The Tricky Business of Book Reviewing

Book reviewing is a tricky business. As Kerryn Goldsworthy’s recent extended essay in Australian Book Review shows, knowing what a review’s purpose is (or should be), who it serves (or should serve), what its value is (or should be), are complicated and contested questions.

I approach book reviewing with several anchoring principles, although these principles don’t always seem completely consistent. For starters, in my life — and I’ve been reading for close to 40 years — I haven’t yet read the perfect book. And I don’t expect I ever will. This means, to my mind, that pointing out a book’s flaws and missteps is not an exercise in condemning, castigating or poking fun at the book or its author but, instead, is an exercise in extending and provoking conversations. Personally, I’m not fond of the hatchet job because it’s disrespectful. And it’s lazy: it’s the easiest thing in the world to thump somebody on the nose when they’re not looking. I always try to remember how hard it is to write a half-decent book.

I also believe that a book review should itself to be an engaging piece of writing (this is something that the Canadian fiction writer and critic, Zsuzsi Gartner, emphasised in one of her panels at Adelaide Writers’ Week earlier this year). This can be difficult to achieve with sometimes very tight word limits, and while also saying something about the writer, the plot, the pluses and minus of the book, and, if at all possible and however briefly, quoting the work. This is a juggling act, though: the review should be entertaining, and should acknowledge that the reviewer, like all readers, has personal biases and preoccupations. But it should not pretend that the review is more important than the book under review.

The value of books — fiction or non-fiction — is in the ideas they raise, the waters they muddy, the conversations they start, the bubbles they burst. Book criticism ought to be about making a contribution to all of this — as well as about making honest appraisals of a book’s qualities.

As well as being a fiction writer, columnist and editor, Patrick Allington is a highly-regarded literary critic. He writes regularly for Australian Book Review and The Advertiser, and his reviews have also appeared in The Weekend Australian, The Monthly and elsewhere.

Patrick will be running a workshop on The Art of Book Reviewing on the 11 September at the Centre.

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