‘And a BAD bad review’: Kerryn Goldsworthy on the four types of book reviewing

Kerryn Goldsworthy, freelance reviewer and current Pascall Critic of the Year, shares her opinion on the ingredients of a good review, the tell-tale components of a bad review, and the various groups a reviewer has a responsibility to when assessing a book, from the reader to ‘the people who are paying you’.

There are four kinds of book review. There’s the good good review, which is both favourable about its subject and skilfully, knowledgeably written on the basis of a careful, thorough reading of the book in question. There’s the good bad review, which is well executed in all respects but unfavourable. There’s the bad good review, which is favourable but a bad example of the book review genre.

(There are many ways of badly writing a review: not reading the book properly, making opinionated and magisterial assertions instead of properly arguing your case, getting your facts wrong because you haven’t actually read the book, pushing your own pet writers and ideas at the expense of the book you’re supposed to be reviewing, blowing your own trumpet about your own achievements, not distinguishing between your personal opinions and the actual facts, making wildly offensive statements, and so on and so forth.)

And finally there’s the bad bad review, which is … Well, you know.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a forum at the University of Sydney on the subject of book reviewing. Allotted a generous amount of time for my talk, I needed to come up with an infinitely expandable structure for it, something with a strong backbone that I could sketch out and then amplify here and there, both at the keyboard and then again, if called for, on my feet.

In the end, I came up with a way of doing it that meant I had a single central line of argument and organising principle: the text of the talk was a heavily annotated list of the people and entities to whom/which I believe a book reviewer has a responsibility. It was a list whose length surprised even me (for over the decades I have given these matters a great deal of thought), as I thought about just how many people and things I have at the back of my mind, or even halfway to the front, whenever I review a book. The list looked something like this:

1) To the readers of the review, to

(i) describe the book accurately, (ii) tell the truth as you see it, and (iii) provide entertainment and useful information.

2) To the potential readers of the book (some overlap there, obvs),

(i) not to mislead them about its contents, and (ii) to save them $30+ if that’s what you think.

3) To the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of the book,

(i) to read the book carefully and comment on it thoughtfully, (ii) not to misrepresent it, and (iii) not to say anything that will actually make them want to slash their wrists.

4) To the literary editor who saw fit to commission the review from you, to

(i) justify her or his faith in your (suit)ability and expertise, (ii) write to the word length you were given, (iii) provide clean copy in the requested format (e.g. not phone it in, say) and (iv) provide said copy on or before the deadline you were given.

5) To the publication for which you are writing,

(i) to pay attention to its house style, (ii) to fit in with its general editorial approach and standard of writing, (iii) not to write anything that will either require extensive and expensive legalling, or, in the absence of said legalling, get the publication sued, and (ii) not to compromise, or indeed trash, its reputation.

6) To the people who are paying you to do a decent job of work, to be worthy of your hire.

7) To the literary culture in particular and indeed to the culture in general, to make a worthy contribution to it and not demean or devalue it by adding junk rather than good useful stuff.

8) To yourself,

(i) to maintain your standards, not just professional but also moral (say, turning down editorial requests to review books by friends, rivals, enemies or old lovers), (ii) to refuse to say anything you don’t mean, and (iii) not to make yourself look like a wanker or a dickhead, or both. ‘Both’ is possible but not attractive.

Portrait of Kerryn Goldsworthy

Kerryn Goldsworthy is a freelance writer and critic, and a former academic who lectured in literature at the University of Melbourne for 17 years.

A former editor of Australian Book Review and a member of the editorial team that produced The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009), she has edited four other anthologies of Australian writing and has published essays, articles, reviews, short stories and literary criticism – including a collection of short stories, North of the Moonlight Sonata, and a critical study of the work of Helen Garner. Her most recent book is Adelaide (2011) in the NewSouth ‘Cities’ series.

Kerryn was the Australian Book Review Ian Potter Foundation Fellow in 2013. In the same year, she won the Pascall Prize for cultural criticism, earning the title Australian Critic of the Year. She was the inaugural Chair of the Stella Prize judging panel (2013–2015) and won the 2017 Horne Prize for her essay ‘The Limit of the World’. She lives and works in her home town of Adelaide.