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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How to be a Great Reviewer

Katy Guest, the literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, has written an very interesting piece on the gender imbalance in reviewing, quoting my recent blog on the topic and kindly calling me her 'brilliant predecessor' (thanks Katy!).


Katy mentions the male critics who send lists of books they'd like to review with handy notes including the publisher, pub date, author and why they are qualified to review it. Women never do that, she says (I recognise the phenomenon well). This is a key point - everyone likes to have their life made easier, especially hard-pressed literary editors.

I know, don't all sob at once - it is the world's greatest job - but books pages are under incredible pressure. They don't tend to sell ads and are vulnerable to the essentially philistine nature of newspapers. (I have sat through many an editorial conference where about 50 per cent of the time was spent talking about football.) They are squeezed for space and budget. As Katy notes, lit eds tend to be women but the cynic in me sees this as more of a sign how low status the job is, rather than as a sign of equality. I don't think there are many female sports editors out there...

Anyway, if some helpful chap comes along and makes your job easier at a stroke, why search elsewhere? Here are my other top tips for reviewers - female and male. You will be beloved of your commissioning editor if you bear them in mind.

1) Ask for a word count and deadline. Stick to them. Do not ring up on the day and say, 'Yeah, but what's the real deadline?' Or 'When do you go to press?'

2) If you include at the top of your review the title, author, publisher, price and your byline, if you file on time and keep to the word count, you will instantly be in the top 20 per cent of the lit ed's current reviewers. (I am of course assuming the basics: that you can write...)

3) If reviewing non-fiction, do not summarise the entire contents of the book then say at the end: 'A fascinating story, well told by X'.

4) Or if you do, when rung up and asked to add critical comment, don't say, 'Well you didn't give me enough space for that.'

5) If reviewing fiction, do not give away the plot - as a rule of thumb you can talk about the first third of a novel in detail, but even then do not give away major twists. (Jacket blurb writers often don't adhere to this rule, surprisingly.)

6) Be very sparing with the word 'I'. Obviously you have to have an opinion, and state it, but more than one or two appearances in a review sounds weird. Aim for something more Olympian.

7) Entertain the reader. Do not sell the book. That's not your job.

8) Do not refer to the blurb or any cringe-making formula cooked up by the publishers, however annoying. It's probably not the author's fault that it says 'a Ulysses for the 21st century' on the jacket.

9) Never say a book is a good toilet book (unless it's called 'The Good Toilet Book'). It is not a compliment. No one spends a year writing just to conjure up the mental image of you straining on the lavvy.

10) Do not use the entire review space to bemoan the state of British publishing or of that publishing house in particular (because they turned down your own book).

Incidentally, don't even expect to get a review in a national newspaper if you've never reviewed anywhere before. That's like fancying doing a bit of acting and ringing up the National Theatre. As for how to get started... that's a subject for another blog.


  1. Hi Suzi
    I haven't read the Sindy article yet. I like your tips to potential reviewers though: really helpful.

    But again I am sad the author followed you in giving it the title 'where are all the female reviewers?'

    This assumes the 'natural' and normal reviewer is male, and we need to add the prefix 'female' to show a reviewer is a woman.

    I had a chat with someone about this and we mentioned things like 'female lawyers' and someone said their mum referred to a 'lady plumber'.

    As writers we know language is everything. I think it all starts here!

  2. I have read the article now. I might write a post in response to it. I have a very different perspective from Katy G and most feminists on this issue! I don't think Thank Goodness for The Orange Prize but rather 'Shame about The Orange Prize'...

  3. What an odd point to make, Elly. The piece is about gender imbalance in literary review pages, so to omit the prefix 'female' and call it simply "Where are all the reviewers?" would be ridiculous.

  4. Hi John. I keep recognising names on this blog. Are you the john Self who has cute baby photos on twitter? I am quiet riot girl...

    I don't think it is ridiculous to challenge the gender binary. For me this is the nub of trying to achieve more gender equality.

    So maybe if you called it where are all the great reviewers? You could discuss how some of the great reviewers missing from publications, are women. I expect some are black too, and some are probably from working class backgrounds. And maybe some are queer. I don't know. This is just a guess...

  5. I have had some interesting feedback on this piece. Linda Grant says, reviewers should get the names of characters right! (Amazing how often they don't.) Judith Flanders says she was overjoyed when a reviewer described her book as a good toilet book. And Philip Hensher makes the point that a good review should also include some judicious quotation, so the reader can assess the writer's style. Thanks to all.

  6. I agree with Judith re toilet books: I'm the author of two toilet books myself, and there's no shame in em. The toilet is an important room.

    Where I disagree with Katy is that when I was a books editor, those reviewers who sent in great long lists of books drove me up the wall. It was more often than not the mediocre hustlers-for-work who submitted the longest lists. And it's hard not so sound rude if you say 20 books "have already been given out": like the girl forced to tell an over-persistent suitor that she's washing her hair EVERY NIGHT FOR THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE.

    With rare exceptions, I preferred reviewers to sit tight and wait for us to decide what they'd do well.

    Sam Leith

    PS -- Sorry I appear as Sod's Law; I can't persuade my computer to not make me the default setting of a year-old attempt to publicise an, um, toilet book...)

  7. I too would enjoy having a book described as good toilet book... No shame there.

    The rest seems sensible to me. Quotation is useful, but also a dangerous one. I find pulling chunks out of their context can often give the wrong impression...

  8. I might have to concede the toilet book point, since no one else seems to find it as crass as I do, but it does occur to me that maybe everyone needs to eat more roughage!

    Of course, there's toilet books and toilet books... I interviewed Jeanette Winterson once and excused myself to go to her loo (large, throne-like, Victorian). On top of the basket of reading material... Dante's Divine Comedy! Planted there for my benefit, maybe? (JW looks like she eats plenty of roughage...)