The Essay Review as Conversation

As discussed in my previous blogs, reviews tend to be written in three different formula styles, the puff piece, the argued review, and the essay review. Essay reviews tend to be four lengthy paragraphs or even longer. In the essay review, the reviewer brings in information other than a description of the book and how good it is. For fiction books, this information tends to be some biographical information about the author to say what of the author’s personal life influenced the author’s writing of the book. Literary trends, schools, or devices that the author uses or follows are also often mentioned by the reviewer to place the book in a literary context. For non-fiction books, the reviewer will touch on additional information of the book’s topic—science, history, psychology, what-have-you—and the reviewer does so for a variety of purposes. Sometimes the information given by the reviewer is to help the reader understand the context of the book. Also the information is given as a reason for the reviewer’s negative or positive evaluation of the book. For instance, the author includes this information, which is good; or the author includes this information which is bad because it makes the book a rehash of what is known; or the author touches on this information as a springboard into new and interesting ideas. Sometimes the reviewer gives the information as a sort of conversation with the book. As in, the book mentions this which has to do with all these other things the reviewer knows (and tells the reader about!). By relating the reviewer’s own experience or knowledge of the subject in the context of what the book discusses, the reviewer shows the book is engaging.

Essay reviews are helpful to readers for both non-fiction and fiction books. Even though fiction books try to capture your interest through emotions, this does not mean fiction is “uniformed.” The author of the fiction book has the interesting problem of providing information that gives you a specific feeling. The author draws from her or his own experience the events that gave the author a certain feeling and tries to put enough of that experience into the story to give the reader the same emotion. Also, the author will have researched many details for the story—historical details, lore, science details—consulting with books and experts on the needed points. Romance writers, for instance, writing historical romances are careful to accurately use details such as correct historical occurrences or making sure that mentions of flowers in bloom are accurate. If an author using flowers as a metaphor in her book, a reviewer can make use of the essay review to talk about the accuracy of the details in the book and point out how those accurate details are worked together to make the metaphorical statement.

The reviewer of the essay review has to be knowledgeable about the subject she or he is reviewing. This means that if reviewing fiction and literature, the reviewer needs a degree in English or comparative literature or has enough courses in either of those fields to have a worthwhile opinion.  The reviewer of fiction and literature must have a sound knowledge of literary theory which means knowing about literary devices, literary styles, and literary history, etc. A layman’s understanding is rarely good enough for writing an essay review. The same goes for non-fiction works; the reviewer must have advanced knowledge of the subject in order to write about it in a way that informs and delights readers. Nevertheless, this not yet a perfect world, and reviewers often are given reviewing assignments that are out of their depth. If the reviewer knows he or she is out of her depth, the reviewer can still write a worthy review, so long as the reviewer approachs the book as a student seeking to make sense of what he or she knows in relation to what they are reading for review. When a reviewer is out of her or his depth, it can be a disaster for the authors, especially if the author is published by a small publisher or is a self-publishing author.  Read “O! The Horror of Bad Reviews” by Gary R Varner about getting a bad review, a bad review that clearly was written by a reviewer out of her depth. In addition to the problems Varner relates that inappropriately bad reviews cause, the essential problem is that they do hurt sales and the author’s reputation.

An essay review by an ethical reviewer means the reviewer is well-aware of the extent of her or his knowledge of the subject, and approaches the book with humility not arrogance. Essay reviews by sensitive, intelligent reviewers are usually a delight to read because the reviewer applies her or his own knowledge to the task in the way of an informed conversation. A review that is couched as an informed conversation is reviewing at its best as opposed to the type of an arrogant Ph.D. getting her rocks off belittling a book by an author more knowledgeable than herself.

I am third degree Witch which means I studied and worked under a teacher for three years as the beginning basis of my magickal practice. I am very informed about Witchcraft because I never stop studying and practicing and because I subject my studies and practices to the same tests of quality that my formal university studies taught me about applying to any practice. This means I keep reading, I go to festivals to take workshops and drain the brains of other Pagans, and I keep practicing.  I don’t do magick half assed. I am at point where most information in Witchcraft books is information I already know or simply not of my area of interest (Christian and Jewish magick), but as I am trained in the humanities and arts, I know this is the case with all experts who research. You take a bit from this book and a bit from that book and make your own project. Further the books are going to disagree with each other and this is good because now you have to figure out where the truth is yourself. This is unlike the hard sciences where there are very few books on a given subject and all the books will agree. You can read one professional level science book and have all the information for that type of science. That is impossible in the humanities.  In the humanities you have to keep an eye on everything, not just the new discoveries, but all the old writings as well.

When I read a book about fairy magick, for instance, I know what the author is talking about and I look to the author to help me discover new ways of engaging in fairy magick both through new understanding and through new techniques. I know the author knows many things I do not, and this makes the book enjoyable. I first assume that the author has done every single piece of magick she or he describes in the book. This means the author is more informed than I am in that he or she has experiences of magick I do not have and am reading the book to discover. Further, when I read a book on Witchcraft, I am basically having a conversation in my head with the author: I find confirmation of my own experience, which is no small thing; I find suggestions of what to do in my practice; and I find additional ways to comprehend magick. What is really fun, is when an author throws out some detail of information I have been searching for as though answering a question specifically for me. Being confident of my own knowledge means I am very sensitive to the honor an author has done me by providing me with even more information. This is why I love reading essay reviews. I love to hear about the connections the reviewer finds between her own experience and knowledge and that of the author. A really knowledgeable reviewer can take a point or detail an author has given and expound upon it, for this makes the book and the review very interesting reading. As a reader, my favorite review to read is raves of my novels—ah well, yeah, but I meant to say my favorite reviews to read are essay reviews by reviewers letting us listen in on the “conversation” between the reviewer and the author.