From time to time I’m asked what I look for in our reviewers – apart from wit, fleetness, and excellent grammar, that is. Well might a prospective reviewer ask, because the craft of reviewing is not one that is often discussed, or taught, or analysed. You’re on your own: a one-person, low-income cottage industry, a hostage to your telephone and computer, as I have written elsewhere.
To introduce this new feature on our website – which will include regular posts from all of the ABR editors (we happy few) – we thought it might be helpful to revise our earlier list of things we look for in new reviewers.
ABR is serious about introducing bright new critics to our readers. Our commitment to publishing about 250 writers each year in our ten issues is unwavering. We think of our relations with our contributors as creative partnerships.
We hope the informal desideratum below will encourage newcomers to think about writing for ABR or for the host of quality periodicals we have in this country.
Advice for new reviewers
- familiarise yourself with the magazine/newspaper and its tenor and house style
- be sure that you really want to write for a particular magazine; that it suits your own style and aesthetics (there are plenty of other ones around)
- most editors welcome polite requests to review particular books; but don’t expect immediate replies and don’t be downcast if they say no
- when you are starting out, don’t expect to be offered the new Garner or Carey, or the latest biography of Tolstoy; bide your time
- when an editor offers you a book (usually by email), reply to her promptly
- don’t feel obliged to accept every book that’s offered to you: be sure that the book is right for you, and that the commission is practicable
- magazines such as ABR usually give reviewers at least three weeks with a book, but sometimes they need reviews of certain works (e.g. major and/or embargoed books) within a week or less; newspapers tend to work with shorter time frames
- be realistic before agreeing to review something by next Tuesday; does it suit you? Is it feasible?
- editors appreciate candour; it won’t harm your chances if you decline a book now and then (though don’t knock back six books in a row)
- if you feel uneasy about reviewing a particular author, for whatever reason (love, hate, indifference, total unfamiliarity, etc.), ask for something else
- decline books by authors with large oeuvres with which you are totally unacquainted
- if you do accept a book by an author you haven’t read, acquaint yourself with other works by that author
- reviews of major authors that fail to cite any of their earlier works are often inadequate and unpersuasive
- don’t hesitate to enlist literary references, allusions, and aphorisms to enliven your argument
- read the book closely, and read it more than once; it shows if you haven’t
- heed the brief and the agreed length and deadline
- give prompt notice of any likely delay
- bring individuality and stylishness to the review
- lateness and infelicitous prose are guaranteed to shorten your career as a reviewer
- editors relish wit and irony – though not the comedy festival kind
- avoid the perpendicular pronoun; a review is not autobiography
- demonstrate literary competence, good grammar, and confidence with the subject matter
- if you really like – or dislike – a book, say so, and say why; don’t be coy or overly circumspect
- show due but not limitless respect for established authors
- syntax is a wonderful resource, infinitely supple; employ it artfully
- we don’t all have to write the same way
- watch those adverbs, superlatives, and exclamation marks
- if a sentence is making you seasick with its undulations, shorten it
- before submitting your review, read it aloud to yourself or someone whose judgement you trust; it’s amazing what you will pick up
- if you submit timely, literate, well-proofed manuscripts, you’ll be amazed by how much work comes your way
- remember, most magazines and newspapers have limited editorial resources and editors don’t have time for two-hour edits
- demonstrate a sense of an ‘organic’ review, i.e. one emerging from careful appraisal, rather than from preconceptions or publicity material
- write reviews that are small works of art, not just consumer tools
- with major books, ones that have been reviewed extensively in the newspapers, submit reviews that add to our understanding of the book – not just repetitious codas to or echoes of earlier reviews
- with fiction, don’t rely on plot descriptions and never give away the dénouement
- everyone needs to be edited, even editors; respect their craft, their experience
- that said, if you disagree with changes or corrections, say so
- no hissy fits!
Australian Book Review