A Book Reviewing Primer
During my first semester as a graduate student, I sat in a crowded room of 35 fellow incoming classmates to learn how to be a scholar. Our instructor, a tenured and well respected professor, rattled off a list of things we should be doing to have success in the field (writing conference abstracts, scholarly articles, applying for grants, etc.). A friend of mine raised her hand and asked about book reviews.
Book reviews? He stared at her. Book reviews are what you do for your friends when their books come out. Don’t waste your time.
Book reviewing was left forgotten for me until the following semester, when I signed up to take a course in book reviewing offered by a creative writing professor. Geared toward creative writers, the course taught us how to write capsule to essay reviews. We wrote new reviews every week. We queried presses. We queried and submitted to journals. We reviewed titles outside of our practicing genre.
The course transformed the way I thought of myself as a writer. For the first time, at the AWP Bookfair, talking to presses and journals with a clear purpose in mind, I felt like a literary citizen. Someone who cared and contributed to this thriving, vibrant community. A cliché maybe, but nonetheless still true.
And so I reviewed and queried, and found steady places to regularly review titles. A few years later, I was offered the position of Book Reviews Editor here at LAR. For the past year, I’ve been able to cultivate new and seasoned reviewers, work with presses, and share these reviews with the literary community and beyond.
I share this because I know there are many writers, at varying stages in their careers, considering book reviewing. And, unfortunately, many writers do not have the luxury of taking a graduate level course to hone their reviewing skills. Because, yes, writing reviews is a skill different from writing a poem or short story or memoir or article. So here’s my brief list of what you should consider if you are thinking about becoming a book reviewer.
- Think what can I do for you, not what can you do for me. At every AWP, I have seen many writers ask journals and presses what those publications can do for them. In book reviewing, it’s the other way around. You want to ask what you can do for that publication. I call this “literary karma.” This does not mean that book reviewing doesn’t benefit you. I actually received my first publication credits as an MFA student because of my book reviews. You can become a reputable and reliable reviewer, one who presses trust to review their titles fairly.
- Please, let’s not tear books apart. I do not have membership in the “let’s bash on this book ” club. Leave it to the New York Times book review section. Those reviewers are required to review titles that will be in the public’s eye, so they don’t have much choice. We do. No review, I think, speaks just as much as a “negative” review. This does not mean I think reviews shouldn’t be critical. Rather, I want to see a reviewer fairly assess a title and discuss what the book is doing well and perhaps what isn’t working quite as well.
- Do review titles from indie and university presses. Many if not all literary journals will only want reviews of titles from these presses. Leave the big six and their affiliates to larger publications. Those presses have entire publicity departments and will receive coverage. For smaller press, that coverage is not guaranteed.
- Avoid reviewing your friends’ books. This is a tough one. And one that not everyone will follow (if you feel like you really need to review your friend’s book, then make that clear in your review). And yes, the longer you’re in the literary world, the smaller it becomes, so you may have met the author at some point. That said, focus on reviewing authors you’re unfamiliar with. Review debut collections and chapbooks. Be diverse in who you review.
These are just some of the basics, but they are extremely important to keep in mind. Overall, you need to keep your hand on the pulse of the publishing world. Most presses are welcoming and want to see their titles reviewed. In being generous and kind, you can become involved in an important vein of literary citizenship.
Next week, Dan Pecchenino, LAR’s Assistant Book Reviews Editor, will add to the book-reviewing conversation. Be on the lookout for new book reviews every Friday on the LAR Book Reviews page.
Alyse Bensel is the Book Review Editor at The Los Angeles Review. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Shift (Plan B Press, 2012) and Not of Their Own Making (dancing girl press, forthcoming 2014). Her poetry has mostly recently appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Blue Earth Review, Ruminate, and The Fourth River, among others. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas.