Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Advice to the casual book reviewer--

Artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Hand with heart from the interior
decorations for Thaliad.
If you google "how to write a book review," you'll find wheelbarrow loads of advice on writing a book review that looks just like almost everybody else's review. Since that's the case, I'm not going to repeat the usual advice. So here, my two cents worth of not-the-usual advice:
  • Go on trust. Always assume that the writer might actually know what he/she is doing. Try and figure out what he/she is doing if it doesn't fit your ideas of what a book should be. Maybe the book's not working, and that's why it doesn't fit. But maybe the book is good but differs from your expectations. 
  • Don't pay any attention to the label or genre that the publisher chooses. Remember that labels are for marketing. A label can be misleading, as it may well be incorrect or reductive. Many books are complex things, not happy with a label. Instead of relying on genre conventions for an idea of what a book should be, figure out what the book is on your own. Describe what it is--not the plot, but what it is, what it cares about, what terrain is important to the book and its characters, what purposes and vision drive its events and structure. 
  • Think about shape. All made things have a shape.
  • Each novel is its own world, with its own laws. It may resemble our world closely. Or not. You should be able to detect whether it fulfills its own promises, obeys its own laws.
  • Think about what propels the story forward. Is it causality, or something else?
  • Ignore the age label on the book, if there is one. It, too, may be incorrect, or the book may be what is often labeled as a crossover, and appeal to various ages.
  • Does the book have energy? Is it alive? Are the characters alive?
  • Does the book feel like a clone, or is it a unique individual? How so?
  • Does the writer appear to take pleasure in words and sound? 
  • Read some of the book aloud--mandatory! Get a feel for how the author writes; hear it in your own voice. You'll know more about sound and style and the writer's ear (tin or golden) by reading one page aloud than by reading a whole book to yourself. (This one is, of course, essential for collections of poetry.) 
  • Rereading is the most telling reading. Even a little rereading is helpful.


  1. What a dandy description of how to review a novel. Some bits would apply handily to reviewing almost any piece of art: "Describe what it is--not the plot, but . . . what it cares about . . . what purposes and vision drive its events and structure." Yes sireee bob-tail!

    1. I find that talking to my painter friends (including you!) always gives me new ideas because the process of translating from visual to written is often surprising, sometimes inspiring.

    2. as my kids used to say: "You Bet, Exhaust Pipe!"

  2. How I squirm at reviews of books... or plays or films, come to that... that tediously describe plot as though it were the only thing anyone would want to know about. And as for art, it is so rare to come upon reviews that create in words a sense of what may be found underneath the paint or mark-making. You, Marly, would make a wonderful art reviewer, because you have such power of evocation without resorting to description. You get my vote!!!

    1. I do like writing about art, and painting in particular... But like you, I probably have enough to manage already! Though I do often say something about art by friends.

  3. that's a deal for only 2 cents... although i've never written a review, except in my head, if i ever did, i'd... well, no i wouldn't because i would have forgotten. but good procedures anyway... tx...

    1. I just get bored by the usual way of going about it...

  4. May I add to your fine recipe: include a generous portion of "conversation" (i.e., reviewers must focus on "talking to" readers rather than themselves).

  5. "The reality is that we live in an age that works against poetry. Poetry is an act of attention and we're in a time where having an attention deficit is the norm. We're bombarded with images and information, but images and information are not knowledge - and they're certainly not poetry."
    Carol Muske - Dukes

    1. Our age has turned its face away from many things that take time and depth and soulfulness. Sven Birkerts has been talking about our lack of reflective time for years now...

      Unfortunately--or fortunately, perhaps--I have come to believe that the only way a little person in the great crowd of humanity can change culture (even a tiny bit) is to add to culture. That is not why I began to write poetry and then fiction, but it is, I think, a truth about what it means to make art (and many other things) in a culture.

  6. An excellent check-list - I'd expect no less. One question: Is there any difference between (a) writing a book review for general consumption, or (b) reading and commenting on an MS submitted specifically to you by the author?

    Obviously one big difference leaps out: with (a) there needs be an element of entertainment since you will be attempting to persuade others to read what you've written; no persuasion will be necessary with the author. But beyond that are there things you would tell an author that wouldn't figure in a broad-purpose review?

    You're dead right about ignoring genres. The novels I've written don't fit any of the listings (thrillers, sci-fi, romance, historical, etc) and I'm left with the ragbag "literary" which is not only vague but riskily pretentious.

    I applaud "Think about shape." - the shortest of your recomendations and arguably the most difficult to wrestle with. Especially when you're trying to assess whether the novel you've just completed is smooth or lumpy. I can't pretend I've ever been 100% sure and I've tended to reduce "Shape" to "Does it have a climax and/or an ending." Mind you I'm adapting "climax" to my own requirements, nothing to do with Bang/Wallop rather a sequence consisting of a beginning, a middle and an end.

    I sense an attack of dogmatism coming on; time to pull my plug.

    1. I don't read and comment on manuscripts any more in that way-unless I'm writing a blurb for an author. Writers still ask personally for blurbs as often as their editors do. And in that case it's also persuasion at work and entertainment.

      But my biggest piece of advice for writers is to read their books aloud. I find many don't, and it teaches a great deal.

      Yes, mine tend to fit uneasily as well. Then there's the whole "interstitial" category. Genre writers think "literary" means is a genre. I won't describe what they think it is!

      Novels are the most accepting-of-glitch-and-wayward-offshoots sort of form we have, I think. Moby Dick. Mardi. Gormenghast. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. See Under: Love. Etcetera.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.