I like writing book reviews, for both fiction and non-fiction books, though the rewards for each move in divergent directions. I read a lot but, despite a few ideas for original stories and the occasional essay sent off [not to mention The Dissertation], I don’t produce much of my own writing for public consumption. As such, I wanted to take a moment to consider why I like writing about books and, to a lesser extent, TV shows and movies.
The short version: original writing is hard.
The longer version has three distinct parts: direction, digestion, and safety.
First and foremost, reviewing books offers a built-in writing prompt, and a clear subject about which to write. Successful reviews include many of the same elements, including a summary of what the book offers, evaluation, and judgement. Within these parameters there is room for creativity and any good review is going to be injected with the author’s voice and opinions, but having this basic structure is something that makes writing easier.
Second, reviewing books is a great way to digest what was just read since it requires one to form and articulate an opinion about the book. This necessarily entails grappling with text, subtext, and importance of the book. This is also the first point at which the rewards diverge between reviewing fiction and non-fiction because the content of the critiques are different. I don’t care enough about every novel I read to dedicate time to write a review and, frankly, I have limited training when it comes to judging certain technical parts of books. I hardly even know how to identify those parts (characterization, structure, etc), and only know what I like when I read it. For these reasons, a lot of the books I read that I don’t like get lumped into my monthly reading recaps with a brief explanation instead of a full review. It isn’t that the books aren’t worthy of a full review. I just don’t have the time, energy, or interest in writing reviews of books that didn’t in some way capture my interest. This also means that for a certain percentage of the novels I read, I am not motivated to do a deeper dive in terms of thinking about the book.
The third, safety, is the point that is both most personal and most misleading. The perils of the internet for aspiring academics run above and beyond the dangers inherent to the medium, particularly in the debates over academic freedom and free speech–and to what extent those things apply to contingent faculty, graduate students, and anyone who consider applying for academic jobs. My twin concerns in this regard are that some of the posts hosted here are immature from an academic perspective and that I have an aversion to some political topics. On the former, I considered deleting the posts I don’t fully stand behind, but decided against it because they represent me and my work at a given time–namely before I started graduate school and in the early years of the same. On the latter, it has been the cause of some of my silences on Twitter and also why I have avoided some topics here, particularly when those comments could be seen as being critical of an institution such as, say, the University of Missouri. Studied neutrality appears to be the prudent course.
Reviews are not without their own dangers and some journals specifically refuse to allow graduate students to review books because of the possibility of retaliation. Reviews of literature, at least those that are not being published on commission, are significantly safer, but both types of reviews feel safer to me and that feeling of safety makes it easier to write.