Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Meaning of Book Reviews, A New Year's Resolution

I read a lot of book reviews. The ones that are especially interesting to read are not necessarily about how good the book is. Sometimes, the best reviews are the ones where you get the reviewers personality or beliefs thrown into the mix. I think most people are looking for book reviews with a particular slant that matches or contrasts with their own opinions on the world.

This is especially true for the New York Times Book Review. A lot of the review is about the authors writing style and opinions not the book itself. If you wanted a book review that was concise that told you exactly what the book was about in one or two paragraphs then rated the quality of the writing you would look in a review magazine like Kirkus Reviews. Maybe a few collection development librarians, and bookstore ordering people look at this kind of magazine but not the every day readers. I don't think that most people want this when they are reading book reviews.

They want to know about the important idea in the nonfiction book and why they should read about the book, not necessarily even the quality of the writing. In a fiction book they might want to know about the setting, tone, and characters in the book.

There is a tremendous variety in personal tastes. When I look at stars on a review, unless the book is absolutely panned, or rated as absolutely exceptional, I often ignore the rating. Ratings are projected at the "average reader" in the reviewers mind. It is hard to know what the reviewer considers the average reader. I think creating an average reader is often a bad mistake. Audiences are often not what you expect them to be.

Also the blogger can put down the book if they don't like it and simply say something like, "I didn't like this book, I couldn't get past chapter three and I am not going to continue reading it." A professional reviewer has to finish reading the books they are reviewing or at least pretend to. I rarely see books which people didn't like being reviewed on blogs.

The best reviews in my opinion talk about a central idea in the book and analyze it from different perspectives. They are not a statement that this book talks about this. Here it is in front of you. They tend to bring in books which the author may have written at other times, as well as other books in the subject being discussed.

Book reviews also occur within a particular space. A review in People Magazine will be very different than Aviation Week And Space Technology. Also a review in a blog will be different from a magazine. It will be much more personal.

I think in the blog space when we are reading book reviews, we are looking for the bloggers opinion not a dry analysis. The more unusual or interesting points which the blogger can make about the book, the more likely people will take interest in it. It is possible to discuss books in ways which don't fit in with the traditional magazine review format which is rather bland.

Magazines also don't contain comments sections. Actually, if they are online they do. But, that is another story. Comments allow one to discuss the opinions stated about a book.

Another thing which blog reviews can do is change in real time. You can go back and edit an opinion or add to it as time passes. This is definitely not true for printed magazines.

Also, the blog is often not selling the particular book or item in question. This is a big problem for game review sites. They will have a particular game which is being advertised on their site. Then the reviewer will have to talk about the game. The reviewer risks being fired if they give an honest review saying they didn't like the game. This is an example of what may happen if there is a negative review of by an editor of content being sold on an internet site. I know it is not books, but it is very similar.

The actual review of this video game is incredible to watch. It is mildly disturbing. I am not going to feature it separately.

Being honest about a books good and bad points is interesting. Some books will have both good and bad points about them. I don't see a whole lot of mixed reviews on books. I would like to see more of them.

I spent some time looking at how book reviews are done professionally. If I was writing from a professional perspective, I would have to include more of the bibliographic information about the book, the publisher and year for example. But, I am being a bit lazy. I should probably add these.

The essential pattern is introduce what the book is, identifying the author, subject, and publisher. The second step step generally is to summarize the content of the book. The third step is to write your thoughts on the book. The fourth step is to summarize the central ideas about the books combining the previous written information.

I am also not overly concerned with authority which is a large portion of what academics seem to be focused on. What authority does the author have to talk about a specific subject? Do they have a doctorate in the subject or are they a layman. In traditional reviews, this is a big focus. The reviewer is also subject to this scrutiny as well. They are supposed to have some experience with what they are writing about. In the blurb of extensive reviews, there are often a few sentences about the reviewers credentials.

Also truth is a big factor in professional book reviews. Often, I am reading for pleasure and express this in my reviews. In academia, it is a terrible sin to lie, even in history books or biography. Unlike many people, I take a dim view of this. History books are written by the winners, they express the dominant view of the culture for the most part. The most interesting history books are quite partisan. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius is one of the most entertaining and partisan books I have ever read.

