How Not to Write a Book Review

Robert Pinsky’s discusses John Wilson Croker’s legendary slam on John Keats and the three “golden rules” of book reviewing in today’s Slate. Book reviewing is a touchy subject, particularly for the small press journal. (I have even been invited to be on such a panel, approval pending, for AWP 2012 in Chicago). I agree with Pinksy’s three golden rules, but reviewing, especially the book of an acquaintance, is never as clinical and as detached as this. What’s your take? If your review is only one of a handful of reviews (or perhaps the only one) on an author’s book, and the book is not that great, what are your responsibilities as a review? Do you focus on the positive but at the same time outline the book’s weaknesses as a courtesy to the author? When is it okay to be critical? Do you trust book reviews or view them as another form of PR? To that end, what purpose does the book review actually serve (other than, realistically, a link on the author’s webpage) if we all supposedly trust our own sound judgment and are unswayed by others?

Would be interested in hearing your thoughts!

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One response to “How Not to Write a Book Review

  1. Personally, I review poetry books that I like and so it avoids the problem of glossing over a mediocre effort in order to spare feelings of someone I don’t know (or even worse, know). I often take some time to focus on poetic form, because it is objective, and also as a tool for potential readers out there that may not have learned poetic forms that well but may find it interesting or useful. In terms of Pinsky’s review linked above, I have to say that I find the negative reviewers of John Keats more interesting than the three golden rules of book reviewing that state 1)Tell the main point, 2) the author’s take, 3) reviewer’s take. That’s fine, but a didactic review that argues for its own point of view (in the case against Keats, against Romantic Poetry generally) is also valuable. One does not always need agree. Plus, Keats’ epic poems are boring, so the two famous negative reviewers that Pinksy quotes are not entirely wrong. Of course, I am glad Keats kept writing, both his letters and odes.

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