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Friday, July 22, 2011 1:30 pm
The Three (or Possibly Four) Rules of Book Reviewing
Posted by: Keir Graff

Robert Pinsky had a great piece in Slate yesterday about a literary hatchet job . . . from 1818. The lessons we can take from it, however, are timeless. In “How Not to Write a Book Review,” Pinksy enumerates the three rules of book reviewing:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Seem overly simplified to you? I’m with Pinsky, who writes that “To sneer at it as obvious would be a mistake.” Nearly all book reviewers execute the first rule and then jump straight to their critique of the book. But to ignore the author’s intention—and to criticize the author’s work while ignoring that intention—is to do an injustice to both the author and his potential readers. To cite but one obvious example, it’s unfair to review a book as a work of literary fiction if the author intended a light entertainment.

These rules can be helpful for reviewers who are reviewing books they wouldn’t normally choose to read. And I might suggest a fourth rule, too:

4. The reviewer must remember that he is writing not for himself or the people he wants to impress but for the people the writer is hoping to reach.

Do I follow these rules? I try to. Do I fail? Sometimes.

3 Responses to “The Three (or Possibly Four) Rules of Book Reviewing”
  1. E.J. Patten Says:

    Good rules. My debut got a horrible review from Kirkus a few weeks ago. It didn’t bother me so much that the reviewer didn’t like my book…okay, I lie; it DID bother me. But what bothered me even more was that the review was sloppy and got several details wrong, confusing names of creatures with names of traps, and such. Worst of all, it actually contained a major spoiler!

    Rule #5 – don’t put spoilers in reviews!

  2. Jendy Murphy Says:

    I love Robert Pinsky’s pithy and succinct rules. I am not sure I entirely agree with Keir Graff’s rule #4, though. The audience the author is trying to reach is not necessarily the same as the people who make selection choices, such as children’s librarians or booksellers. Which leads me to also disagree with E.J.Patten. As a selector, sometimes I NEED to know how the story is going to turn out!

  3. Book Blog – Likely Stories, from Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Ten Commandments of Book Reviewing and a Guide to Hatchet Jobs Says:

    [...] rules or guidelines for doing the job. Last year, Robert Pinsky did an admirable job of reducing the rules to three; I added one of my own but, in retrospect, I might amend [...]


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