An Interview with Mayra Calvani,
author of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing
by Ernest Dempsey
Book reviewing is an old hobby and has long become an established profession for many people in the writing/publishing industry. Yet, few writers have taken the care to pen down a book length work on the art of book reviewing. It was thus left to the insight and credit of Mayra Calvani to discuss the basics of book reviewing in her title The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing (Twilight Times Books, 2008) co-authored with Anne K. Edwards. Today, a large number of reviews are posted each week on different websites and in different print publications. But writing fair and objective reviews of books is not as easy as it may sound. Mayra Calvani’s book tells how to write good reviews (by which I do not at all mean ‘positive’ reviews) that do not compromise objectivity and the reviewer’s personal voice – something likely to happen under many subtle influences. Thus Mayra’s book is meant to reduce the ‘slipperiness’ of book reviewing. Readers will surely find Mayra’s views insightful and interesting.
Ernest: Mayra, in my knowledge, you are the first writer to pen down a book-length work on the topic of book reviewing. Have there been any books on book reviewing before yours came out?
Mayra: Not recently, though if you do a search on Amazon, you’ll see there was a book on the subject published in 1978, but it’s out of print now. That one, however, seems to be a collection of essays penned by various reviewers, and not specifically a how-to book, as is the case with The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing. I began reviewing about eight years ago, and learned how to do it by doing it. In high school, I had always been pretty good in capturing the essence of a book and putting it to words, so I just followed by intuition. Still, back then I could have used some practical, useful tips to avoid amateurish mistakes, like being overly positive for fear of hurting an author’s feelings, among other things. I hope my book will serve as a helpful reference for beginning reviewers. My first motivation for reviewing was getting free books. Later I realized I could also use reviewing as a tool for promoting my name as an author. But what keeps me going is my passion for books. Reading is my addiction and reviewing feeds this addiction.
Ernest: What is your definition of a ‘good’ book review?
Mayra: A good book review, whether short or long, is a well-written, honest, thoughtful evaluation of a book, one that points out the good and the ugly. If negative, a good review must also be tactful. I usually, though not always, follow a simple formula for a review, something I learned from Alex Moore, Book Review Editor of ForeWord Magazine: An interesting lead or quote; a short summary of the plot (without ever giving away spoilers or the ending); an evaluation supported by examples or quotes; and a recommendation (or not). A review is written for the reader/consumer in mind, and must help them decide whether or not the book is worth their time and money. It goes without saying that a good review should be free of spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors. Finally, a good review should engage the reader, should hold the reader’s interest and attention.
Ernest: You have mentioned various types of book reviews in The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing. Do you think that the same reviewer is capable of writing good reviews of various types?
Mayra: You have different types of reviews: short and light; long and in-depth; academic; article reviews. The ability to write all types depends on the skill of the reviewer and whether or not she is knowledgeable in that particular genre. For instance, if you never read Science Fiction or Fantasy novels, your review might lack substance for the simple reason that you wouldn’t be able to compare it to other books in the genre or even to other works by the same author. That is not to say your review wouldn’t be well written and thoughtful, but it probably wouldn’t have as much ‘meat’ or insightful observations as a reviewer who is well read in that particular type of fiction. Some reviewers are well read in many genres and so have no problem with this. For nonfiction, however, a reviewer should be familiar with the subject in order for the review to have credibility. For instance, I could write an opinion piece on a book about astrophysics and black holes (was it well written, interesting, engaging, etc), but other than that, I wouldn’t be able to review the book’s content because I’m not an expert in the field. It’s like everything: the more you know about a subject, the more you can intelligently write about it.
Ernest: There is this emphasis of yours on objectivity in writing a book review. What place do you reserve for one’s subjective, personal voice in a good review?
Mayra: A review should be objective but also subjective. I know this statement sounds like a contradiction, but it really isn’t, if you think about it. A reviewer should be objective when reviewing a book, and by this I mean that she shouldn’t let her personal values and beliefs get in the way of an honest, fair review. Let’s say that you abhor abortion, yet the protagonist of the book has one and approves of it. You should be objective in sorting out your feelings before writing the review. By this I mean you shouldn’t trash the book just because the protagonist had an abortion! If your first thought is ‘This book had an awful protagonist!’ you should stop and think: why is she awful, because she was badly drawn, unrealistic, and talked in
clichés, or only because I don’t like abortion? In the end, however, a review is a person’s opinion and thus subjective.
Ernest: Do you see reviewing as a creative activity?
Mayra: I think reviewing allows for some creativity. As I said before, a well written review should hold the reader’s attention, and part of this may depend on how much flair and originality we put into a review, especially at the beginning, to hook the reader and make him continue reading the rest of the review. I may start the review with an interesting anecdote or observation, for instance, something to entice the reader. Throughout the review, the way I word the sentences is important as well. Is the writing flat and static, or does it flow with grace and wit? Wit and creativity often go hand in hand. When I’m particularly enthusiastic about a book, I may write the summary of the plot (before the evaluation) in the tone of a back copy blurb. I may also end the review with one sharp comment or ironic question, inviting readers to think. For example, I once gave a negative review to a book on how to become a creative genius. The content was ridiculously trivial; it only had about 100 pages, and cost $14.99. I ended the review with this sentence: ‘And $14.99 for such a tiny, fluffy book? That’s not very creative.”
