Reviewing Books on their own terms

Not all reviewers get a choice of what they review. Some magazine editors choose which books they want to review and divide them among their review team so the reviewers have to review what they’re send. The advantage here is that reviewers are exposed to books they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen and that books by underrepresented writers get reviewed rather than remaining on the ‘unchosen’ pile. It also risks reviewers being given books they don’t like, but that’s not a disadvantage.

A good reviewer will still give an unliked book a good review because the purpose of a review is to give the review reader enough information to make a decision on whether they want to read the book. A reviewer not liking a book is not a bad review. Only a badly written review is a bad review. A reviewer who hates musicals will be clear that what they were watching was a musical so fans of musicals will read the review and buy tickets because they know they will enjoy the show even if the reviewer didn’t. Not every reviewer will be the target audience for every book. The fan of sonnets strictly in iambic pentameter with full rhymes can still review a book of experimental poetry, providing the sonnets fan doesn’t try to straitjacket the experimental layouts into sonnets. A book has to be met on its own terms, not according to the reviewer’s agenda. “I am not a fan of this book because….” is still a valid review providing the reviewer has explained the “because” and been clear about who the target readership is.

Sometimes the premise of a book can sound as if it’s something the reviewer will enjoy. But the book doesn’t live up to its premise. Here a reviewer has a choice either still write the review, explaining their disappointment, or decide not to review. The reviewer also needs to unpack whether the disappointment was down to the author or publicity. If the publicity promised a fast-paced thriller but it was clear from the opening paragraph the book is a cosy crime and stays consistent to that promise, then it’s a publicity problem, not a writing problem. Some romantic novel imprints stop at the bedroom door, others fling it wide open. A reviewer who complains the bedroom door was shut when the publisher doesn’t open it, is not giving the book a fair review. It’s not always possible but a useful reviewing tip is to read the book first. An honest reviewer will interrogate their disappointment. Despite not being the publicity-promised fast-paced thriller, that cosy crime might still have been an exemplar of its genre, if the reviewer does not assess it as a fast-paced thriller but assesses it on its own terms.

Reviewers also need to be wary of employing hyperbole. The fan of sonnets should not advise readers not to read a book simply because it wasn’t written in sonnets. The reviewer who hates musicals should not tell a potential audience not to go because the actors keep breaking out into song. Highlight that a book employs swear words, but don’t tell potential readers not to invest their time in a book simply because the vocabulary includes swearing.

A good reviewer is a signpost, not a judge. A good reviewer’s opinion counts but doesn’t dictate.


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