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.
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