What is it with book reviews that never say whether the book is actually worth reading?

11 August, 2011

From the Little Things That Annoy Me department.

Is it just me, or are book reviewers increasingly using their allotted space as an opportunity to show off their own erudition, style and sense of humour, and failing in their basic duty of telling us whether the reviewed work is actually worth spending our precious time reading?

Maybe it was always thus, and I notice it more now that I am in “intimations of mortality” territory, and have become acutely conscious that I don’t want to waste any remaining hours or days on badly written books.   Maybe the reviewer is a friend of the writer and so is wary of giving a stinker the bad review it deserves.  Maybe certain critics are victims of cultural relativism and instinctively avoid any suggestion that a given work is superior to another.  Whatever the reason, it’s just not good enough, you hear?!

Another bad habit of book reviewers is to go into excessive detail about what the book actually contains, and to argue at tedious length for/against the author’s view of the world.  As I get older, what matters more is how well the book is written, not what it’s about.   I would read anything by certain writers: Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Paul Theroux, Martin Amis (well, almost anything), Robert Hughes, Clive James, Simon Gray, Francis Wheen, Alan Bennett, Gore Vidal.

The non-fiction work of the last-mentioned (Vidal) proves the following point, to me at least: the content may be daft, but a good stylist can be forgiven everything.

So come on, reviewers, stop showing off and stop telling us everything the book is about. Just make sure your review tells us what we most need to know: is the book well written, is it a pleasure to read?

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3 Responses to “What is it with book reviews that never say whether the book is actually worth reading?”


  1. No women writers in your favorites list? For shame!

    My new book, a memoir, has too often gotten what many memoirs get in the guise of a “review” — a face-punch. My personality (?) is dissected and trashed, while the book’s actual — you know, content — is ignored.

    Very few reviewers seem to have the willingness or ability to do what you need. I agree.

  2. Susan Hwang Says:

    Saw the mention of Vladimir Nabokov in your post, and wanted to let you know that original music and art inspired by Nabokov’s DESPAIR being presented tonight at Goodbye Blue Monday in Brooklyn. We’re a songwriting book club. bushwickbookclub.com and facebook.com/bushwickbookclub for more info.! Songs will eventually be posted at bushwickbookclub.bandcamp.com


  3. […] When I mentioned my favourite writers some years ago, I was taken to task because I didn’t include any female authors. I confess I hadn’t even considered gender when assessing whose works I liked to read, but you could say that the criticism “raised my consciousness” about the issue. […]


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