Book reviewing 101

A while ago I wrote my first book review* for The Australian, on two books about Facebook. Although David Kirkpatrick’s corporate biography The Facebook Effect had been out for some time, Daniel Miller’s anthropological Tales From Facebook had only just been published in Australia. (Who knows why – the publishing industry is still highly territorial, despite the digital march of e-books, and decisions about when to publish are at the local rights-holder’s discretion.)

Reviewing is a challenge, trying to distill the essential aspects of the book(s) with a detached view of the author’s process, bringing a fresh perspective to the subject while not giving away too much of the book. I’m freshly in awe of those who review regularly and at length.

After finishing my review, which I found both a stimulating and stressful process, I read this piece by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in Slate about reviewing that would have helped my first-timer’s nerves. When Pinsky was a young writer churning out short book reviews to help pay the rent, he recalls, one of the newspapers he wrote for supplied him with a style sheet that contained these three features of a good book review:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.

2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Pinsky writes:

If this template is not actually Aristotelian, it has that philosopher’s breathtaking plainness and penetration. To sneer at it as obvious would be a mistake. Even the clunky or stammering expression of the three rules (“what the reviewer thinks about what the author says about that thing the book is about”) works as a hammer, driving home the essential principles and their distinctly separate, yet profoundly interrelated nature.

Pinsky believes that, applying the three-part standard, “Only a few reviewers do their work well enough to provide all three kinds of information.” Reviewing my own review in the light of his comments, I suspect I was a little light-on when it came to the last requirement – one of those who, in Pinsky’s words, “seems too shy or fearful for Three.”

 

[August in New York – four words that signify ennui, lethargy, and the intense desire to escape the city. Which I did, and which at least partly explains my lack of new posts recently.]

*The Australian, like some other publications I write for, does not publish all of its content online. For freelance writers, however, it’s important to be able to show ‘clips’ of your work, and in the age of instant communication, showing means linking to a URL in an email or tweet. So it was a self-Googling, I confess, which revealed the complete and credited, if unformatted, version of my published review on the AAP newswire’s website linked to above.

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