Well, to start with it seems there are two very distinct audiences for a book review, and they serve two very different purposes. Sometimes a review will be read by someone who is wondering whether or not they should read a book (or watch a film, or listen to an album…), and sometimes they will find a reader who has already read the work in question and wants to compare their experiences with someone new. Of course, there are also those who read book reviews in a desperate attempt to write a semi-informed essay on a book they haven’t read, but it’s hard to legislate for them.
First of all, the review for the prospective reader. Obviously, the person reading the review wants to know one thing: should they read this book? The problem is that everyone makes this decision based on a different set of criteria, and unless the reviewer has a stellar reputation (or a national newspaper column) its not enough to simply say ‘yes, it’s good, buy it now!’
Go too far the other way, though, and the complaints of spoilers will grow and grow, as many Batman reviewers found to their cost recently. It is an impossible balance to strike when even laying out the opening situation of a novel can ‘spoil’ any narrative tension within the opening chapters. You might even make an idealistic case that the best way to read a book is to know nothing at all about it before beginning, but then you would miss the unique tensions that can be created from a position of initial knowledge – for example in any Agatha Christie novel part of the early enjoyment comes from wondering who will get murdered. Also, it goes without saying that anyone who holds such an idealistic view would be unlikely to read a review in the first place.
Facing this dilemma, the recommendation book review often has to fall back on cliché. Such-and-such is funnier than Douglas Adams, or slicker than Stieg Larsson, or scarier than Stephen King – familiar references that communicate meaning without ‘spoiling’ the book itself. Perhaps a particularly punchy line might be quoted, along with a brief and enigmatic plot introduction, and it will all be rounded off with a rating out of five.
As you might have sensed, it is not this type of review that I find especially exciting. Personally I’ve learned to trust my instincts of which books to read, and find myself rushing to the reviews only after reaching the conclusion. And writing a review for this kind of consumer is a very different challenge.
That the two types of review are incompatible is evidenced by the importance of referencing crucial plot twists in such an analytical review – it’d be hard to write an engaged review of the sixth Harry Potter novel without speculating on why (spoilers!) Snape kills Dumbledore.
On one level, this type of review fills the space of chatting about a book with a friend. What did you think of that bit? I didn’t like that! I saw that twist coming… There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a book, having a strong opinion about it, but having no one to share it with. That’s certainly a gap that the internet can fill, whether by reading twenty Amazon reviews or blogging your own.
But how can book reviews go beyond the equivalent of being a friend in a pub? On one level, a certain level of knowledge can be expected. A good reviewer ought to be able to tell you something about the book you didn’t know before, whether by pointing out another work which has influenced it, or lending colour and nuance to the historical background.
Research is one thing, but the real mark of a great book review (in my book at least) is that it begins to stray towards being an act of literary criticism. How does a novel work on a technical level? What are the implications of a work, in terms of gender or race or class? The challenge is to ask these really serious and important questions, without alienating people who gave up English Literature at GCSE.
And that challenge of staying accessible might be an appropriate place to finish. There’s definitely a danger (especially as pretentious recent English Graduates) to take reviewing far too seriously, possibly even to the extent of writing pretentious articles asking what the point of a review might be. The best reviews aren’t just about good reads, they really ought to be a good read themselves.
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