The Book Review as Creative Prose

Back when I was in grad school, my beloved weekend ritual, especially on those sunny and temperate autumn days that are one of Pittsburgh’s best features, was to sit at a sidewalk table at my favorite Squirrel Hill coffeehouse with a big cup of French Roast and read the New York Times Book Review Sunday supplement cover to cover. I read about new novels and biographies, about books on economics and politics and social criticism and art, about Amelia Earhart’s last flight and about Ernest Shackleton’s travails. I learned a lot; enjoyed it all. And I never bought or borrowed a single book that I read about.

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No, that’s not true. I bought the Penguin edition of Jan Potoki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa a few months after the review came out, because I saw it in a bookstore and remembered reading about it. But that’s the only one that I can recall.

I didn’t read those book reviews to look for my next book, and I suspect the reviewers were not primarily interested in writing about the books that they had read. The books were jumping-off points for essays that were as much about the reviewers’ world views and positions about the broader subject matter as they were about the book authors’ world views and positions. A wonderful, if extreme, example of this is Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self, Gore Vidal’s “review” of Tennessee Williams’ memoirs. (If that link doesn’t work, you can find it in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, or in The Art of the Personal Essay, by Philip Lopate.)

Vidal mentions Williams’ book, of course, but the piece is really about Vidal, and his relationship over the years with Williams. We learn a lot about Vidal and Williams, about Truman Capote and several other literary and artistic luminaries, but at the end of the review I have absolutely no opinion about whether or not I actually want to read Williams’ memoirs. Though I am definitely of the opinion that I would not have wanted to attract Vidal’s attention. If he wrote that way about those he liked and admired, imagine if he disliked you…

I try to inject some of that quality of review-as-essay into my own reviews. I don’t think that the New York Times will be beating down my door any time soon, and sometimes, I really have nothing else to say except “I read this story and I liked it for these reasons, and I want to share it with you.” There is a place for the straightforward review, and I have found many new authors and many new books and stories from reading book bloggers and reviews from Amazon or Goodreads.

But it was never my intention to be a book blogger, per se. It’s more that I, too, have found that books and short stories, and sometimes movies, can inspire me to discover what I want to write about. They can provide a good framework from which to hang my ideas. Or, the book or story serves as an illustration, a metaphor, for something that I already planned to say.

One of my current favorite examples of this last point is the Kind Reader advice column at the Barnes & Noble Review. It is written by Jessa Crispin, of Bookslut.com fame. In her column, she comes to the rescue of the lonely and the distressed with prescriptions of literature: a book to inspire them, advise them, or at least to solace them, in their time of need. I’ve only been moved to track down a few of her prescriptions (of those that I haven’t already read), but I’m thoroughly addicted to the column. It’s to witness a virtuoso reader in action. Impressive.

What about you? Why do you read book reviews? And if you write reviews, why (and how) do you write them?

9 thoughts on “The Book Review as Creative Prose

  1. I don’t just want to read a review of a book, I want to read an essay on the theme of the book i.e. the reviewer has also be a writer. In my opinion the best book reviews develop the theme of the book and then go off in a direction of their own.

    • Pretty much my opinion as well; I aspire to that style of review (and I associate it with the New York Times). Not there yet, but working on it.

  2. I write reviews, but knowing my own limitations, stick to sense impressions and, yes, leaping off points unless I have a lot to say about the book. When that happens, I can write an essay

    What I want from reading a review is something insightful, but short. Though I do like the anecdotal style, I don’t seek out reviews in general unless I am interested in knowing what the book itself is about (either because I want to read it, or because there’s some kind of fuss surrounding it).

    • I like the way you write reviews, and I rather wish I could describe my sensory reactions to words and prose the way you do — pretty sure I can’t. I always read your reviews, independently of whether I think I would pick up the book, or not.

      Some book bloggers (whom I like very much) tend to write more straightforward reviews (what the book is about, are the plot and characters well developed, etc.). I find that I read their reviews if I think the book might be to my taste, but usually skip their reviews if it’s a book in a genre that I don’t read, like urban fantasy or splatterpunk or whatnot.

  3. I’d really like to be able to write – not reviews, I guess, but proper literary critiques. I would love to be able to do that. They’re just so interesting – even though half the time I think it’s a load of cobbled together nonsense. But there’s just something about them that interests me.

    • As one blogger wrote just the other day:

      “The majority of that sort of literary criticism is being written by Ph.D.s for other Ph.D.s or for grad students and others who want to become Ph.D.s. …”

      That said, I often enjoy literary critiques, too. πŸ™‚
      I don’t think I’m actually up to writing them, myself, though…

      • Well, I’m a literature student, so I guess that explains that XD
        Whether or not I’d be any good at them remains to be seen… It’s nice to see just how far an analysis can go before people start to think that you’re being a little ridiculous.

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