Twilight Times Books, $16.95, ISBN 978-1933353-22-7
I had known about this book for a long time now. To say that I was skeptical about The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing is an understatement. Firstly, it is endorsed by James A Cox of Midwest Book Review, a publication with reviews that I don’t find particularly useful or interesting. Secondly, I have to wonder: if this book has such important advice, then why is it published by a small press? Thirdly… well, let’s face it, if this book was written by a Pulitzer prize-winning book critic from the New York Times, then maybe I’d pay this book more interest. Unfortunately, this book was written by Mayra Calvani and Anne K Edwards, who are not exactly the heavyweight players when it comes to book reviewing.
Okay, so it was used as a study material in three colleges, or so I read in the publicity material. So it was a finalist in the EPPIE 2009 and National Best Books 2008. I was still not convinced. And then, I happened to saw this book on sale with a 50% discount on Fictionwise at the time of writing. That was when I finally decided to make an impulse buy to take a look at this book.
What caught my eye about this book is a teaser suggesting that there is a chapter here on how to monetize one’s reviewing hobby. You know me, I’d love to make lots of money in every thing I do. Unfortunately, I’m told at the end of the day that the best way to be rich while reviewing is to marry a rich spouse, sigh.
I don’t think there is anything here that I haven’t read or heard of before. One thing that may surprise you is that this is not exactly one of those fluffy bunny books that advocate wearing woolen mittens while reviewing a book. The authors insist on a more balanced approach, where the mentions of every book’s low points should be balanced by mentions of some high points, however few there may be, and of course you shouldn’t forget the author’s feelings. But balance is the main aim of every reviewer, this book tells me.
There are plenty of good advice here for people who want to start out as reviewers, such as how one needs to master good English and has an ability to convey one’s opinions on a book well to the reader of the review. The authors also advocate several structural templates one can follow in writing a review. I personally doubt this particular advice is useful as big presses tend to have their own in-house formats while it’s free-for-all if you want to play an amateur reviewer in your own blog or website. But adopting a basic structure for one’s reviews can always help when it comes to writing coherent and easy-to-read reviews, so this advice isn’t completely useless in my opinion.
I also like the chapter dealing with reviewers’ responsibilities when it comes to correspondences and such with publishers and authors. I’m personally a tardy person when it comes to emails and I admit that that chapter is a reminder on how I can get together my act better.
What I find rather lacking in this book however is focus. Who is this book written for? Amateur reviewers, students wanting to write book reports, or professional reviewers? I never get any clear idea of whom this book is targeted to. It doesn’t help that the advice offered here tends to be a mixed bag. Some advice will work very well for amateur reviewers but not for reviewers working for a publication (let’s face it, the publication will probably has its own ground rules for their reviewers) and vice-versa. The last few chapters of the book seem to be written specifically for the small press industry, however, so perhaps that is the focus of this book. That makes sense – the people quoted here are mostly from those circles, either from the publisher or ezine front instead of folks from established big time presses. Come to think of it, reviewers from Kirkus to Publishers Weekly to New York Times will probably laugh should they come across that part where the authors advocate that an overly gleeful and scathing negative review is the sign of an unprofessional amateur.
Ultimately, here are my thoughts about this book: if you want to start your own review blog or website, forget this book. If you an amateur reviewer, you should work on your own “voice” and style first before you worry about hurting authors’ feelings. You need to have an interesting writing style that resonates with your readers so that they will keep coming back to you, and there is no advice in this book that will help you achieve that. You will end up writing tidy but passionless book reports instead because you’ll get too hung on about achieving balance while not hurting authors’ feelings. And then you will finally get fed up and start blaming “Mean Girls” for stealing your audience from you. You don’t have to be negative, but you don’t have to be dry and boring at the same time. And if you get too concerned over rules before you have settled for a “voice” that you are comfortable with, you will most likely end up being dry and boring.
And if you are a book reviewer for, say, Publishers Weekly, you tell me why you’d want to read this book.