Read This! (Or Not): Writing Book Reviews

 

Cassandra Willyard’s first opportunity to write a book review came under challenging circumstances. An editor at Vice invited her to review Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. The editor wanted an 800-word review of the 608-page book, on a quick turnaround. “I thought, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ It’s a long, long book,” recalls Willyard.

She was also aware of controversy surrounding the book: A few weeks earlier, a commotion had spread though social media over a New Yorker excerpt of the book, which some researchers saw as inaccurately representing gene regulation. Willyard worried the short deadline wouldn’t leave her enough time to do a thorough job of reviewing Mukherjee’s book.

Still, the assignment sounded fun, and writing for a new outlet would be a nice change of pace. She negotiated a deadline 10 days out and used every spare moment to finish reading the book. Ultimately, she wrote a favorable review, which ran longer than her assigned word count and that her editor was happy with. But after the review was posted, Willyard felt she’d gotten bogged down in too many details while reading. “I ended up with dozens and dozens of notes about trivial facts that I found intriguing,” she says, “but they weren’t all that helpful when I started writing.” She wished that she’d included more thoughts on the book’s overarching message and that she’d listened more to the nagging voice in her head telling her to note passages that didn’t ring true.

Willyard’s second-guessing highlights one of the major challenges of reviewing books: It requires both zooming in on minutiae and zooming out to capture the bigger picture. As she notes, just because you love to read doesn’t mean that reviewing books will always be fun—or easy. But book reviews offer what can be an uncommon opportunity to write in your own voice, and to act as a kind of intermediary between book author and reader.

The trick to reviewing books well is to approach the task systematically, keeping a clear eye on what you’re trying to accomplish, and keeping in mind what your responsibility is to readers. Book reviews should give an idea of the quality and style of the book, helping readers figure out whether they want to read the book, but without providing so much detail that readers feel as though there’s nothing left to learn.

Making the Task Manageable

One of the biggest challenges of reviewing books is that, well, books are long. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. One key is to dive into writing right after reading a book, before your initial reactions evaporate. Erin Wayman, who assigns and edits book reviews for Science News and writes occasional reviews herself, says she finds it easier to crystallize her opinion if she starts writing a review within a day or so of finishing the book. “Even if you’ve taken notes,” Wayman says, “you might forget that immediate feeling of your response to the book.”

Journalist and author David Dobbs, who frequently reviews books for numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Nature, and his blog, Neuron Culture, says that when he first started reviewing books, he took too many notes and highlighted way too many passages. Inevitably, he would end up with a “lethal amount” of material.

“I realized what I needed to do was filter earlier,” Dobbs says. “For a good book, you’ve got five highlights on each page, and you may have 15,000 words of notes for an 80,000-word book. You can’t carry all of that into a 1,200-word review,” Dobbs says. “You have to make it easy on yourself.” Now, as he finishes each chapter in a book, he flips through his notes and highlights, distilling the chapter’s essence into a few paragraphs and noting key passages that support that chapter’s theme. In the end, those grafs serve as his first draft of a review.

 

“Even though it’s really fun to write in your own voice, we’re not reviewing to show off. We are reviewing to tell readers whether they are interested in this book or not, and whether they should read it.” ~ Ann Finkbeiner

 

How much ground a review can cover depends, of course, on the assigned word count, notes journalist, author, and veteran book reviewer Richard Panek (he cut his teeth as a movie reviewer, starting in the 1970s—his first review, for a suburban weekly newspaper, was of Star Wars). “In a 500-word review for USA Today,” he says, “I can only do two or three things. In a 750-word review for the Chicago Tribune I can do one more thing.” Long reviews, such as the 2,000-word pieces Panek wrote for the now-defunct Seed magazine, allow for deeper and broader meditation—as in this 2006 review of Ann Finkbeiner’s The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite.

Finkbeiner herself, who has regularly reviewed books for The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Wilson Quarterly, and today reviews mostly for Nature, charts a book’s structure and themes as she reads, and notes whether the author has crafted a narrative or simply strung together a collection of anecdotes. When it comes time to put fingers to keyboard, she keeps in mind the principle purpose of a book review. “Even though it’s really fun to write in your own voice, we’re not reviewing to show off,” Finkbeiner explains. “We are reviewing to tell readers whether they are interested in this book or not, and whether they should read it.”

