The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at BCU holds some excellent seminars with established writers in different fields, and they are always thought-provoking. The most recent featured Nicholas Lezard, who is a literary critic for The Guardian, among other things (and described himself as one of the half-a-dozen people to actually make a living from reading books). He began by reading from George Orwell’s ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ (which you can read online, and I recommend you do as it’s both true and funny), and will be familiar to anyone who has reviewed books, particularly books in which they weren’t very interested:
Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they “ought to go well together”. They arrived four days ago, but for 48 hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be PALESTINE AT THE CROSS ROADS, SCIENTIFIC DAIRY FARMING, A SHORT HISTORY OF EUROPEAN DEMOCRACY (this one is 680 pages and weighs four pounds), TRIBAL CUSTOMS IN PORTUGUESE EAST AFRICA, and a novel, IT’S NICER LYING DOWN, probably included by mistake. His review–800 words, say–has got to be “in” by midday tomorrow.
Lezard’s view is that when writing a review, one must be able to ‘look the author in the eye’, which is sound advice, I think – although I like the review attributed to Dorothy Parker that ‘This is not a book that should be tossed aside lightly; it should be hurled with great force’, such reviews don’t help. And while personal opinion can hardly not come into a review, it still needs to be sufficiently critical to be of use to readers. More useful than Parker’s comment is William Burroughs’ suggestion that a review should ask, ‘What is this book trying to do, and does it succeed?’ Having written a fair number of book reviews, both academic and general, I wondered whether the reviews I write are in themselves interesting, which was another point. I will perhaps pay a little more attention to my style in future!
Most of all, book reviews are a chance to make a material difference, Lezard says; to small publishers and to readers in search of books they will enjoy. I wonder sometimes as I read reviews whether some reviewers have long forgotten this. I was particularly interested in the suggestion that academic criticism and general book reviews were divided by the rise of theory, and as a result some academic criticism becomes virtually impenetrable to the lay reader (and often to other academics, too). The role of ‘expertise’ in book reviewing is (marginally) under threat by the rise of the internet reviewer, the multitude of reviews on Amazon and so on, and yet the ‘expert’ who can review a book well and with knowledge and experience is still required. I wrote about this issue a couple of years ago in ‘Book-blogging‘, and this is something I still feel strongly about; reviews which do not rely on personal interest or a vague ‘I liked this’, ‘It’s a good read’, ‘This is boring’ or ‘I didn’t like the characters’ are provided by trustworthy reviewers, ones whose opinions readers value and return to. (Having said that, I have recently finished a novel which seems to have been well-received by most reviewers, but I really disliked it – and have decided not to review it).