What are reviews for ?

I’ve been reviewing books for a few years now. I wrote occasional reviews right from the outset of this blog, and then not long afterwards began reviewing from the (much missed) The Fix. And my regular articles for The Guardian often hide a few book reviews.

So I’ve been enjoying a brief exchange of views about the nature of reviewing between @gavreads @paulgrahamraven @nialharrison and @cherylmorgan and probably a few others by now, started by Gavreads proclamation “The point of reviews: should you spend your money on this book – yes or no? The rest is just filler.”

Needless to say I disagree. I believe the job of a reviewer is to open up the meaning of a book for readers. I want a review to cut to the heart of a book, reveal what it’s really about and show how it works. And I want a review to put the book in its context and tell me the authors influences and the dialogues the books is part of. Saying whether a book is good or bad or ‘worth buying’ is probably the least interesting thing a review can do in my opinion.

But I might be wrong, it has been known to happen. What do you want from a review? Do they help shape your thinking about the books you read? Or do you just want a indication of where to spend your next £8.99?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

10 thoughts on “What are reviews for ?

  1. Interesting.

    I’m generally most interested in reviews of books that I’ve already read – precisely for the reasons you suggest: Because they can open the book out, show you things you might have missed, give you interesting background…

    Of course, there is something to the ‘should I buy a book argument’ as well. But the best way a review can persuade me to buy a book is by making it sound interesting… and to do that, the review generally has to do all that opening out stuff, anyway.


  2. I’m interested in the same things as you (well, perhaps not the dialogues thing), but after the fact. That kind of discussion can be fascinating, but I prefer not to have it colour my opinion of the book. If a book has a lot to give I’d rather take that on my own terms, rather than having a bingo card of expectations.

    It’s not so much a money thing for me. A review must convince me that a book is a worthwhile expenditure of my time. I very much dislike getting halfway through a book and realising that I’m likely totally wasting my time. Then I have to deal with giving-up-guilt and feelings of is-it-just-me-being-lazy.

    But since reading tastes are so subjective, reviews a very much a crap-shoot anyway. There’s a whole slew of critical darlings that I really didn’t enjoy.


    1. Subjectivity is the thing. A book can be wrong for you at one point in time, and exactly the right thing a few years later. Literatire is complex and subtle and you have to come to a book at the right time. That’s why i think a reviewer has to try and open the book up, so the reader can decide if its what they need next.


  3. I love to review books and I enjoyed your point of view here. I think there is a standard that some sites require and if we blog reviews we should be open to do what we want. That is what makes our reviews different.


  4. As folks probably realize from my reviews, i am with Damien on this one. It would be great if my reviews made folks run out and buy a book (especially given what I review; for example: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/06/review-what-wolves-know-by-kit-reed/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Sfsignal+%28SFSignal%29 ), but I am interested in showing readers what i got out of the work and bringing up ideas from the work to explore further.


  5. It’s been said that the difference between reviewing and criticism is that you read a review before you read the book and you read criticism afterwards. Everyone’s subjective to some degree, but a good reviewer should have enough self-awareness to be able to direct suitable readers towards a book that s/he personally dislikes (unless there is something morally wrong with the book). And vice-versa, of course. Gav’s take on this is merely a haiku reduction. If there is room for criticism-without-spoilers then all the better. Most of a review’s reader won’t be buying the book in question (compare sales of The Guardian to the sales of the books in its Saturday charts and you’ll see what I mean) but the one thing you can guarantee is that they’ll stop reading you if you stop entertaining them.

    Wish I hadn’t missed that Twitter debate. Now, how do I get down off this fence?


  6. I review for ME. It is a great way to get ARCs and and opening to interviews with authors you’d like to converse with, but mostly I do it for myself. I get to exercise my knowledge of the field, I get to try and come up with unique and interesting ways to describe my feelings about it and, perhaps the most challenging of all, trying to find a way to be nice but pan at the same time – searching from the one redeeming feature inside something that is otherwise dreck (IMHO, lol).

    But then the mean streak comes out and I get to exercise the acid pen, searching for more and better ways to let the author know that they didn’t fool me, even if they did fool the editors.

    The former is preferred, the latter is far more fun.


  7. Agreed. There is actually no conflict between what Gavreads says and Damien says, in view of the subjectivity of book-buying decisions. Few would buy a book simply on someone else’s say-so, they have to make the case for it by doing what Damien wants done.



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