Writers Say So Note: Book reviews are of course valuable for readers but they can be helpful for writers, as well. An excellent way of clarifying what your work is about is by writing a review of it. But just what makes an effective review? In this post by guest contributor Laurie Hertzel, Senior Book Editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, we learn how books are chosen and what goes into the art of book reviewing.
When I was young and callow and just beginning to review books (for the Duluth News-Tribune, where I was a very young copy editor), I thought that the purpose of a review was to show readers how smart I was. I cringe now to think about those early reviews and hope that they have all been forgotten and forgiven and, maybe, deleted out of Lexus-Nexus.
In those years, I was overly critical. I reviewed what I liked and if the book disappointed or I didn’t understand it, I thought that was a flaw in the writer instead of in me. I was sarcastic. I thought I was brilliant, but I was not: I was flippant and, occasionally, mean.
Please do not go look up any of those old reviews. Just know that I have learned.
Now I am older, and I realize that the responsibility of reviewing a book is a serious one. For a reader, plunking down $30 for a hardcover book and investing weeks of reading time is no small thing; you don’t want to lead them astray. And for an author, a review can make a difference in how well a book sells—or how quickly it tanks.
For the pages of the Star Tribune, I look for reviewers who are well-read, thoughtful, articulate, and experienced. Most of my critics are either published writers, university professors, or members of the National Book Critics Circle. Some are all three. I also have rules about what they can review: For instance, I do not allow critics to review the books of people they personally know. No friends reviewing friends, no enemies reviewing enemies. I want them to judge the book on its own merits, not on the personality of the author.
We work from advance reader copies, and I give the critic plenty of time—usually about two months—to read the book, think about it, and turn in a written review.
A good book review should do a few things:
It should tell enough about the book for the reader to understand the plot, or the point, or the gist, but it should not go on and on. A review that only describes the plot is not helpful.
It can (but doesn’t have to) quote from the book, to give the reader a first-hand sense of the language and tone.
It should assess what it is the writer is trying to do, and then assess whether or not the writer was successful, and then get into the why-or-why-not. This is probably the most important part of a review, and the trickiest.
The reviewer’s personal taste does not enter into it, though the reviewer’s reading experience does. How can I say that better? A review that says, “I loved this book because I love mysteries” is not useful to the reader. A review that says, “This mystery kept me up until 3 in the morning and then I was afraid to turn the lights out” is more useful.
The purpose of a review is not to make a name for the critic, but to shine a light inside a book for readers, to help them determine whether or not it is something they might want to read.
Book reviewing is an art, not a science. Reviewing nonfiction is different from reviewing fiction, and poetry is another animal altogether….
It’s a judgment I make every day when I go through the mail. I get about 1000 books a month, and we review about 10 per week, so a lot of worthy books never get a mention. It’s heartbreaking, but I can only fit in so much.
I look for a mix: the next big new book, a quiet but excellent book by a small literary press, mysteries, regional books, books whose author is on tour and coming to town. I try to include something for everyone—some nonfiction, a memoir, some poetry, a novel. I try to keep the reader in mind (not the authors, sadly), and give them a sampling every Sunday of an array of different kinds of books, hoping that each reader will find at least one thing that interests them.
Laurie Hertzel is Senior Editor/Books at the Star Tribune and author of the memoir, “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.”