Just Breathe: Thoughts on Writing Book Reviews

A good day is a day when I can not just read a book, but write a review of it.
Christopher Hitchens

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.
E.B. White

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

the-elements-of-style“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.y6482
  • 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, compellingunputdownable, 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?

 

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28 thoughts on “Just Breathe: Thoughts on Writing Book Reviews

    • I need a guest post from a 7th grade reader — is Lily available, or is she booked solid? I’m going to you as her agent because I know she gets so many requests and I’m worried mine might get lost in the shuffle.

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  1. Haha! I love this post – and will now ignore any blurb I see by Gary Shteyngart! But, I think you’re right…it’s hard coming up with unique ways to talk about books. I’ve been having trouble with it lately myself…

  2. I’m sure that I am guilty of using many superlatives to describe books I love, but I have never, ever used luminous or breathless. And the lean panther thing is ridiculous.

    That said, I ignore blurbs, and when I read reviews I look less for descriptions about feelings and more about thoughts…so comparisons to other books, or interesting things the book brought to mind for the reader. I try to do that in my own reviews, but I also know that I sometimes fail miserably. But I also can’t just write, “Read this! Trust me!” and call it a review, even if sometimes that’s all I have to say!

  3. And, maybe it’s time to come up with a new description of the author other than “he (or she) is writing at the height of his (or her) powers?!”

  4. Thanks for these thoughts. I’m a great reader, but a terrible reviewer. Still, I like to write. I like sharing my thoughts and hearing the thoughts of others. Wish I were clever-er, but oh-well.

    readerbuzz.blogspot.com

  5. I take a librarian’s path for reviewing books — who would this book appeal to and why? Even if a book didn’t float my boat, I enjoy the exercise of figuring out who would like it.

    Librarians, of course, often recommend books they haven’t read (it’s part of the job to be well-informed and be able to serve diverse readers), but I don’t do that on my blog unless I’m very clear about why I’m mentioning that book in that context.

    • Yes, as a bookseller I think the same way, although I’m very, very careful about recommending books I haven’t read — since I’m actually asking people to spend money on them. When I do that, I always mention a trusted source or two who has vouched for the book. I read very few mysteries, but I’m often asked to recommend them, so I’ll mention that Lisa, a coworker who reads tons of mysteries, recently liked a particular title.

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  6. This is fabulous, Ann! Didn’t quite move like a panther, but you made the point well. I know I’m guilty of using the words you cited. And yes, the hardest reviews are for books I loved because, really, I just want to throw it at the person and yell READ THIS, but that’s not socially acceptable.

    I guess I accept my repetitiveness, but hope that I can inject one new thought into each review. At least that’s my goal!

    • Catherine, you write breathtaking reviews! Seriously — I love your reviews and you definitely add something new to each one. One thing I love about working in a bookstore is that once I’ve gotten to know customers I can just throw books at them (not literally!) and yell READ THIS. Sometimes I tell them they’ve got to trust me, because if I told them too much it would ruin the book — which is true.

      • I understand that completely! I’d be arrested for assault because forcing the book into their hands is often the only way I feel I can communicate how much I loved it- and they will too, if they would just READ IT.

        And I am definitely not a spin class so agree about breathless! Maybe we can agree there will be no breathless panthers when we discuss books. 😉

  7. Ha — I’ve never used “breathless” or “luminous” Yet. But I know what you mean. I’m sure I’ve used “engaging” and “captivating” quite often — but hopefully us bloggers follow up on those descriptions with a bit more on what connected us to the book. Book reviews aren’t easy to write or to be original ! your post is food for thought.

    • They’re SO hard to write without telling too much, or sounding like every other review, or making any number of other mistakes. I feel like even professional reviewers do a poor job a lot of the time.

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  9. What a great post! I fortunately have never used breathless in a review, but now that I think of it.. 😉 I t’s funny how some reviews I do I can do in a succinct fashion, but others I just have to blab on and on about! But there are some books I just say, you HAVE to read this! Now, I’m writing down A Deadly Wandering because of your recommendation! I already have Being Mortal on “the list”.

    Also, I do try and ignore the blurbs on the jacket from fellow authors after I found out that some of them get paid to write them. I can’t believe Gary Shteyngart admitted he doesn’t read the books he blurbs for either!

    Thanks for a thought provoking post! Also a post that does prove that my first year college english professor did know what he was talking about when he required us to get The Elements of Style!

    Have a great week!

    • Thanks, and sorry for the delay in responding. Let me know what you think of A Deadly Wandering and Being Mortal — when and if you get to them. I am feeling overwhelmed at the moment! I hope you have a terrific week.

  10. This is a great post! I know I’m guilty of using the over-used words (not all of them, though, and I try hard not to), but I mostly love to hear from you and from the comments that I’m not the only one who struggles with this. One word I use a lot (and I know I do) is ‘fascinating’, but I really am fascinated by a lot of what I read. I just find everything so fascinating and I the word fascinating describes it perfectly. 🙂
    I can’t believe that guy admitted to not reading the books. Who does he think he is?!

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