can you read my book, write a positive review of it, and place it at a journal?” That’s a lot of work, and I don’t always have the time or inclination to review the books that come my way. However, I too have been the asker, for blurbs and reviews, and in the spirit of reciprocity, I try to return the favor whenever possible.
Reviewing a book is, in my opinion, the best way to understand it. Reading a book on its own merit is just the beginning; reading with the intent to review leads to a much deeper level of comprehension. A review is a short lesson regarding content, style, and relevance: it must also convey some sense of the book’s readability and interest. Among the questions I ask myself as I write a review include 1) why should anyone read this book? 2) why would anyone shut off all other distractions and give this book her complete attention? I try to find hidden gems or oblique connections. I include the best examples I can find in the book.
I do not mean to imply that I, or any other reviewer, should give only glowing reviews. As Alice Gregory writes about Michael Hofmann, “This is not to say that Hofmann’s writing isn’t without barbs – and better for it.” A review should not be a work of unabated praise, but a balanced, thoughtful composition that enhances the reading experience. In this “Shortlist,” Gregory writes mostly positive mini-reviews of Hofmann and three other essay collections, including an apt summation of what criticism should not be: “parasitic work fueled by a professionally productive inferiority complex.” Rather, she writes, it should “connect minds joyously across time and continents.”
Here are some of my reviews: