On Reviewing Books: A Few Guiding Principles

BookReview

I’ve written a lot of book reviews and I’ve read a lot of them too. Book reviews are an important way of engaging with and serving the larger literary community. They are a way of building contacts and establishing your authority. If you are a writer and haven’t yet written a book review, you will doubtless be approached to do so before long.

Book reviews can be tricky for all kinds of reasons. Here are a few guiding principles I’ve come up with to help those just starting out:

1) First and most obvious task: give the reader a sense of what this book is about. The reader needs a summary and portrait of what this object you have engaged with looks like. This needs to be done with a light hand and, as far as possible, with zippy and precise language: quote a bit, but not too much. Usually three good quotes total are enough for a 1200-word review.

A good book reviewer tries to see what an author is striving with for a text, so in your summary, you might want to suggest what that is. This establishes that you’ve spent enough time with the book to talk about it fairly and that you’ve thought of it as a whole. It’s a good idea not only to discuss argument (if you’re reviewing this kind of nonfiction) or plot, but also style, structure, the use of dialogue, or anything else that seems integral and important to the text.

Do not waste time critiquing cover images or drawing attention to elements like an author’s photo, unless you’re trying to make a kind and generous joke. Even so, this is risky, and you must assume that risk of you go that route. Any negative attention to details like these makes a reviewer seem petty, lazy, and unaware of how publishing works (i.e., that writers often have no say on issues like cover images).

Of course, a summary is not a review. Your reader wants to know whether she should read this book. How does it succeed? Where does it falter? What other books does it dialogue with? These elements come next.

2) Establish your credentials as a reviewer, but by doing what you do well; not by telling your reader why they should be impressed with you. This is tricky and you need to be subtle. You do not want to pull out your PhD credentials or your many publishing credits. You must not make the review about you or how smart you are. A book review is not an academic paper – we don’t need to see you apply Deleuze and Guattari or offer up a Freudian interpretation of the text. That’s not establishing your credentials. That’s showing off.

You establish your credentials as a reviewer by displaying thoughtfulness. You display thoughtfulness by taking a writer’s work seriously, by asking good questions and by demonstrating an understanding of the context in which this book operates. You may, for example, want to compare it, though using a light touch, with other titles. Again: this is not an opportunity to show off how well-read you are.

3) A book review should be about the book in question. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised. One sure sign of an ungenerous review is when a review ceases to be about the book and becomes a gleeful takedown of an author. It’s really easy to write a mean-spirited review: that’s why the Internet is full of trolls. It’s far more difficult to engage intelligently with a text, especially one that a reviewer might find challenging, for whatever reason.

4) Evaluate the book fairly for what it is. This is related to the idea of trying to see what an author is trying to do. Evaluate the book for what it is, not for what you wish it were. An all too common sin, in my opinion, is criticizing a book for not being the book the reviewer would have written (yet another way of making a review about the reviewer).

Beware of reviewing books according to intellectually dubious criteria. A common example is outlined in an essay by Charles Baxter called  “Owl Criticism.” This line of reviewing goes something like this: This book is about owls. I don’t like owls. Therefore this is a bad book. If you can’t review a book about owls fairly, don’t agree to write the review.

5) Engage the reader on a writerly level. You are a writer, so use your skills. Reviews can be entertaining and smart. They need not be fawning: you may write a critical review, but do so using your full intellect, your linguistic talents, and a spirit of inquiry.

6) This one’s counter-intuitive, but I find it helpful in getting myself out of jams when writing book reviews: admit your blind spots & shortcomings, if only to yourself. This will help you be both more generous and more rigorous. It will also help you avoid the pitfall of writing “Owl Criticism.”

You may find yourself reviewing a book you have no interest in reading. This has happened to me on more than one occasion. Most recently, I agreed to review a book of short stories (I’m a writer of creative nonfiction currently completely consumed by questions about her genre – what was I thinking?…) When this happens, I ask myself: how are my own shortcomings blinding me? Is it possible that this book of short fictions has something to offer a person who loves the form? How has this book succeeded in ways that I’ve perhaps been unwilling to entertain because of my generic preferences? What has the experience of contemplating this book nonetheless taught me about reading or writing? What kind of reader would find this book useful and on what grounds might I be able to recommend it? Finally, what shortcomings would the ideal reader for this book nevertheless discover?

If you’ve asked enough questions of yourself as well as the book you’ve been charged with reviewing and the text still comes up short on redeeming qualities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to pan it. But here’s what I said to my students on this issue: Just remember that one day, your book too – if you are very lucky – will be reviewed by peers, and karma, as they say, can be a bitch.

