How professional book reviewing works – ideally

A week or so back my publicist at Penguin sent me the reviews of my book Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, that have been published since that title came out.

They got me thinking about reviews and reviewing. I write such things myself for New Zealand newspapers and magazines. And at that professional level, reviewers are trying to inform readers – to give an impartial and useful judgement. Most do; and for this reason, professional reviewers usually come to much the same conclusions independently, even if individual reviewers have minor gripes with one thing or another.

The best reviews are, themselves, mini-essays; arguing a case about the book and its subject – where it comes in context with the rest, what contribution the author has made.

If a ‘wrong at every turn’ assault on the book and author pops up amidst general acclaim it sticks out like a sore thumb – and is usually because that individual reviewer has succumbed to a personal agenda. The main problem in New Zealand is territorial; it’s such a small place that authors get to review works of competitors – commercially or ideologically, and use the review as a device to avenge themselves.

Professional reviewers, though, do give books a fair go. And it is important, both in fairness to the author being reviewed – and to the reviewer’s own repute.

Personally I try to look for the best in the books that come by my desk. Sometimes it’s hard; but as an author myself I’m always acutely aware that a writer has poured their heart and soul into the work. Shovels, of course, get called shovels; sometimes real stinkers do pop up – and in fairness to readers, I have to mention it. One book I reviewed earlier this year was so execrably written I could not ignore the point. But for the most part there is usually something positive to be found in any author’s work.

As for the reviews I got – well, see for yourself. A nice consistent batch from some professional people:

‘As Matthew Wright acknowledges, although “generations of historians have told and retold the tales, openly and happily”, the true story of convict involvement has been ignored by many New Zealanders who have sought to differentiate themselves from their Western Island… Although some academic reviewers use the word “prolific” as a pseudo-insult, Wright combines a scholar’s mastery of the sources with a journalistic skill at communicating complex messages to lay people, all sharpened by the experience of writing nearly 50 books.’ – Gavin McLean, Otago Daily Times, 11 August 2012.

‘…great reading, full of specific real-life personalities and daring escapades, some horrifying, to be measured and understood against the background of Maori and British cultures of those decades of the nineteenth century. This is the first time the tale of New Zealand’s convicts has been told to this detail, in a single book – one destined to become a New Zealand classic. – Jo Keppel, Greymouth Evening Star, 26 July 2012

‘Wright has done a great job of exposing activities which society had considered best forgotten, and made it interesting reading to boot’. – Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate, 23 July 2012, and Wanganui Chronicle, 16 August 2012.

‘…an entertaining and informative account of some of the larger-than-life characters who made this country their home in the early 19th century…’ – Alister Browne, Manawatu Standard, 17 August 2012.

‘…adds to the colourful tapestry of New Zealand’s early settlement.’Mana, New Zealand, 1 September 2012.

‘Wright has carved out a niche for himself in pre-Treaty New Zealand history, from which very few written records survive. It’s not an easy field to research.’ – Mike Houlihan, D-Scene, 5 September 2012.

Veering for a moment into shameless plug territory, if you feel like owning this book, it’s available online from Fishpond. But that’s by the by. As, indeed, is the fact that I’ve been asked to submit an academic paper based on the book to an Australian peer-reviewed journal.

Have you ever had a book published and fielded reviews? What were your experiences? Did the reviews help or hinder? How did you feel afterwards?

 Matthew Wright text copyright © 2012

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8 comments on “How professional book reviewing works – ideally

  1. S. Thomas Summers says:

    Congrats in the reviews. Well done.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

  2. ljclayton says:

    You must be delighted with those reviews. What writer wouldn’t be?

  3. They’re pretty good, though another came out today which was not so marvellous. I got the impression the guy hadn’t actually read the book – he was accusing me of failing to do stuff that is actually explicit in the book. Takes all sorts, I guess.

  4. Kerry Dwyer says:

    I have been lucky so far in that all my reviews have been very nice. I had one person send me a private email to tell me that my punctuation was dodgy in some places. I immediately sent the MS to a punctuation expert in my department to check. I was quite relieved to be told it wasn’t an issue. .

    • It was good your correspondent had the decency to approach you privately. Some ‘bad’ reviewers don’t have the integrity to do that – indeed, a private debate would defeat their aim, which often has less to do with reviewing the book than with point-scoring against the author.

      Luckily that sort of review is in the minority – there seem to be plenty of decent folk out there!

  5. Team Oyeniyi says:

    Great reviews! I do have my beta reader’s feedback now and am pleasantly encouraged. Not a review, but as close as I am going to get at this stage.

    One day…….. :)

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