Reviewing and Literary Citizenship

As members of the writing community, we should always look for opportunities to lift up and support our fellow writers. A review can be a relatively quick but impactful way to do this. If you’ve never written a review before, and aren’t sure how, we’ve provided some statements and resources from our community members below to help guide you.

I can’t think of when I first started reading book reviews or relying on them as a way to “discover” writers whose work might not simply attract my attention by being prominently placed on the local library’s new books shelf. From my late teens until fairly recently, I used to read the New York Times Sunday book review section from cover to cover, and I grew to know which reviewers would entertain me and lead me to authors I might not find so easily on my own. While the NYT’s long-time daily reviewer Anatole Broyard had his quirks and prejudices, there was a sparkle to his writing and his wide-ranging interests led down some fascinating byways—for example, through him I first discovered an odd book on being a game warden in the Ethiopian highlands by a Welsh karate expert who spent much of his life in Japan (C.W. Nicol: From the Roof of the World.) I began writing my own reviews for the New York Times after my first book of stories came out, and I formed a long-term friendship with a senior editor there. I was able to encourage the NY Times to publish more reviews of African fiction simply by being available and having an expertise in the subject, and I suggested a number of books to them that might otherwise not have attracted a readership in the U.S.

My reason for offering this snippet of autobiography is that most of you have interests or specialized knowledge that would allow you to share an awareness of books that might otherwise go unheralded. Over time, I’ve become more conscious of how narrow the gatekeeping has been when it comes to reliable, critical, enthusiastic reviewing of the approximately one million books commercially published in the U.S. each year (and 1.7 million in addition that are self-published.) The VIDA organization did a public service by exploring the gender bias in both reviewing and publication in major presses, and Parul Sehgal’s excellent piece on the NY Times’ Book Review’s 125 th anniversary both celebrates and critiques this essential source. “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too,” Walt Whitman said. That certainly holds up for reviewers, because it’s likely that without them the audience will not be aware of the book at all. And reviewers’ limitations in world and reading experience, gender, and ethnicity all affect which books come to the public consciousness. (Quiz: What do Katharine Kilalea, Rustum Kozain, and Wendy Cope have in common? Answer: They are all well-known poets outside of the U.S. and chances are that you have not heard of them.)

In recent years, book reviewing has become more democratic—especially with Amazon and Goodreads—and there has been a conscious effort by many reviews to diversify their list of reviewers. It’s a good thing that it’s much more unlikely that a single reviewer’s opinion will make or break a book, and that there is less of an old-boys-network of reviewers. But too many newspapers have ended or reduced their book review pages, though, and it’s harder to know which reviewers have an expertise in their subject. This offers all of you an opportunity to put yourself forward as experts in your professional and personal fields of interest, as well as to write authoritatively about the literature from places and peoples where you’ve lived or spent time in. You can also help a beloved, influential novel or memoir to find its way back into print:

 A number of literary magazines—such as Post Road, where I wrote about Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March—offer retrospective columns on books that are relatively unsung or have been ignored by the public. 

I am always happy to respond to alums who are interested in pursuing book reviewing, and you can find more of my thoughts here.

Tony Eprile

Fiction, MFA Writing Faculty

The Art of the Book Review: Idea, Development, and Structure

A book review is a creative endeavor like any writing with one key difference: its purpose is to connect another author’s work to their audience while also seeking an audience for your review. The reviewer acts as a liaison who guides readers to the poetry and prose that will inform and move them, that will take them on the kind of emotional journey they’re seeking. At the same time, the reviewer seeks to write something that is itself informative and emotionally engaging.

Think of it like an essay with citations, but with a tighter, more formal structure than an essay may require. The greater the attention to focus and structure, the more engaging and helpful the review will be.

As I model, I’m referring to a review I wrote about Departures from Rilke, the most recent book of poems by Lesley MFA faculty member Steven Cramer.


Remember those dry essays you learned to write in high school English? State a thesis, support your thesis, write a conclusion. This basic structure can be helpful for reviewers.

