Dispatch from AWP: The Art of the Book Review

file000739253401This just in: There is no agreement on what a makes a good book review.

Panelist Craig Teicher says that a good book review need not be “right” about the book, but it must definitely be interesting. It should, in other words, be “a piece of literature inspired by a piece of literature.”

One of Teicher’s fellow panelists, Joseph Salvatore, seems to disagree. A book review, Salvatore says, is “the best review of the book in question” and not a discourse on the genre that book represents.

Salvatore says that a good book review provides evidence to back up any claim the reviewer makes and must provide us with a sense of what the book is like. As evidence, the panelists handed out an abridged version of  Orville Prescott’s 1952 review of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The full version is here.

Panelist Darcey Steinke says that a reviewer must get into the book and “share it with the world to make someone’s life better.” She says, “Good or bad is not really the point […] The question should really be the engagement with the book.”

Michael Klein, who reviews poetry for a variety of venues, including The Los Angeles Review of Books, says, “Poetry reviews are different because you are reviewing something nobody reads. You are reviewing the air.” (Check out his reviews here.)

Tony Leuzzi says that, for a reviewer to give a book the attention it deserves, the reviewer must erase his/herself from the review. “It’s not about you,” he says. He encourages reviewers to “be curious beyond the book you are looking at,” which means it’s wise to understand the author’s history and the context of the book itself. He also cautions that, if a writer asks you to review his/her book, the critical language used will be in some way compromised.

Where do you stand on this issue? Should a reviewer “erase” himself from the review, or can a book review be a “piece of literature inspired by a piece of literature”? Is it possible to achieve both simultaneously?

About Peter Biello

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered on New Hampshire Public Radio and a writer of short stories, novels, book reviews, and essays. He's also the host of The Bookshelf, a series of interviews with authors from or writing about the Granite State.
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2 Responses to Dispatch from AWP: The Art of the Book Review

  1. Great post. As someone who ‘writes reviews’ but doesn’t really know what that means or ‘should’ mean, etc., I found this intriguing. I guess I have zero belief in anything resembling an unbiased review (or, one could say, a review where the reviewer is ‘erased’). I engage with the opposite extreme, all I can do is offer some kind of sense of what interaction I had with the book, admittedly through my own personal taste or what you might call the very individual micro-culture of my range of experiences / other books I’ve read / etc. I don’t like including any kind of plot summary, etc. as these are already readily available. I generally assume someone will know the general premise already, or if interested after the review they’ll seek it out. I instead try to focus on the larger points of interest or frustration, what seemed to go well and not so well and how I feel overall.

    Very, very interested in the talk about how reviewing poetry is different as that’s my main personal interest. Here there’s no real expectation for plot summaries, so to speak. I feel more free to talk in larger abstractions and emotional / intellectual swelling points.

  2. Tony Leuzzi says:

    As one of the panelists for this event, I want to first say thank you for taking the time to outline our positions. You did a fine job. I am Tony Leuzzi, the one who used the word “erased.” I agree with Ryan’s comment above that no review can ever be unbiased. So complete erasure is impossible. I do feel strongly that the reviewer is in the unenviable position of introducing a writer’s work to the world (or, more modestly, whoever reads the review). In doing so, the focus of the review should be mainly on the work itself. Naturally, one’s reaction to the review is essential, and in that sense the review articulates certain evocations, etc. I just hate those reviews where the reviewer takes center stage. That said, a point of view is essential. And angle. A slant.

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