Why We Write Literary Reviews

I don't review many books and short stories. Maybe a dozen during a busy year, less when I don't feel the need. And I tend to focus on works which really impress me, as with my reviews of the Dark Faith anthology edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

It's also rare for me to rip stories with my critiques. I basically refuse to waste my time reviewing bad stories. The irony, of course, is that if I slammed more stories I'd probably publish many more reviews.  I find it easier to rip stories apart than to write positive yet insightful criticism. When you read a bad story, the flaws almost beg for sarcastic comments and ridicule. Great stories don't beg for anything—except to be read by as many people as possible.

I'm currently writing a review of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, which I absolutely loved. Okorafor's novel came out earlier this year to near universal acclaim—check out her website for a sample of these glowing reviews. While I totally agree with this praise, the large number of already existing reviews made me wonder whether I still needed to critique the book.

To help me answer this question, I decided to figure out why people write literary criticism. Here are the reasons I've come up with:

  • A need to bring attention to a worthy story, or to condemn a bad one. This is the first and most powerful reason why people review fiction. The need to praise or condemn the things we love or hate is a primal need in humanity. I'd be willing to bet that when early humans began speaking, dichotomies such as love and hate, or good and bad, were among the first words from their lips. While such simple dichotomies can create turmoil in our world, they are also one of the most effective means of spreading information about those aspects of life worth embracing—or avoiding.
  • A need to pontificate. Whether you praise theoretical reviews as legitimate literary criticism or deride them as intellectual masturbation, agendas are at the heart of why someone writes this type of fictional analysis. The reviewer has an agenda and the book is critiqued from the agenda's point of view. These types of reviews can be fascinating but are rarely enlightening. Instead, they confirm the pros and cons of already existing views and theories. And whether or not the review tempts you into reading the story depends on whether or not you agree with the reviewer's agenda.
  • A need to explain how the reviewer would have written a different book. This reason for writing a review drives me crazy. I mean, if reviewers wish a different book had been written, they should write that damn book instead of pushing their ideas onto another author's story. A recent example of this is Lawrence K. Altman's review of Dr. Connie Mariano's memoir about her time as the White House doctor. Altman goes off on several tangents in his review, such as faulting Mariano for not discussing at length the 25th Amendment dealing with succession. This ignores the point that Mariano was writing a memoir, not a scholarly examination of the subject. Obviously Altman wished he'd been the one to write this memoir, not the author who simply dared to write about her own life.
  • A need to play with the story's world creation, stylistic language or themes. This is where reviewers are so inspired by a story they want to play with what they've read, so their review recreates or mimics aspects of the story. While this reason for writing reviews is somewhat rare, there's nothing wrong with the desire and it can result in some quite enthralling criticism. This stylistic playfulness can also tempt people into reading the original story by giving a taste of what's to come.
  • A need to draw attention to the reviewer. This is another irritating reason to write a literary review. Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories, although that's also a lousy reason to write fiction. While there is nothing wrong with critiquing from your own point of view—indeed, that's hard to avoid because criticism and opinions are such personal affairs—reviewers should never forget that true criticism isn't about them alone. Yes, it is their reaction to the story. But the story also exists apart from them. Only a fool forgets that.
  • A need to expand the understanding of a story. This expanded understanding can occur on the part of reviewers, their readers, or both. To one degree or another, this desire for understanding is the raison d'être for most types of literary criticism. And since many literary reviewers are also fiction writers, this expanded understanding can influence other stories in amazing ways. For example, if I, as a reviewer, understand what made one novel special then perhaps my own fiction writings will take a giant step forward. Or perhaps new writers who read my review will apply this understanding to their own fiction.

So why do I write literary reviews?

For me, literary criticism breaks down to the first and last points—the desire to bring attention to great stories, and a need to increase the understanding about stories both in myself and others.

And that's why, even though Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor has been extensively critiqued and praised, I'm still going to review the novel. Perhaps I will understand the story more as I write my critique. Maybe others will enjoy my insight into this wonderful book.

But most importantly, perhaps a few more readers will read the book because of what I say. And in the end, guiding readers to great books is the most important service any literary reviewer can provide.