Wednesday, September 14, 2005

[Essay] The Art of Book Reviews: It’s Not As Easy As It Looks

Not so long ago, I thought that my ideal job would be that of a book reviewer; doing nothing but read books all day, and then write reviews on them. That wish never came true, and even if it did, it would probably be less than perfect.

For example, my reading taste revolves around a certain genre: namely fantasy and science-fiction. I imagine that there are two extremes a book reviewer will face: either he gets to choose which books he wants to review, or he gets whatever is thrown his way, either by the publisher or the publication he’s working for. In the case of the former, it’s not a problem for the reviewer, but it might be for his readers, because the subject matter he tackles revolves around a small niche, and might end up writing derivative reviews. As for the latter, the reviewer might have more variety, but there’s a good chance he’ll be reading a lot of horrible books. And unlike the casual reader who can simply put down a novel that doesn’t interest them, you have to plough through the book from beginning to end. It’s like Simon from American Idol forcing himself to listen to William Hung for one full hour, just to be sure that Hung really is that horrible, and to what extent.

Assuming a book reviewer manages to balance his book choices, the next question he faces is how many books he will review. Theoretically, the more books he can cover, the better. Unlike other forms of media which has a set number of pages or a fixed time, books not only come in all shapes and sizes, they come in various thickness and font sizes as well. A music album release, for example, takes around an hour, while watching a movie two hours (Lord of the Rings, Dances with Wolves, and JFK being the exception). Reading a book, however, has no definite time (unless you’re talking of audio books). Readers read at their own pace, and allot different hours for reading them. One of the worst questions I encounter (and I get this often) is how long does it take me to finish reading a book. If they want a specific answer, they’ll have to give me a specific book. Children’s books (but remember, there are various kinds of children’s books) take me around a few hours to finish. Paperbacks in the 300-400 pages count take me a day or two. Mammoth books with page counts amounting to four digits takes me longer. Content also plays a significant role. Does the book contain pictures, and how much? Is the language simple, or is it as complex as reading James Joyce’s Ulysses? Are the paragraphs long, or are they broken down into shorter segments? One has to realize that no books are identical, although some books share similarities with others, especially books by the same author (but that’s as far as it goes).

Once again, we go back to the number of books a person is capable of reviewing. It all depends on the person’s capability, and what kind of books he’s reviewing. An adult novel or two for me is okay. Anything more than that depends on my passion and availability. I mean is doing book reviews feeding me and my family? If so, I can probably afford to drop everything else, and start reading for the first three weeks of the month, and then churn out the reviews at the last. If not, then what can I accommodate into my schedule, taking into account work, recreation, and my social life.

Then there’s the actual review writing. The first thing every reviewer should ask is who their audience is. Am I writing the review for fiction aficionados? Or the casual reader? Kids? Perhaps even the non-reader. This will take into account your writing style, and how you will tackle your subject matter. As a fantasy reader, for example, if my audience are fantasy fans, then I can drop multiple allusions to other fantasy work and/or writers into my review. If not, then It’s probably better for me to stick to something more mainstream when it comes to name dropping.

Knowing your audience also helps the reviewer answer this one important question: to spoil or not to spoil? Many people who read book reviews will be irked if they read a review that has spoilers, especially when unwarned. However, giving out spoilers is sometimes inevitable, as reviewers need to mention something about the book in order to review it; one should just be wary to what extent he spoils the reader. Readers who’ve already read the book obviously will not care about the spoilers, but instead appreciate it as the reviewer can go more into detail about what’s good or what’s wrong with the book, and can cite the specific circumstance. So on one end, spoilers can alienate the casual reader, but gives the reviewer more tools to work with. On the other, a reviewer can limit the spoilers he reveals, but has to be more general in his review of the novel.

What do I mean by limiting spoilers? Well, the book summaries at the back of books already do spoil readers, as they sometimes mention the plot of the book or the premise. There are even rare circumstances when book cover summaries actually spoil the main gist of the story (hint to readers: never read back covers if you want to fully enjoy the reading experience!). Book reviewers might want to start from there. Of course there’s no set rule, and reviewers will debate with themselves what to include and what not to. Should I name the person that gets killed, or simply let it be known that a character dies? Should I tell that the book’s plot is really about this, or should I let the reader discover it for themselves? Obviously, if a reviewer doesn’t mind giving out spoilers, he doesn’t have to ponder on these unnecessary decisions, and just write the best review he can come up with, mentioning all the elements he thinks are important. And in that sense, the best book review is perhaps one that contains spoilers, because the reviewer doesn’t need to hold himself back. However, the best book reviews aren’t always what readers are looking for, and simply need a nudge whether to buy this book or not.

In the end though, what makes a book review work or not is the sensibilities of both the reviewer and the reader. If there’s a huge disparity in their preferences, no matter how much the reviewer recommends the book, or how well-written the review is, the reader might just end up disappointed. The problem isn’t with the reviewer but with the reader: what the reader needs to do is look for a book reviewer whose tastes are similar to theirs. Thus a favorable review will elicit positive reactions from the reader. There’s no secret formula for readers to know which book reviewers are for them. Sometimes, you get a hint from their reviews, but more often than not, it’s a hit-or-miss thing, and the only way to know is to pick up a book they recommend (or not recommend).

1 comment:

saurav said...

quite informative post....keep it up..