Monday, February 06, 2006

Writing A Book Review For The Age

I never read a book before previewing it. It prejudices a man so. - Sydney Smith

The best way to write your review is by not writing your review. Start off with a quote from someone else (preferably dead and/or famous), continue by fleshing out your review with several quotes from the book you are reviewing, and add one or two paragraphs of generic argument (use lots of big and impressive words such as 'sesquipadalia', 'quaquaversal', and 'stentorian', as a way of saying "This is a big and important book and I am using big and important words because I have read it. If you want to be a big and important person, you should read it to.") Finally, conclude your book review by quoting somebody else entirely. For instance, you could quote me: "This is a vital and necessary work for the bourgeoisse classes." Not a bad quote, isn't it? It'll certainly impress the editors.

Of course, you shouldn't just quote from other people. Use the dictionary, as well. The editor will be unlikely to publish your review unless it is fleshed out with several very exciting nouns and adjectives. These words will mark the key emotional points of your review. It doesn't matter what they mean, so much: they just have to have a lot of consonants and syllables in them.
Start your review 'rambunctiously'. Mention the 'vigour' and 'high-spiritedness' of the author's prose. Continue your review by 'stepping back through the looking glass' into the world of the author's childhood, to discover the 'subconscious' and 'cthonic forces' which compel the author. Relate the 'infernal torments' of their childhood (it won't be necessary to read a biography of the author to do this, just read a gossip column in Woman's Weekly, and substitute the author's name for the name of someone else who figures heavily in the column.)
Remember, it's hardly necessary to do 'research' about the author before writing the review, just as it isn't necessary to read the book. If you spent all your time reading books, how do you think you'd get any work done?
Continue in an 'eager' manner, looking 'wryly' back on the author's past achievements. (In other words, make them up).

At this point, your readers may be getting just a little bored. Stun them with a sudden series of references to academic writers who have written essays referring to other academic writers who have written essays referring to other academic writers who have written essays which may or may not have a bearing upon the book you are reviewing. Anyway, it makes you sound clever. If you like, do this at several other points during your review. If it made you look clever once, it will make you look twice as clever the second time. And looking clever is what writing book reviews is all about.

Conclude in a 'sublime manner', noting the author's 'newly-found religiosity', and their 'finely-honed, coruscating prose' . Perhaps throw in an impressive metaphor or two, about how 'reading so-and-so is like having the mindless corpse of Mata Hari rise from his grave and gorge on your brain', or some such nonsense. After all, writing reviews isn't about making sense.

Once you have done all this, run the spell check through it, and send it off to the editor. He's sure to publish you.

Cross posted on Will Type For Food.


At 10:49 AM, Blogger Tim said...


One of our fellow bloggers (I can't remember who) has pointed out that you never hear or read this word anywhere other than in newspaper book reviews.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Recycler! Usurper!

Just kidding. I very much like this one because you've nailed it. I very much doubt that The Age reviewers actually review the books they pretend to review. Instead, they sample them, and then, building on comparisons other books they have read (hopefully decent ones, and off the clock), they develop their review. I liken it to a restaurant critic sampling only the gravy instead of the whole dish.

But where does this leave us, the reading public? Nowhere, because The Age reviews only rubbish that nobody is interested in. Those few reviews of good books that actually slip through the cracks while the editor is busy diddling himself are so insignificant as to be very easily overlooked by The Age's target market: illiterate highbrows who graduated from the Herald Sun but can't bring themselves to reading material that isn't utilitarian beyond its content. For example, as garden mulch or something to wrap the fish in.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger JPW said...


I haven't heard that anywhere except, yes, in book reviews, and also as the name of a planet in Star Wars.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Perhaps we should try using more planet names from Star Wars in book reviews:

"Kate Grenville's new book is tatooine to the extreme."

"Peter Carey's prose makes me wonder why I should give a hoth."

"Ian McEwan is a pain in the endor."

And so forth.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Tim said...

"Ulysses is no moon, it is a space station."

At 11:15 AM, Blogger JPW said...

I wish there was some way to translate the guffaw to the page. Just writing "guffaw" doesn't quite capture it.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger JPW said...

I wanted to do something with Dagobah but I don't have it in me.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger TimT said...

That's very true about the word 'coruscating', and I might just do another post on that matter - 'words which only appear in book reviews'.

Did you ever read the 'Review of Books' they published with the Australian every month? It folded a few years back. I must confess, I read it religously, but this applies even more to that publication than the book reviews in The Age.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I read it occasionally and yeah it was pretty much par for the course as far as newspaper book reviews go. As James said, it's the faux-highbrowness of the Age Review that really irritates. If you look at the Guardian's book reviews, it's still fairly predictable stuff, but the writing is generally a lot better and you occasionally find some incisive criticism - something you never see in the Age. Also, the reviewers often appear to have actually read the books. Outrageous!

At 3:50 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I quite like the reviews in The Spectator. On the whole, reviewing is a redundant art, and always was. You're only able to write a review if someone else has written a book/play/script. It's a bit restricting. But I do so enjoy a good review. Goes well with my tea and scones, don't you know.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger JPW said...

I think it's great that we're the only people to ever comment on these things. It's like our own private discussion forum! Can't help but think that we would be better off doing it in a pub somewhere, though.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Tim said...

It's weird, we're getting about 80 or 90 hits a day but we're the only ones that comment. Maybe people are in awe of us. Yeah, that'd be it.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Sometimes, when I'm not getting any comments on my own blog, I'll post a comment myself ... just to cheer myself up a bit.

... Oh, don't look at me that way. EVERYBODY does it.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Tim's right - why bother voicing your perspective on an issue when, between us, we have exhaustively elucidated upon all possibilities, finally arriving at, yes, the ultimate truth.

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Robert Ellis said...

Uh-ho. I think I'm guilty of all of the offenses outlined in your post. And my blog is on your blogroll. Which means you've probably read at least one of my book reviews. Although, I don't think I've ever used quaquaversal or coruscating. Although, I'd love to if I found the right opportunity.

Great post.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Caz said...

No, TimT, no, not everyone does it; only you do it, but if it makes you feel better to believe that everyone else is doing it on their lonesome too, you just go right ahead - as you do.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

I have always approved of Stephen Potter's advice, that the whole point of writing criticism is to convince the reader what a wonderful person the critic is.

He also recommended praising books you don't really like by using adjectives that can't be taken out of context by unscrupulous advertisers, his favourites being "catholic" and "painstaking".

At 7:30 PM, Blogger Tim said...

There's a very funny bit in Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park in which he dashes off a quick recommendation for use on the cover of a novel he hasn't actually read. It is a miniature masterpiece of neutral language, and I only wish I had the book here so I could let you all in on the joke. Oh well.


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