This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.
Leaving a review, while not a requirement for every book you read, can be an excellent way to support the author and help get their books into the hands of more people.
The intention of the reading writers of color challenge is to help you build your skills in finding writers of color whose work you enjoy. The publishing industry is not built fairly, and systemic racism leads the work of writers of color to be less well-noticed than their white peer’s. In 2018 white people were extremely over-represented in publishing, with 89% of fiction books published being written by a white author. Non-white authors often receive less money for their books when compared to white authors, and they are less likely to have their books marketed effectively by a professional marketing team at the publishing house. Often, authors of color must resort to marketing their books themselves.
By leaving a review you can help resist the racism that is built into the publishing industry. This is not the only thing we should do: We need a robust plan for publishing more work by writers of color, we need to pay them fairly for that work, and we need to market their work effectively when it is published. But as individual consumers of books one small action we can take is to help with that marketing by leaving a strong review in places where people will see it.
Leaving a review also benefits you as a reader. It asks you to reflect deeply on what you have read and to make personal connections. Rather than simply skimming a book and forgetting about it, a review can help develop a life-long connection to a particular book. I’ve found that I’m much more likely to remember, years later, the books I wrote reviews for, whether or not I particularly liked the book at the time.
But leaving a review can be a daunting task, whether you’re new to it or a seasoned reviewer. Each book is unique, which means the experience of reading it is unique and, therefore, the experience of writing a review that captures the book’s spirit and content must be unique as well.
Here are a few guidelines for what makes a strong book review. Not every review needs to include all these elements, but having these in the back of your mind when you sit down to write your review can help you craft a review that is useful to the reader.
- A good review is “strong” but not necessarily “positive”
When I say a review is “strong” I mean it should include all the elements a reader needs to make an informed choice about whether or not to read a particular book.
That doesn’t mean you should only talk about the positives. Including negatives can be important as well. For instance, something you disliked about a book may be the very thing that draws another reader in. Books can also be challenging but ultimately rewarding to read, and pretending the challenge didn’t exist in the first place is misleading.
Definitely include the positives, of course. What drew you in? What made you smile? What filled you with joy? But a strong review is honest about a given book’s complexity and depth. What places made you think? Which characters did you dislike? What filled you with sadness or worry?
Crafting a strong review also means recognizing one’s privileges as a reader. For example, if you felt it was difficult to connect with a particular character you can ask: Was it difficult because the character is poorly written? Or was it difficult because I and my perspectives were not represented, meaning I as a reader have to do more work to empathize? Don’t blame the author when the work that needs to be done is within yourself.
2. Include a summary
Summaries may look different depending on the genre and content of a given book. Your summary of a non-fiction book by a Sociologist detailing their research will look very different from your summary of poems written by a Victorian author.
Nevertheless, aim to capture the overarching theme of the book. If there is a plot, what is it? Who are the major players? What is the setting? What genre does this story fit into? If there is no plot, such as with a work of non-fiction or collection of stories, what themes emerge from the writing? What are the major findings and how did the author reach that point?
Summarizing a work doesn’t have to include spoilers, but if it does make sure to warn for them. Some readers prefer to know everything that’s going to happen in a given story ahead of time while others prefer to be surprised.
3. Say what is important about the book
Every book is important, even if it’s only to a very small audience. Even books that are intentionally written to be without major substance can touch on interesting themes, or have important things to say about the world. Books might also be important interventions in a given genre, or provide a fresh and interesting perspective on a trope.
What makes this book worth reading over some other work? In five or ten years, what will you remember about this book?
4. Include your own personal connection
It’s not always the case that we develop a personal connection to every book we read. Sometimes, a book is just a book, to pick up and put down. But if you do find yourself connecting to the characters, plot, or setting, or thinking about your place in the world in a new way, include that in your review as long as you’re comfortable doing so.
Many people read to learn something about themselves. About what they enjoy, about how they move through the world, about their emotional or mental perspective. People often read to feel things or to think about things, and so if you found yourself feeling and thinking while reading sharing that can help draw a new reader in.
What did this book make you feel? What were you thinking about? Did you learn something new about yourself?
5. Share your review far and wide
Now that you’ve written a review you want it to be seen by people so that they can choose whether or not to read the same book you did. Share across multiple websites, like Amazon, Good Reads, or The Story Graph, but also consider sharing in your personal networks. A review coming from a friend can feel more meaningful than an anonymous review buried at the bottom of an Amazon listing.
Writing a review asks you to reflect on what you’ve just read, distill it, and present it to an audience. It’s a deeper and more complicated thing than simply reading a book and forgetting about it, but it can also be more rewarding. In additional to the personal rewards of growing closer to what you read, you are also acknowledging and resisting the systemic racism and biases within the publishing industry.
This is one small action, and it needs to be part of a larger campaign to center the voices of writers of color, but it’s also an action you can take today. Reviewing a book helps get it into the hands of more readers, and what could be better than that?
In the comments below, feel free to share your hesitations with reviewing books. What keeps you from reviewing? What’s potentially exciting about the prospect of reviewing books for this challenge?