Writing a Book Review (Or: What the Book Review Genre *Is* and–More Importantly–What it is *Not*)

For many early-stage career scholars, especially graduate students, book reviews are among the earliest publication opportunities presented–and if we are being honest, as with teaching Freshman Composition and other introductory-level courses, this practice is probably deeply backwards because in both cases, experience and the knowledge acquired during one’s career are significant factors in how successfully and effectively one is able to engage with the task at hand. This is not to say that a new teacher or scholar can’t successfully teach composition and Intro to Literature, or write a book review–a patently false notion–but rather, that because of the stakes involved for those for whom you are working, these are deceptively tough spaces from which to begin constructing your identity as teacher or scholar.

Book reviews are currently on my mind, as I’ve recently completed two of my own and also been appointed the Co-Book Reviews editor for Medieval Feminist Forum, A Journal of Gender and Sexuality. This blog entry, inspired by recent discussions among some of my colleagues following a set of poorly-executed book reviews, discusses the book review as a genre, highlights the tripartite stakes of the book review–for you, as its author, for the author of the reviewed book, and for the review’s readership–and shares some things to consider as you undertake this (often very public) act of professional service, including a list of expressions and statements to avoid using.

What a Book Review *Is*

In its most basic sense, the book review is a brief critical discussion of a book, written by a reader with knowledge of the book’s subject matter, to evaluate and summarize the book’s contents, scholarly importance, and intellectual value for the greater readership. It is an important–really, an essential–service to scholarship, because (as I’ve already established in earlier posts on this blog) you simply cannot read *everything* that is published and related to your research. Book reviews should be written in such a way that their readers can skim the review and know from its contents whether or not they need to read the full book. The reviewer should merely situate the book in the critical discussion it forms a part of, with impartial critical summary of its contents and value. Good book reviews perform this work within an average of 1,000 words, with a modicum of personal sentiment or opinion involved.

So, as a basic format: Introduce the book generally in 1-2 sentences, including author’s credentials; summarize its argument (one paragraph, with minimal quotes as needed), summarize its contents in a paragraph or so; describe how it compares to other recent books in the field–style, scope, methodology, what makes it different, important, significant, and so forth–in no more than two paragraphs, provide a list of the kinds of readers who will find the book most useful and why (1-2 sentences), and end with a brief summative declaration of your overall reception of the book as a scholar (1-2 sentences). The End.

What a Book Review is *Not*

In general, you should save your personal opinion and taste (“well I liked it, so I give it three stars, really interesting! But it could have used a tad more zip in the prose style….”) for your Goodreads review. You have likely been selected to complete the book review in large part thanks to your interest and/or expertise in the subject matter, but once that selection has been made, the task turns from being interested in it on a personal level, to writing about it on a professional level. The opinions you offer need to be based on the book, itself, not on your reaction to it–that is, on its critical usefulness and importance, rather than on whether you enjoyed it, or liked it, or thought it was interesting–and every  evaluative statement included in a book review needs to be supported with a concrete critical reason for it. This shift to critical disinterest is an important one to make mentally.

Corollary to not using it as a personal journaling space for what you liked and didn’t like about a given book, the book review is not a full-on attack on the authority, expertise, writing style, or any other aspect of the author. It is fine, and important, to note any real deficiencies or concerns with the material in the book–if there is factually incorrect information, for example, or if the author has not engaged with scholarship that genuinely should have been consulted for the book’s subject matter (that is, if the scholar is writing about, say, Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, but does not cite or discuss Mauss’s work) , or if there is a genuine omission in or scholarly concern with an argument. But if  you simply disagree with the author, or if the author’s thesis contradicts something you are publishing or hope to publish, or if you think the author should have written x, instead of y or z–the book review is not the appropriate venue to address these concerns. You are evaluating the book in front of you–not the book you think the author should have written, and not the book in relation to your own work.

Some scholars regard the book review as a gatekeeping activity, and use it as an opportunity to place their stamp of approval (or not) on a given work of scholarship and/or the scholar who produced it. Throughout the twentieth century, famously scathing book reviews were routinely published. Certain scholars took one another to task, sometimes deservedly so and sometimes over the slightest of concerns (and sometimes, in the most extreme cases, over things not even related to the book currently under review), engaging in heated rivalries and demonstrating their academic prowess in a one-upmanship game that essentially became a journal-sanctioned form of public flyting. Regretably, there are still reviewers who seem to believe that the best review is the one that rips a book and its author to shreds (although fortunately, there are fewer book reviews editors allowing such reviews to make it into print). This is an abuse of the book review genre, and participating in such behavior does not make you appear to be a better scholar (and, in fact, can have negative consequences for you, as I note below).