How we engage with each other’s work sets a tone for our literary culture. If we want our work to be read with care and attention, then perhaps the best argument for such behavior is to read the work of others in the same way.

Happy reviewing. 

[Photo: litherland; illustration by Ji Lee for the NYT Book Review]

 

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Joy Castro

Castro small headshot

Joy Castro, ed. Family Trouble. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Joy Castro http://www.joycastro.com is the author of the memoir The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013). Her essay collection Island of Bones (U of Nebraska, 2012) is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Brevity, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. An associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies.

Essays by twenty-five memoirists explore the fraught territory of family history, analyzing the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offering practical strategies for navigating this tricky but necessary material. A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers who want to narrate their own versions of the truth while still acknowledging family boundaries.

The 25 distinguished, award-winning memoirists who contributed to Family Trouble come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They include college and university educators, many of whom have published craft texts.

The contributors, with links to their author websites, are listed here: http://www.joycastro.com/FamilyTrouble.htm.

Family Trouble cover

Julija Šukys: Joy, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss your recent edited anthology, Family Trouble. I myself am working on a project that tells the story of my family’s history, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a conversation with you about it here and with the authors whose works you gathered via the pages of your book.

Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your writing background, and how did you come to want to put together this collection about the challenges of writing about family? How did you find the contributors to this book, who are many and varied?

Joy Castro: First of all, thank you so much for your interest in this book. I’m grateful. I hope Family Trouble will help many writers, aspiring writers, and teachers of writing as they think through these tricky issues.

I’ve published two books of memoir, The Truth Book (2005) and Island of Bones (2012), both from University of Nebraska Press, which also brought out Family Trouble. I’m also a writer of literary thrillers: Hell or High Water (2012) and Nearer Home, both set in New Orleans and both from St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve been optioned for film or television. I publish essays, short fiction, and poetry. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in the graduate program.

The idea for this particular collection began to grow when I was touring with The Truth Book. After I read, audiences always wanted to know how my family felt about the revelations it contained. That surprised me. I knew how carefully I’d thought through those issues of respect, privacy, and artistic license, but I hadn’t realized that anyone else would be interested.

At the AWP conference in 2008, I coordinated a panel on the topic—mostly due to my own curiosity, and so that I could hear what the other four panelists thought about it.  I thought 20 or 30 people might show up.  But over 400 came.  I knew then that I’d stumbled onto something that was an issue of real urgency for many people, so I decided to try gathering a collection of diverse views on the topic.

A few of the contributors were memoirists I knew personally whose work I admired.  Others were writers whose work alone I knew and admired, and I e-mailed them with an invitation to contribute. A very few, like Paul Lisicky and Susan Olding, were writers whose work I didn’t previously know but who were recommended to me by contributors whose work I’d already accepted, and their essays were really great and fit the collection’s topic well. In one case, I went after a published essay I’d read online, the piece by Alison Bechdel, because it spoke so beautifully (and succinctly) to the topic.

In gathering the pieces, I wanted to include memoirists whose opinions, aesthetics, and strategies diverged significantly, so the collection could examine the issue from a variety of perspectives.  No easy consensus emerges, and I think that’s a healthy, lively, challenging thing for readers to experience.

I also wanted other kinds of diversity:  cultural, sexual, racial, class, family itself.  There are several pieces by memoirists who occupy positions in the adoption triad, for example. These social, experiential factors inflect how we approach the issue of writing about family, so I wanted to try to include a broad range of standpoints.

Writing about family, just about everyone agrees, is problematic because it involves telling the stories of others. There is almost a necessary appropriation that happens in the writing of family stories, since families are, by definition, networks of relationships and of love, resentment, competing memories, and allegiances. “The details might be a part of my story,” writes Ariel Gore, “but it is not my story alone” (65). Similarly, Heather Sellers suggests in the last essay in the collection: “To write about family is to plagiarize life. I believe it can be done with grace. I believe, in my case, it has been the right thing to do. But it’s still stealing” (211). What do you think of Sellers’ use of plagiarism and theft as ways of talking about the theme at hand? Is writing about family always transgressive?

I was happy to get to write the introduction to the collection, which gave me the opportunity to lay out my own point of view on these matters at length. Here, I’ll just say that I respect, have learned from, and enjoy all the different essayists’ perspectives, but my own is that writing memoir is a search for understanding. For me, if I’m immersed in answering urgent questions that move and hurt me, and I include nothing irrelevant to those questions, nothing gratuitous, then the work is not transgressive or exploitative.