There is also an insistence that a professional reviewer know a lot about a specific subject. Sometimes, it is more intereresting if a person is honest and they say, I am a dilettante, but I am very interested in the subject, and have a lot of personal opinions that differ from the author.

A lot of biographies also seem to be lies as well. They are often the official version of a persons life. Many biographies are cleaned up to the point of ridiculousness. This swings to the opposite of the spectrum as well. The unofficial biography is usually an attempt to smear a persons reputation. I like to consider most biographies as fiction.

Format is often considered by the professional reviewer. Letting the reader know the size of the book, whether it is illustrated, or has photographs is important. Even talking about one or two of the photographs can make the book more interesting. Improper formatting of a book can make a book much less readable. Also the reading experience differences between a hardcover and a paperback. It is much harder to read a large hardcover book on the subway for example.

For my own satisfaction and curiosity, I took some time to look up submission guidelines for Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Publishers Weekly has guidelines on how to submit a book for a review, not how to write a review. This is rather interesting, I thought, they would have material on the actual writing guidelines. Instead they have material on how to send a galley or advanced reading copy to Publishers Weekly.

Locus Magazine, the professional magazine for Science Fiction and Fantasy also does not accept unsolicited reviews of material. They do most of their reviews in house or approach specific people to do their reviews for them. Like Publishers Weekly, they accept review copies. However, the guideline for Locus Magazine is that the copy sent in must be the book in its final form, not a galley.

In contrast, this is a link to Library Journal's Review Guidelines for books. It is quite interesting. They have specific ways you are supposed to write about books for publications.

I am not sure that I would ever attempt to submit reviews to Library Journal. In some ways, I am not sure of myself in this way. I prefer to take a more alternative path to doing things.
I am writing this on Monday, January 7, 2008 in lieu of a new post.

I went through the post today and corrected a few grammatical errors. I sometimes wonder why blogger does not include a grammar or spellchecker.

A promise, an oath, a new year's resolution with my hand on heart, my feet on the ground, and my eyes up to the sky. Everyday, I will try and write at least a paragraph on this blog consistently without hesitation. There may be breaks of a day or two on occassion, but for the most part I will write every day consistently.


chica said...

This is a nice article. I'm new to writing book reviews on my blog, and I find myself writing them more from a personal point of view. What thoughts, feelings I derived from the book. Its very difficult though to figure out a pattern for the reviews :). I think my review style probably differs for each review.

Book Calendar said...

Thanks so much for the feedback, I expanded the material to add a few more salient points. I hope you enjoy them.

Stella said...

good post :)

I'd also say that people often don't even care what's being written about, that they really want to read nasty comments. Critisim is so difficult to write to begin with without sounding brutal, but I think people really do enjoy seeing someone's work torn apart.

Book Calendar said...

I do care about what people are writing about. I prefer that people include both good and bad points. This is quite hard to do, it is much easier to trash or make a book shine.

Stella said...

(I think my comments would look better if "criticism" didn't have a typo...)

One of the reasons I don't write movie reviews is because I feel like I sound bitchy, despite not even trying to.

Book Calendar said...

It is better to sound mean than to have no personality at all. Some of the reviewers of movies are so bland that they make the movies that they are reviewing sound uninteresting even if they are reviewed well. Some people really like an attitude. Come out front with the attitude and people will probably like your reviews better than the ones in the newspapers and television.

melai said...

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The Uneasy Supplicant said...

Hi Nishan
Great post. Very informative. As a university student majoring in History I found your opinion on History books interesting and quite accurate.
As for posting everyday careful. I have tried and it becomes very demanding (at least I thought so).
Good luck though. You are a talented writer and if anyone can do it you can.
Have a great

The Uneasy Supplicant said...

add "day" to last comment. Brain dead today :-)
Take care Nishan

Stella said...

I take your point, but sometimes I feel like the book/movie isn't being criticized for its own sake, but rather to showoff how smart the reviewer is, and it irks me. I guess it's because I hope I'll be in the same situation someday, and I'd rather not be criticized for the sake of entertainment.

I guess it's pointless to feel that way, but I haven't managed to reconcile myself to the probability of it happening.

espresso said...

wow. nice. and very helpful. i review a lot of things and sometimes.. and this post sure is useful. :) nice site.

Maw Books said...

I thought that this was a great article for those of us, like me, who have only just began writing book reviews on blogs. Thanks so much for the helpful advice.