The Art of the Book Review

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Writers who publish books will find their books subjected to reviews. Although good book reviews are enormously helpful for keeping up with what’s happening in one’s field, for individual authors they can be frustrating, perplexing, and even paralyzing. Negative reviews can send writers into chasms of bitterness and personal resentment against the reviewer, or depression about being deemed inadequate by peers. As someone who has received his share of just about every kind of book review, let me offer a few thoughts on how to write, and how to receive, (nonfiction) book reviews.

When reviewing a book, be as charitable as possible. This is a “Golden Rule” issue. Once you’ve experienced the years of struggle behind producing a book, you should be cautious about casually dismissing the value of another author’s work. Even when I have major problems with a book, I try to praise it as much as I can, and include a few lines that a press could likely use to promote the book. This is what I would want from other reviewers—why not extend the same courtesy?

It is certainly in-bounds to disagree with an author’s interpretation or ideological assumptions, of course. But do this in a polite way, as a means of discussion rather than denunciation. Pointing out factual errors is harsh but fair, especially when the errors in question are major, repeated, and/or relevant to the book’s key claims. I do not, however, believe that reviewers should point out small factual or typographical errors. The worst is when reviewers characterize disputed points, or matters of opinion, as errors of fact.

Avoid the temptation to use differences of interpretation as an opportunity to impugn the author’s motives, or to tout your moral superiority. Unfortunately, portraying interpretive difference as moral failing has become more pronounced in recent years, especially since the electoral convulsions of 2016. Many in academia are looking for someone—anyone—to blame for Trump!

Probably the most common error that reviewers make is failing to distinguish their preferences from actual weaknesses in a book. “I would have approached this differently” is not the same thing as “this book is no good.”

Remember as you are writing a book review, it is entirely likely that, if you do not already know the author, you may meet him or her at a conference. (I can recall times when I have met reviewers on elevators of conference hotels right after they wrote negative reviews of one of my books. Awkward!) If you end up meeting them, or having to work with them, will you be able to look them in the eye?

I am convinced that book reviews are among the least “objective” writing exercises—a great deal depends on the reviewer’s mood, temperament, level of jealously, and special pet peeves. Certain books, such as ones filled with major factual errors, will receive almost universally negative reviews no matter who reviews them. Certain extraordinary books will receive mostly positive reviews, no matter who assesses them. But we’ve all seen cases of books which receive high praise in most reviews, which also receive scorching criticisms by one or two outliers. I can think of one of the most significant books in American religious history in the past 20 years, for example, which won multiple prizes, which one reviewer accused of being plagiarized (an accusation with absolutely no basis).

Remember, when you receive some bad book reviews—and you will—it does not necessarily mean that your book is objectively bad. Too many other factors are at work. I advise skimming some reviews of your work, taking what’s valuable, and letting the rest slide. Try not to hold grudges. I know some established authors who don’t read reviews of their work at all. This approach may be a little extreme, but it is probably better than obsessing over every little criticism.

Write book reviews to stimulate and shape conversations in your field, to commend the strengths you can find in any but the worst books, and to (cautiously and graciously) identify unanswered questions or interpretive difficulties in them. A scorched-earth or petulant review damages the reputation of the reviewer as much or more as it damages the reviewed book. If you can’t go into a review with a generous attitude, it would probably be best not to write it.

A version of this review originally appeared at The Anxious Bench.

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