When I first thought about writing book reviews (decades removed from writing music reviews at the college newspaper level), I thought it would be easy to get new releases from publishers. I had no idea how difficult it would be. I discovered that publishers – being reasonable business people – want samples of your work before entrusting you with their product. It was then that I contacted a female book reviewer, a pioneer in the field, and asked her for advice. Being wise she offered no A-B-C- guidebook steps, no formula to follow, although at that point I would have willingly purchased a Book Reviewing for Idiots book. Instead, she told me something that was far more valuable:“When you start out, it will feel like you’re trying to climb a very steep and difficult mountain. No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to find the path upward. But then one day you will suddenly realize that you’re making progress – you’re gaining traction – and from then on every step becomes easier than the one that preceded it.”
She was right and you might think this article is about how to gain such traction. No, because that’s something that every novice reviewer is going to have to learn on their own. So I thought about using this space to answer a question that someone recently asked me, “How do you choose (or select) the books that you review?” My answer was a simple and truthful one, I don’t choose (or select) the books, they choose me. It’s true, as I almost never request a book on a blind basis. I have generally read or heard something about the book prior to its release and I rely on my instincts to tell me that this is going to be either a most excellent or truly awful read. As I’ve mentioned before, very good books and very bad books make for easily written reviews. If nothing else, they tend to be interesting. Interesting is not that difficult to write about.
I think some people would be surprised to learn that I decide to refrain from writing reviews on about every fifth or sixth book I read. Why? The logical answer would be that it’s because they’re average, but that’s not really the case. Instead the answer is that with certain books I just cannot find “the hook” to make them sound interesting. Recently, for example, I read a unique novel that was satisfying in every respect except that, two days after finishing it, I couldn’t think of how I would begin a write-up.
With some very good stories the only way you can begin to describe how good they are is to give away too much. You know those movie previews where they show you the entire film – beginning, middle and ending – in two or three minutes? Yeah, it’s like that.
And I won’t discuss the novels that are not bad; it’s just that there’s nothing special there. Or they tend to be repeats of stories written by others. Retreads… Covers. (Sometimes, and this seems to be happening more and more often, multiple novels are released that are built around near-identical plots.)
Let’s draw on a possible parallel to music reviews… Writing about the latest concert performance by U2? That would be easy. Writing about the latest gig by a U2 cover band? Not so easy.
So, to come full circle, there are books out there, generally fictional, that are fine and maybe even very good. But if they’re derivative (the writing equivalent of clothing or musical knock-offs) it’s hard to locate the center that makes them worth writing about. And the ones that are 100% original can be very hard to write about – sui generis (literally one-of-a-kind) works are difficult to compare to anything else. Just think about trying to write about something that no one has experienced before – be it a book, film or record – and it may give you the beginnings of a headache.
Traction, such a tricky thing; it’s either there or it’s not.
One in a continuing series of articles. Pictured: K2 – Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Broadway Books, August 2010, $14.99; also available as a Kindle Edition download).