Dispatch from AWP: The Art of the Book Review

file000739253401This just in: There is no agreement on what a makes a good book review.

Panelist Craig Teicher says that a good book review need not be “right” about the book, but it must definitely be interesting. It should, in other words, be “a piece of literature inspired by a piece of literature.”

One of Teicher’s fellow panelists, Joseph Salvatore, seems to disagree. A book review, Salvatore says, is “the best review of the book in question” and not a discourse on the genre that book represents.

Salvatore says that a good book review provides evidence to back up any claim the reviewer makes and must provide us with a sense of what the book is like. As evidence, the panelists handed out an abridged version of  Orville Prescott’s 1952 review of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The full version is here.

Panelist Darcey Steinke says that a reviewer must get into the book and “share it with the world to make someone’s life better.” She says, “Good or bad is not really the point […] The question should really be the engagement with the book.”

Michael Klein, who reviews poetry for a variety of venues, including The Los Angeles Review of Books, says, “Poetry reviews are different because you are reviewing something nobody reads. You are reviewing the air.” (Check out his reviews here.)

Tony Leuzzi says that, for a reviewer to give a book the attention it deserves, the reviewer must erase his/herself from the review. “It’s not about you,” he says. He encourages reviewers to “be curious beyond the book you are looking at,” which means it’s wise to understand the author’s history and the context of the book itself. He also cautions that, if a writer asks you to review his/her book, the critical language used will be in some way compromised.

Where do you stand on this issue? Should a reviewer “erase” himself from the review, or can a book review be a “piece of literature inspired by a piece of literature”? Is it possible to achieve both simultaneously?

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