The Art of the Review

The Exploratory Review


I’ve come to realize something about the reviewing process. Every book I review is unique, and therefore, dictates the type of review it receives. I call this style of reviewing The Exploratory Review, which combines elements of narrative, description, and exposition. In the exploratory review, the book leads the way instead of the reviewer.

A review is generally considered to be a critique, or a work of opinion. That’s true for many reviews, whether they are of literature, film, food, or art. The reviewer is out to convince the reader of a particular point of view; i.e., the book was delightful or boring, the film sensational or regrettable, the meal delicious or average, the art shocking or banal.

In the exploratory review, however, the reviewer’s opinion is less important than the potential reader’s experience of the book. In other words, the reviewer is less concerned with convincing a reader of a book’s worth, and more concerned with making the book available for the reader’s own judgment. This process respects the reviewing triad: author, reviewer, and reader.

When I review a book of poems, I’m not looking for something to criticize. As Anjali Enjeti writes in Secrets of the Book Critics, “I’d much rather celebrate a book than criticize it.” This doesn’t mean that I’m some kind of Pollyanna, heaping praise on every book I review. Nor am I aiming for a balance between the two; i.e., “this was bad” but “this was good.” My goal as a reviewer is to pry open a book of poems and let the light out, or dive deeply into the dark. Calling these experiences “good” or “bad” oversimplifies the process.

The exploratory review allows me to create an encounter for the reader rather than take a stand. My opinion is not primary; after all, the reader may or may not share it, or might agree with me only part of the time. Knowing this, my obligation is to unlock the book, to look for themes, and to generate interest.

As critic David Ulin puts it, “In the best reviews, the book is just a starting point, which is not an argument for self-indulgence but for its opposite: the deep dive, the conversation on which all literature (and yes, book reviews are a form of literature, or should be) depends.” The review should be able to stand on its own as a piece of writing, even as it comments on another piece of writing.

I like to compare writing the exploratory review to taking a hike on a new trail. The hike might be steep and difficult, but there’s usually a view at the end that makes it all worthwhile.

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Categories: The Art of the Review

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