What a book review is – and isn’t

Anyone who has ever read a book and then told a friend, “It stunk” or “Buy it!” is a book reviewer. Of course, book reviewing can be a lot more formal than a verbal “thumbs up/down”. I have long relied on thoughtful print/web book reviews to help me decide what to read as well as to inform me about ideas and trends happening in the world. I may not have time to read every book that interests me, but intelligent reviews help me stay connected to the conversations taking place in our culture.

I appreciate being able to contribute to this conversation from time to time. I have been reviewing books for print and online sources since the early 1990’s. My foray into reviewing came when I learned that I could get free books and curriculum if I’d be willing to put together short reviews for a home school print magazine. I loved to read, possess and abundance of opinions, and appreciated the ability to offer a thoughtful assessment of a product that would help other families know whether a that product would meet their needs. For the last couple of years, I’ve been an occasional reviewer for Englewood Review of Books. (Probably not a whole lot of overlap between the readership of those two publications, but I digress…) Because I love books, I also feature book reviews on this blog for books I receive from Thomas Nelson and Tyndale as part of their book blogger outreach programs, as well as for copies of new releases sent my way by various author acquaintances. I always have a stack of books for review sitting on my coffee table.

Most of my book reviewing experiences have been positive, but once every half-decade or so, I will tick someone off with a less-than-glowing review. I once had an editor call me to tell me that author of a piece of curriculum contacted her to tell her that my review would ruin her curriculum developing career. Apparently, she’d sold everything and relocated to a distant, isolated community so she could afford to self-publish her material. The editor asked me if I could keep the essence of my opinion in the article but soften my language a bit. I de-fanged it, but left the opinion in place.

The good news is that if a book is really, really terrible, I won’t review it at all. A while ago, someone sent me a self-published book and asked if I’d be a part of a blog tour celebrating the book’s release. The book did not have a single positive characteristic. The grammar and punctuation were terrible; the content was little more than stream-of-consciousness hack syrupy prose. I could not think of one redeeming thing to say about it. I contacted the author and explained that I didn’t want to skewer her book publicly, so I was going to bow out of the process. She did ask what I didn’t like about it, and I was able to share my concerns privately with her as graciously as I could (I think I was successful at leaving words like “hack” and “syrupy” out of that conversation).

I will allow that I can have a bit of a razor pen. Another time, someone told me that a single sentence I’d embedded in in an otherwise fairly-positive review I’d posted on Amazon had been fermenting frustration in her toward me for over a year. Since I’m not a mind reader, I did appreciate her telling me that I’d caused her distress, and felt it was important to do what I could on my end to restore the relationship. At this point, since her book has already been out such a long time, I simply pulled the review. It certainly wasn’t worth the time and effort to rework it.

That decision appears to have been what she felt she needed from me, though the incident has caused me to revisit what a book review is and what it isn’t. Most of the reviews I’ve written over the years have been primarily positive in nature, and I try to ensure that my critique is constructive. After all, I’m a writer, too, and pray that someday soon, people will be reviewing a book I’ve written. I have been on the receiving end of a couple of bad reviews, as well as the grace of many nice words about my work. May God give me thick enough skin to not be deeply wounded by criticism of my work, and thin enough skin to keep me teachable. There’s always room for growth.

Here’s what I understand about writing a review:

(1) A book review is not an endorsement. Let’s clarify the difference between the two: A review is “a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital, or the like; critique; evaluation.” (Thank you, dictionary.com.) An endorsement, on the other hand, is approval or support. Big difference. A positive review may become an endorsement of sorts, but that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to evaluate.

(2) A book review is written to serve its readers. If a “reviewer” is shilling for the author, he or she isn’t writing a review. That kind of writing is called a commercial.

(3) A book review may include both positive and negative comments about the book. There is only one perfect book, and God divinely inspired the writing of it. All other books have strengths and weaknesses, and a fair reviewer will assess both.

(4) A negative book review written a Christian by does not negate the truth of this passage if it the review has negative feedback about a book written by another Christian. Questioning a reviewer’s faith by quoting a Bible verse (“Hey, you’re not writing about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy = what’s wrong with you?”) is not a mark of spiritual maturity on the author’s part. The content of the book is up for discussion; the character of the reviewer shouldn’t be.

(5) A book review should help readers understand something about the book that they won’t learn from reading what a publicist or marketing department has to say about it. A reviewer is not on the payroll of the publisher. Thus, the reviewer’s point-of-view needs to shine.

(6) A book review is not a bully pulpit for the reviewer’s issues. It’s important for a reviewer to interact with the content of the book, but the review isn’t a soapbox. The focus is the book’s content, not the reviewer.

Do you ever review books for your blog, a print magazine or amazon? What would you add to the list?


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