I understand, though, that the people about whom I’ve written may take a different view.

And to be frank, I understand that. When I’ve seen myself written about (as in a newspaper, for example), I often cringe a little, feeling as though a partial, and thus distorting, portrait has been drawn. This has come to seem perhaps inevitable, since we humans intersect with each other in such incomplete ways. Yet I still often find those public depictions uncomfortable and inaccurate. So I understand that people who’ve found themselves depicted in memoir might feel quite the same way—and even more strongly, since memoir often reveals painful material.

I wholly support writers’ right to explore such material, but I also empathize with people who don’t like seeing themselves in print.

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Julija Sukys Talks to CKUT Radio About Creative Nonfiction and Canada Writes

Canada Writes

I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.

Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.

You can listen to the CKUT interview with Anne Malcolm here.

You can read my Q & A (the one I refer to in the radio interview) about being a Canada Writes judge here. 

[Photo: .sarahwynne.]

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On Pay-to-Submit Contests, Journals, and Anthologies

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I recently had a conversation with a friend who had been passed over for a job — leading a creative writing workshop — because she “hadn’t won enough contests.” Eventually, the decision was reversed and my friend, who is a very fine writer and charismatic teacher, got her chance to make a few bucks and gain some experience. But her story — i.e., the fact that she’d been judged on her success rate in the world of writing competitions — made me bristle.

I believe a great many writing competitions stand on very shaky ethical ground. When run by journals, most include a contest submission fee. By paying the submission fee, a writer gets a “free” subscription to the journal for a year. Obviously, what we have here is a veiled subscription drive.

Some time ago, I received a call for submissions that included a stipulation that a minimum “donation” (read: “fee”) had to accompany texts. IF enough money were raised, submissions MIGHT be published in an upcoming anthology (that the prospective writers themselves were funding). But if the writers were bad donors and didn’t give enough money to pay their own way to possible publication, they would be punished: no anthology.

Is it just me, or is there something wrong with this scenario?

Increasingly we hear about writers not being paid for their work. There are boycotts and open letters exposing the exploitative practices of big online publications. It’s bad enough not to be paid for the work you publish, but to pay for the privilege of MAYBE being published? Isn’t that even worse?

I will admit to publishing work for which I’ve been paid peanuts or nothing at all. I do this because I’m building a profile and because I want homes and a life for my work. I also believe in the idea of creating literary community and conversation. I won’t, however, pay for the possibility of publication. In other words, I won’t pay to submit a piece or publish a piece.

We’ve long been warned off agents who require fees to read our work. Shouldn’t the same principle apply for submissions to journals, anthologies, and perhaps even contests?

Tell me what you think. What do you make of fees to submit?

[Photo: rowan72]

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Seven Dos and Don’ts of a DIY Book Tour: Reflections on a Season of Travel, Talks, and Readings

Reading at The Bookworm in Omaha. Photo: Algis Praitis.

Reading at The Bookworm in Omaha. Photo: Algis Praitis.

Lately, I’ve been away from home a lot. And it’s all been in service of my book, Epistolophilia.

My “book tour” — as my sister-in-law so generously called the series of lectures, conferences and readings that I almost single-handedly organized and raised money for — has, since November, taken me from Toronto to Chicago to NYC, Washington DC, Worcester, Mass., then Missouri, Nebraska, Boston (twice!), and a few different venues here in Montreal.

Along the way, I’ve been greeted with heart-warming generosity and support. I’ve met readers who loved the book and wanted their copies signed, librarians and archivists who thanked me for giving them a hero, survivors and their children, young university students who were sweetly nervous to talk to me, and many colleagues and new friends who gave selflessly of their time to make my visits run smoothly.

Talking to readers and signing books at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Photo: John Nollendorfs.

Talking to readers and signing books at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Photo: John Nollendorfs.

Highlights included wine and cheese at a little NYC bistro with a French-Litvak documentary film maker, meeting a writer-researcher in Worcester whose book has been helpful to me in my current work, dinner with 7 feminist scholars after a reading at Assumption College, and witnessing the machine that my Nebraska friend Gediminas Murauskas (below) set in motion — namely, a whirlwind series of readings and meetings in Lincoln and Omaha that made me feel like some sort of rock star.

With Gediminas Murauskas at Creighton University, Omaha. Photo: Algis Praitis.

With Gediminas Murauskas at Creighton University, Omaha. Photo: Algis Praitis.

