I find book reviews a very hard genre to write. This is why I marvel every time I come across great reviews in GoodReads that cover plenty of ground in just a few paragraphs, written apparently by readers who simply enjoy sharing their opinions. It has come to a point in my own reading when I hardly take up a book without first checking what the GoodRead members have to say—or in which, lazily, I check their opinions when I sense something is off with a book but cannot be bothered to think for myself. I do have a GoodReads account but I have never posted a review precisely because I need plenty of motivation to write them. My reviews, besides, would simply amount to ‘Yes, read the book’ or ‘Please, avoid’, with no further nuance. I would not get many likes for them.
I happen to believe, however, that all serious scholars have the duty to review academic books now and then. I started in 1997 and have reviewed since then 25 books, so about one volume a year. I have just handed in my 25th review, the reason behind my post today. I wrote my first review once I was already a doctor but there is no reason why doctoral students cannot write reviews, I think. It just happened that my supervisor(s) never spoke to me of that possibility. My dear colleague Felicity Hand, then editing an issue of our defunct Department journal Links & Letters, was the person who convinced me that I could and should write a review. To be honest, I was terrified because the book she gave was a collective volume edited by a person I happen to have much respect for, and I did not see how I was authorized at all to offer an opinion on her work. What if I didn’t like her book? This is indeed a difficulty when writing reviews early in your career: a negative review can make you enemies. I know of a doctoral student who had the great idea of reviewing in negative terms a collective volume in which most academics in his field participated, including some in his own research group. I can tell you he did not endear himself to any of the authors. So, even though what I am going to say will sound rather awful and hypocritical, as a general rule only review books that you enjoy and of which you can write positive reviews.
In that sense, I have got lucky because I have enjoyed all the books I have reviewed, even when I asked for them not knowing whether I would like them (with one exception, see below). Sorry, I have forgotten to clarify that you may send an unsolicited review directly to a journal (most journals have a review editor) or ask to review a book from their list. When a scholar publishes a book, s/he sends the publishers a list of journals where the volume could be reviewed. The publishers offer then review copies to the journals, which keep lists. In my area, Science Fiction Studies, the Science Fiction Review, Extrapolation and other journals regularly publish their lists of books for review, which I get through diverse mailing lists. If I see an attractive title, I ask for it. The Spanish journal Nexus, by the way, also keeps a list of books for review. If you want to review a book that you have already read, it would be a good idea in any case to contact the journal where you want to publish to ask whether they would be interested. Not all journals welcome unsolicited reviews.
It is not a very good idea to review books by persons you know, from best friends to mere acquaintances, unless you are sure a negative review might not be a problem. A negative review of a book by a senior scholar who might be important in your future career is not, as I have noted, the kind of review you want to write. But a bad review of a friend’s book can lose you a friend, remember that too. Do I mean that you should write positive reviews always whether you like a book or not? No! What I’m saying is that you should try to review only books which you value as good books, regardless of who the author is.
Look what happened to me. I wrote a review of a collective book edited by a person that, without being a close friend is someone I share time with if we meet at conferences. I had a good opinion of this person’s work and asked to review the new book. I soon saw that the book was quite a catastrophe but tried, anyway, to highlight in my review mostly the good points, trying to conceal the most glaring weaknesses. It seems this didn’t work well, for the book editor of the journal in question asked me to revise the text not once but twice, which is very unusual. Things went down so quickly that I ended up withdrawing my review, the only time I have done that. I simply saw no point in antagonizing my academic friend, and I preferred not to publish a bad review. Other scholars might think this is stupid of me, and that negative reviews are something we should accept. Possibly. I just happen to prefer being constructive, much more so in a world as small as ours in which not even great books get many reviews. Authors spend a long time, sometimes years, writing academic books, as I know myself, and I just feel bad saying publicly that they have not done well. On the other hand, one must be careful never to write a review which is ridiculously enthusiastic, for that is not criticism–that is publicity.
Reviews run usually from 1000 to 2000 words (but pay attention to what each journal expects). Each of my posts here is between 1500-2000 words, and very often I write here about books I have just read. This means that writing a book review should be easy for me, but whereas I write a post in about two hours, depending on inspiration, I spent about twelve hours writing my most recent review (1895 words). Why’s that? Because a book review is a formal exercise, with exact rules that I cannot break as I do in my posts. Here are some of these rules:
• you need to describe the book for prospective readers, but the review cannot simply be a synopsis
• you must be familiar with the precedents of the book in question (but remember that reviews do not usually include a bibliography of works cited) and be able to contextualize it
• you need to judge the book according to what its author claims it does (in the introduction), not according to what you would like the book to be
• you are required to comment on the structure of the book, if only briefly, and be able to pick up deficiencies, if any, but don’t overdo it
• a review must engage with the ideas expressed in the book (identify a thesis, the main arguments), which means that you assume the position not only of a reader but also of a fellow writer, as if you were able to write a similar book–this is for me the hardest part, for I always try to put myself in the author’s shoes and imagine what it must have taken to have written that book
• never be smug, never be patronizing and much less insulting but don’t overdo praise
• be formal, you can never say ‘this is a glorious volume’ (much less ‘this book is awful’)
In terms of structure, reviews should begin by presenting the volume, as noted. Then the precedents (i.e. similar books already published) must be mentioned and compared to the new volume; perhaps also other books by the author. Next comes the paragraph(s) about the book’s strong points, and then (hopefully) minor comments on what could be improved or is missing. Finally, the conclusion, ideally recommending the book for its good qualities. In my last review, I had to include information about whether the volume in question could be accessible to a wider, popular audience; this puzzled me a bit, as the instructions came from an academic journal and the book was also academic. There is a similar book with a simpler academic jargon and so I could add a comment about this matter, but I found the request a bit unusual. Only academics read academic books, and only academic read reviews of academic books. We do, don’t we?
In terms of an academic CV, writing a review is not of great value, though when I passed my state examination for tenure back in 2001, the half a dozen reviews I had published were noted as a positive contribution. I don’t know what the official accreditation agencies think of reviews, and I am not aware that they are ranked in the databases which index everything we publish. To be perfectly frank with you, in the last five years or so I have been reviewing books not thinking of my CV at all but because I could not afford the volumes in question. The last book I have reviewed costs 99 euros (hardback edition) and even though we are not paid for reviewing, I feel that in this case I have earned those 99 euros (and no need to pay for taxes!). So that’s another good incentive to review. I assume that the publishing houses know about this, which is why in many cases reviewers are only offered the .pdf of the text. I hate reading .pdf…
To sum up, if you’re a doctoral student reading this post and are in your second or third year it might be a good idea to think of publishing your first review. I don’t know whether the tips I have offered here will help, and whether my position—review only the books you truly enjoy—is orthodox but this is what I do myself. And if you are a career academic with other priorities, let me remind you that even though reviewing will not do much for your CV, one can always learn plenty from paying close attention to how our colleagues write. Besides, we can hardly expect others to review our work if we do not write reviews ourselves.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/