Finkbeiner (who is a member of The Open Notebook’s board of directors) has developed a set of internal rules for reviewing books:

  • Be a trustworthy and honest guide to the book.
  • If you have strong opinions about the subject of the book, be very, very careful about your comments.
  • Don’t use a book review as an excuse to show off your writerly voice.
  • If the book is by a fellow science writer, remember that this is a small community. Even if you think a book is really bad, don’t be mean at the expense of another writer.
  • Don’t review the book you think the author should have written; review the book in front of you.

Judge Books on Their Own Terms

One way to focus the reviewing process is to determine what the book aims to accomplish, and then figure out whether it succeeded. “A reviewer’s great temptation is to complain about the book that should have been written,” Finkbeiner says. “But a reviewer should just shut up for a minute and look at the book in its own reference frame and decide whether it did what it set out to do.”

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That was Dobbs’s strategy in favorably reviewing Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race for The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Kenneally, Dobbs says, “had the courage to take on genetics and write a book that wasn’t trying to present genetics as an answer to a bunch of medical problems, but as another thread of history used to tie in all sorts of things, especially your own family.”

Developing that understanding of the author’s intent and whether it was fulfilled takes time—and empathy with both the author and the reader, Dobbs says. The primary obligation in writing a review, he notes, is to readers. “The act of reading is a long conversation with the author,” he says. In writing a review, you convey the essence of that conversation to the reader—you become a proxy for the conversation you had with the book. “To make a really good introduction between two people, you need to be sympathetic to the position of each,” Dobbs says. “I suppose you can dash off book reviews, but there’s something about sitting and reading an entire book that should force you to take the author’s mission seriously. It doesn’t mean you can forgive mistakes, but you want to be sympathetic to the writer’s intent.”

A Chance to Be Opinionated

For journalists, what sets book reviews apart from many other assignments is that you can share your opinions and write in your own voice. You still need an objective point of view, but you can be a little personal if you like, as Willyard was in opening her review of the Mukherjee book:

In 2014, my husband and I engaged in the most intimate of acts: We blended our genes and created an embryo. This tiny human, now nine months old, is genetically half him and half me. We were hoping our daughter would get my looks and my husband’s temperament; instead she seems to have inherited his pale skin and my pig-headedness. We supplied her genetic building blocks, but fate arranged them into a new being.

A reviewer can likewise use humor if the situation calls for it, as Dobbs did in his unfavorable review of Ron Gutman’s Smile, for the now-inactive ebook-review site called Download the Universe:

Sometimes when I encounter writing I especially admire, I like to type it out. Say, Nabokov, in The Luzhin Defense, describing his heroine taking a bath amid marital confusion…. I type such passages because it seems they might rub off. So when for some reason the passages I had highlighted in my Kindle version of the book under review here, SMILE: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, did not carry from my reading device to my Amazon Kindle highlights web page, where normally I would be able to select and copy them, I frowned, because this malfunction meant that to show you any passages from this book I would have to re-type them, and I feared, dear reader, and still fear, that they might rub off. I will have to read a lot of Nabokov to make up for this.

In fact, editors expect to see your opinion, says Wayman. The most common mistake she sees from those new to reviewing books is that they turn in a straight summary that reads like a book report, rather than a piece with an attitude and style of its own. Many writers, she says, “are used to keeping our voice and opinions out of stories, but for book reviews readers have certain questions beyond what the book is about. Don’t be afraid of offering your opinion about the quality of the book beyond the content.”

Going Negative

Few things are more distressing to authors than a poor review—especially if it’s ill-founded. Even customer reviews on sites like Amazon.com can be aggravating to authors, as Panek notes. “People will give a book one star because it arrived damaged, or because they thought the book was about something they did not expect, or didn’t work the way they wanted,” he says.

Professional reviews are rarely so indiscriminate—but they can wound more deeply. Even when reviews are largely positive, writers often focus on and remember even the briefest mention of one negative issue. “You meet that author years later, and they throw that back in your face,” Panek says.

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Knowing the profound and lasting effect a review can have—both on an author’s psyche and on a book’s reputation—drives home the importance of doing thoughtful work. Finkbeiner says she changed her approach to reviewing books after she became an author and realized how much work goes into creating a book. She’s not gentler in her criticism so much as she is more careful in how she describes what she thinks the book could have done better, she says. “I still feel a responsibility to the reader too, to let them know what a book is about and whether they should buy it or not,” Finkbeiner says.

