by Lee Polevoi
Any good writer reads, a lot, because there’s plenty to learn about crafting sentences, setting moods, introducing characters and simply moving them from room to room. But a different muscle gets exercised when you review books—novels, in particular. The critical faculties go into gear, when normally you try to keep these in check. Enthusiasm and critical distance co-exist, and though I’m still a novice, reviewing is a different approach to experiencing a work of fiction. Not better or worse … just different.
I learned quickly that reading a bad novel or, worse, a merely so-so one, makes for hard work when the time comes to write the review. Only scoundrels and sociopaths can take pleasure in panning another writer’s novel, especially when you have a visceral sense of all the hard work that went into it. On the other hand, try coming up with 1,000-1,500 words about a novel you felt kind of just laid there on the page, stirred to life once or twice, but which now you’re obliged to describe and critique—and in amusing fashion, no less. Not as easy as it looks.
Best to write about a book that excites you and displays genuine talent and maturity. Only a few of the books I’ve reviewed met this harsh, self-imposed standard, but when it happens, you delight in plucking brilliant bits off the page and sharing with the audience. Communicating why you love a book can produce insights that help your own work, so the activity isn’t wholly without value. Don’t look to get rich from it, you’ll get more by asking the question: “Do you want fries with that?”
Lee Polevoi reviews for online publications such as Highbrow and Los Angeles Review of Books. His latest review concerns a novel called The O’Briens by writer Peter Behrens. You can find the rest of his reviews here.