Honesty is the best policy when it comes to writing books reviews, believes Scott Bradfield. And don't expect to make a career of it either
First, the bad news. Book reviewing pays poorly, and makes you enemies for life. If you think you can handle these two unpleasant facts, we can move on to the good news. For example, there is probably no better job in the world for someone who loves books. I'm not necessarily talking about writers here, or even academics, who often don't care about anybody's work but their own. But if you actually enjoy reading, and being surprised by writers you don't know about, then book reviewing is a great job. Besides, I can't think of a better way to start the day than to receive free books in the post, and to know you can stay home all day reading and not have to feel guilty. And if you are a novelist (or an aspiring one), reviewing teaches you to meet deadlines, cut the bushwah, and make yourself understood quickly to the average reader.
Reading your assigned book is the easy part. When you get down to the actual job of writing about what you have read, you will quickly learn that all the university literature courses you ever took have not prepared you for this miserable, Augean chore. Since almost every writer is different, each one requires a different style of approach. You can't discuss Anne Tyler according to the same standards as Will Self, say, or Irvine Welsh. They are different writers trying to accomplish different things.
You need a good wide background of reading behind you in order to judge the terrain of any individual book. If you have strong prejudices against certain types of books - novels by women, say, or thrillers, or postmodernism - you will have trouble moving freely and objectively from one book to another. Sure, you can specialise, if you're afraid of being surprised by any writing outside your zone of the familiar. But then you might as well go back to school and let other people teach you what they want you to know.
Try to be as objective as possible, and give every book a fair shake. Likewise with good books - if they don't work in patches, note it. Focus both on what keeps you reading and what makes you stop. For my money, the closer you stick to readerly concerns - things like pace, prose, interesting characters - the better. Speak to your readers as intelligently and straight-forwardly as you would to a friend looking for something to take on his or her next beach holiday. Never talk down to your reader, but take their concerns seriously. Sometimes a book, whether's it's Martin Amis's London Fields or Herman Melville's Moby Dick, is simply too long.
Of course, there are books that demand a specialised audience, or even a scholarly one. When you run into one of these, you'll have to teach yourself a crash course in the work of a particular writer. The best writers, in fact, need to be read on their own terms; this is often true of bad writers as well.
If you pay close attention, almost every writer spells out the basic principles of what he or she is doing somewhere in the course of their career. You don't need to agree with these principles, but you should be capable of dealing with them.
It's hard for me to understand, for example, how a reviewer can tackle a new book by Cormac McCarthy without reading his most significant novel, Blood Meridian. Or how they can discuss the latest Alison Lurie without knowing that her characters almost always misjudge each other on first meeting. Even bad writers leave footprints in their previous books that give you an idea where they may be heading with their new one.
Try not to sound like an "expert". In other words, don't speak in high-toned generalities about the purpose of literature, or the meaning of metaphor. Book reviews are for people who enjoy reading. Address your own concerns when you're making that complicated, page-by-page choice of whether you want to continue reading or not, and you'll probably address those of your audience as well.
You won't have to explore many of today's books pages to realise that many reviewers have no idea what they're doing. They constantly lapse into first person relativism, as in "I liked this" or "I don't understand how". Or they quote famous people they studied at university. Or they pretend that knowing what books are better than others has something to do with status. (It does, by the way, but not the sort of status you should worry about.) Don't be too disheartened, though. There are good reviewers out there, and you can usually identify them from their first few sentences. So far as I'm concerned, anybody who can keep my attention for more than a minute while summarising or evaluating a novel knows what they are doing. Also, bad reviewers can teach you as much as good ones, since they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.
There's only one real modus operandi to book reviewing, though: read the book carefully, be as fair and impartial as possible, and explain what the author is up to. Put off your personal evaluation until the closing paragraphs. Writers work hard producing their books, and bad writers work even harder than good ones. For my money, they all deserve whatever space they can get. A book review isn't about what you have to say. It's about what the author said, or tried to say and didn't.
In some ways, though, we're putting the cart before the horse. The reviewer's first job is finding work - especially at the beginning. One of the nice things about the London literary scene is that, although it is incestuous, sloppy, pretentious and vain, there's plenty of it to go round, and eventually you should find a few smart literary editors who appreciate good and timely copy. And every paper and magazine devotes at least two to four pages each week to books, a fact I still find pretty amazing. In the US, most papers don't review anything unless it is by Anne Rice or Dean R Koontz, and even then their so-called "criticism" sounds like the "if you must read one book this year" blather of caffeine-hyped publicity-hacks. Whatever you say about the British literary "establishment", it provides space for books. And space, in the reviewing game, is all.
At first, publish anywhere you can. You can start by writing for literary journals, as I did, or for your local paper, or even for amateur publications. Once you've collected a few decent cuttings, you can take a shot at the bigger venues.
When I first moved to London in the early Eighties, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, which turned out to be pretty lucky for me. First I called those periodicals that I enjoyed reading, and learned the literary editor's name from the switchboard operator.
When presenting yourself as a potential reviewer, simplify your qualifications - something I was always bad at. I remember trying too hard, droning on about my interests, my scholarly credentials, my publications and so on, and hearing the literary editor's attention grow as limp as a week-old party balloon. Most literary editors are overworked, underpaid, swamped with too many books, and looking for help. Tell them how you can provide it. Quickly.
I remember trying to impress one particularly gracious editor with the breadth of my achievements when he quite sensibly broke in and said, "Hey, you sound like an American! Why don't I send you some American books?" He sent three of them (back then most literary pages ran a couple of round-ups each week) and for the next several months I made enough money reviewing mid-list American fiction to keep pace with my overdraft and finish my first novel.
By the way, try to avoid writing negative reviews. If you think you'll hate a book, you should probably decline it. You'll be tempted to slate bad books because, unlike mediocre ones, they provoke a genuine response, and this makes the writing of your review feel spontaneous and easy.
But don't waste words, because anything negative you say carries disproportionate mass. One sentence is critical; two sentences are insulting; three sentences and you sound like this particular writer didn't invite you to his or her book launch. Be as straight-faced and restrained as possible. You'll be amazed at how damning a simple plot-summary or a well-selected sample of clumsy prose can be.
Finally, don't try to make a living writing book reviews or you will go mad. It's too labour-intensive to pay off your mortgage, and you can't write more than one (maybe two) well-considered reviews per week. On the other hand, you'll find that you have to review fairly regularly or you will lose your edge. Like all writing, book reviewing is a difficult skill to develop, and an easy one to lose. At the end of the day, all you can hope for is to be as honest as you know how, and to make every effort possible to draw good books to the attention of readers who will read them.
Scott Bradfield is associate professor of English atthe University of Connecticut. His latest novel is 'Animal Planet' (Picador). His reviews appear in many publications, including 'The TES'. The views expressed in this article are his own