Book reviewing can earn plaudits

Book reviewing has its responsibilities. The reviewer is often the first person to read a book who has no vested interest in it – not being the writer’s friend or family, their publisher or agent, nor the writer supplying a dust-jacket puff.

They have to describe the work for people who have not yet seen it. Having read the book and come to a conclusion about what it is about – not always straightforward – the reviewer has to convey something of the experience, answering a question along the lines of ‘What’s the new Ian McEwan like?”

Unless you have been asked for a 3,000-word essay by the TLS, aim for something short, informative and not too self-conscious. Suit the review to the book. It is no good briskly summarising a nostalgic childhood memoir as though it were a hardboiled thriller, for example, or treating a comic novel reverently as a work of modernist literature.

Some idea of the aims of the author should be suggested (often they are helpfully given in a foreword) and an assessment given of whether or not these have been fulfilled. Pay attention to the basic elements.

Many reviewers make the mistake of giving a sophisticated exegesis on what they thought the work’s meaning was, while forgetting to mention setting, character, or plot. Characters’ names are a help in outlining the story – even though the unnamed narrator, the bane of the reviewer’s life, is still fashionable.

After setting, style: say how a work is written, not just well or badly, but if it is plainly, or ambitiously, or poetically done. Quotations are useful when discussing style, but make sure that they don’t sound unappealing – jokes often sound unfunny, and fancy metaphors fall flat, when taken out of context. A quotation of 25 words gives more of an idea of texture than a few scattered words in quotation marks.

Don’t try to do too much. In a short review you can probably only get over three points, so don’t waste them. Don’t waste space saying the author’s previous book was better, or that this is not as good as another similar work.

Don’t automatically compare an autobiographical novel with a teenage narrator to Catcher in the Rye unless it really does resemble it; don’t describe prose as Beckettian, simply because it is bleak and sparely written, or Amisian because it is not.

Confidence in a reviewer’s judgement comes from lucid exposition rather than the casual obtrusion of opinion. Asserting ‘I loved this’or ‘I couldn’t put it down”, or ‘I laughed out loud on the Tube”, doesn’t tell us very much. And hyperbolic adjectives – superb, beautifully written, unbearably moving – are similarly unenlightening. Don’t be rude or sarcastic. Never say a book is good when you did not think it was – and never pronounce on a book you haven’t read.

You will often hear the Sibelius statement approvingly quoted. But it is simply not true – in London, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf are so honoured. It is worthwhile, if very badly paid.

Lindsay Duguid is fiction editor of the TLS

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