Most book reviews are serious stuff but very often they are not interesting reads. It applies to both fiction and non-fiction book reviews.
Recently, Prof Amitava Kumar referred to the James Wood style of book reviewing. He noted: "... Other critics appear pallid and unambitious in comparison. Just look at last Sunday’s NYTBR: nearly everything else has the texture of tissue on a rain-soaked pavement."
The Italics are mine. I loved that description.
Well, that is a standard other book reviewers can only aspire to, but for the less talented, here is a formula: It comes from FT's Gideon Rachman, and though it only provides samples of non-fiction work as examples, I'm sure it can find a larger application.
Here is Rachman's formula:
If you publish a book, you are asking to be taken seriously. A “good” bad review does precisely this. It engages with the text far more vigorously than the usual tepid praise by a reviewer who has flicked quickly through a volume. And the best savage reviews are usually very funny...
A really good bad review usually follows a couple of rules. First, the target should be a worthy one. It is no fun watching a Harvard professor squish a young academic from a minor college. That is just cruel. The reviewer needs to be taking on someone with a large reputation and a big ego.
Second, the review should mix in personal abuse with intellectual criticism. This sounds counter-intuitive. Surely, the reviewer should rise above the merely personal – otherwise the review will look like a mere settling of scores? Not at all. A really good bad review needs a certain savage energy and humour – and this really only happens, if the reviewer is personally offended not just by the book but by the person.
Rachman has provided links to reviews that target Bernard-Henri Levy – France’s most fashionable philosopher; Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International; Tom Friedman, possibly the world’s most famous newspaper columnist and George Soros, a globally-celebrated financier and philanthropist. Read them all. They are amazingly written.
I especially liked Taibbi's review of “The World is Flat”. This one really made me reassess the logical plausibility of a Friedmanian postulate.