Ernest: Mayra, you’ve pointed to author envy as an influence on producing a negative review. By corollary, we may say that fondness for an author, or a particular style, also results in overrating of a book, right?
Mayra: A professional reviewer shouldn’t allow envy or fondness for an author influence a review. This is all part of being objective. I love Anne Rice’s writing. I’m an avid fan and have read all of her books, but I also know that her latest books have been terrible, and if I were to review these books, I would point this out (though I would also point out all the positive aspects of her writing). Fondness for an author because you happen to know him personally… now this is tricky! In a perfect world, a reviewer should never review a book by an author she knows personally (or worse yet, if the author in question is a friend or family member!). It’s hard to give a negative review to a friend. We’re humans, and our feelings will always get in the way of an honest review. If the book is good, there’s no problem in the actual writing of the review, but you have to deal with issues of credibility from the public. If the book is terrible, however, there’s little chance you’ll be able to give a 100% honest review to an author friend.
Ernest: These days, most books come with ‘advanced praise’ blurbs on the front, back, or inside cover. Do you think that reading these before going through the book can risk a reviewer’s objectivity?
Mayra: When I was a beginner, maybe during the first half year, I found that indeed reading the blurbs and promotional material had an influence on my review. I think perhaps the reason is that back then I still didn’t trust my judgment of a book one hundred percent. I would read a book and find it mediocre, but then I would read all these raving reviews about the book on the back cover or Amazon and I would tell myself, ‘Hmm. Maybe I’m wrong about this book. Maybe it’s a lot better than I think.’ But as I grew more experience in the art of reviewing and found out the truth about promotional materials and some of the misleading reviews on Amazon, I became more confident. For a period I stopped reading all type of reviews and blurbs associated with the book I was to review. Now, after being a reviewer for almost a decade, it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other. I will write a negative review even if the rest of the world says it’s wonderful. Or the opposite. A review is one person’s opinion, after all, and I can’t compromise that. Without my own personal judgment, my review has no value. So what I would advice novice reviewers is to trust their minds and their judgment and not to let themselves be influenced by the press release that often accompanies review copies nor by any other reviews that have been written about that particular book, no matter their source. Just because a reviewer from Library Journal or Booklist liked the book, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will too.
Ernest: As told in The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, serious or literary works often get in-depth reviews. But you also warn against giving out the ending of a book. Don’t you think that commenting on the book’s ending is an important part of an indepth review?
Mayra: Commenting on the ending of a book doesn’t necessarily mean spelling it out for the reader or writing a full summary of the plot, as with a book report. Long, analytical reviews look at literary works closely and part of this analysis includes examining most parts of the book, including the ending in terms of symbolism, allegories and so on. Because of this, I agree that in in-depth, long, analytical reviews there’s more room for ‘spoilers’ if one wishes to fully examine the ending of a book. But usually, readers don’t turn to this type of review in order to make a decision on whether or not purchase a book; they turn to lighter, shorter reviews and this is why this type of shorter review shouldn’t contain spoilers. Readers of academic reviews are people who for the most part have already read the book and are looking for a deeper analysis to be used in group discussions, schools or book clubs. But it’s always good and even encouraged, even in short reviews, to comment on the ending, as in ‘The ending took my breath away—it was shocking and unexpected’ or ‘The ending was disappointing; I feel the author rushed the last chapter and in doing so cheated the reader by presenting elements that had not been part of the plot before.’
Ernest: Do you consider it fair for a reviewer to share his/her review with the author, before getting it published, to make sure no misinterpretation of the author’s work or views is involved?
Mayra: This is a very good question and a tricky one—I should probably talk about this subject when I update my book! I have never done this nor plan to, but I know of reputable reviewers, even from well-known magazines, who share their review with the authors prior to publication. I think this is due partly because of fear of making embarrassing mistakes (plot events, setting, character names, etc). But as I see it, this can be easily avoided by the reviewer reading the book carefully and taking notes as necessary.
Misinterpreting the author’s view or intend, however, is a different story. Just because I didn’t get the full author’s intention in the book, doesn’t mean it’s my fault.
Maybe be the author wasn’t successful in presenting his views or ideas clearly through his writing. This is where trusting your own judgment as a reviewer comes in. If you show your review to the author, his comments may influence your final review. Besides, a book is always open to various interpretations, even those other than the author’s. Interpreting a book in your own way is part of the job of being a reviewer. In fact, freedom of interpretation is your right as a reviewer.
And if you show your review to the author, what happens if it doesn’t favor the book? How do you expect the author to react to a negative review? I don’t think a review should be modified in any way just because the author didn’t agree with it. An exception to this would be, of course, mistakes about plot events, character names, etc., as I just said, all easily prevented by doing vigilant reading of the book. But for these corrections to be made, a reviewer doesn’t have to show the review to the author first. Once published, the author can point out the errors and then they can be corrected.
