By Lynnell Edwards, Associate Program Director at Spalding Low-Residency MFA
[Photo Credit: John Nation]
At the Spring 2018 residency I gave a plenary lecture about a subject that is near and dear to my heart as a writer: book reviewing. Though the critical and creative impulses might seem at odds with one another, and emerging writers scraping for any free time they can find to write might not see the value in using some of that hard-earned time to write a book review, I’d like to argue in a greatly abbreviated version of that talk that writing book reviews will make you a better reader, a better writer, and a better literary citizen.
First, the arguments for writing book reviews are numerous but they come down to a single, basic point: close attention to the micro and macro decisions a writer makes about a full manuscript will help you internalize that process in your own writing. To effectively persuade audiences of your evaluation of a work and to answer the reader’s question “Why should I read this?”, you’ll have to provide evidence for your argument and that comes from closely attending to the writer’s decisions about craft. And that close attention more finely hones your own decisions about the style and shape of your work.
Second, writing book reviews is a service to a profession you’ve dedicated a substantial portion of your life to. We need qualified writers who will review with integrity and in the service of greater recognition for deserving work. On this point of being a good literary citizen, however (which also includes things like hosting readings, giving community workshops, mentoring young writers, etc.), there is a secondary benefit that I don’t want to overplay but that is important to point out: book reviewing can be the open door that lets you step into the world of published writing.
So how, exactly, does one begin writing a book review? It begins, of course, with an assignment from an editor – usually. Some publications (see Pleiades, below) will take unsolicited reviews but I can’t recommend going that route with your first foray into reviewing. Once you have your assignment in hand the review-writing process is not that mysterious. Read carefully the publication’s guidelines, of course, and read the work itself carefully – multiple times. You’ll develop your own system for note-taking and drafting. I have an absurd number of colored sticky notes that I deploy once I have a sense of a work’s themes or images. The basic principle behind a review is fairly simple though, and one that may sound familiar from a long-ago class in freshman composition: develop a thesis and prove it. The thesis should be more focused than a rhetorical thumbs up or thumbs down, however. Make a succinct statement about how and why this work is worth reading; what does it accomplish, literarily?
You’ll also need to acknowledge some important context for the work and the author early in the review: Is this a debut novel? Did the author win a big prize with her last work? Is this a poet who has written a memoir? But you don’t need any other biography, generally, unless it’s both revealed in and central to the work.
Matters of style are important, but the level of technical language, and the “voice” you adopt (and yes, increasingly some reviews are written in first person) are in part a function of the audience and purpose of the publication. For Poetry, sure, dive right in with an analysis of prosody or the writer’s dalliance in post-human aesthetics. For your local alt-weekly that might actually still run book reviews of literary works (usually with a local connection), a “non-linear” approach to narrative may be pushing the envelope.
Beyond that, the best way to begin understanding the “format” for a book review is simply to read and read and read book reviews. If you’re not a regular reader of reviews, then commit to becoming one. So, and finally, here are a few places where you can read book reviews, see specific guidelines, and get more information:
National Book Critics Circle: lots of general advice and free information here; membership requires application
Both American Book Review and Rain Taxi are excellent book review forums. Rain Taxi is available in a quarterly print edition as well.
Pleiades publishes a separate book review forum, in addition to their literary magazine. The editor shared a bit about their process, including unsolicited reviews: “We’ll take unsolicited reviews via the submission manager during July and December. The best thing for someone to do is to make sure it’s not a book we’ve already reviewed and that it fits within the word count (700 to 1200 words). As of right now, the process isn’t particularly competitive, but the revision process can be extensive if the review isn’t up to our standards. We need 35-40 reviews for each print issue, so we need quite a few. I’ll reject something if it’s clearly just trying to do PR for the book or if it’s a slash piece that seems to have a personal vendetta. I’ll also reject things submitted by people that I know are fairly close to the author of the book they’re reviewing or if the reviewer isn’t willing to work with me on edits.”
The Women’s Review of Books and The Bind are both examples of more specialized review outlets.
The New York Times Book Review only assigns reviews, and to high profile writers, but this is a terrific place to read reviews.
Publishers Weekly is one of several industry publications about which their editors write: “Our ‘application’ is merely emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with a resume, a list of genres or categories they feel they have knowledge in, and a sample review (around 200 words) done in PW’s review style so we can get an idea of their writing style.”
A PS: As with many things literary, payment is erratic. Some top-tier journals, such as The Georgia Review or The Hollins Critic, do pay, depending on length and type. Other places – also perfectly legitimate, such as Pleaides – do not, though you will receive contributor copies.
Note: Faculty, students, and alumni of the Spalding MFA may view the full lecture and accompanying handouts on the MFA portal. I have also posted some examples of book reviews I’ve written (under “new work”) at my personal website.
Lynnell Major Edwards’ most recent work is the chapbook Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop (Accents, 2014). She is also the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Covet (October, 2011), and also The Farmer’s Daughter (2003) and The Highwayman’s Wife (2007), all from Red Hen Press. Her short fiction and book reviews have appeared most recently in Connecticut Review, American Book Review, Pleiades, New Madrid, and others. She is Associate Professor of English at Spalding University, where she is Associate Program Director for Spalding’s MFA in Creative Writing.