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. http://www.slate.com/id/2299346/pagenum/all/#p2. 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?