The Stakes of the Book Review

For you, if you are a graduate student or an early-stage scholar writing a book review, this is often among your first steps into professional publishing. Being asked to review a book is a sign that your advisor, or a journal editor you have met, feels you have demonstrated enough authority on a subject to be taken as someone who can expertly evaluate a scholarly study of that subject–how exciting! If you write a good, balanced review, chances are good you’ll be asked to review again. If your review is overly dismissive or critical and the tone arrogant, or if your review omits key information about the book or demonstrates a lack of understanding of the book’s subject or argument–well, that’s in printed circulation for all to read. Remember, every field is smaller than you think it is. One of the pitfalls of being a graduate student or early-stage scholar asked to do a book review is that if you negatively review a senior scholar’s work, it’s going to be noticed and discussed, if by no one else than that senior scholar. There can be serious and lasting consequences, particularly when those are the scholars most likely to be sitting on editorial boards for journals and book series. Although seemingly minor in comparison to the article or monograph, then, it’s important to remember that the book review is a publication that, for better or worse, will help to shape where you sit in your overall field–either positively, or negatively. So the stakes are pretty high, and this is one reason we’re counseled not to do too many book reviews as junior scholars–it’s more important and beneficial to be known for our own work, than for how we have evaluated the work of others. We’re also typically more sensitive to how we write about others’ work when we’ve been through peer review as authors, ourselves. And we need to be–because…..

For the Book’s Author, the stakes of every published review are enormous, and you have got to be aware of and sensitive to that fact or you should simply not do book reviews. Scholars who have not yet obtained a full-time position are often depending on the reception of that first book to secure one; scholars on the tenure track rely on the book for tenure and promotion, or promotion from Associate to Full Professor. Well-received books pave the way for myriad professional awards and honors. Poorly evaluated books can halt or even end a career. For you, this may be “just a book review,” “just a line on your CV”–but for the author, this is the part of the scholarly process over which one holds least control, yet which has in some cases the most profound effect on a career. What you write not only impacts the author’s career, it can also influence how and what other scholars read, because…..

For the Review’s Readership, the stakes are still moderate. Although they are not directly impacted by what you have written in the way that the book’s author will be, your readers are influenced by it in terms of whether and how to read a given book. Remember, I’ve called this work of book reviewing “academic service” and it is. As I mentioned earlier, no one can read all of the books and articles that are published in any given year, much less across the span of several years. Scholars rely on book reviews as a sort of “clearinghouse of new ideas” and typically skim and scan the reviews section of every new journal issue to keep an eye out for things they need to read. If your review is not succinct, comprehensive, and accurate–if, for instance, you are too prolix or your prose is too dense and people can’t easily skim your review, or if a book deals with a particular subject you neglect to mention, or if the author makes an argument you have misconstrued–it’s not helpful in this kind of work. A poorly written review can lead to a book’s not being consulted when, in fact, it should be, which in turn affects scholarship in a bigger way.

So, the best way to go about this work of reviewing is to remember that it’s never “just a book review” –there are stakes for everyone involved. You’re engaging in an act of scholarly service that has real consequence; take that responsibility to heart and perform it ethically, or not at all.

Things To Consider When Writing a Book Review

Before you get started: It’s hard to learn the skill of being critical without being negatively critical. While many graduate students write reviews as part of their coursework, the nature of those reviews-as-assignment is to teach you how to locate and evaluate sources, and we are often trained to spot the issues with a given critical text moreso than to evaluate the whole. We are also writing for a professor’s approval, so dependent upon the professor in question, we may be trained to be more or less eagle-eyed in our criticism, or we may misunderstand the genre because of what we think the professor is asking for rather than what is actually required. Unlearning any such errors in thinking about the book review is a key step towards writing them ourselves. The best way to unlearn errors in thinking about the book review, is to read good ones and take note of how they’re structured. Don’t write a book review until you have read enough of them to know what a good one looks like.

Beyond that, there are some other things that as an early-stage scholar you should think about in terms of writing book reviews:

