What is the ideal length for a book review? Put this question to the world’s leading search engine and the first serious answer it offers is from the Michigan Law Review: “No more than 8,500 words, including footnotes. We believe that this is the ideal length for an interesting and useful book review.” The only other answer is from the Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics (JSCE), published from Minnesota, which says with arid discipline that: “A review of one book should not exceed 600 words. On occasion the Book Review Editor will request a review of more than one book as a result of two or three books on a closely related subject; such reviews should not exceed 1,200 words, with exceptions up to 1,500 words.”
For comparison, the average full-sized newspaper book review is about 800 words long, and appears to have been since the 1940s at least.
The answers offered by the journals above – although they both, one presumes, review scholarly, not trade, books – are at opposite ends of the scale: 8,500 words is a review essay and 600 words no more than a summarisation with, one assumes, a good/bad judgement worked in. Neither is a model applicable to a self-respecting newspaper, you might say — but I think there’s something there.
Here’s one reason why. A couple of years ago, while preparing the usual list of “books to look out for this season”, I asked a publisher which kind of review helped push sales more, the regular 800-worder or one of these little seasonal boxkins, at 150 words or so per title. He said: “Any specific picks and recommendations have twice the impact of a regular review.”
Ouch. A quick search on the internet reveals what kind of book review is both done and expected by members of the public. The ideal review is short, tells the reader what to expect, and says “yes, buy this”, or “no, don’t buy this”. Sites like Mouthshut.com with user-generated content fit the bill admirably, and on newspaper websites there is all too often the annoying comment at the foot of the painstaking formal review that yaps, “Who does this reviewer think he is? Why doesn’t he just tell us: buy or don’t buy?”
Perhaps such de-intellectualisers are right (I have a bright friend in publishing who says the same thing). After all, give them what they want – a quick answer – and at least one goal of the journalist is achieved: to be influential.
The problem is: ask small, get small. It’s not worth the decent reviewer’s while to read a whole book, and then read around it for context, only to produce a 150- or a 500-word snippet. The 800-word limit of the standard newspaper review, including those in this newspaper, is in fact the minimum space a reviewer needs to be inspired to take a little trouble. In 800 words, he can give context, summarise the argument (if the book is non-fiction) or the storyline and chief characters (if it is a novel), say a few words about the author, quote a short passage for evidence and then allow himself a brief peroration to pep himself up before winding up.
I want to put before you a comparison, from my experience, of the time it takes to produce a reported feature of 1,000 words, and an 800-word book review. Including reporting, Net research before and after, telephone and writing time, the average reported feature takes about 17 hours. Including reading time, background reading, Net research and writing time, the book review (say, a 350-page non-fiction title) takes 40 hours.
As George Orwell, who was a fantastic book reviewer, points out in his 1946 essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”, most books are mediocre. Some are terrible and only a few are good; yet they all get the same space. He says, “The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews – 1,000 words is a bare minimum – to the few that seem to matter.” But he adds that “Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful [...]”.
It seems an elegant, fair solution. More for the deserving, less for the ordinary. Perhaps not 8,500 words, as the Michigan Law Review has it, but more than 800. Sometimes we reviewers could cheat and cover two or more books at once, following the JSCE’s rule of thumb of 600 words per book. Such essays are difficult and fun to do well, and rewarding to read. They are not done often, partly because the effort is not worth the space. And for the many, many unexceptional books that come out every week, a 150-word listing will meet the needs of impatient readers as well as publishers eager to make sales.
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