Traditional book reviews – as opposed to the instant reader feedback via Amazon and so forth that we now call a ‘review’ – have almost always been written by writers.
I’ve written plenty of them myself, professionally, for newspapers and lit magazines. The trick to it is abstraction.
The problem with the process, certainly in a tiny place like New Zealand, has been that editors often give books to a rival author to review, as the only person able to make an informed comment. Some of the authors then feel obligated to indulge in worth-assassination of their competitor. This is flat out patch protection, and I’ve been at the receiving end of it often enough in the past with my military histories – people whose equivalent ‘patches’ are usually defined by their employment writing books at my expense as taxpayer, and whose public portrayal of me as incompetent affects the income I earn from my competing commercial works. Go figure.
But in the ordinary course of ‘review’, in the expression of a professional and abstract view, authors should be able to review other authors’ work. If they do it properly.
How’s it done? My usual approach is to look on the review as a specialised feature article – to give the review a theme and argument of its own.The reviewer should write something informative – something that helps a reader judge the quality of a book, something that informs. A hostile trawl for any trivia on which to condemn the worth of the author isn’t the way to do it. Nor is simply regurgitating their content in pot-summary. Reviewers have to ask questions.
One question is ‘why’ – why did the author choose the themes that they did? Why did they take a particular topic, angle or subject? What was their intent in writing the book? How did they tackle it? Where does their work fit with that of similar authors? This doesn’t have to be a worth judgement. Remember – the review has to inform a reader.
Do you write reviews? How do you approach them? Have you ever been reviewed? How did the reviewer approach your work?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, history and more. Watch this space.