Ernest: About the star system for rating. I find it hard to adequately rate many books on the 5-star system because it seems to be limiting a lot the choice of expressing correct judgment. Don’t you feel that a 10-star system would have given us more freedom and better rating choices?
Mayra: I totally agree with you. In fact, that is one of the reasons I stopped posting my reviews on Amazon (except when an author requests it). I find it hard to rate a book from 1 to 5 and still remain faithful to my assessment of the book, but in The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, Anne K. Edwards (my co-author) and I offer some guidelines for rating books in this way:
_ 5 stars: Outstanding. Compelling plot and characterization; flawless prose; the writing sparkles. This is a book that is a joy to read more than once.
_ 4 stars: Good to very good. The plot and characterization may still be compelling, but the book itself, as a whole, doesn’t shine as much as the first one. It is a book to enjoy but one that you wouldn’t recommend as strongly as the 5-star book.
_ 3 stars: Mediocre to fairly good. This is the kind of book that has its share of both good and bad qualities. Maybe the plot is intriguing but it lacks characterization. It may have inconsistencies. Maybe it has a great hero or heroine to carry the story but the plot is weak. Perhaps there are a few spelling mistakes which might put you off, but not enough to quit reading.
All in all, though, this is a book that, in spite of its weaknesses, is entertaining enough to keep you reading.
_ 2 stars: Poor. Poorly written. Poorly edited. A poorly-executed plot and practically no characterization. Full of inconsistencies. A book you might want to toss in the trash before you’re done with it.
_ 1 star: Terrible. A book not worth reading. Badly written, clearly not edited at all, and filled with spelling and grammatical mistakes and/or with a very badly-constructed plot, no characterization, stilted dialogue. The author of this book clearly lacks a basic knowledge of the rules and elements of writing.
A book that should have never been published, and one that you won’t be able to keep reading after a couple of chapters.
I find that most books I read fall between the 3 and 4 star categories, but the problem is that if you give a book 3 stars on Amazon, you do the book harm because 3 stars is seen as mediocre and not as a fairly good book. So yes, I would say that a 1-10 star system is better because it gives the reviewer more options and freedom of rating. From the average reader’s point of view, though, a 5-star system ends up being more practical because it is like the rating is written in big block letters. The average reader doesn’t want to be bothered with having to find out what each number means in a 1-10 star system. So all in all, I’d say that the 5-star system gives a general idea of the book’s quality but for the real assessment, one should always turn to the written review.
Ernest: There are many reviewers, including me and I think you too, who write for more than one publication. They contribute the same or a rephrased review of that book to more than one of them. Let’s say we get a book, sent through one of those publications, and it deserves a negative review. Do we have the right to share our review with other publications than the one which got us this book?
Mayra: I personally would not spread bad publicity in such manner, especially if it’s a first-time or small press author. If a publication sends me a book and I end up writing a negative review, I would send the review only to the publication that provided the book. Why spread the word about a bad book when there are so many good ones to talk about? But do we have the right to post a negative review in various sites? I should think so, as long as it’s okay with the publication that first published the review. Some publications want exclusive submissions while others ask you to wait for a specific period of time before posting the review elsewhere. If the author in question is famous or if it’s a book that has been heavily hyped by the media, I may post my negative review on my blog as well, but again, I wouldn’t go about posting the negative review on many sites. I don’t have that much free time to publicize a poorly-written book! Recently I received a review copy from a first-time, self-published author. The book was so poorly written I declined to write a review.
Instead I sent a message to the author listing what I thought was wrong with the book. As it happens, he was very grateful and had already considered hiring a freelance editor. I could have written and posted the review, but what would have been the point other than embarrassing the author? Who would be interested in reading a negative review of a totally unknown author of a memoir? Personally, I think that would have been insensitive of me. However, I was able to do this because I received the review request directly from the author. If a publication had provided the book for review, I would have gone ahead with the negative review.
Ernest: The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing discourages reviewers from charging for reviewing books. Can the review site owner/editor fairly charge authors/publicists/publishers in order to spend the money for promoting the publication?
Mayra: Charging for a review creates a conflict of interest in the reviewer. When you charge for a service, you want the customers to keep coming back and no author/publisher/publicist will consider coming again if you give them a negative review—after they’ve paid! People who pay for reviews expect a positive result.
Now, I’m sure there are a few rare souls out there who’d remain honest in spite of payment, but, as I said, this is rare. The regular reviewer would still be influenced by the payment and persuaded to make the book appear better than it really is. So no, a reviewer or review site editor shouldn’t charge for a review. Some review sites, however, offer promotional packages to authors and publishers—ads, interviews, trailers, press releases, etc.—and the money collected from these services may be used to keep the review site running.
Ernest: With your insight of the art of book reviewing, how about offering an online crash course in book reviewing?
Mayra: Actually, I do teach a book reviewing course at The Long Story Short School of Writing, which is now affiliated with Colorado Free University, an accredited online school. Their website is http://www.lssatcfu.org/basicwriting.html and details can be found there.
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