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On Book Reviews

The Challenges and Rewards of Reviewing Books



Did you ever read a book and think – or maybe tell your book group – that you liked or disliked the book, and then were at odds as to the reasons why? If so, you were involving yourself in one of literature’s most valuable processes. You were on the cusp of giving a book review. 


But, you may ask, why are book reviews necessary? Aren’t you just covering the same ground the author did? As your agent and editors did?  It might seem so, but no.


A decent analogy might be this: you’re preparing breakfast for your family. You pour cereal into a bowl, possibly cut up some fruit, add milk, maybe even yogurt. Then you set the bowl in front of a hungry family member. Of course, concocting that breakfast isn’t the same as eating it. 


So how do book reviews fit the analogy?


As a writer, you try to represent something about everyday life through the act of creative writing. It’s not exactly real life, but it’s not totally separate from it, either. You create or depict characters to act out something of interest from your culture, something that lays bare “the way it is.”


After a bit of inspiration and many buckets of perspiration, you’ve given the story your best shot. You let your critique group read it. You attract an agent, editor, or publisher, and they might recommend a few tweaks before your story is put into print. Then you attract readers, and they buy it.


But that’s not the end of the process. If it were, and given the dearth of money to be made from writing, you might as well have spent your time inventing a new potato peeler, or a new computer widget. I do agree with you on this point, though: you write partly because you have to expend that creative energy you feel surging through your veins. But if that were all there were to creative writing – or to any artistic project, for that matter – you might just as well spend money on a show-stopping Easter dress, a flashy sports car, or a radical new tattoo. No, you want your story to be the first part of a “conversation.”


A conversation??! 


You may be writing a romance. Or about coal mining. Or your family heritage. Or the solution to a crime. In all of these cases, you’re acting out a role: you’re an observer of contemporary or historical life, and you’re commenting on it, examining differing facets of “the way it is.” But whom is this conversation with? Readers.


Readers come from a completely different place than writers. Okay, you might be both, but I don’t think writers read with the same needs, the same agenda, as readers. Readers have a perspective on “the way it is,” but you the writer are probably better at seeing how all the bits and pieces of life fit together. And you’re probably better at expressing that vision. 


Because of that, readers seem to need what you do. They’ll read a book to gain greater insight into life, even if they’re doing so through a Harlequin novel, or a Dick Francis mystery. Now, you might object to this. You might say readers read for escape; their reading habits aren’t such a high-flown quest for perspective. But it is, really. It might be exaggerated, or cloaked in mystery, but they still want it to represent “the way it is” is some fashion, and to see life from some new perspective.


This is where (legitimate) book reviews come in. (I’ve put that word in parentheses, because the book industry tries to co-opt reviews; they try to find ways to use them only to sell books.) 

Readers may feel oddly satisfied as they read a final page and close the book, but they might also find it hard to explain why it satisfied them. A book reviewer has the ability to read a text and explain in a few words why the characters properly (or not) act out something that touches a little deeper into life than just those superficial actions and emotions. And they can also give insight into how well the text carried this out.


Writers need readers, but they also need reviewers. Often, writers write intuitively; they write consciously about specific things, but their unconscious often reveals depths the writer may not be aware of – and may be amazed by, once they’re pointed out. And because writing is often intuitive, the understanding of life’s complexities the writer is struggling to portray may come out a little bit garbled. Reviews can point out both.


Reviewers don’t have to be writers, although it might help – a little. They simply have to understand these few key things to look for and have an ability to point them out to potential readers. These skills aren’t magic; they can be easily learned. 

There’s a shortage of reviewers in the creative writing field, and I hope some of you will consider taking that role on, either as a hobby or a profession. Start a book review blog. Call your local paper and tell them you want to review books – you may not get paid, but you might get free books for doing it. 


Reviewing can be challenging, but in the end it’s a rewarding endeavor – maybe as rewarding as writing itself.