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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I asked my Rutgers students to look up a variety of reviews of one of the books we’ve read this semester. As I expected, they came back surprisedto find how often a review was a plot summary along with a single characterizing line. One student, though, liked an interview because it had been posted online and then generated a trail of discussion, which added a great deal to his appreciation of the book. Clearly the review journals have both the opportunity and need to use the net to expand beyond the confines of the wordcount that print inflicts on them. Think of it this way — what if there were, say, three kinds of review. The short notices as we have them now with their Star, Box, R, Asterisk. Q/P and whatever rating sytems. Then, once a month (or an issue, if the journal is not monthly) a review be given a chance to write a longer real review online. The idea would be that each established reviewer (this would have to adjust slightly for the anonymity of Kirkus) would get to explore in greater depth the issues, ideas, concerns, questions, debates, excellences of a book in an extended online. And then there would be the review smackdown.

What if for one review a month the author would have the online opportunity to respond — if there was a criticism, or if the author tried something new the reviewer did not get, or in reverse if the reviewer loved some aspect of a book and an author could tell more about how s/he came to write that. So for that case the initial review would be the beginning of an online dialogue — which, of course, others could join in. The reviewer could not know which review would lead to a face-off — that might influence how s/he wrote the revieew. Instead, once the reviews were in, the editor would select the pairing. 

But think about it — instead of being confined by the limitations of time and worldcount, we would be using the online world to let reviews breathe — shorter notices to keep the flow of information about books moving; longer essays where the reviewers get to really strut their stuff; and then smackdowns, back and forth exchanges in which books could be explored. Now I realize the reviewers are not well compensated — or in some cases paid at all, except in career credit for having written a published review. So to ask a reviewer to devote more time to a lengthy essay, or to expend the emotional effort to match digital swords with a peeved author, is not fair. On the other hand, I often hear reviewers say that the biggest problem is squeezing what they have to say into the word count — so in some cases the longer essay may be easier — you put back what you had to leave on the cutting room floor. And, who knows, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement have become stand alone magazines built out of longer reviews. The expanded online format might lead to new online publishing opportunities — and thus new sources of income for reviewers. For example — what if online rerviews of audio books came with audio clips, so you could hear what the reviewer describes? Could there be a whole online magazine of audio samples and, in effect, liner notes, built out of reviews.


  1. Mark Flowers says:

    As a reviewer (over at SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens), I love your ideas. We’re very lucky in the plot department, because part of our mission is to review books that have mostly already been or are going to be reviewed in the adult sections of the major journals, so we are much more free to ignore plot and focus on other issues (most obviously, teen appeal).

    If I was restricted to writing extensive plot summaries, I probably wouldn’t review. I think the whole point of a review should be to engage with the book and explain to the reader what is interesting or frustrating about it. You can get a plot summary on amazon or the publisher’s website or any number of other places. Plus as a reader of reviews, for my collection development, I frankly don’t care much about the plot – I just want to know the basic subject matter and whether and why it’s a good purchase for my library.

    I also love the idea of author responses. I would love to get input back from authors on my reviews. We write all positive reviews, but I still usually include plenty of caveats and personal interpretations, which would be fascinating to discuss with the author.