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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Reviewing NF — the Challenge

Inspired By the Discussion Over at CCBC, I’ve Come to a Realization about NF Reviews 

The discussion over at the CCBC listserv was supposed to be about professional reviews — which ones do people read, which are  useful, how, why, how do reviewers review, etc. Before that thread ever began the discussion lurched to one side as Debbie Reese described her experience as a reviewer and her conviction that she needed to bring her Native American perspective to reviews — which soon set sail into the wars over authenticity and who gets to speak for whom. All both fervent and familiar. But as I read the posts something hit me — a fundamental difference between what an author thinks a review is and what many/most reviewers aim to accomplish.

An author who has labored on a book for a year, say, of course wants a star, a pat on the head, a boost in sales, a sense that his/her book will be on the table when award committees meet. But in addition to wanting approval, the author wants  engaged understanding — wants to be read closely, wants the reviewer to notice the care that went into crafting that sentence, selecting this — not that — piece of art, making that last correction that incorporates a new insight from a scholar. To the author, a review is not just a pass-fail binary judgement (much as it is that), but also an engaged reading — a first response speaking for thoughtful readers. But almost all reviews in our world do not aim to accomplish any of the above. In fact, they see themselves as the first of many reviews. That is, the reviewer is advising a librarian, a teacher, a parent, a bookseller on whether to add the book to a collection. The reviewer assumes that the teacher, parent, young reader will then read the book and evaluate it. In other words the reviewer merely advises on whether you should have the book — with the idea that the next reader, the real end user, will go on to make the deep engaged read on his or her own.

See the fundamental difference in review needs and objectives? The author wants engagement, the reviewer is deciding on collection development. That is one reason these flare up issues — authenticity, cultural diversity, stereotyping, harmful words or phrases — loom so large. They are pass fail judgments, not engaged responses to  the book as a whole. One reason why a librarian can even consider buying a database instead  of books is because books have been reduced to a pass fail checklist — which databases pass with flying colors. If reviews cannot give readers a sense of the depth and texture of a book, the buyers have no way of knowing that the book is any more than the sum of its grade level, interest, lexile score, match to standards and scope and sequence needs, and possible areas of dispute or alarm.

I don’t know how to fix this bad fit between books and reviews, but it is clear to me that it exists. What do you think?


  1. Linda Zajac says:

    In my opinion, nonfiction written as a story has additional elements that should be evaluated–the story, emotion, its literary value…..

  2. Linda:
    Of course, though that is something reviewers do tend to mention — especially since many are more familiar with fiction and story conventions than nonfiction.

  3. Fred Bortz says:

    As an author and reviewer, I’ve been on both sides of the fence (as you have, of course, Marc). But my reviews are of adult science books for major metropolitan newspapers. I’m not looking to advise on collection building. I’m trying to connect books to their readership. As such, I aim to deduce what the author’s purpose was and describe whether the book was successful in achieving that purpose. Given space limitations in newspapers, my reviews are usually mixed to positive unless the editor and I agree that the topic is too important to pass up. (My upcoming Dallas Morning News review of a book called “Denialism” falls into that latter category.)

    Fred Bortz

    Readers can find an example of my favorite negative review at scienceshelf(dot)com(slash)GenderedAtom(dot)htm

  4. Thanks for the post — and we need to hear more about science here. The kind of review you describe – winkling out the aim of the book and determining whether it has achieved it — is precisely what we need. I wish more newspapers made space for that kind of review of nonfiction books aimed at younger readers.

  5. I spent last evening reviewing a book for the children’s lit database and struggling with this issue. The second sentence of this book discusses “the erosional power” of a river. I was not grabbed by the language (and doubt a middle schooler would be) or what followed — pages of facts and details and also, thankfully, gorgeous photos that told more of the story of the region’s people than the words. Many (I think MOST) NF books for school and library do not tell a story. They are way too encyclopedic. So, should I decline to review books like this? Be honest? Sugar-coat my feelings? Or even, as some writer friends have suggested, not give a bad review because of worries about retaliation? I feel, as a reviewer, I need to help schools and libraries use their limited funds wisely. But this is an ongoing internal struggle because, as a writer, I cringe at a negative review.

  6. I sympathize — which is also why I don’t blurb books (don’t want to be in that crossfire of personal emotions and intellectual standards). Not sure how much room you have, but a review that is not just pro con about this book, but which discusses this kind of book — the value of the art but the need for narrative that does not duplicate what a database or textbook offers but rather offers a satisfing reading experience — lifts the discussion from this one instance into a broader vision of excellence in nonfiction. In that frame you can stick to your intellectual guns without having to beat up on this one example.

  7. Linda Zajac says:

    I thought it was a reviewers job to be objective and not always give glowing reviews. I don’t know enough about this process, but do writers or publishers pay to have their books reviewed?

  8. I review only for so can talk about only that experience. I receive (at my request) only picture books and NF and can keep the books. I learn a lot from these books, which is why I do it, as it does take time to reflect and write a review. Since much NF is now work for hire (another topic for discussion!), it is, IMHO, often written by authorities in the field, who know the subject but don’t write in a way that grabs young people or that even considers multi-syllable words or other components of reading level.

    Thanks, Marc, your good advice will help me phrase my comments to be, as Linda says, objective and also honest. I like the term “a satisfing reading experience,” and will probably plagiarize you!

  9. Linda Zajac says:

    Thanks Mary for responding to my question. Your words are music to my ears as I currently debate whether to delve into the WFH field or go my own way. Learning from reading NF is an excellent reason to review books. I’m sure there are plenty of really good nonfiction books that are not written as a story. But if I were a reviewer, I would tell it like I see it, but gently.

  10. Linda Zajac says:

    I should think that since there are numerous reviewers and publishers are sending you their books that the ramifications of being truthful in your reviews could lead to publishers not sending you their books if they’ve received a review that isn’t as favorable as they’d like. If that’s the case then there is something wrong with this system.

  11. there is not one system, there are many. If a well known journal carries a negative review the publisher or author may grumble, but the magazine will get just as many submissions. But if a person is blogging, the house may or may not feel it is worthwhile to send a next book after a bad review. This was discussed over at Read Roger awhile ago.

  12. Linda Zajac says:

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my naive questions. I’m not at this point so I really don’t how it works. Curious, I asked a question on a different board about whether reviewers receive compensation. I was told some do and some don’t, depends. Personally, I think any reviewer that accepts money to review a book is going to produce a slanted review and that reviewer should be viewed as biased. To me, that’s like a politician taking a bribe. I missed the Read Roger ramblings, but if I were a publisher and had choices, I would send the book to the person who I thought would give it the best review.

  13. Linda: if a reviwer is paid, the fee comes from the journal not the publisher, so it is all fair and above board. Now some bloggers solicit review copies from publishers and there a publisher may well decide not to send a next book if a prior review was unfavorable (or late, or poorly written). For that reason, blogger reviews do not have the same weight as journal reviews — except in the cases where the blogger has so established her voice, her reputation, her following, her acumen that publishers send to her even if she is critical.