Begin with your main idea. Put it right up front. What got to you the most? What did you keep thinking about after you’ve finished reading? What was the gut punch? The head-shaker? The heart-melter?

When I read Cramer’s poems, I felt as if I’d had a long, intimate conversation about death, dying, and grief. I was left haunted by the imagery and stark language, as if I’d spent time communing with ghosts. I put that in the first sentence:

The poems in Steven Cramer’s new book, Departures from Rilke, live within a sliver of space between the living and the dead.

Everything I write next refers back in some way to this experience. For the rest of the paragraph, I clarify my main idea, beginning:

Once invited in, we discover how this space expands to explore the myriad ways the living encounter and interact with the dead and dying: as witnesses, as the grieving, as the chroniclers, and as the ones who die.

Once you’ve explicated your main idea, you can move on to development, which combines quoting from the book with your own analysis and reflections.


You’ve stated your main idea, now you want to support it. Here you’ll see why it’s so important to begin with one focused idea: what you choose to quote is informed by it, which makes it much easier to narrow down what is most necessary and helpful to the reader.

For Cramer’s book, I wanted to cite examples that built on each other emotionally and thematically as related to the experience of living among the dead. For context, I began with what struck me as the speaker’s desperate turn to poetry for comfort, having been rebuffed by God: 

“Olive Country” sets the tone with a speaker angrily invoking a deified “You:” “Why do You insist I pray to you?… I’m alive with people’s grief. I meant / in You to raise them.”

Then I chose examples that grappled with death and dying in a variety of ways so readers would understand the poetry’s deep, complicated, and sometimes unresolved quality. I pulled these together with my own analysis:

Death, these poems discover, can be miserable. It can be insignificant. It can be infuriating. It can also be the easiest thing we ever do.

In my next paragraph, I chose examples from poems that seemed to conjure the dead, which I sum up this way:

Even those who die with the most toys end up discarded and abandoned in the arid dirt.

Next, I chose a poem that depicted what appeared to be a conjuring which transformed into a haunting, and added my reflection:

A sense of foreboding takes over the poem—we can never know where the dead may show up, or where they may even now reside, waiting for some unsuspecting living person to disturb them.


In the final paragraph, write how the book succeeds in terms of your main idea. This is where you can summarize everything you’ve written so far in an evocative way that will leave the reader thinking about both the review and the book. My final paragraph begins: 

This kind of intimate encounter is what Cramer’s poems accomplish with powerful imagery, stark cadences, and unflinching observation.

Next, I write that the poems’ truths are “terribly beautiful” and the speaker meets these truths with “tremulous courage.” By employing language that mirrors my subjective experience living with these poems, I’m able to leave the reader with an emotional sensibility similar to what I experienced.

This is the most crucial element to understand about writing a review: your creative description of your own emotional engagement with the book is what will connect readers to that book. This requires both a command of craft and an ability to trust your instincts. 

What if something in the book doesn’t work? Maybe the language feels awkward in places, or some of the imagery isn’t particularly original or striking. Maybe the main character isn’t as developed as you’d like. If you’re left thinking about these issues after you’re finished reading, it’s important to include them.

Consider the ideal workshop scenario: readers will often sandwich critical feedback within positive feedback. Start with your main idea, offer examples that illustrate how this idea works, then include examples to support what you think doesn’t. If the language is clunky, include a clunky sentence. If imagery is trite, include that. Be sincere and respectful. Give your honest opinion without snark or sarcasm—this will help your reader trust your judgment. Then finish with something that works, concluding with how the book succeeds—or possibly doesn’t—in terms of your main idea.

You’re a reader as well as a writer. You know when something hits you, when it works, when you’re still ruminating about it as you’re trying to fall asleep at night. Let this intuition drive your review. Use craft to create and develop the structure. You’ll find that a review can be as challenging, gratifying, and rewarding as anything else you write. And, in the process, you get to discover, share, and truly dive into a new book.

Amy Grier

Lesley MFA Creative Nonfiction Alum, January 2017

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