The Writing Practice : Journalism by Marcus Niski
While many of us are familiar with the book review as a respected literary genre, how many have actually taken the time to reflect upon the many mysterious machinations which lie behind its creation?
ELEMENTS OF THE REVIEW
Three important ingredients are necessary in the process of reviewing any work: critical reading, critical analysis and critical response.
Critical reading is crucial in both assessing a work and shaping any subsequent response to it. Critical reading also implies critical note taking. Notes should be clear, accurate and refer to page numbers so that they can be used as references for subsequent quotations.
Impressions of the work, its structure, organisation and style of writing should all be taken into account in the initial reading stage.
In terms of reviewing non-fiction , the reader should be on the look-out for a number of important indicators as to the quality and readability of the work under consideration. These include an assessment of issues such as -
· Is there a clearly identifiable and consistent line of reasoning or argument in the work?
· Is the work well structured and clearly accessible in terms of the way it is written?
· Does the work `hang together' in a cohesive style (particularly important in the case of multiple authors) ?
· Is the work well set out in terms of text and picture incorporation (if illustrations and/or pictures are included) ?
In the case of reviewing fiction , several important issues arise in assessing the literary merit of any fictional work. These include consideration of questions such as-
· Is the plot tightly structured?
· Are the characters well developed and believable?
· Is there a degree of originality in the plot and the way in which it is executed?
· Is the prose clear and crisp or laboured and inaccessible?
Following on from critical reading, the second phase of the review is that of critical analysis .
With respect to non-fiction , critical analysis may include consideration of such factors as: How enlightening, convincing and well supported is the material contained in the work and how effectively is it presented to the audience which it is intended to serve? Is there anything which particularly stands out from what has been presented by other authors in the past or is the material merely a rehash of what has previously been presented in response to a similar a theme or issue? Is there anything about the way the text is constructed which particularly stands out?
Critical analysis in the case of fiction implies asking yourself question such as: Are there any insightful relationships between the characters? How much have I actually learnt- if anything - from what I have read? Am I moved, unmoved, indifferent, nonplussed, inspired or bewildered by what I have read?
CRITICAL ASSESSMENT AND RESPONSE
Having carefully analysed the material under review it is time to make an assessment of its impact both from a personal perspective as well as an assessment of the impact the work is likely to have on its potential readership.
One way of doing this might be to consider the sorts of adjectives which you might use to describe the work and to choose some of these as sounding boards for your assessment of the impression that the book has had upon you as the reader.
In assessing the work and writing your response to it, it is crucial to be as objective as possible and to avoid wherever possible being seduced by publicity blurbs and/or publishers press releases.
As a reviewer, it is also your job to assesses how effectively the author dealt with the subject under question as well as to evaluate your position as to the sustainability of the author's efforts in tackling the material under consideration.
AN ESSENTIAL LITERARY WATCHDOG...?
The review is often a much underestimated literary genre which, although not enjoying the same high profile as other literary activities, plays an important role in the world of literature.
Indeed, the review is useful not only as a useful device in making potential readers aware of new releases, but also in playing an important part in ensuring some form of `quality control' (albeit a subjective one) in deconstructing and criticising literature entering an ever expanding and ruthlessly competitive marketplace.
Accordingly, the reviewer has a responsibility to the reading public in both maintaining honesty as well as upholding his or her responsibilities as a critic.
Given the vast numbers of literary works currently appearing every month, the function of the review as a `watch dog' is a particularly important one. The public are surely entitled to be given a strong caveat emptor where a work is clearly not up to scratch.
© MARCUS D. NISKI 1997
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