One of the few remaining opportunities for freelancers to be published in newspapers and tabloids is to write a book review. Magazines and journals continue to provide a ready market for book reviewers. While you need to have some experience or familiarity with the subject, the most important factor in having a book review published is your ability to write well and know what is required in this genre.
While there is generally no “subject” to speak of in a novel or other work of fiction, you need to have credentials as a fiction writer to review a fiction book. Novels are regularly reviewed by published novelists; short-story collections may be reviewed by short-story writers; and published plays might be reviewed by playwrights.
Reviews of Nonfiction Books
Unlike most reviews where the reader reads the review to help make an informed decision to buy the novel or attend the performance or dine at the restaurant, readers of reviews of nonfiction books often read the review in lieu of the book. Consequently, your review should convey the gist of the book without holding anything back. The task for the reviewer of a nonfiction book is to inform the reader.
Feel free to refer to other material, facts, and books that complement or contrast the book under review. You can go beyond the book to provide additional information to make the review even more informative. It is not unusual for a review to evolve into what is known as a review/essay that takes the book as the starting point and then continues as an essay discussing the subject in more depth, which will be explored in Chapter 16.
One Review — Two Books
Sometimes if the subject matter is similar, you can write one review for two or more books. This frequently occurs when two or more biographies are released about the same person or a timely topic might spawn several books, such as a recent presidential election.
At other times, the connection between two books is less explicit, like the review written by Christopher Buckley in the New York Times Book Review of Crossbearer by Joe Eszterhas and Called Out of Darkness by Anne Rice, both of which were discussed in Chapter 9. When the link between the books is not obvious, you should make the connection known early in the review, as Buckley does in the beginning of his review:
“Joe Eszterhas's 16 movies have grossed something like $1 billion. Anne Rice's novels have sold something like 75 million copies. So when writers with this economic mojo write memoirs about their return to the Roman Catholic faith of their childhood, attention must, and perhaps should, be paid.”
Interview with Literary Critic Carlin Romano
Carlin Romano is the longtime literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, critic-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and a former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Over the years his criticism has appeared in the Nation, the New Yorker, Harper's, Slate, the Weekly Standard, and other national publications. Romano has taught philosophy at Yale, Yeshiva University, Williams College, Bennington College, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
RDB: How did you become involved in writing book reviews?
CR: I regularly read book reviews growing up, in publications ranging from the Times Literary Supplement to the New York Times. I wrote my first one for the Princeton Forerunner, a Princeton undergraduate newspaper, and tried to do some at every paper I worked for in my twenties, including the Washington Post and the Village Voice. When I joined the Philadelphia Inquirer as a cultural writer, I began doing them for the Inquirer's book editor. That put me in a position to succeed her, and I've been doing them ever since.
RDB: How do you determine what books to review?
CR: A mix of considerations that include personal interest in the subject, importance of the book or author in the marketplace and culture, size of the book versus time available to read it, and the feeling that I have something to say about the subject or writer.
RDB: What do you set out to accomplish in writing the review?
CR: In regard to content, a tight report of the book, some sensible evaluation, a contextualization of the book within ideas that matter to it. Stylistically, some snazzy phrases or sentences, a fetching lead, a coherent little essay from top to bottom.
RDB: How do you balance objectivity and subjectivity? How much of a review involves your opinion?
CR: Reporting of the book should reflect objectivity and fairness in description, but subjectivity infuses the process from start (choosing the book) to finish (assessing it). Most accurate answer to the second question is: All of it.
RDB: What comments do you have about the ethics of reviewing books?
CR: It's a complicated matter that I've explored twice in lengthy survey/reports for the National Book Critics Circle. A sample question from my surveys: “Is it ever okay to review a book without reading the whole thing?” You can see that such a question leads to further questions. Those surveys are available from the NBCC.
RDB: Is there a distinctive writing style you employ in writing reviews?
CR: I try to keep it lively, accessible, open to wordplay and wit, well-reported, not dumbed down.
RDB: Any words of advice to writers who want to write book reviews?
CR: Join the National Book Critics Circle, read its blog (Critical Mass), download a copy guide to book-reviewing opportunities.