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I don’t regard myself as an academic, a journalist or a non-fiction writer. So reviews may seem a curious form for me to write. But I would argue that there is also something creative about concocting a coherent book review. It’s a statement that is, necessarily, partial and entirely personal and is also an exercise in constructing a ‘voice’ and a point of view for getting across your message.
In the past few years I’ve done a fair bit of reviewing, mostly of short story collections. It’s something that I enjoy and I think it’s a really useful discipline for anyone who writes short stories. Not least, because it befits short fiction writers to read plenty of short stories. And while it’s good to read simply for the pleasure of the activity it can also sometimes be worth taking the trouble to do the sort of close, critical reading that’s required to write a review.
I think it’s a common misconception that a book review should tell readers whether or not the book is ‘any good’. Personally, I regard a review as more useful if it actually indicates what a book is….and what it is not. If I were asked to review a book that I actively disliked I think I would probably turn down the opportunity rather than spend my time constructing an argument to slate it. However, I inevitably do find myself making value judgements based on my own preferences. I believe that the trick is to say what you like about a book and why and to point out those things you find less successful and why. Then leave other readers/buyers to decide whether or not they agree with you and whether they’d like it themselves. Others may regard this approach as simply shilly-shallying and prefer a more judgemental approach to reviewing.
So, how do you go about writing a review? Well, I think that these Rules for Reviews, from Contrary Magazine, present some useful advice and interesting cause for thought. My own personal approach is to simply begin by reading the book and making notes about what strikes me as I go along. These may be particular quotations that stand out or observations on themes or styles that seem to be emerging. I don’t approach a collection with any specific check-list to examine, such as commenting on the plot, characterisation or use of dialogue. I simply try to reflect what I find myself reading and how it strikes me. Needless to say, I usually have to re-structure my rough notes to construct a review.
There are some specific challenges to reviewing short story collections as opposed to novels or non-fiction. Firstly, anthologies often feature multiple authors, so it can be harder to sum up the writing style or capability and you may need to spend more time discussing the breadth and diversity of writing voices. It is also much harder to construct a pat summary of the plot or the over-arching theme of a publication. It’s quite likely that it won’t be possible (or desirable) within the word count limit of a review to mention all of the stories in a collection. So which do you single out for mention?
I think it’s important to get reviews of short stories out there to raise the profile of short fiction in the consciousness of the reading public. Tania Hershman, editor of the The Short Review, describes her rationale as follows: “I love short stories. I love writing them and I love reading them. But it’s not so easy to find reviews of short story collections, especially ones published by small presses. They just don’t get the column inches that novels receive…So I thought I would create a space just for short story collections and anthologies, to give them their turn in the spotlight.”
If you fancy giving short story reviewing a go, then consider whether you already know of existing outlets for book reviews that seldom feature short stories and offer them your services. Are you aware of local, trade, leisure or specialist professional publications that might welcome the injection of a review of short fiction that’s on a relevant theme? You can always hone your reviewing skills by writing reviews of short story collections on Amazon.
Finally, I think that the act of reviewing short fiction can be a valuable promotional opportunity for a short story writer. It’s a chance to get your own name out and about, so don’t forget the space offered by that all important ‘biographical note’ at the end of most reviews. This can be a chance to promote work of your own, either by mentioning individual short stories or publications or by linking to your own website or blog for the curious reader to follow up for themselves.