A good day is a day when I can not just read a book, but write a review of it.
The critic leaves at curtain fall
To find, in starting to review it,
He barely saw the play at all,
For starting to review it.
Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.
Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria to Mozart in the movie Amadeus
“Too many words” was how a customer recently characterized a book on the bestseller shelf in our store. I knew exactly what she meant. Many nonfiction books fit this description. They should have been magazine articles, but their authors were determined to stretch the material into full-length books. I’ve also read plenty of novels that would have benefited from the most valuable advice in Strunk and White’s classic writing guide, The Elements of Style: Omit needless words.
It’s easy to criticize a book you have mixed feelings about, or don’t like at all. What’s difficult is to review a book you love, without mindless gushing. When I recommend a book, in person or in writing, I don’t want to sound like an evangelist for the Church of My New Favorite Book. I want to communicate two important things:
- Specifically why I think the book is worth a reader’s time, with particular attention to the quality of writing and level of originality.
- Why I connected with it, and which other readers will connect with it. Not every book is for everyone. (Except A Deadly Wandering and Being Mortal. Everyone who drives a car and/or isn’t immortal should read those books.)
I’m not the only one who struggles with sharing my enthusiasm without the use of hackneyed, meaningless language. Everyone who writes about books, from book reviewers in major newspapers to marketing executives at publishing companies to readers who post online reviews to authors who write blurbs for their colleagues, all end up using the same overblown adjectives: transcendent, stunning, luminous, incandescent, spellbinding, gripping, compelling, unputdownable, dazzling . . . I can’t count how many times I’ve read that a book was breathtaking. Several books recently left the reviewers breathless, and one will “have the reader breathlessly turning pages.” I like to read more than the average person, but spin class, not reading, leaves me breathless.
Authors try to help each other when they come up with blurbs. An author might want to write “Run-of-the-mill midlist literary novel with a moderate amount of family dysfunction and a predictable plot that might keep your interest if you’re on a plane with nothing else to read”, but wants to support a friend, so she writes, “Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before.”
Author Gary Shteyngart, who’s written more than 150 blurbs and apparently considers it his duty to support other writers, told NPR he doesn’t need to read an entire book in order to come up with an endorsement:
I can figure things out pretty quickly. I’ll look at a first sentence [of a galley], I’ll look at the cover and it just comes to me. … Sometimes I try to read further — but you know, how far can you get? Does anyone even read these books anymore? . . . I’ve compared people to Shakespeare, Tolstoy or whatever. I’ll do anything.
Well, I promise that if I recommend a book I have actually read every page of that book. While I enjoy supporting authors whose work I admire, I have no obligation to post positive reviews of their books. I’m spreading the word about books I love because in the insanely competitive world of book publishing, where hundreds of thousands of books come out each year in the United States alone, individual books need all the help they can get. Cream doesn’t always rise to the top on its own.
The hardest part of writing rave reviews is explaining why a book found its way into my heart, and why it might make its way into yours, without resorting to describing it as captivating, unforgettable, enthralling, brilliant, or mesmerizing. I’ve been guilty of using all these words, but I am proud to say I have never called a book luminous.
I have a little collection of hyperbolic or silly quotes from reviews — here’s one from the New York Times, on Lawrence Osborne’s The Forgiven: “A lean book that moves like a panther”. I can’t decide if it’s ridiculous or radiant. What do you think?