For starters, what tempts people to review books at all? If it’s for a prestigious magazine or newspaper, it could be money, though rookie reviewers are often happy to review in return for a free book and a chance to raise their profile.
It can also be a chance to preen, to get in as many bon mots as possible, and to dazzle readers with a vertiginous vocabulary. If there’s room to slip in a lethal knife wound as well, so much the better. Will Self’s review of Julie Burchill’s Unchosen is often quoted as the epitome of this type of review:
“I can’t really dignify her latest offering with the ascription ‘book’, nor the contents therein as ‘writing’ – rather they are sophomoric, hammy effusions, wrongheaded, rancorous and pathetically self-aggrandising.”
He goes on to cite “Burchill’s repugnant gallimaufry of insults and half-baked nonsense.”
One snag is that it wasn’t a review as such. Still, it’s pugnacious stuff, and entertaining to read. Unless, perhaps, you are Julie Burchill.
Accusations are the stock-in-trade of many reviewers. In The Scotsman, Allan Massie says of Craig Raine’s oeuvre The Divine Comedy:
“It isn’t a novel, no matter what author and publisher choose to call it. There is no real narrative interest and the characters are no more than names.”
He goes on to give evidence for his view, leaving the public in little doubt that Allan Massie is a more riveting read than the book being dissected.
For a short while there was even the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. But several things have happened since then. Firstly, jokes about hatchets are a bit tasteless in a troubled world. Secondly, there are now more reviews on blogs and book review sites, far more than you’ll find in mainstream publications.
Online reviews like these are more workaday, and may serve their purpose better than the virtuoso variety.
Reviews just have two main tasks: guiding potential readers to their next book, and helping authors write what readers love most.
More readers could leave reviews, but I know that many feel inhibited from doing so. Yet the rules, such as they are, are pretty simple.
1 Short is OK, though preferably not as short as the one-word review “Book”.
2 Never include spoilers.
3 You don’t have to be a smarty-pants. In fact, it probably detracts from the value of your feedback. Just concentrate on what might help readers like yourself.
4 Did you like the book? If so, say you did. You could also describe briefly what kind of book it is. “It’s a fantasy story about a girl who finds herself in an alternative reality which contains talking animals, strange new rules, and a lot of fun, some of it clever.” That’s not the most erudite description of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it’s enough to guide people, and it doesn’t give away the plot.
5 If you didn’t like it, don’t be rude.
6 By all means add whether, in your opinion, the story is fast-paced, has lots of characters, is full of suspense, contains wonderful dialogue, and so on. It is your opinion, not the opinion of an English Lit professor, but it should be founded on evidence.
Your evidence should come from the contents of the book, and not depend on whether you liked the shoes on the cover, or whether Amazon delivered it to the wrong address. Here’s what one recipient wrote of a second-hand book:
“The book was in much worse condition stated, it would have been nice to have been warned about the blood stain that ran through several pages. Not happy at all as had to buy a second copy.”
7 If you feel like it, you could say which characters you liked in the book. Were they well drawn? Did their dialogue ring true? And so on.
8 Try to mention who might be the ideal reader. “Fans of cosy mysteries may enjoy this book.” It doesn’t hurt to mention other authors of books along the same lines, if any come to mind. But there’s no need to wrack your brains.
There’s a lot of really helpful advice on this blog post by top 1000 Amazon reviewer (and author) Debbie Young. If you’ve never written a review before, just come on in. The water’s lovely.
I still have a soft spot for this spoof review of Orwell’s 1984, by a reader called So-Crates. As feedback it’s not that useful, and you need to know something about 1984 to appreciate it, but it does show that jokes don’t have to have a butt.
“Do not buy this book if you’re expecting to find out anything at all about 1984, as this writer seems to have been living on a different planet. I was trying to do a bit of research into the influence of New Wave on cross-over dance music in the Mid-Eighties, but I found “1984” a complete waste of time… Jackson’s “Thriller”? (the soundtrack of the summer, and the biggest selling album of all-time) – not mentioned; Frankie Goes To Hollywood (their breakthrough year leading to world pop domination) – not a whisper.”
You can probably guess what he says of The Road to Wigan Pier.