Books / Reading / Reviews / September 26, 2012

What Makes a Good Book Review?

The best book reviews are the ones that avoid the pitfall of objectivity because in reviewing books there no such thing. Sure, there are good comparisons to give a sense of objective placement – this book is similar to that one, the author writes dialogue like that other author, the prose resembles so-and-so’s – but when it comes to the quality of the book objectivity is mostly out the window. Rather than claiming to provide an objective perspective, a good review claims to provide the author’s perspective and then argues it well. Here’s why claims of objectivity should not be trusted.

Every reader intersects a book at a certain period of life, and this intersection is the great determiner of the impact that book has. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and was bored. My review would have been “like most literary classics this book rides the coattails of its own reputation with no real merit” or something like that. But I read it again when I was 25 and now consider it to be one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever stumbled across. That’s because I was in a period of life with enough added maturity and perspective to appreciate it. And it wasn’t homework the second time.

The expectation level a reader brings to a book does a great service or disservice to it. Low expectations set a book up well to surprise whereas expectations of greatness are awfully hard to fulfill. So when a reviewer says a book was a disappointment we have to consider what he expected. And a truly good reviewer will tell you what he expected if he proclaims disappointment. The converse is also true. If a reviewer is “pleasantly surprised” he ought to explain what he expected to begin with and how the book surpassed those expectations. I was pleasantly surprised at my second reading of To Kill a Mockingbird because my expectations were based on high school homework boredom.

 Books are not a one size fits all. The readers own preferences and expectations must be taken into account when reading a review. I may have found a certain book on writing to be the most helpful resource to date and my review would state that. But that doesn’t mean it would be the most helpful for everybody, so it behooves me as a reviewer to give clear explanation of what was helpful in the book so readers of the review will know whether that’s the resource that will suit their individual needs.

And of course, most broadly, reviewer preference, opinion, and pet peeve must be considered. This takes time to discern unless the reviewer is overtly honest in saying things like “I despise happy endings; they’re so trite” or “I love everything that flows from the pen of George R.R. Martin.” As you read a reviewer over time you’ll figure out which types of books tend to rise to the top, which authors are favorites or whipping boys, and which topics are especially dear to the reviewer (for good or ill). In this way you build a bit of a trust (mistrust?) relationship with the reviewer. You’ll learn that, just like you always get your produce from Trader Joes, so you will always get fiction reviews from this reviewer and just like you never get your cereal from Trader Joes you will never get biography reviews from him.

A good reviewer is honest as to his preferences. He is clear in his assessments and pointed in his explanations for them. He doesn’t shy away from making his opinions known or making it known that they are but opinions. But after he does that he defends them with both clear argument and vigor. If he can’t or doesn’t he is nothing more than a yapping opinion monger, but if he does it well  he is worth paying attention to because, whether or not you agree with him, you will have learned some very clear lessons about that book.


Sep 26, 2012

Very well-said.

Seems like there are two points to this post: embrace your subjectivity, and be clear with your readers about it.

On the second point, I find too many reviewers (of books or albums or what have you) treat their reviews more like the art they are reviewing than an assessment of it. It’s as if they want to maintain some kind of artistic liberty and are afraid of being pinned down as “a fan of George R.R. Martin” – much like a musician who’s afraid of being labeled “Christian” so he is careful to stick with vague spiritual references rather than concrete statements of belief.

I think they’d all do well to heed your advice.

Sep 26, 2012

Interesting post! As a reviewer, I enjoy reading articles on that topic – and hopefully improve my own skills. I never really thought about ‘the expectation level a reader brings to a book’. Makes sense! Thanks!

Nov 24, 2012

I’m not sure I completely agree with this. This may be the case for fiction, but what about books that put forth objective and testable facts? Consider Carl Trueman’s recent and devastating review of Gillian Evans’ book on the Reformation. Trueman’s expectations were of course shattered, and he explained why, because the book was full of factual errors.

Aug 30, 2016

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