Last of all, there was the frenzied embarrassment of riches that is the AWP Conference — a meeting of 12,000 writers — held in Boston this year. I met essayists I’ve been corresponding with for a while and whose work I love, discovered new (to me) authors and books, listened to stimulating panels about CNF and memoir, and witnessed big-name writers read and talk about their work in a way that was familiar and friendly (Augusten Burroughs, Cheryl Strayed, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heeney, Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Pam Houston, Roxanne Gay…and on and on). There were dinners and lunches to share with writer friends, wine glasses to clink, and much to learn.

Along the way, my son and husband have been forgiving of my absences. We all understand that this is temporary, but that supporting a book and meeting with readers is part of the job of a writer.

At The Bookworm in Omaha. Looking especially tired beside the publicity materials. Photo: Gediminas Murauskas.

At The Bookworm in Omaha. Looking especially tired beside the publicity materials. Photo: Gediminas Murauskas.

So, what did I learn about “touring” a book? Here are seven things, off the top of my head. If I come up with more, I’ll share those in the days to come.

  1. Consider all invitations seriously, even those from smaller and less glamorous places. Readers are readers, and if they are reading your book, be gracious. Don’t be a snob.
  2. Don’t go broke for the tour. I applied for grants to attend conferences and tapped into local funds available to support the arts. Embassies and universities can be good sources of funding. Sometimes all you need to do is ask.
  3. Arrange to have books for selling/signing sent ahead to wherever you are reading. This avoids shlepping 30 pounds of paper onto a plane.
  4. Pace yourself. The process is both exhilarating and exhausting. Don’t underestimate how tiring it is for an introvert to be “on” for several hours. Give yourself time to recover so your mood doesn’t turn nasty.
  5. Try developing 3 or so versions of a talk, so that you can pick the most appropriate one, depending on the venue and audience.
  6. Photographs and other visual materials are very effective at literary talks. Travel with a data stick and arrange technology in advance, but be flexible enough to go without visuals at the last minute in case you hit a technical snag.
  7. Don’t punish those who came. Some of your events will hugely attended and others might be tiny meetings. Do what every writer on a book tour tells you to do: read and speak as if the room were full, even if there are only 7 people present, including you.
Reading at Creighton University, Omaha. Photo: Algis Praitis.

Reading at the huge auditorium at Creighton University, Omaha. It was a great turnout. Photo: Algis Praitis.

 

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How Much Self-Promotion Is Too Much?

JunkMail

 

OK, so as authors we are told constantly that we have to market our own books. The publishing industry, for better or worse, has largely washed its hands of promotion, except for the lucky and most commercial few. The rest of us are largely on our own.

Authors must have a website (check), keep a blog (check), have a Twitter account (yup), and a Facebook page (uh-huh), and use them regularly. Some writers have mailing lists, guest blog, write op eds and so on, all in service of selling more copies. It’s a big job and very time-consuming. If done well, it’s breathtaking to watch. If done clumsily, the result is painful to behold.

Promoting a finished book can take over your life to such an extent that there’s little room left to dream up, research, or write a new one. This seems problematic to me. After all, if we’re not writing, then what’s the point?

So, I’ve been wondering: how much flogging is too much?

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about increasingly as my inbox is clogged again and again by the newsletter (one I never subscribed to) of an author who has made it his full-time job to promote a newish book (actually, it’s over a year old). And each time the newsletter arrives, announcing a new lecture, reading, or reminding me what a good gift the book would make for whatever occasion, I find myself a little more irritated than the last. Annoying readers can’t be a good marketing strategy. The fact is, I own the book and I’ve read it, so why am I being bombarded with pitch after pitch? When is enough enough? And how can an author avoid going over the same old territory again and again?

As part of Canada Reads, Coach House Books posted what I think is good advice on how authors can use social media more effectively than the above-mentioned author has:

Just remember you’re a human being, not a marketing bot. Converse with other authors, express opinions on cultural (and other) issues, wish your mom a happy birthday—and if your book comes up now and then (a good review, a reading on the horizon), great. But remember that you’re a person first and an author promoting your book second.

Also important to remember: not only are you a human being, but so are your readers. Many of those readers are fellow authors, artists, and all-round smart people. They are not just buyers or cash cows or vehicles for gushing blurbs that pop up on Amazon. They are the reason you rewrite a sentence 12 times and the community for whom you stay in the library until closing. Talk to them. Listen to them. Don’t just bombard them with junk mail.

Now, off to work.

[Photo: lonely radio]

 

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$10,000 Walton Sustainability Solutions Best Creative Nonfiction Essay Award

Creative Nonfiction and Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability are looking for remarkable true stories that illuminate and present the human side of environmental, economic, ethical, and/or social challenges related to the state of the planet and our future.

