Book Review

Small Press Book Review Assignment
Draft: April 11
Final: May 2

The small press book review assignment seeks to accomplish several goals. First, I hope it will reveal the rich world of small and independent presses. Next, it is really important for emerging writers to become thoughtful readers who can communicate how the reading of a particular work affects them, where the work fits with other contemporary writing, and creates a documents that may be useful for other readers, both before and after they read the reviewed work. Third, the book review is the culmination of your work in the Craft & Style Journal, as the journal entries you make for the book review assignment will serve as notes and guide the review.

For this assignment, select one book from one of the recommended small presses on the list below and obtain the book by purchasing it directly from the press’s website. When I review books, I use a four-part process that usually takes me a week or two:

  1. Read the book cover to cover relatively quickly, flagging parts that pique your interest
  2. Reread (deeply) and annotate the flagged chapters or pages, plan your writing
  3. Write the review (750–1,250 words is a good length target, although I’ve seen shorter and longer reviews)
  4. Edit, Proofread, Revise, and Send

What should a book review include, you ask?

Well, the best way to figure out how to write contemporary reviews is to read some reviews. Some popular review sites include The Fanzine, American Micro Reviews, Entropy Mag, and Rain Taxi.

The current critique of review culture is that literary and poetry reviews are too nice, and since poetry is a relatively insular community, many poets are afraid to write a negative review for fear of being ostracized. I’m not so much interested in the positive/negative debate as I am in interrogating, investigating, and holding a work that has caught my attention to scrutiny while reporting back what I find through the book review.

The poet Amy King says that a review should enhance her ability to engage with the work in question, it should affect her reading of that work. A great review will simultaneously encourage a reader to read the work reviewed (for whatever reason, positive or negative) and enrich their reading of that work. A good review will do one or the other or steer readers away from a work that does not merit being read.

The following is an annotated list of criteria that might help you write an engaging review:

  • Conceptual Core: Every book or text that gets written has a purpose, something at its core that drives not only the author to write it but also publishers to publish it and readers to read it. To get at the conceptual core of a text, begin by asking why the text needs to exist and what the text is built around, what is at its center? If you have a difficult time answering the why and what questions above, then you can start to make critical judgments about the text and whether it has a discernible core. The conceptual core, if summarized well for someone in a review, ought to pique interest in the text.
  • Creativity: In my estimation, creativity engages the criterion of originality, but it also engages genre conventions, how well does the author know the expectations of a genre and then choose to work within those parameters or react against them. Creativity might also be called “the new” or fashionable, but usually it has a sense of history. When assessing the creativity of a work, ask not only has this been done before but also how well has this been done before? What are the standards and conventions for a text like this? (Sometimes, at this point, we may not have read enough to know. Too, people make the case that a truly challenging, original, creative work teaches readers how it needs to be read.)
  • Research/Credibility (Ethos): Has the writer done the diligence to be able to create this text? Research is not simply contingency (or adding things to a text that might be looked up, like allusions or intertextual quotations/appropriations). Research is also awareness of self, awareness of characters, speakers, narrators, awareness of emotions, awareness of motivations. It is attention to details (rather than arbitrariness or randomness). Research has a relationship with creativity, and these two couple up to determine an author’s ethos or credibility.
  • Form/Content: What does the text tell you and in what format is it presented? These two things have a relationship. Form is part of the content; content dictates form. Issues of craft (lineation, punctuation, word choice, syntax, etc.) are associated with form and content. What are the author’s techniques and tactics? How well do they deploy them? Form/Content also engages with arrangement, sequencing, organization, both in individual works and the larger, whole text. Does the design of a text serve the text well (design should be functional and inevitable, unless difficulty with design is a tactic of the text).
  • Audience: In most cases, writing is written to be read. But by whom? Speculating about the audience(s) a text might appeal to is a large part of doing a review. What evidence does the text offer that it is for that audience?
  • Timeliness (aka Kairos) and Socio-historical/Personal Context: Why is the book you chose appropriate to not only the time in which it first appeared but also the time in which you read it? Simply because a book is published in 2010 CE does not mean it is timely. Timeliness implies necessariness and vitality. Texts from the 14th century can be more timely than those published last week; context dictates this. Context engages where a text fits historically, culturally, economically, and context is also personal. The time in your reading life in which you engage with a text can have an impact on your relationship with it and your reading of it. It not only should be timely in general but also timely in relation to you and your reading (synchronistic occurrences can re-contextualize certain texts, making them more meaningful by the chance arrangement of your reading of them).

To summarize, the most important thing in writing a book review is careful reading. The late Br. Robert Ruhl, a favorite teacher of mine, said something that made eminent sense and has stuck: “Reading is noticing.” The book reviewer ought to notice more than the average reader and be able to convey what they notice and its import in the review.

Publication Options

The last step is to publish your review. You can take several methods for this. First, you can publish your review on the book’s page or the social media site for readers Goodreads. To publish here, you need to have an account. While there isn’t much editorial oversight for these reviews except from other readers, they do certainly get read and influence the decisions of potential buyers.

If you want to go a bit further with your review, consider submitting it to the “Yelling About Books” feature of Euphemism.

You may also consider submitting your review to a publication like The Fanzine, Rain Taxi, or American Microreviews. If you do this, you will need to read the submissions guidelines for the publication, and possibly even pitch your review to an editor before submitting. Needless to say, you should gear your review to the publication’s guidelines (at the expense of the assignment sheet) if you’re going to try for this.

Selected Small Press List

Action Books
Ahsata Press
Birds, LLC
Black Ocean
Bloof Books
Brooklyn Arts Press
Counterpath Press
Dorothy, a publishing project
Kenning Editions
Litmus Press
Nightboat Books
Noemi Press
Octopus Books
Phoneme Media
Rose Metal Press
Sibling Rivalry Press
Spork Press
Tarpaulin Sky Press
Timeless, Infinite Light
Ugly Duckling Presse
Veliz Books
Wave Books
YesYes Books

The above presses are the ones that I follow pretty closely, which means I’ll be more likely to be able to assist you with your review, for what it’s worth. There are literally hundreds of indie presses, though, so if you want to pick something off list, go ahead. Small Press Distribution has a list of their publishers here.