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Why You Should Review–and Shouldn’t

Book reviewing done well is a fine art: one must humbly submit oneself to the mind of the author, to the shape and direction of the book, and to the outlook of the intended audience, while maintaining all the while a robust independence, a gimlet eye, an appreciative heart, and a poised mind.

Book reviewing is also a tremendous service, aiding readers longing for great, or even just good, reading amid a bewildering welter of alternatives flogged by unscrupulous, vulgar, and often ignorant publicists. (Such contradictions in terms as “An Instant Classic!” tell you all you need to know about such people.) And as magazines and newspapers cut back on pages devoted to book reviews and on payment to book reviewers (not long ago, although it seems like it was part of the Renaissance, editors paid reviewers enough that some writers eked out a living writing such things), book reviewing of all sorts in all media becomes the more valuable. As a reader and as an author, I applaud those who bring energy, insight, and eloquence to reviewing. If you’re inclined, please take it up.

If you aspire to publication, furthermore, book reviewing is a good way to begin. As I lamented, book review editors frequently pay little or nothing, but that also means they are often looking for capable reviewers. Attach a couple of sample reviews to your e-mail of inquiry and indicate the kinds of books you would like to review, while you also list your credentials, and you might well get an assignment. (Don’t bother asking to review a book already getting attention: Any good review editor has already assigned it from the advanced notices he or she received as a matter of course.) And, as I mentioned, I have found book reviewing to be a fine discipline for a nascent writer, forcing me in such a small space to think structurally in order to express myself concisely, fairly, intelligently and, I have hoped, interestingly, too.

So why shouldn’t you review a book? Because it might cost you, and dearly.

It’s a small world after all, and most authors don’t forget negative reviews. Worse, some authors don’t forget any reviews that are anything other than glowing. And you cannot predict with certainty what author will respond in what way.

For every writer who responds graciously to a critical review of his masterpiece (such as the case of Nathan Hatch and his marvelous The Democratization of American Religion) and who even writes a kind note to a callow reviewer such as I was, there might be a professor such as the one who, during a job interview in which I was the young department head and he the job-seeker in my department, could not help but mention, in the first hour of our meeting, that he was unhappy with the review I gave a book of his two years before.

Worse, for every magisterial author who refuses to let a less-than-stellar review interrupt an ongoing friendship, there might be another well-known author, who purported to be a friend, yet who walked around a professional conference with me for an hour telling everyone who stopped to commend him on his new book that “Well, he didn’t like it!” with a jerked thumb in my direction, since I had given it a “B+” sort of review, and that clearly wasn’t good enough. I did indeed like it, but I didn’t like everything about it. I said so and—ah! that was the mistake. Only flattery, laid on thick and sweet, would do.

Worst, for every author with whom I have had a running public argument about this or that, such as I have had with the distinguished sociologist Reg Bibby about his interpretation of Canadian religion and whom I count as a special professional friend, there might be someone like another long-time friend, whose books I generally have admired and recommended, getting so upset about a more critical review that only laborious fence-mending kept him from terminating our years-long relationship.

And even such a case is maybe not “worst.” For you likely will never know, as I don’t, what speaking engagements were never offered, fellowships not awarded, scholarly collaborations not extended, and jobs not mentioned because So-and-So couldn’t handle a non-wonderful review of his or her work. Alas, you run a serious risk for offering honest appraisal of work that is other than fabulous or foul. Not everyone will hold it against you, thank God. But you cannot, it seems to me, confidently predict who will.

So do we therefore stop reviewing unless we have no professional aspirations? Or unless we either totally love a book or are glad to distance ourselves from it and its author?

Yes. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing the last decade or so. To be sure, I had friends tell me in my earlier professional years to maybe not write so many book reviews and write more of my own books. I hope they now don’t rue that advice. But generally I have avoided reviewing because of these very bad experiences of peers reacting with what to me seemed disproportionate rage, however modulated, over reviews that, I swear, were mostly positive.

Beware, then, the perils of offending in your review. Either go for broke because you are determined to boost or demolish, or phrase things very, very carefully. Indeed, it is a good practice to imagine the author reading what you are writing as you are writing it, and especially before you hit “SEND” and it leaves your computer for the vast beyond. I wish I could simply say, “Review and let the chips fall where they may,” but the chips might fall on your head, and some reviewers, at least, ought to think about that before they criticize another person’s work in public. Of all people, graduate students and junior scholars especially must keep a tight rein on their newly developing critical capacities and think twice, thrice, and more times before they decide to take Professor Big Shot down a peg or two. Professor Big Shot is just that, and spitting into the wind of his fury might not be worth the satisfaction of assessing his book judiciously in the out-of-the-way journal that one of his acolytes noticed and brought to his attention….

Still, I’m starting what is, actuarially speaking, the second half of my career. I haven’t written the kinds of books that will likely get me job offers anywhere else, so I don’t need to worry any longer about displeasing the academic gods. There are advantages of middle age, not to mention tenure, and maybe I’ll exploit them with some reviewing over the next while.

First, though, I’ve got to get this epistemology book done for my patient publisher—which I hope you will review kindly in due course….

(And you’d better.)

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