Three Requirements of a Book Review (?)

In a post entitled, “How Not to Write a Book Review,” Robert Pinsky, who has been writing reviews since typewriter days, discusses a famous and venomous book review a critic leveled at John Keats in 1818.  The review, by Irishman, John Wilson Croker, founder of modern political conservatism, became known as “the review that killed Keats.”  Croker really is nasty, but by himself,would not inspire me to write a blog post.

What I found noteworthy in the article are the basic principles Pinsky has used for decades to write his reviews.  In the 1970’s, when he wrote freelance for newspapers, one of them gave him a mimeographed style sheet with three rules  for every book review:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

At first reading, the list seems to apply to non-fiction more than fiction.  Novelists don’t really say things about what their books are about except during interviews, but if we are less literal, do these criteria work?  As an experiment, let’s consider Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I’m choosing because it’s pretty well known.

Criterion #1 is really the synopsis:  A lonely orphan discovers he is a wizard and finds allies as well as a deadly enemy at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  I like to set a story in context with (relatively) objective information.  For the first Potter, I might discuss characteristics of middle-grade fantasy – a magical world must be internally consistent, but does not require a detailed explanation:  some people are wizards and some are muggles, and that’s how it is.  This is common in middle grade, while adult fantasy needs more – a theory of mutant genes or something like that.  This first criterion, a summary of what the book is about, is essential for any review.

Criterion #2, is phrased in a strange manner.  An author writing a history of the Third Reich will have things to “say about that thing that the book is about,” but J.K. Rowling doesn’t.  For fiction, I interpret this as detailing what the author does to flesh out the plot and make it dynamic.  Rowling’s main characters, for instance, are so well drawn that they feel like people we’ve known.  You feel like you’ve met Hermione, Snape, and Hagrid, whether or not you have.  In addition, this is where I would speak of the richness of the world of Hogwarts, and maybe research a brief history of academies of magic in fiction and legend.

Criterion #3 is a tongue twister that boils down to my take on #1 and #2.  For Potter, I might talk about how it evokes the longing for connection; how sometimes we all feel like orphans longing for a virtual family  of kindred spirits like Ron, Harry, and Hermione.  How Hogwarts is an endless world our imaginations want to explore.  In other words, if I can find words for my deepest reactions, presumably – hopefully, others will know or echo what I am talking about.

I enjoy reading and writing book review as do a lot of bloggers I follow.  The exact phrasing of Pinsky’s rules seem a little too cutesy, but they got me thinking and I can come up with lots of ways to conceptualize the same thing. Here is one, off the top of my head:

1.  What is the story about?
2. How does the author make it uniquely their own?
3. Does it work for me?

Can you write an effective review with less than these basic criteria?  Are there others that will make it more effective?  Is it possible to do all of this and still wind up in left field?

8 thoughts on “Three Requirements of a Book Review (?)

  1. I think that’s a fair way to do a book review. You’ve seen on my blog I break it into Character, Setting, Plot, Enjoyment, and then my Overall Grade. The first two criteria are basically what I split into Character, Setting, and Plot, and the third criteria is what I break into Enjoyment and Overall Grade.

    The only thing I would add to this list is don’t give spoilers to the book. I try in my blog to mention very little beyond the first third of the book. I also clearly mark early in my posts if the book is a sequel or not because the setup for a second book will have spoilers for the first book. If for some reason I do put late plot spoilers in the review I usually mark it as a spoiler before I write it.


  2. Morgan,

    I love your #3: “Does it work for me?” Reviewers who include some discussion of their experiences with the genre, topic, author, or audience help me trust that their opinions can influence my own. If a writer has an enclyclopedic knowledge of vampire novels, I will certainly trust the review of whichever is the newest one to reach Kindle.

    I’d add: 4. “Declare your bias”
    because I’d also like to see a reviewer’s preferences on display. If a gamer is reviewing fantasy titles but hates everything that isn’t situated in an alternate universe, then that is essential information for those who prefer games that are based on Arthurian legend.

    A reviewer who is open about his or her personal bias for the subject allows subscribers and stumblers alike to make a more informed judgment about whether we are the right audience for the review.

    Belated congratulations for your return to Freshly Pressed!


  3. I’m new to your blog and new to the blogging world, but I caught you on Freshly Pressed, and I’m glad I did. Thanks for the tips on book reviews. I’ve never written one, but maybe I will now. I read a lot of books. Nancy C.


  4. After reading this a few times, I have come to the conclusion that I like Pinsky’s wording – it makes me pause and think as I read. And hopefully insure that I get it right when writing a review.

    I like your list, Morgan, for its brevity and clarity – the kind of list to put on a sticky note, which is then placed at eye level – and viewed and read whenever the reader sets down to write.

    Thank you for this post, Morgan!



  5. I would agree with what you said, but how much information is too much? For instance, I just read your post about First Family by David Baldacci & I felt (for my liking), that you gave too much of the story away, especially by discussing very specific events that happen in the book. I know I have written some posts myself where the opposite is true, where maybe I haven’t talked enough about the story….a difficult line to draw.


  6. What is hard is to review books I don’t like. You tend to share a reading experience you enjoyed rather than one you disliked. I usually try to find outside but relevant references. I find that kind of interesting tidbit makes a review extra special.


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