28 March 2012

Some advice on reviewing books

A few weeks ago Ian Sales blogged the following helpful advice on how to write a good book review:
  1. A dishonest review is a bad review.
  2. Not all books are good.
  3. It’s not just good books that deserve reviews.
  4. If a book is a bad book, it’s dishonest not to say so.
  5. If a book is not a good book, it’s dishonest to refuse to review it.
  6. Books can be bad for a number of reasons; most of those reasons are a result of failure of craft.
  7. Reviews are not written for the author of the book being reviewed; their audience is potential readers of the book being reviewed.
  8. A good review is not opinion because it will contain evidence supporting its assertions.
  9. Whether or not a reviewer enjoyed a book is completely meaningless, since enjoyment is unrelated to quality and is entirely subjective.
  10. A review does not have to meet the expectations of people who have read the book being reviewed.
  11. A review is based on a critical read of a book; this means the reviewer has probably put a lot more thought into their reading of it than you have.
  12. If you come across a negative review of a book you thought was good but you did not read the book in question critically, then you are not qualified to comment on the review’s findings.

Just one or two quibbles.

On 5: I have occasionally refused to review a book. I don’t think this is dishonest. When I review I try to find something positive to say even about books that are mostly bad. If a book is so bad that I can’t find a single redeeming feature, I then have to decide whether I need to write a review warning potential readers off or whether it would be better to starve the book of undeserved publicity by simply not reviewing it at all. (But perhaps that is a hangover from the days when I was reviews editor of an academic journal and had to make decisions about which reviews to include in the limited space available to me.)

On 6: Ian is writing about reviews of fiction. Obviously with non-fiction there are additional criteria for what makes a book bad (e.g. factual accuracy).

On 9: I don’t think enjoyment can simply be dismissed like this. For me, enjoyment is an important indication of a good book. Of course, an enjoyable read isn’t necessarily a pleasurable read. Rather I am looking for something that draws me in and compels me to read on (or, in the case of non-fiction, is thought-provoking). 

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