Publishing Tips

Seeds of Judgment: Why You Should Consider Writing Reviews of Books

Jessica Michalofsky

July's Publishing Tip comes to you from Jessica Michalofsky, a previous poetry contributor to Issue 168, Fall 2009. Her fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have been published in Geist, Joyland, Globe and Mail, The Winnipeg Review, Quarterly Conversation, Brick, The Rumpus, and Bookslut.

 

“‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill”

At some point in university, I was required to read Alexander Pope’s 1711 Essay on Criticism. Admittedly, I read only enough to appear to the instructor that I had read the 744-line poem composed entirely in heroic couplets. So, the fact that I came away from that reading experience with the unfounded perception that criticism is for failed poets—something along the lines of those who can, write; those who can’t, write criticism—is not entirely Pope’s fault.

This is back when I assumed that I’d be a famous writer by thirty, not understanding, and in my rashness condemning to cliché, the notion that a writing career, like other noble pursuits, is a journey rather than a destination.

Twenty years into my journey, however, I began writing reviews of books and discovered not only that I liked writing criticism, but that writer and critic were not mutually exclusive terms. In fact, my experience as a writer made me a better critic.
I should define what I mean by criticism, for writing a review of a book does not necessarily define an act of literary criticism. I’ll get to that anon. But first, if you are somewhere along your journey and want to try your hand at reviewing, there are a few things to consider.

First off, you need to get books to review. There are two ways of doing this: contacting a literary magazine directly or creating a relationship with a publisher.

To contact a magazine or journal directly, start off by researching those publications. Observe what kinds of writing they publish and who their audience is, and if they review books, what kinds of books they review. Some magazines, for instance, review only Canadian authors. Usually, they’ll have a page on their website that gives information about whether they are looking for reviewers and whether they pay. Expect not to be paid (more about not getting paid below).

Next, send a concise but informative email indicating your desire to review for them. If you’re a writer, tell them in a few short words where you’ve published, the genre, and the subject matter. If you have any area of expertise, mention it. If you’ve previously reviewed or published nonfiction, consider sending them a short sample of your work in the body of your email.

If they are looking for reviewers, magazines will then generally send you a list of books for review, or they may suggest a title. Less often, they will ask you to pitch a title to them (more about pitching below). Once you’ve agreed on a title, they will arrange to have the book sent to you and give you a deadline. Like other publications, they will want to edit your work before they print it and can and will refuse to print anything that doesn’t meet their standards. So, send only your best, well-edited work.

The other method is a little riskier, but depending on your interests, can be more gratifying. Begin by researching publishers that interest you. Often, publishers will give information right on their website about how to contact them for review copies of books, and many publishers’ websites have a “forthcoming” section, announcing the dates and titles of future publications. Write the same type of brief query letter to a publisher that you would to a magazine. If you have a favourite publisher or a much-loved author, or you have an inkling about an up-and-coming bright light, this is an excellent way to demonstrate your literary insight and write about what you love.

The risky part about obtaining books directly from a publisher is that you have to turn around and pitch the review to a magazine. Again, you should think about which books are going to best fit which magazines. A review of a translation of an obscure Columbian noir-fiction writer won’t interest a magazine that publishes a lot of language poetry, but that online journal that specializes in small-press literature in translation might snap it up.

Now, onto how you might actually go about reviewing a book. There are, in my thinking, two styles of review.

The first is essentially an announcement of the publication of a book. It is often short, perhaps only a few hundred words. Its focus is to engage the reader in the question of whether she should buy this book. It contains a summary of the plot and main characters, evaluative comments, and perhaps an overview of the author’s writing history. The writer of the review is invisible, and the style approaches what we might call “neutral.” Though useful, this type of review is not criticism.
The second approach to reviewing a book might contain some or none of the ingredients of the first. However, one crucial distinction of a critical review is that creates an intellectual or literary response to the work.

Do all reviewers need to know literary theory? Not necessarily, but it will be difficult to engage with a book critically without examining, for instance, how the book’s characters, symbols, and language function to create a unique piece of art. Although you may do so, there is no need to conduct a Marxist analysis or cite Foucault or spout Queer Theory. Like Pope suggests, “A little Learning is a dang’rous thing.” In fact, not all criticism is highbrow. What distinguishes criticism is creative and intellectual engagement. There are as many ways to review a book as there are reviewers, and reviews may be descriptive, analytic, playful, biting, or theoretical. In my opinion, a good review neither condemns nor praises but seeks to understand.
Likewise, reviewers of nonfiction should have some familiarity with the subject matter if they are reviewing a work of nonfiction. It’s hard to review a book about fly-fishing if you’ve never tied a fly. Conversely, if you have some expertise with or have published about French Canadian musical culture in B.C.’s silviculture industry, you’d be a natural fit to review a book about that topic.

Lastly, a critical review attempts to balance art and commentary. Here is where the writer and critic join forces. You can use your distinct voice to engage the reader with writing that is lively and rhythmic and thinking that is informed by your experience. If you’ve been given a word count, strictly adhere to it. Generally, you can expect to be given anywhere from 600-1500 words to express your inimitable “Seeds of Judgment.”

Don’t forget your humility though: “A Fool might once himself alone expose, / Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.”

If you’re new to reviewing, it’s probably best to start with a fairly conservative approach, but as you gain experience, you can experiment with different forms and styles of response. The best thing to do, of course, is to read reviews and criticism (try a few stanzas of Pope!) and always consider your audience.

If you do a decent job, expect to see your reviews published and to find a continual stream of package notices from Canada Post at your door. Many funding bodies consider reviews as publishing credits. However, if you expect to make a lot of money reviewing, you will be disappointed. While some magazines pay a nominal amount, many don’t. But, if you are a writer somewhere along your noble journey, you probably understand that already.

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The Malahat Review posts “Publishing Tips” as a bimonthly guest column on its Publishing Tipswebsite and in Malahat lite. Follow it in order to learn how to improve your professional skills, from the writing of cover letters, to what house style means, to choosing a rhyming dictionary, to having an author photo (as opposed to a selfie) shot. If you have a Publishing Tip you’d like to share, email The Malahat Review at malahat@uvic.ca, with “Publishing Tip Idea” in the subject line. Tips should be 750 words or less. If yours is accepted, you will be paid an honorarium of $50.

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