We welcome personal essays or stories about extraordinary individuals or communities, and stories about innovative solutions to sustainability. We seek essays on topics that range from global to local, from “big” (e.g., Resilience after natural disasters; New technology solutions vs. common sense; Energy harvesting) to “small” (e.g., Personal decisions about consumption; Reuse, recycle, up-cycle, bicycle?; Green, clean—what does it mean?; What can we learn from past generations?). Whatever the subject, we want to hear about it in an essay that blends facts and research with narrative—employing scenes, descriptions, etc.

Your essay can channel Henry David Thoreau or Henry Ford, Rachel Carson or (a literary) Rush Limbaugh; but all essays must tell true stories and be factual and scientifically accurate.*

All essays submitted will be considered for publication in a special “Human Face of Sustainability” issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine. One writer will be awarded the $10,000 Walton Sustainability Solutions Best Creative Nonfiction Essay Award.

The prize recipient will be invited to a special launch event hosted by Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

See here for Guidelines

NB: Thanks to Dinty Moore at Brevity for this.

[Photo: epSos.de]

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Maisonneuve Magazine Names Epistolophilia One of the Best Books of 2012

Maisonneuve Magazine is published out of Montreal and “has been described as a new New Yorker for a younger generation, or as Harper’s meets Vice, or as Vanity Fair without the vanity.” The quarterly offers “a diverse range of commentary across the arts, sciences, daily and social life.”

When the publication asked its contributors to share their favourite reads of the year, Crystal Chan chose Epistolophilia by yours truly. Here’s what she says about it:

The book…evolves into a meditation on those at the margins of society (women, Jews, gentiles in Holocaust literature, Lithuanians, the mentally ill), and the power and place of archives and texts. What does it mean to be a woman who writes? By embedding herself into her book, Šukys managed to write a book that’s equal parts biography, personal travel memoir, and anthology of wartime correspondence, but that also transcends these genres. Most of all, this is a book-length essay in the tradition of Virgina Woolf.

My favourite line is the last one. To be considered as working in the tradition of Virginia Woolf — what a gift.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Bonnes Fêtes, su šventėm!

May the coming year bring you peace, good health, and good writing.

[Photo: 2day929]

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Call for Bloggers: CCWWP

I’m reposting this from Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs. It seems like a good opportunity for community-building, and I may send them something about my essay workshop this fall. Perhaps you have something to share too:

After a successful conference in Toronto this past spring, CCWWP (Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) needs your help to continue a national conversation about teaching—and learning about—creative writing in Canada. CCWWP is looking for contributors to a revamped blog covering a wide range of topics relating to creative writing and education. We’ll consider pitches from all fronts: full-time, part-time, casual, former and current creative writing teachers, present or former creative writing students, and writers who simply have an interest in how writing is taught and learned.

This blog won’t espouse an official organizational view—we are looking for diverse views and experiences that will provoke discussion. Some ideas for topics:

– interviews with writers about their teaching practice or learning process

– book reviews (related to teaching in the field)

– examples of student successes

– reflections by students on learning process

– teaching innovations

– successful lessons or exercises

– mentorship stories

– stories of teachable moments

– relationships between writers and the academy

– recurring “column” on a specific theme

Please do NOT propose posts that are largely about promoting your own work.

Send a brief blog post pitch to blogposts@ccwwp.ca. Make sure to include your bio, a projected completion date, and whether or not the post is time-sensitive. Blog posts come in all shapes and sizes—but start short by thinking in the ballpark of 300 words.

[Photo: Reading a Book on Bloor by Daily Grind Photography]

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And the Whirlwind Begins to Slow…

It’s been an amazing few weeks: there have been fantastic reviews of my book Epistolophilia appearing from coast to coast. I’ve been out to British Columbia, where I gave my first real public reading at the beautiful Vancouver Public Library, and we launched the book with a splash on June 7, 2012 in Montreal. It was wonderful to see so many familiar and unfamiliar faces. Thanks to all for coming.

As the weather heats up, the literary scene begins to slow. This summer I’ll be doing more intimate events, and plan to use the break to integrate virtual book club visits (via skype) into my author program. Check back for a reading guide and book club instructions soon.

But today, Sebastian and I are headed outside to tend our neglected garden. Supporting a new book takes a lot of time and effort, and the poor plants have suffered. With a bit of sweat and toil, though, we should be able to get it back in shape.

Next week, my big boy starts day camp, and I’ll return to my desk in earnest.

[Photo: Sebastian Gurd]

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