    1. If you know the person who wrote the book, you should probably avoid reviewing it. Don’t begin your publishing career critically evaluating the scholarship of people you are friendly with. Even if it is a good review, there’s going to be some strangeness there (particularly if you are still a graduate student and the other person is a professor already) and if it’s not a good review, it can hinder collegiality and collaboration  (remember again, the world of academia is small–the people you review may later be outside readers for your own work, or on editorial boards, or in charge of conferences and speaker series, or tenure file reviewers–you don’t need a book review on your CV badly enough to damage those relationships).
    2. If you are not genuinely engaged with a particular subject in ongoing critical and scholarly fashion–it’s not a subject you have personally researched and/or published on and/or taught–don’t agree to review a book on it. Being “interested” in a subject isn’t a good reason to do a book review, it’s a good reason to go to the library and check the book out. You should only agree to write a review because you are qualified to evaluate the book’s critical value and importance, never because you have wanted to but not yet had the chance to read up on a particular subject. Your opinion on a book in a field you have not engaged with yet is not helpful to the people who are actively researching in that field, and won’t be helpful to the book’s author. It’s your responsibility to be ethical and only select books you’re qualified to review.
    3. If you receive the book and find that you cannot review it fairly, or write anything positive about it, return the book and decline to write the review. This is completely acceptable as long as you don’t have to do it too often, and book editors, authors, and readers, alike, (and, frankly, your Future Self as well) would prefer that you decline to review it than that you excoriate it in print. If your book review is not helpful to the author and the reader, then it’s not a good review, period. A good rule of thumb here is: don’t publish anything you would be embarrassed to discuss publicly with the people involved. Better yet: never write anything about someone else’s work that you would not be okay with hearing about your own scholarship.
    4. If you receive a review copy and find that you are too busy to review it in timely fashion, return the book and decline the review. This one is an ongoing issue for book review editors–they receive books to be reviewed, send out a list of those books, compile a list of scholars who show interest in reviewing the book–sometimes in the case of a popular or highly-regarded author, many scholars wanting the same one–decide who’s reviewing each book, and send the books accordingly. The typical turnaround time for a book review is 3 months. After this point, book reviews editors may send out reminders. Some scholars sit on books for up to a year or more. Some scholars never actually get around to reviewing the book. While book reviews editors should at some point request the return of the book so it can be reassigned to someone who will complete the review, by that point the book may also now be an older publication, and the review is less helpful to the author and readership. Many scholars agree to do them because the great perk of the book review is that you get to keep the book. But, if you don’t then complete the review in timely fashion, you are engaging in an unethical practice that is detrimental to the field. Eventually, you’ll stop being asked to review books. [Caveat: sometimes a review winds up lost in the shuffle of your workload and/or personal life struggles such as illness; things happen. We all go through rough patches. Do your best in those situations to keep in contact with your book review editor and let them know what’s going on, rather than sticking your head in the sand and just hoping they don’t notice. When those situations become your norm rather than an exception, you should stop offering to review books until you can do so in timely fashion.]
    5. Make sure that you follow the format provided to you by the book reviews editor when you are drafting your review. It’s your responsibility to adhere to editorial guidelines, and although they rarely do so, the book reviews editor does have the discretionary right to reject your review on the grounds that it does not follow those guidelines. Book reviews editors–especially those working for major field publications–routinely field 30-100 or more titles per year, and most are professors with their own workload in addition to this position. It’s a big job to keep track of all of those books, then collect and edit all of the reviews. The least you can do is your part to make that task easier by just following directions. If you make their job easier by doing your part correctly, book review editors are likely to return to you with requests to complete reviews because they know they can depend on you.

Things You Should Avoid Writing in a Book Review

You can be critical without being negative, dismissive, or downright savage, and if you can’t, don’t write book reviews. Here are some expressions and turns of phrase that are immediate signals that you either don’t understand the genre, are engaging unethically in the genre, are centering and positioning yourself rather than the book you are reviewing, or are being unnecessarily vicious in your review. They should generally not appear in a scholarly book review. Avoid, avoid, avoid. If you must say something along the lines of these comments, at least phrase them constructively, as a means of helping to improve the work, rather than censoriously.

In my opinion……

I think/ believe/ feel……

in my experience…..

In my work I…. as opposed to this author I’m reviewing, who…..

My scholarship shows that this author is wrong because…..

The author fails to understand that…..

It’s clear the author doesn’t know (hasn’t read, etc)…..

If the author had read X, they would know…..

The author should read/ needs to read….

The author should cite/ needs to cite.….

X is a superior work to the present one…….

Readers will find the present book inferior to [earlier work]…..

The argument is patently false [because I say so] ….

The argument is fatally flawed [because I say so] ….

There is no merit to this argument…..

The argument should be/ would be better if…..

It’s a shame/ regrettable that the author did not…..

If only the author had…..

One wishes the author had/would…..

I do not recommend this book to anyone…..

I will certainly not be using this book in my own classes…..

This book needs serious revision to be taken seriously.….

The glaring omission of [x, y, z] renders this book insignificant……

One wishes the author had not published this book….

One wishes the editors had paid more attention during the publishing process…..

This book has little/ no critical importance……

This book has little/no value…..

There is nothing worth considering in this book…..

There is no reason for this book to exist……

Further Reading

I hope this has been a helpful discussion of the book review, and that it is clear that I take the book review seriously as a genre, and the book reviewer seriously as someone performing an important and consequential act of public service to the profession.

Here are some other web resources to consult as you begin writing book reviews (Please note I am only providing these as resources and do not endorse any of them personally):

An essay on writing academic book reviews at Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/03/27/essay-writing-academic-book-reviews

A blog post by Stephanie Wright on “Writing Book Reviews During Your PhD: Is Honesty the Best Policy?” http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/pubs-and-publications/2016/05/13/writing-book-reviews-phd-honesty-best-policy/

Thesis Whisperer, “Book review: Writing For Peer-Reviewed Journals”: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2015/03/11/book-review-writing-for-peer-reviewed-journals/

A Scribendi article on “Writing Negative Book Reviews”: https://www.scribendi.com/advice/book_reviews.en.html

Purdue OWL guide to writing a book review: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/704/1/

Book review.jpg


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in Academia, New Faculty Experiences, Research and Scholarship, Uncategorized, writing in graduate school and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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