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The Subtle Art of the Book Review

By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2011 Bocas Lit fest blogger


Has book reviewing been reduced (or distilled, if you like) to a simple ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’? What’s the difference between a tenured book critic and a budding review blogger — whose opinion is more valid? What is a book review, anyway, and how do you go about writing one?

On Thursday, the seminar room on the ground floor of the National Library was comfortably crowded with book enthusiasts whose pursuits and professional backgrounds ran the gamut. Literary aficionados, novice reviewers, authors who have both reviewed and been subject to the critic’s pen — all were engaged. As a humble book review blogger with no claim to professional training in the art of the review (unless a voracious and insatiable appetite for both reading and writing counts), I was thrilled to witness and share in the wide range of participation.


Listening to the workshop moderators, Maya Jaggi and Nicholas Laughlin, felt infinitely more like hearing an amiable conversation between two talented, committed reviewers, than enduring a pontification on ‘the right way to be a lit. critic’. That latter notion was dispelled post-haste by both panelists, who affirmed that there was no such thing as a ‘review formula’ by which we could chart a successful critique. No colour-by-number schemes for the perfect review were on offer, but illuminating concerns (and even a valuable trade secret or two!) were freely shared, with workshop participants chiming in intermittently to offer concerns and pose questions as they arose. Jaggi, British cultural journalist and prolific UK Guardian book reviewer, urged that we ought never forget the initial feeling we have while reading a book, so that the honesty of that informs subsequent reviewing, in genuine ways. Laughlin, editor of The Caribbean Review of Books, encouraged both hopeful and veteran reviewers to avoid ‘gratuitous cruelty’, adding that perhaps the best statement one can make on a horrendous book is simply not to review it at all.
Other gems of wisdom and gifts of insight at the table included:

  • It is not necessarily so valid to sparsely state that we either ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ a book; there is far more merit in contextualizing these feelings with a wealth of personal analysis and close reference to the book itself.
  • Bearing this in mind, sharing direct quotations from the reviewed title is essential — surely the readers of your piece deserve a taste of the writer’s work?
  • Do not be afraid to cultivate your unique writing style as you review. Remember, people will enjoy your reviews, not simply based on what you say, but also on the manner in which you say it.
  • Read widely. Read deeply. Read a writer’s entire oeuvre, if you can. Read writers who influence the writers you admire. Reading in this way enriches your reviews, underscores their effectiveness, and makes it easier to recommend similar (or disparate) titles, based on your current review.

The Tweet-length version of these thoughts? Anyone, with enough passion for the subtle art of the review, can immerse themselves in this work. Surely the varied attendance at this, one of the two workshops conducted on the first day of full Bocas festivities, speaks volumes to that — and that deserves a grand ‘thumbs up’.