Miles Kington: Masterclass: how to write a book review

It's much like writing a novel, except that instead of telling people about characters, the idea is to tell the reader all about YOU
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The Independent Online

Today, a well-known book reviewer reveals the secrets of the trade:

Hello, there.

Today I am going to tell you how to write a book review.

I am constantly surprised by the number of people I meet who have never written a book review, or, if they have, did not realise they were doing it at the time.

It is different with novels.

All of you, of course, will have written a novel by now.

Some of you may even have had it published and remaindered.

So you will know all about the art of fiction, which consists in telling the reader about your characters.

But what is book reviewing about?

Book review writing is very much the same, except that instead of telling people about characters, the idea is to tell the reader all about YOU.

But surely, I hear you protest, the idea of writing a book review is to tell the reader all about the book under review, and the writer.

Oh, please. This is no time for naivete.

When you sit down to write a book review, you have five vital things to communicate.

a) How it represents a falling off from the author's previous book or books. (eg. "For reasons best known to herself, she has abandoned her hitherto successful family studies...")

b) How it reminds you of other writers, usually better. (eg. "We are in Zadie Smith country here, with a dash of Martin Amis...")

c) How you would have written the book differently if it had been up to you. ("There must have been times when she had severe doubts about having three separate narrators...")

d) What is wrong with the cover. ("The jacket design would look good on a history of Venice. This book, however, is meant to be a study of the psychology of art theft...")

e) How, despite everything, the book is well worth reading. ("But despite everything, I think the book is worth reading...")

That sounds as if you are writing about the book.

You are not.

You are writing about yourself.

What you are saying is:-

a) YOU have dutifully read other stuff by the same author.

b)You have read stuff by other authors.

c) You are a better author than this author.

d) And a better artist.

e) But you are filled with good-hearted generosity.

Evelyn Waugh once said that the golden rule of book reviewing is that you should never give a bad review to a book you have not read. This is now seen as rather old-fashioned and romantic. No book reviewer ever has time to read the whole book, not for the money they are paying you. The vital thing is to give the impression that you HAVE read the whole book.

This can easily be done by only quoting from near the end of the book.

And by pointing out an error.

Like this:

"Proof reading is not what it used to be, and too many basic errors have crept in. The Battle of Lepanto was, of course, in 1571, not 1471, as the author would have us believe."

You have to find an error first, of course. If you can't, don't worry; make one up. I knew a reviewer who wrote "Jerome K Jerome's middle name was, of course, Klapka, not Kafka" in at least twenty different reviews of books which had never once mentioned Jerome K Jerome, till he was finally rumbled.

Coming soon: How to get the best price when flogging review copies

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