If I know one thing about book reviews, it’s their importance to readers, writers, editors, publishers, book sellers, librarians, and, well, basically anyone who has any interest in finding good reads and avoiding those that don’t fit their interests. And I know that writing reviews is one of those things that authors should do to support both writers whose work they appreciate and readers whose experiences with those books they respect. Knowing all this, I’ve had that little voice that keeps telling me “You should write book reviews, you know” for years.
And yet, I haven’t. You see, the thought of writing reviews makes me rather anxious.
“Why?” I keep asking myself. As a former college writing instructor, I’ve taught students how to write reviews: pick your book, pick your criteria of what makes a good book in that genre, and then write about whether or not the book meets those criteria. And I’ve read a fair number of book reviews. In spite of knowing in the abstract how to construct a useful review and having solid models, I still couldn’t bring myself to write reviews.
Maybe it’s because of my grad school theory training. My previous attempts at reviews inevitably resulted in theory-laden messes. They were neither solid academic work nor useful reviews.
Maybe it’s because of my evolving sense of what I like to read. Coming out of an academic program, I didn’t have much experience with speculative literature and none at all with speculative poetry, if you don’t count Beowulf or medieval romances or Yeats’ use of Irish folk tales in his poems. When I started reading science fiction again after grad school, I could easily shift between literary fiction and speculative fiction as a reader, but it took me reading more SF to formulate what I like about the different genres. And you do have to know what readers expect from a genre in order to write a useful review.
Or maybe it’s my fear of stars. One of the things that contributed to my burn out as a teacher was the need to assign grades. Grading is, after all, another form of evaluating work against a set of criteria, just like a review. And I enjoyed writing comments on student work, because I knew those comments were going to help them improve their writing, not the grades I assigned to their essays. (I know that reviews are not for writers, but still, I think the parallel is still relevant here.) Reviews on book seller sites or sites like Library Thing or GoodReads require star ratings. But how do you decide what’s a three-star or four-star or five-star book?
Which leaves me here, at the end of October, looking at what I’d like to do with November, which for a lot of writers, means preparation for NaNoWriMo. As much as I appreciate what NaNo provides for novelists, I just can’t write at that pace, and the timing doesn’t work for me right now, as I’m trying to finish up a second poetry manuscript. What I am taking away from NaNo is the sense of community it fosters. And given that writing reviews works toward fostering community, I’ve decided to use November to that end. Over the course of the month, I’m writing reviews of thirty books I appreciate. These will be mostly reviews of speculative poetry collections, but there will be one book of essays, an academic work about women in early 20th century science fiction publishing, a memoir writing manual, and a manual to prepare for the US amateur radio license exam. (That last one? Research for a novel. Also five stars. I passed easily on the first try.)
These reviews will be around 100 words each, and I’ll post them to Library Thing, GoodReads, Amazon, and on my Instagram account (@tdwalker_) with the tag #thirtydaysthirtyreviews. To be honest, I’ve written some of them already in preparation for November, and many of them will come out of notes I wrote to prepare for interviews I’ve conducted with poets.
Which brings us back to community building. I started interviewing poets as a way to promote the work of poets I admire. And, given my trepidation about review writing, I approached the poets directly and wrote interview questions instead. Those Q&As have led to a number of wonderful things, chief among them is getting to chat with writers, of course. Pretty high up there too is that in writing questions for those interviews, I trained myself to get away from theory and think about books in terms of what a reader might be wondering about after reading them. Which means, I think, that I’m in a better, or at least more confident, place to write reviews.
Even if, of course, I’m still anxious about all those stars . . .