Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review Philosophy

I recently came across a blogger slagging a book because they didn’t understand it.  The narrative was complex and fragmented, and therefore it was a “bad book”.  Not but a few minutes later while perusing another post on a different blog, I came across the same perspective, only more directly stated.  The commenter Dina had the following to say:  “And the whole point is that in your review - meaning: in the actual text - you explain what you liked and disliked about a book.”

I couldn’t disagree more, and as a result, decided to spell out the review philosophy for Speculiction.

While I am sometimes guilty of including too much personal opinion, my aim when sitting down to review a book is to provide as objective an overview as possible from a variety of points.  I have a postgraduate degree in literature, and as such have been shown the workings of style (e.g. syntax, lexical dexterity, etc.), narrative technique (structure, voicing, atmosphere, foreshadowing, viewpoint, etc.), usage of setting, allusion, authorial assumption, dialogue, theme, literary theory, and most importantly, how these elements work together to accomplish the author’s goals.  Some may think this blatant egoism.  All I will say is that the untrained eye misses a lot of these facets, and instead is caught by superficialities or mere reaction. 

Flying in the face of Dana’s mission statement above, I believe reviewing is not about giving a thumbs up or down to a book. Such an approach is blatant self-indulgence. In so many reviews I have read such thoughts as: “My father recommended this book to me, and I always like his books.  It’s a great book.  I loved the character George. He had such a tough life but came through in the end.  But I didn’t like Jane.  She just made me feel uncomfortable.”  Notice: six sentences and six personally-referential pronouns, begging the question: is the reviewer the subject of the review, or the book?  How does this help me, the potential buyer?  It doesn’t. 

And why? Because it’s limited.  Personal opinion is the most common and subjective thing on Earth, and therefore marginally helpful in the context of reviewing.  Such an approach satisfies only the reviewer's aims, not also the reader's.  Thus anytime the reviewer’s opinion—especially emotional reaction—overrides a more objective presentation of a book’s qualities, the means for determining whether one will personally like the book, fades.  Book reviewing is not about gushing praise or frothing hate for an author’s version of the written word.  It’s about outlining a book according to the facets of literature so the reader can make up their own mind whether to spend the money.  In short, a review should aim at answering reader's questions, not simply be after-dinner commentary. 

So what makes a good review?  Simply put, presenting what the book is.  First person may creep in, but by in large “it”—the book—should be the subject of the review.  Asking and answering the following questions go a long way toward helping a reader determine whether they are interested in the book or not.  What kind of book is it: character study?  Social commentary?  Thought experiment?  Fiction (i.e. plot-centric)? An art piece?  Satire?  Philosophical outlay?  What genre, genres, or sub-genres are represented?  Historical fiction?  Romance?  Literary culturalism?  Spy thriller?  What are the basic elements, or premise of the story?  (This often translates to: how to summarize events without spoiling too much.) What type of narrative does the author employ?  How does this narrative interact with other story elements?  What are the unique aspects of the book?  The more typical aspects?  Where and when does the story take place?  How does the writer use language?  Efficiently? Subdued?  Forceful?  Descriptively?  What was the author’s goal for the book?  What are similar books or writers?  And so forth.  Answering these and other questions, along with offering evidence, go a long way toward providing a context that will help a reader determine whether a book is for them.

Subjectivity; of course, exists in all reviews, including mine.  More than human, there are certainly moments that a book affects me to the point I respond emotionally and lose track of the above goals.  Literature being art and reviewers being human, it’s difficult to avoid subjectivity in its entirety.  All one can do is try to remain objective.  After all, what one person considers sound narrative technique may be another person’s version of language experimentation, depending on reading experience and education.  The result is conflicting views of the same text.  In this circumstance, if all other aspects are treated with a similar degree of objective scrutiny, a more solid picture of the book will emerge when combining the two reviews. 

In summary, when reviewing a book I try to use the facets of literature (characterization, theme, narrative technique, prose, etc.) as contact points toward describing how an author has satisfied their goals.  When appropriate, I try also to compare these criteria across authorial and meta-textual lines, comparing/contrasting other writers’ works, or other works by the same writer, all to create a broader picture.  By connecting a book to the web of literature (if all of what is being published today can be described as such), as well as identifying its prominent features, it is my hope the reader will have the best chance possible for making up their own mind whether to pursue interest, that is, instead of wondering whether they will have the same reaction as reviewer A or B.

Take this as Speculiction’s review philosophy.


  1. Interesting piece... I'm not sure I entirely agree but then, that happens a lot in book reviewing ;)

    When I read a review I always assume it is about the reviewer and not the book. I know mine are. I sometimes skip entire reviews because I know who wrote them.

    Your reviews practically scream to the reader you have been educated in literature and probably go in a much more analytical mode when reading a book than I would. You have the tools to express things I would not recognize, or even know how to express in Dutch. You may not aim for it, but your reviews still tell people a lot about you, even if you avoid using particular pronouns.

    When I review a book, if they can be called reviews, I write down I experienced the book. I try to keep in mind that my opinion is just one of many and not a fully objective statement of quality. I try to explain what I noticed about the book and why and let people make of it what they will. A very different approach.

    It would be nice to see a bit less of the I-didn't-like-this-book-so-it-is-a-bad-book reviews though. I sometimes enjoy books of dubious literary quality immensely and when that happens I try to express boy my enjoyment as well as the fact that is won't win a Nebula in the review.

  2. Certainly it is true: all book reviews are subjective, no matter how hard a person tries to be objective, including myself. I guess the point I was trying to make is that the more a reviewer tries to be objective, the more universal the value of the review becomes to readers--a thought backed by your statement "I sometimes skip entire reviews because I know who wrote them." I hope that when readers are perusing a review of mine, even if they disagree with my personal opinions (that yes, inevitably come leaking through), still find value in other areas.

    I enjoy reading your reviews. Yes, there are a lot of personal references, but as you write above, an awareness of opinion other than your own, exists. Instead of a bull running rampant in an ice cream shop, laying havoc before moving on, your reviews pick about delicately, overlaying the flavor of the ice cream at hand with others you've tasted. I can respect that. I just hope you can my bad simile. :)