What do readers need to know? 10-Point Guidelines for Reviewers

  • Who should review?

Anyone who reads can and should review a novel.

It’s relatively easy to say if you liked or didn’t like a book and why you did so, and that’s helpful for potential readers. Short and simple reviews such as, ‘a page turner, I really enjoyed it’, or ‘Don’t waste your time and money on this book’, could be helpful, taken with other reviews, but on their own they are insufficient, because they give scarce and subjective information, which lacks any objective support or argumentation.

On the other hand, some readers, especially those of us who also write, or want to review professionally, need to think about how we go about writing our reviews more efficiently.

I’m hoping the following guidelines will help me, and other readers, reviewers, or writers to cover all aspects of the novel to be reviewed, as impartially as possible, in order to produce a both a descriptive and critical review.

  • Who is the review for?

The type of review I propose is aimed at potential readers, that is, people who are looking at the reviews in order to decide if it’s their type of book or not, on sites such as Goodreads, or Amazon, etc.

But, who are these ‘potential readers’? When we write our review, we will never know who they are or what they want to read, but we can discuss the reasons why people read.

  • Why do people read fiction?

Basically, there are two reasons for reading novels:

  1. To escape, relax and enjoy ourselves, or
  2. To be jolted, shaken, and surprised. In other words, as Kafka put it, to be stabbed!

According to Kafka, In a letter written to a friend, he said, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us… we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Novelist, Grahame Greene, one of the most insightful 20th century authors, originally divided his fiction into two genres: thrillers such as, Our Man in Havana, which he described as ‘entertainments’, and literary works, such as The Power and the Glory, which he described as ‘novels’. Greene, eventually dropped the ‘entertainments’, and referred to them all as ‘novels’. In fact, in his autobiography, Ways of Escape, he referred to Brighton Rock, originally labeled as an entertainment, as “perhaps one of the best [books] I ever wrote.”

Am I proposing there are two types of readers who are completely different? Those who read for pleasure or those who are in search of intellectual stimulation? Definitely not.

Although there are ‘straight entertainment novels’ and ‘straight literary novels’ most books have a mixture, and most readers also read both types of books at distinct moments in their lives, or even days. I myself alternate historical and contemporary romantic novels, with books which challenge and shake me out of my comfort zone.

  • Point 1

It would be very useful to inform the reader, which of the two aims the book reviewed fulfills, and to what degree. Is it purely for enjoyment, purely literary in nature, or for both pleasure and intellectual stimulation?

  • Point 2

It would also be helpful to inform the reader of the genre, which is another tricky question. Identifying genres can be stifling and restrictive, and as with all classifications there are different taxonomies, and sub-genres, and, of course, most novels cannot be cast in only one mould. The Guardian has a comprehensive a-z list here, there is also another useful list on Writer’s Digest , which will help us identify genres and sub-genres.

  • Point 3
  • What makes a good book?

If we are going to judge whether a book is worth reading or not, we should decide which characteristics makes a book fall into these groups.

There is no easy answer, but an answer must be attempted, or else we can’t continue with our review.

According to Ava Jae, the writer’s job is to entertain and draw an emotional response from the reader, which will make them turn each page impatiently.

But how do writers achieve these aims?

I suggest, we do so by means of the following crucial elements:

  • Point 4.

Language. Whatever the novel conveys, it is done through language, which is both a cognitive and aesthetic endeavour. The reader should be told whether the language is used grammatically, and if the style is appealing. This is obvious, but unfortunately, many books with potential, are ruined by linguistic errors, or by a stiff, wordy, or inappropriate use of the English language.

  • Point 5.

Characterization. Readers should be told whether the characters come alive, because if they don’t care about the characters and what happens to them, they will not be motivated to read their story.

  • Point 6

Plot: Readers need to know if there is a solid plot which moves the story forward, with loops, twists and turns, inspiring them to keep reading.

  • Point 7.

Action: Readers want to know about the action in the novel. Action is related to character and plot. Kurt Vonnegut once said that every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. The characters’ goals will move the action forward.

  • Point 8.

Creativity. We should tell readers if they will be drawn into the story by its originality, or by an innovative aspect or approach, which may even modify the way they consider certain aspects.

  • Point 9.

Entertainment. Readers should know how they will be entertained by the narrative. Will they be challenged, or amused, or shocked?

  • Point 10

Finally, bearing the previous aspects in mind, the review should be as clear and concise as possible, to help the reader make their choice, as to whether it’s a book they will enjoy, or not.

****

Hope this helps you. It has helped me to sort out my own thoughts on this matter, but I’d love to read your comments on the subject.

There will be a follow-up post on, ‘How to Write a Useful Review’, next Monday.

I’m also going to post this on my twitter on #MondayBlogs for the first time. Check it out!

 

14 thoughts on “What do readers need to know? 10-Point Guidelines for Reviewers

  1. This is quite a comprehensive list, Luccia, and I doubt I manage to cover them all in my reviews. Another aspect I like to include is how the themes generalise beyond this specific story, sounds a bit pretentious but what it tells us about the human condition. As a reader, this might not always be obvious – and obviously it’s a better read if such aspects are more subtle, we don’t want to be preached at – but I often find it helpful to frame my reviews around such wider themes.

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    1. You are right Anne.Thank you for your insightful comment. I haven’t mentioned ‘themes’, or ‘what the novel tells us about the human condition’, because I was thinking of a ‘more general’ type of reader and novel. Perhaps this aspect could be bridged in the first point, where the reviewer should decide whether the novel is an ‘enjoyment’ or an ’emotional and intellectual challenge’ for the reader, or perhaps I could include another point referring to ‘themes’, or ‘depth’, or ‘the human condition’? Let me think about it…
      Meanwhile, any further suggestions along this line are welcome.

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  2. Fantastic post, Luccia. I’ll try to keep all of this in mind. Loved the way you worked in the thoughts of major authors. One additional thing, something I’ve had to work on: if this is a second or third book in a series, does the author make the new book understandable without the reader having to read the previous books?

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  3. Thank you for your comment, Noelle. I share your concern on second, and subsequent, novels.
    I think it depends whether it’s a sequel, as in my case (a trilogy), or a ‘series’ as in your novels, where the same main character is faced with different situations.
    In both cases it’s hard to strike a balance. Most readers will have read book 1, but they may need reminding. On the other hand, there may be readers who have not read previous novels, and they should also be catered for.
    I think the reviewer should explain it’s part of a series, or trilogy, etc. and give basic information, such as whether the book can be read alone or not.
    In the case of my second novel, Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall, I would strongly recomend reading part 1, All Hallows at Eyre Hall. However in a series such as yours, I suppose (because I haven’t read book 2 yet) that it could stand alone.
    What do you think?

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  4. What a helpful list, Luccia. I too was struck by the quotes and explanations form other authors. One thing that interests me when reading a review is what brought the reader to the book and whether they were felt that initial attraction was enhanced by the book or left them disappointed I’m sure it’s covered in your list and I’ll see it when I read it through for a second (and third..) time.

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    1. Well, that’s another point ( or 2) to add: How the reviewer ‘ came’ to the book, and ‘reviewer response’ to the novel. It’s not explicitly included in my list. Let me think about how to incorporate those points, too. Thanks for your comment!

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