I’ve loved reading ever since I was a child, and I loved doing book reports for school because I got to write and talk about books I loved. When I was in an MFA program I loved the required book responses (or annotations, as we called them) because I got to take those books apart and think about how they worked.
When the 49 Writers blog was new—in fact, when 49 Writers was only a blog—founders Andromeda and Deb hoped that it would become, among other things, a forum for reviewing and discussing Alaska books. Andromeda asked if I’d contribute a couple of guest reviews to encourage the practice, and so I used the challenge to read two books related to communities I’d visited as part of research for my book Early Warming. The first, Charles Brower’s Fifty Years Below Zero, is a 1942 classic about life in the Arctic. You can read that review here. The second, Michael D’Orso’s Eagle Blue, is a 2006 account of Fort Yukon’s basketball team. You can read that here.
Since then, I’ve reviewed a few other books and journals on the blog, others have written about reviews from the point of view of being reviewed, the Spotlight series has provided for book promotion via excerpts (as alternatives to reviews), and Bill Streever posted an excellent piece about reasons to review and tips for doing so. But reviews themselves have not become a regular part of postings.
I ask myself why this is, and I think there are three main answers. One, reviewing is hard work that takes a lot of time—not something most writers are eager to volunteer for. Two, the Alaska writing community is small, and it surely can feel awkward to publically analyze and/or praise a friend’s or acquaintance’s book. Three, a potential reviewer might well wonder, who am I to judge this book? What qualifies me to have an opinion about someone else’s work of art? (I see this lack of confidence even in MFA students writing reading responses for their own benefit.)
I’m here now both as a writer and a reviewer—since 2015 I’ve been regularly reviewing for the Alaska Dispatch, now Anchorage Daily News—to encourage more book reviewing, on this blog and elsewhere. Get over your hesitations. Use the opportunity to grow yourself as a reader and writer and put yourself out there without apology.
Here are my reasons:
- Book reviews encourage readership and book discussions. We wish them for our own books, and by writing them we pay back into the reading and writing community to which we belong.
- They help us grow as writer and thinkers. When you analyze a story closely (or read such an analysis) you learn not just about the world brought to you in the book but about ideas more generally and ways in which those ideas can be presented and made meaningful. Writing anything helps all your writing.
- They encourage thought and discussion by others. When you put your slant on a book, you ask others to “see it my way” (Joan Didion’s famous reason for all her writing.) You can influence others not only to read a given book but to think about things as they might not have before reading your review.
- From a more selfish standpoint, they can bring attention to your own writing, as a creative writer or critic, and lead to other opportunities. They can act as “clips” when you apply for anything that requires writing skills or analysis.
Some additional thoughts:
- Traditional sources of book reviews have largely disappeared. Most newspapers used to have review sections, but few do anymore. (We’re fortunate in Alaska that the Anchorage Daily News, despite its forced economies, has retained book reviews in its Sunday paper.) Thus, opportunities for being paid for reviews are limited. At the same time, opportunities for unpaid reviewing (especially on-line) have grown many-fold.
- It’s helpful to remember that literary judgments are to a large degree subjective—and sometimes, in retrospect, shockingly off-target. Moby-Dick was once called “trash,” Jane Austen went largely unnoticed, and Flaubert, in a review of Madame Bovary, was deemed “not a writer.” In 1958, in the New York Times, Orville Prescott wrote of Lolita, “Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”
- Where to find more resources and tips? Try the website of the National Books Critics Circle, including its blog. If you join that organization you get access to a directory of review editors—to whom to pitch review ideas. On her website, Rebecca Skloot shares an excellent series of tips about breaking into the field—which includes writing “practice” reviews on Amazon or Goodreads—and then using those as substitutes for “clips” you can show an editor.
- Finally, read book reviews, especially by professional reviewers who bring expertise to their subject matter. You can’t read every book for yourself, so reading thoughtful reviews helps you choose. They also let you know what’s out there in the world, what ideas are circulating and some fresh ways of thinking about them, and where your book will fit in.
Nancy Lord, Alaska Writer Laureate 2008-10, is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books including, most recently, pH: A Novel. She teaches in the UAA MFA program and the Johns Hopkins graduate science writing program, and she is regularly a member of the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference faculty. Her website is http://www.writernancylord.com.