The most common cause for a negative review, in Finkbeiner’s experience, is that the author seems to have been “phoning in” the book, doing the “easy glitzy stuff, rather than finding context and thinking through the subject.” When she needs to write an unfavorable review—as she did in a recent Nature review that was a few degrees shy of enthusiastic—Finkbeiner notes, in a neutral tone, what the book is about, and then just straightforwardly explains what she finds problematic. She’s also more lenient about books on difficult subjects that are difficult to condense, such as physics or paleontology, and she makes sure to point out what’s good about any book she reviews.

Wayman and other reviewers echo that sentiment. “Every book may have something you don’t like about it,” she says. In those cases, she softens her critique and looks for ways to put a more positive spin. For example, if Wayman reviews a book more suited for experts, she’ll say something to the effect that the book would be more appropriate for people already familiar with the subject matter. “I don’t want to bash anybody,” Wayman says. “There are ways to point out criticism without being too harsh.”

 

“The worst thing you can do to a book is ignore it altogether.” ~ David Dobbs

 

Still, if you review enough books, you will eventually encounter one that you find lazy, or irresponsible, or just plain bad—and you’ll have to just buckle down and say as much in the review, says Finkbeiner.

Naturally, penning a negative review can be uncomfortable—it’s no fun to publicly criticize other people’s work. But if all reviews were positive, they wouldn’t be much use to prospective readers. Still, Finkbeiner acknowledges, there may be occasions where writing and publishing a negative review feels like an unacceptable option.

She once sent a book back to her editor at The New York Times because she found the book “really, really bad.” Poorly written and poorly edited, the book read like a first draft, she says. In this case, she felt it would be unjust to lay the blame for the book’s poor quality on the author, who was sincere about the subject but had obviously been badly served by the editor. “Knowing how important book reviews are to authors, I said, ‘If I review this and that review shows up in The New York Times, it’s going to be bad for that author, and I don’t know what to do about this, but I don’t want to be the agent of the pain.’ ” In the end, the book ended up not being reviewed.

Science News’s Wayman gives reviewers the option to pass on a book after they’ve starting reading it—especially if the reviewer thinks the book was terrible overall or wouldn’t be something their readers would find useful.

Dobbs says he tries to give books a fair start—recognizing that some good books begin slowly and pick up after 50 pages or so, but he will beg off a review if he doesn’t like the book. “There are so many good, worthy books that deserve review that aren’t getting reviewed,” he says. After all, he says, “The worst thing you can do to a book is ignore it altogether.”

At the same time, Dobbs explains, he avoids writing reviews that would bash a well-intentioned book that somebody worked hard on, because it “feels ugly” to do so. He makes exceptions, though, if he feels the book is dangerous or sloppy, or if it is exploiting a prominent platform to “dish a load of bull.” Books like that, he says, “deserve to be taken down.”

One notable example was Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, which Dobbs described in a review for The New York Times as “deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous.”

“I was going to review that book no matter what,” Dobbs says. “It was intellectually dishonest in the service to a toxic cause, and he should have known better.” His review was eviscerating.

While reviewing the book, Dobbs went to the research literature and read some of the papers Wade used to support his conclusions. Dobbs read one paper four times, he says, noting that the paper’s own authors explicitly cautioned against making the arguments that Wade leaned on. (Later, more than 100 population biologists signed a letter to The Times, thanking Dobbs for his review and supporting his conclusions.)

Effort that intense comes at a price for a reviewer’s bottom line. Even under less extreme circumstances, though, writing book reviews doesn’t typically pay well. Dobbs says the pay scale at most outlets is in the three figures. “You’re in single digits per hour before you finish the book,” he says.

Finkbeiner cites fees ranging from 50 cents to a dollar a word. But she finds the work satisfying for other reasons. She sees books as an attempt to start a conversation with the world, and reviewers as the proxy for that conversation.

“I sit here in my little room, and most days I’m really lucky to get someone to return a phone call,” Finkbeiner says. “So being asked for my opinion is a real rush.”

 

Jeanne ErdmannCarl Erdmann

Jeanne Erdmann

TON cofounder and editor-at-large Jeanne Erdmann is an award-winning freelance health-and-science writer based in Missouri. Her writing has been published in Nature Medicine, Nature, Women’s Health, Discover, The Washington Post, Slate, Aeon, and elsewhere. She is on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Follow her on Twitter @jeanne_erdmann.

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