BOOK REVIEWING is a beautiful game that can quickly lead to bankruptcy. It’s a time-is-money kind of a problem: to review a book you have to read it, reading books takes time, and at normal speed reviewing books is an occupation that attracts well below the national minimum wage. So the question of the day is, how to speed up? How can you speed up not just reading, and writing, but also selecting books for review from the thousands on offer? How can you get really good at judging a book by its cover?
by Richard Walker
But first, let me recommend the practice if not the business of reviewing a new book. From the moment the jiffy bag thuds down on to the mat, to the final full stop, I love it. There is nothing like living with the immediate need to write a thousand words to put your reading mind on maximum alert. As I get older I find myself reading more lazily, more impatiently, more ready to skip a dull paragraph, or a page, or just not finish the book. Reviewing cures that: it elevates your encounter with the text, and it puts you in a kind of conversation with the author (and you can be pretty damn sure that the author is going to read what you have written, never mind his Nobel prize).
Where there is love, there is usually a dash of hate too. Reviewing a book means reading quickly. Reading quickly – much quicker than you would choose to read, but unable to break off – is mental torture. That is why Orwell called reviewing ‘a thankless, irritating and exhausting job’.
So, how best to speed up? Several ways. First, there is reading the book. Or sometimes books, because reviews are often of two or even more books bracketed together. The rule here is: don’t read for reading pleasure. Read for the review (which is a different kind of pleasure). You don’t have time to savour. If the book is really worth it, you can do that later (somehow, though, it never happens).
Whatever else you do, you must stay on combative terms with your book. You can’t afford to relax, and you can’t afford to get friendly with the author. You go in fists up, ready for a right old barney. This is one reason why it is not a good idea to review a book by a friend, however distant. Yes, you can do an objective review – although most likely you will be even more critical than you need to be. But no, your friendship will not be the same afterwards.
That is a reminder of the unusual position of the literary reviewer. You do have the power to alter a career – not to destroy it, not to make it, but to nudge it in a direction. The power is disproportionate. You might be a lot younger than the author, you might be a lot less talented, you might be quite unable to match the author’s ability to produce publishable books, but you do have the space and the platform to say what gives. You are as potent as a child soldier at a checkpoint. Cut down on the arbitrary executions if you can.
Then you have the writing of the review. Giving advice on how to write, including on how to write faster, is pretty well useless. So here is my useless advice. Take notes as you read the book (the sheet of PR that publishers send out with every review copy usually has just enough white space on it to pencil in your notes). Then sit down and write the review without once looking at those notes. You will find that everything you needed to remember about the book is already there in your memory. If you can’t remember it, then forget it.
So visualize the books editor’s office, while the editor is out, perhaps at an important party. Yes, it’s a tiny office – much smaller than the business editor’s office, much much smaller than the celebrity editor’s office. But there is room for a table, and the table is heaving with books. Every one of those books has been carefully packaged up by a publishing house, with a piece of marketing blurb that nobody will ever take seriously but nevertheless has been sweated over, because it is still the case that publishers really, really want to get published reviews. Not reviews on Amazon, not reviews on blogs, not reviews on internet forums, but reviews in print. There are over 10,000 books published every month in the UK (according to the Federation of European Publishers), and fewer than 1% attract serious reviews in national publications. Publishers want those reviews. They can’t put Amazon comments on the paperback edition. They want to see print. They want to be in with the one-percenters.
Now imagine the reviewer at work. There are a hundred books on the table, and only one or two are going to get recommended to the editor for review. How do you select – do you do it by reading the books? Or bits of the books? Of course you don’t. You do it by applying some rules, rules which are tried, and tested, and brutal.
First, no coffee table books. Coffee table books don’t get reviewed. And coffee-table-like books don’t get reviewed. They sell fantastically, but Nigella Lawson’s Christmas Cake Bible is never going to attract a review. On practical grounds these are the books that are the easiest to weed out, simply because they are usually oversized (there is a mild sort of disgrace attached to reviewing a very large book, or a very small one come to that). So off they go on to another table, which is the table for books that anyone in the office is allowed to take home and keep. In general, books with photographs don’t attract reviews either – exhibition catalogues, or ‘lavishly illustrated’ travel books, or photographic explorations of place or idea, even when produced by prize-winning authors, they are all beyond the reviewing pale. This is not least because they invariably break another rule, which is that they cost too much: books over £25 somehow lose their seriousness, which disqualifies them. Books over a certain higher price – about £55 – start to get serious again, but it is the wrong kind of serious, the academic or special interest niche, and they only get reviewed in special interest niche journals.
Now the big books and the photo books have gone, time to look at the titles. Non-fiction is your easiest job here. First, discard anything academic masquerading as general interest. So, anything with ‘narratives’ in the title goes; so does ‘sexuality’, ‘transforming’, ‘Hegel’, and so on. Then you might move on to dispose of titles containing words like ‘inspirational’, ‘gendered’, ‘transition’, ‘iconic’ … well, you can make your own extensive lists. Normally a title of more than about eight words is a no-no (it suggests that the author has never really decided what the book is about). And not so long ago any title with a colon in it was a dead giveaway, but that rule no longer works. If I search today on Amazon for hardback books, there are 13 books with colons in the title out of the first 16 results. They are not all as implacably dreary as The Cup of Destiny: Read Your Future with a Cup of Tea or You Are One Amazing Lady: Special Thoughts to Share with a Truly Wonderful Woman (both out soon, by the way) but we have lost the war against the colon. We have been colonized.
Sifting fiction is tougher. With writers that you already know you probably also know whether you want to spend more time with them, but what the reviewer really wants is a new name who turns out to be a knockout. So what does the title tell you? The best rule is this: a really cracking title, immediately memorable, of the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that kind, usually means the book will be a disappointment. Think, Hangover Square.
Actually there are not so many great titles in great fiction. Pride and Prejudice for example is not what you would call a buy-me kind of title; it does not conjure mystery, and it promises little, which just makes the payoff all the greater. Sci-Fi on the other hand is oozing with title talent. Philip K Dick still stands as the greatest master of the Sci-Fi title – with books like The Unteleported Man, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, A Scanner Darkly, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, and my own favourite, Beyond Lies the Wub. The very brilliance of the titles guarantees disappointment (once you get beyond the first page you quickly learn that Phillip K Dick, despite his extraordinarily original talent, had a near total absence of literary skill). In a characteristic inversion, Dick himself believed that he was a good writer but that his titles were weak.
Brilliant titling is a knack, but good titling is a subtle art. I think what you should be looking for when judging a book by its cover is a title that is tantalisingly incomplete, something that deliberately gives ambiguous directions, something that demands explication and will go on doing so as you read. Mr Sammler’s Planet. Great Expectations. On the Eve. Persuasion.
Finally, you have to be ready to abandon all your rules. For example, on my bedside table I’ve got a short but unreviewable academic treatise on early English poetry that I must have read 20 times. I have an illustrated exhibition catalogue of American black folk art that was sent in for review thirty years ago – no chance, pal – that is as beautiful and powerful a book as I have ever read. And I would have guessed that a book called Cloud Atlas would be good, and that We Need to Talk about Kevin would be terrible. But you can’t win them all.