Reviews, Redux

March 28th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Who is the audience of a book review? Or, rather, what is the purpose of a book review? We contend that a review is for the reader, not the writer. Open any newspaper, read any magazine, hit any website that reviews books, and they all serve a single purpose: to provide an opinion of the book for the purposes of aiding the reader in making a choice about whether or not to purchase the book.

So, naturally, we were fascinated by this comment at The Reading Experience:

Reviewers should feel they have an obligation to literature.

Very interesting. The next few lines explain:

The standards being used ought to be of the sort first of all grounded in a familiarity with the practices generally associated with the “literary,” and the final measure of a given book is whether it illuminates or extends those practices in some interesting way. If this sounds too pretentious, then the reviewer should at least feel a responsibility to the ideal of good writing (opinions about this can vary, of course), and, if the book in question is genre fiction, to the standards established by the writers, readers, and critics of that genre. More is at stake than just the particular book under review.

This is all very well and good, but it makes more sense if you replace the word “review” with “critical analysis.” A review is an opinion, hopefully an educated opinion. It is, like record reviews or film reviews, designed to function as a design-making tool. Much as writers don’t want to know this, the tricks of our trade are not readily apparent to the reader. Put another way, if the reader is aware of the writer, then someone has failed the literary basics.

That is not to say that reviews should neglect the craft. But as Dan Green notes, the ideal of good writing is subjective. So many elements comprise “good”, but one element rises above all else: the story. It is the job of the book reviewer to convey the merits of the story to potential readers — it is a primary avenue for discovering new books.

On the other hand, it is the job of peer-to-peer review to discuss whether a work extends the canon. Readers do tend to know instinctively when a particular book is something special; writers, however, know why.

The next time Dan Green is in LA, we owe him a drink. He’s been the inspiration for many posts around here.

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