What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha
________________________________________________

What Do Book Critics Do?

In the previous article, you discovered you were a book critic and that youíve been one ever since that first night when your mom held you in her lap and read you a story. At that fateful first reading, you started forming opinions. And though you may have been able to express them with only a sigh or a smile or sniffle, you expressed them nonetheless, and nobody told you you couldnít.

As all critics know, everyone has a right to my opinion. Oops. I mean everyone has a right to their own opinion. There, thatís better. Take my advice: Iím not using it. Whoops! There I go again.

Whatís going on? Perhaps, now that I know that Iím a critic, I feel that I can say anything I want, that my status as a critic places me above such mundane requirements as truth or accuracy or fairness. But is that right? Can a critic really say anything he wants?

Yes. But that doesnít mean he should.

Being a critic is serious business and you owe it yourself and to your readers to take it seriously. People will be listening to you ó you will have influence, remember? If what you say about a book is petulant and mean-spirited, you will be inciting others to respond in like fashion. Be aware that what you put out into the world often comes back around in strange and unpredictable ways.

This doesnít mean you canít say something bad about a book. But when you do, make sure you have good reasons and plenty of support from the text. It simply will not do to bandy about scurrilous innuendo as though your commentary was just so much static on the radio station of reading response wafting harmlessly out into the ether. Your position as a critic confers upon you a certain status, and with that status comes a certain responsibility.

What do book critics do? They serve their readers and the world by responding responsibly and constructively to great books.

The Cornerstones of Criticism

As I said a moment ago, there are no rules for critics; they can say anything they want. And yet, over the years, a kind of informal agreement has been struck among them that, for the most part, they will focus their exegetical energies on four things: value, quality, tradition, and meaning.

Value

In order for someone to read a book, they have to believe that it holds some value for them. Reading is hard. It takes time, effort, and energy. Even when we read just for fun, weíre still hoping to get the value of an entertaining experience.

First and foremost, critics attempt to assess the value of a book to its readers. They ask questions like: Why did the author write this? Why should people read it? What will readers get out of it? How might it make a difference in peopleís lives?

Quality

To determine a bookís value, critics must consider its quality. Is it well written? Is the writerís style inviting and engaging? Has the writer used specific techniques that are unusually effective?

When critics consider the quality of a book, they know that they do so subjectively. As the old saying goes, ďOne manís trash is another manís treasure.Ē So, when you talk about quality, itís important to let your readers know what quality means to you. This will help them understand you by giving them a basis for evaluating your remarks.

Tradition

Every book is part of a tradition as neither reader nor writer can fully separate himself from all that has come before. Critics explore tradition in many ways. Some make comparisons between books of different eras, others attempt to identify the tradition itself.

Meaning

The purpose of reading, of course, is to gain meaning from text. So thatís where our critical journey ends. Words and ideas can be tricky things; they donít always mean what they say. Critics try to sort this out.

To find meaning, critics process a text through their own life experience and their emotions. Understanding how a book might relate to or shed light upon a particular human issue is very important but understanding the emotional impact of a book is even moreso. Without emotions, life is meaningless, and so are books.

Getting Started

Behind every review there is a reviewer and every reviewer has opinions. What are your opinions about the book you are reading right now? Write down as many of them as you can identify. Donít fuss about things. Just write as fast you can.