What makes a good book review?
There’s a lot of leeway in a book review, a lot of room to do interesting and fun things, but a really good book review answers a fundamental question: Is this a book I want to read? And if it’s not, is this a book I find interesting to read about? We all know that not everybody reads a book review with the intention of purchasing every book that gets a positive mention; we like to know even about books that we have no intention of reading. It’s nice to be entertained and informed. What makes the review live up to that, often, are a few basic things: What is the book about? There’s that small book-report element. Is it any good, and what is good about it? Critical judgment is essential. I really don’t like it when I get to the end of a book review and I need to ask the reviewer: “So. Did you like it?” We shouldn’t be mystified on that point. You know, a lot of people don’t enjoy being critical, but criticism serves a function. You’re telling readers, “Look, this part of it is not great. Maybe this book that’s getting all this attention isn’t all that, and here’s why.” Maybe there are errors in it. Maybe the author is leaving something out. And the reader should know that. On the flip side, I think it’s great for a positive book review to convey a sense of enthusiasm and excitement, and to let the reader know why this book is the one to read. If you had asked people before Wolf Hall came out, for example, whether they would be interested in reading about Thomas Cromwell, most of them would have said no. But if in your review you conveyed to them what Hilary Mantel does in this book—the lushness of the writing, the very not-stodgy way she approaches historical fiction—then you’re getting people interested in it. I also think it’s important to quote from the book, to give us a sense of what the writing is like. You know, one person’s lyrical is another person’s excruciating. You can call someone’s writing “Hemingwayesque,” but unless you quote from it, it’s hard to know whether it’s Hemingwayesque in a good way or a terrible way.
Are there new directions you want to take the NYTBR in, any new features or emphases you can tell us about?Yes and yes and yes. There will be new directions, new features, new emphases. But I don’t want to go into the specifics here. I think it’s fun to open up the paper on Sunday and come across a surprise.
Some authors have criticized book review sections, and the NYTBR in particular, for what they see as a failure to pay adequate attention to women authors and writers of commercial and genre fiction. They also feel there aren’t enough women reviewers.
I don’t know, maybe in two years I’ll be criticized for not having enough men in the Book Review! I think, you know, no matter what we do, we’re never going to please everyone, mainly because we have such limited real estate. I could come under attack from the poets, or the horror fiction writers, or, heaven forbid, the children’s book authors. It’s just an impossible situation, because everybody wants more reviews of the kind of books they like. I do think there’s room for improvement in terms of our coverage of books by women and stories that are, I think, often wrongly deemed “women’s fiction.” And I certainly think there are a lot of really smart women critics out there whom I’d like to continue to use, and some I’d like to bring in. I also think it’s important to cover the world of books where our readers are. It’s sort of become a mantra of many editors that they cover the high and the low, but I think that often translates into covering the high and the hip. I do think there are smart ways to cover every aspect of the book world, whether it’s a genre or something more quote-unquote literary.
I imagine that readers of Poets & Writers would probably say to you, if they had an opportunity, “Please don’t reduce coverage of literary fiction and poetry.” They might fear that you’ll devote more space to reviewing books that aren’t as in need of review attention as more literary work that you won’t find in, say, an airport bookstall.
Oh, I know. That’s part of the pressure you referred to earlier. As I say, you can’t please everybody, and certainly not in any given issue. So you have to strive for balance overall, and you have to give the reader something in every issue that’s surprising. You know, “Look, it’s this person reviewing that book—isn’t that interesting?”
Are you going to have time and energy at this point to continue to write books yourself?
Sam Tanenhaus was, I think, superhuman, in that he wrote a book or two while he was in this job. But I don’t have any plans right now to write another book. I’m planning to focus on the Review. Plenty of work to be done right here.
If you had the opportunity to say something to the readers of Poets & Writers Magazine—and you do, right now—what would it be?
I would say that I hope they take some comfort in the fact that I’ve been in their position as an author myself. And I think that’s important. Nearly every writer writes a book with a great amount of attention and intention and hopes and dreams. Even if you only write one book, that’s one of your great achievements in life. And it’s important to take that effort seriously, and to recognize that a book may have taken ten years of a writer’s life, that the writer has put their heart and soul into it. And it behooves us, as book-review editors, to treat those books with the care and attention they deserve, and to give the writer that respect. That’s the least we can do.
Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine whose work also appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.