Essential writing skills: the art of the book review

The other week the New Zealand Listener published my review of Christopher Pugsley’s new book on the Second New Zealand Division, Bloody Road Home.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

I hadn’t written for the Listener for a while, so it took me a moment to slip into ‘book reviewer’ groove. And there is one.

Reviews of this sort – professional essays, basically, published in the culture or literary pages of major magazines and newspapers , and for which the reviewer gets a (small) professional fee, differ from the ‘reviews’ readers can write and post in places like Amazon. Sometimes, yes, those are also classic review essays; but often they’re not – they’re reader feedback.

That’s no less important, of course – especially given the way Amazon ranks books based on star rating –  but by the same token there is definitely an ‘art’ to review writing.

It’s not enough to simply summarise the contents or express an opinion as to whether the book was great, indifferent or a stinker. Professional reviews have to draw the reader, just like any other piece of writing. They have to trace an argument; and they have to say something along the way that adds value.

That doesn’t mean setting up a straw man to knock the target book down. You know, starting by pompously asserting that ‘any definitive work on this subject must have X in it’, followed by a lengthy discussion ‘proving’ that the author, foolishly, missed X.

It also doesn’t mean trawling for any trivial inconsistency or alleged ‘error’ that can be wrung out of it, as a device with which to deny the competence and worth of the author.

Both techniques are regularly used by academics in New Zealand to damage the sales and readership of other authors’ books in ‘their’ personal subjects.

To me, though, none of this informs the reader of the review what they’ll get out of the book. Why should they read it? To me the more useful approach is to ask questions around which to structure an essay. Why did the author take the angle they did? What is the place of the work in its field? Why did the author take the angle they did.

Conveniently, that’s sometimes answered in the introduction. Inconveniently, it’s just as often not – though that produces a device around which to structure the review.

Ultimately, a professional review must, itself, take readers on an emotional journey. Just like any other piece of writing.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


2 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: the art of the book review

  1. Whether its a professional reviewer or a reader reviewing, for me the most important thing about a review is that the reviewer doesn’t seek to put a potential reader off picking up or purchasing a book, the ultimate challenge comes when reviewing a book that may have been flawed for the reviewer but will still gain an audience because they have managed to communicate what the book was about.

    It’s exactly the opposite in intention to what you mention about some academic reviews, which clearly have an insurmountable conflict of interest. I hate to put people off a book, but don’t like reviews that don’t express an honest validated opinion as to why, and try to imagine the reader who will respond to the work.

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