I never used to understand people who wrote book reviews. You’ve already read the book, so writing a review isn’t going to help you decide whether to read it, and it’s an awful lot of effort.
But I’ve spent some time thinking about the matter, and I’ve concluded that there are five good reasons and two bad reasons to write a book review.
Good reasons to write a book review
1) You have an opinion
You have an opinion. In fact, you have many opinions. They’re all brilliant, and sharing them with the world will force everyone to acknowledge how brilliant you are. And, perhaps more importantly, how right you are.
So if it makes you happy to have opinions on books and share them with the world, you should do it. At worst, we’ll ignore you.
2) As a civil service to others readers
This is a selfless reason to write a book review.
You know the decision to purchase and read a new book is difficult. What if the book’s no good? What if you don’t enjoy it, you’re bored by it, or you’re even offended? Reading a whole book is a big time commitment, not to mention the 99c to $5.99 you spent on it.
As a perceptive individual, you realise readers the world over are faced with just this problem, and you’ve made it your life purpose to help them in any way you can. You can help them by providing information on this book that will help them decide whether they’ll regret buying it.
You deserve a medal.
3) You loved it and want to share
Sometimes you read a book that you absolutely adore. It grabs you by the heart, flings you to and fro, and finally abandons you breathless in a sweaty, delighted heap.
What do you do? You tell all your friends, obviously. You buy a megaphone and shout from the rooftops how wonderful this book is and that everyone’s lives will be improved if only they read it.
At first people listen. Eventually they start throwing garbage at you.
But you can’t shut up about how fabulosis (shut up, this could be a real word) this book is even though none of your friends talk to you any more and even your parents are avoiding your calls.
The appropriate response to this situation is to go online and write a review. Then you can share the marvel that is this book with the whole world.
4) You hated it and want to vent
Other times you read a book that makes you want to tear out your eyeballs with your toenails. The characters are cardboard stereotypes of that hideously racist girl who used to live next door, but without her endearing affection for stray rats, and yet the author portrays them as heroes.
The plot, if it exists at all, is a string of unconnected and improbable events that nonetheless manages to be as interesting as toilet paper packaging (don’t tell me you never read this).
Or the author has decided a novel is the perfect way to proselytise, and his magnum opus is nine hundred pages of scarcely veiled rants about why women are the devil and should be kept chained barefoot to the kitchen sink.
You need to vent about how dreadful and offensive this book is, but again your social circle has become inexplicably unavailable to meet for your usual get-togethers.
A book review is a perfect way to get this rant off your chest.
5) You love the author
Authors love reviews. Especially the glowing ones, but even the mediocre ones, and some more evolved authors even appreciate bad reviews.
So suppose you’ve fallen in love with an author. There are many things you can do—stalk him online and send him a dozen emails a day, send him love letters full of dried rose petals via his agent, hire a private investigator to find out where he lives so you can follow him around, leave a packet of his favourite chocolate biscuits on his doorstep and watch through binoculars as he eats them, serenade him by moonlight from under his window—but you shouldn’t do these things because they’re super creepy and maybe even illegal.
Much better is to do something that the author will appreciate, like giving his book a thoughtful review full of well-earned praise. Yes, this will be received even better than the chocolate biscuits, I promise.
Bad reasons to write a book review
1) You hate the author and want to attack her publicly
Do I need to tell you why this is a bad reason to write a book review? Really?
Okay, let’s pretend I do.
First, attacking a person publicly is not a nice thing to do, and I’m sure you’re a nice person.
Second, you’re supposed to be reviewing the book, not the person. Unless you’re trying to help people decide whether to buy the author (bad, also illegal in many countries), stick to talking about the book.
Okay, the question of whether you should review a book in exchange for payment probably doesn’t have a black and white answer. Though it’s clear you should be upfront in any compensated review about the compensation you received.
“I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.”
“I received a box of chocolate and two sacrificial goats in exchange for a misleading and dishonest review.”
I hope you didn’t actually sacrifice the goats, even if they did eat the washing.
Update March 2020: According to Amazon’s new rules, you’re not allowed to write a review in exchange for sacrificial goats. Sorry.
Are you qualified to write a book review?
At some point you might stop and ask if you’re qualified to write a book review.
It hadn’t occurred to me to ask this, but then I stumbled across the literary criticism police.
The argument of these delightful personages seems to run something like this:
There are plebs out there on the interweb who don’t have MFAs and have never studied the elegant art and subtle science of literary criticism, and yet they dare to have an Opinion on a book. The world of literary critique is becoming polluted with their uninformed Opinions and soon we’ll all be canoeing to work through sewage.
Perhaps I paraphrase.
I reject this elitist view held by the literary criticism police. Just because they have big guns, it doesn’t mean they get to keep all the fun for themselves.
Instead, I’m going to provide you with a set of simple criteria that will tell you whether you’re qualified to review a book.
1) Can you read? Or does someone like you enough to read the book to you?
2) Can you write? This includes dictating to someone else who writes for you, blinking out your review in Morse code, or transmitting your review to digital format via a psychic link.
3) Do you have an opinion on the book? Some people would argue this is optional. I disagree. A book review that merely summarises the plot is called a spoiler.
4) Have you read the book, or at least made a serious effort to do so? Let me pre-empt your next question. A “serious effort” means you’ve read at least the first fifty-two pages.
Some people will dispute number 4 is a requirement. I dispute their disputation. In my opinion, having heard from a friend, pastor, or a random guy on Twitter that said book is brilliant/terrible does not qualify you to review it.
To summarise, if you can read, write, have read the book, and have something to say about it then you’re qualified to review it. No matter whether you can tell a character arc from the Arc de Triomph, or whether you can list the five/seven major plot points and the fifteen/eighty-seven minor ones. You’re not nominating the book for a prestigious literary award. You’re helping other readers–people like you–decide if they might enjoy it.
If you’re still on the fence about reviews, remember: books reviews make the literary world go round. And if the literary world stops spinning then we’re all in trouble.
Not sure how to write a review? The charming and talented S. Hunter Nisbet gives some easy-to-follow and utterly unscary guidelines.
So now you know why and how to review a book, go forth and review!
Do you review books? Why or why not? Would you ever give a terrible review?
If you enjoyed this post, why not share it with your friends? Who knows—the book they choose to review may be yours.
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