In Sean Carswell’s Publishing House course at California State University, Channel Islands, students learn about many different topics as they relate to the ever-changing publishing world. One of the topics we covered was book reviews. My first impression of a book review was that it is simply the opinions of prominent people in the literary world about a particular work—usually ending with a recommendation or a denunciation, and only a paragraph or so long. I was not only surprised but also impressed with what actually goes into a book review.
After reading a couple reviews and writing a short response to what we read, Carswell asked us to deconstruct a review so that we could see clearly what makes one successful. As a class, we ultimately came up with a list of what we thought were the core aspects of a well-written book review. Typically, reviews start with some sort of introduction. This introduction can contain different aspects like anecdotes, facts, references to other works, quotes, or some personal information about the reviewer. From these introductions, many of us picked up that these short essays are in a conversational tone rather than an argumentative or persuasive one. After the introduction, there usually is a description of the book being reviewed. We unanimously agreed that less is more when it came to the details of the book. We want to know the basics, not the whole story. This section of the review seems to be the shortest. The next part of a review, and what seems to be the longest, is the reviewer’s thoughts and evaluation of the book. This section emphasized the feeling that the reviewer was simply voicing her thoughts about the book in a very familiar manner. Often a different book or author was referenced that could be compared to the text being reviewed. After the reviewer discussed his/her opinion with the reader, there came the conclusion. The conclusion could have a positive ending remark, a negative ending remark, a neutral ending remark, or an indecisive ending remark. There is no rule stating that a reviewer has to be absolute in his/her conclusion about a book. We also found that the most focused reviews were the most successful.
Learning about these different parts to a book review revealed that reviewers are talented essayists and add a very enjoyable part to the world of publishing and literature. We learned that reviews, positive or negative, don’t necessarily make or break a book, but instead they add discussion to the topic, text, and author. Carswell ended this lecture with having us write our own practice reviews in class. The task was challenging but showed us the enjoyment of composing a short analysis, and gave us a chance to practice writing concisely. What seemed to be a small part of marketing turned out to be an aspect of the greater world of literature that is immensely enjoyable.
(Students in The Publishing House course wrote seven narratives about the class and the contest. This is the fourth.)