We asked writer and critic John Matthew Fox to share his advice on how to write book reviews. Mr. Fox has written about books for many online and offline publications, including the Los Angeles Times, PBS Channel Thirteen, US Airways Magazine, The Rumpus, Open Letters Monthly, and The Quarterly Conversation, as well as his blog, BookFox.
Q: How did you get started writing book reviews?
A: Blogging started my reviewing. I found recent books and critiqued them. Sometimes I critiqued newspaper reviews. Once BookFox got established, publishers started sending me review copies, and then I began to review books for other sites, like Open Letters Monthly and The Rumpus. You have to be active and seek out places to send your reviews. Then you reach a tipping point and people start contacting you, which is both complimentary and (occasionally) burdensome.
Q: Could you propose some “dos” and “don'ts” for how to write book reviews?
A: Let people know your basic aesthetic stance so they know whether books you hate will be books they love. In other words, if you’re reviewing a book with postmodern leanings and you dislike the techniques of many postmodern books, disclosing that to your reader helps them judge the book. Always choose to give specific details—tell the reader as much information as possible—rather than merely thumb up or down. You want them to reach their own decision, not have one handed down on high from the Lofty Book Critic.
Lastly, always remember a human being wrote this book. Don’t be cruel. Critique the book in an instructive way, not a way that draws attention to your mad deconstructing skills and verbal pyrotechnics. There are some high-profile egocentric reviewers who seem more intent on establishing their genius than on actually reviewing a book with care.
Q: Could you offer some advice to new book reviewers on publishing their reviews?
A: Once you get to a certain critical level -- I mean the ability to write blistering/laudatory prose, and the rhetorical skills to maneuver around the complexities of a book -- people will publish you (especially online sites). It’s not hard to get people to accept free prose. The world always needs more reviewers. Now to get paid for it—that’s a different topic. I would tell you good luck but a better phrase might be stop-imagining-you-live-in-the-pre-internet-age-you-naïve-dreamer-since-you-will-never-make-enough-to-buy-kitty-litter.
Q: Do you think technology is changing the way readers engage with literature?
A: How could it not? When we spend so much time online reading in a particular fashion -- a hyperlinked, hopscotching fashion -- that spills over into our book reading habits. We want to jump, we want to skip, we want to do anything other than long-form concentration. We want those little squirts of dopamine from encountering the new. On the plus side, that means more people are likely to read our book reviews than the actual books themselves. Everyone should feel ecstatic about that.
Lastly, the Kindle changes the time-honored innuendo of the phrase “one-handed reading” into a mere pragmatic issue of ease. That is one of our greatest losses.
Did you enjoy this interview on how to write book reviews? You might also enjoy our interview with author Meredith Sue Willis on how to write a novel.