A few weeks ago I finally filled out my “virtual bookshelf” on Facebook, but as I gave the books between two and five stars (I’ve never finished a one-star book voluntarily), it all felt really random to me and most likely inaccurate. I didn’t have any criteria, really, except for, “I remember really liking this book,” and, “I remember sort of liking this book. Maybe.” I wondered if professional book reviewers are so arbitrary in their judgments, recommending books out of their personal tastes alone—which may be nothing like mine.
When I was a children’s magazine editor and sometimes in charge of choosing children’s artwork for publication, I started noticing really quickly that I usually chose pictures of birds. I don’t know where my bird-bias comes from. But maybe it’s the same reason some teachers only like books about talking animals or some reviewers only like books that comment on hot, edgy, political or social topics.
Last week the fates sent someone to enlighten me on the topic of reviewing fiction, a children’s literature professor who admits a bias toward dog stories and has served on the Newbery selection committee twice. And shockingly (like you didn’t already know this), the Newbery is sometimes chosen almost as randomly as my Facebook starred books.
The professor said that some committee members accused him of being too mechanical in his Newbery choices and not giving enough credence to the emotions of a book. He gave an argument I’ll remember next time I read for critical purposes: You can’t judge the excellence of a book by what you bring to the book; you can only judge the quality of the book by what is actually in the book. And our emotions may stem from our own experiences and history, not the skill of the author. He said if a book has powerful themes that generate real emotion, they will naturally emerge from other necessary elements being in place. If a book is purely emotional without other factors adding up, the book creates cheap sentimentalism. It’s a book reviewer’s job to discern the difference.
Plenty of writers sell books rooted in sentimentalism. But this professor felt that sentimental, fun reads didn’t deserve to be awarded for excellence.
To make sure he didn’t finish a book—especially a dog book—and think, “Hey, I liked it. I’ll nominate this,” he created a checklist. Many of the books he initially liked just fine failed to meet the criteria he’d established to help him separate the good, better, and best.
Most of the time I read for fun, but I think this list will definitely help me in my own writing as I analyze what makes a book better than average.
1. Is the book believable? Or is it filled with contrivances?
2. Does the book raise a dramatic question?
3. Does the book have tension, a clear conflict, and a satisfying conclusion?
1. Is there precise vocabulary, figurative language, good dialogue, cadences, effective understatement, and unexpected insights?
2. How is the pacing?
1. Is the protagonist dynamic? Do the characters “ring true”?
2. Is there detail and texture to the setting?
3. Is the theme presented without didacticism?
4. How is the mood and tone?
5. Is it a well-rounded piece?
Reviewing a book this way is hard work. It takes having a notebook handy from the first page to the last. It means separating yourself from the history you bring to the book and finding what is actually written on the page. And hopefully, it means separating the average from the excellent.
I know no reviewer’s list can be perfect, nor can a list totally prevent against someone’s own biases coloring how he sees a book. But this list is a start for me. And it’s intimidating enough that I’ll probably stop ranking the books on my virtual bookshelf altogether.
Does anyone have any criteria to add?