How (not) to be a book reviewer.

28 Nov 2013

The Missing One is now ‘out there’; early copies are being read, requested – and reviewed. I have spent the past sixteen years or so writing book reviews. I’ve reviewed for The Guardian, The TLS, The Sunday Times, even The Scotsman. But when I started out, my first proper reviewing job was a weekly books column for a national newspaper. I was thrilled…

stack of booksFor someone who loved to read, this was a dream come true. Every week, a huge box of books would arrive at my small flat in Hammersmith. I would stagger up two flights of stairs with it, and open it on the (postage stamp sized) living room floor. I was expected to sift through the massive stack of books and select four or five gems for a ‘round up’. I then had to encapsulate each one in 150 words.

I basically had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t a literary journalist. I wasn’t even a journalist. I was working for Amnesty International at the time. I loved to read. I had opinions about books and degrees in literature. But that was it. I didn’t know how to select the best ‘new fiction’ so the only thing I could think of to do was to skim read everything in that box. I was speed-reading thirty odd books a week. It was crazed.

Eventually I got to the stage where I loathed the books before I’d even opened the cover. I’d read one crappy sentence and think ‘this is rubbish.’ That’s when I stopped. It felt morally wrong. But I shudder to think what brilliant books I chucked off my sofa, or the judgmental words I dashed off, trying to be witty, struggling to meet the deadlines. These days, I only review one book at a time. I read carefully and look for positives; I try to convey my honest reaction without being flip or dismissive, or playing for laughs. But those early years as a twenty-something proto-journalist haunt me now – because the tables have turned. I’ve heard many authors say they never read reviews of their books. One (well-known, extremely positively reviewed) novelist even told me she has a post-it on her computer instructing her not to Google herself under any circumstances. I get that. Perhaps I should do the same?post it


  1. Rosalind Minett
    November 29, 2013

    It’s true. Exciting to face a pile of new books but not if you HAVE to read them all and not at a worthwhile pace. However, a reader is the expert on enjoyability at that moment, so should be allowed to give up on a read, even if the tome is to be lauded later.

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