The 3:01 Express: The HCR Interview Series

The 3:01 Express

Three writers, one topic, right now. In this issue, we discuss book reviews with April Michelle Bratten (Up the Staircase Quarterly), Michael Grover (Red Fez), and Jeff Alfier (San Pedro River Review). A huge thank you goes out to all three for lending their time and opinions for this column.

How “critical” of a book do you think reviewers should be? Do you feel reviewers, in general, are honest with their audience, or have most reviews become just another PR gimmick?

AMB: I feel that reviewers should be as critical as they want to be, or are comfortable with. There are many types of reviewers, and the authors who submit their work for review usually have some sort of understanding on the criticism they will receive back (if they have done the necessary research.) In the smaller press, it is harder for a reviewer to rip a writer apart without burning bridges or creating some sort of drama. Constructive criticism is usually better received, but even then, there are some writers who still can't deal. There are definitely more positive reviews floating around in this area of the writing world than negative, and I believe it is because of how claustrophobic the small press can feel at times.

As for a PR "gimmick," I feel that many writers are just trying to get their name out there, and a positive review can really help with that. On the other hand, that much could also be said about a negative review. Any word is ultimately good.

A few years ago, Grievous Jones Press did an anonymous review of a book with several reviewers. I thought this was a brilliant idea. The reviewers could be as honest as they wanted to be about the book without fearing any repercussions from their peers. I would love to see more reviews like this.

MG: Interesting question. I've really only done two book reviews for Red Fez. The first one Doug Draime asked me to review his new book which is outstanding. It was an honor. Doug Draime is honestly a gem of an underground writer that I would love to share with the World if I could. His writing is just another level. The second was Apryl Skies' book which she e-mailed Red Fez and asked if we could review. I agreed to do that. I liked her work. I felt it was refreshing and rhythmic.

With that said I am not afraid to say what is wrong with the small press. There is a lot of incest involved and there are things like Goodreads where it is easy for anyone to post a book review. A lot of it is just PR and cronyism unfortunately. It's an ugly part of the business if you could call this a business. There also seems to be a plastic niceness around. Like you can't say anything negative about anything.

JA: I think reviewers should simply be honest in their critical evaluations of a book. Although often funny to read, reviewer comments of sarcastic character are not really helpful. I do feel that reviewers out there are generally honest in their reviews. Sometimes you can tell when a reviewer is simply trying to blow the author’s skirt up, piling on flowery adjectives that seem to have dropped in uninvited. That kind of fluff would be PR gimmicks, in my view. In the summary, I include my likes and dislikes, and whether or not I feel my review is subjective or not, especially for a book of poetry, since poetry appreciation is a relative thing. That is, if I say I’ve never read a John Ashbury poem that I’ve liked, and you are a lover of Ashbury’s work, my comments on his book will mean little; after all, someone who appreciates a certain author’s work cannot suddenly unlike a book they’ve enjoyed in the past anymore than they can unlike a meal they enjoyed. I’ve written jacket blurbs for poets who’ve poems I’ve subsequently rejected for my literary journal because although I enjoyed reading and blurbing their books, it’s just not the kind of poetry I read and seek out on a daily basis. On other subjects, I try to offer brief comparative analyses; that is, why this book? Where does it fit in astride other books of the same topic? If, for instance, I was reviewing yet another book on the Battle of Gettysburg, the elephant in the room would be the question, “What? Another book on Gettysburg?” For poetry review, I offer, where possible, examples of poets they remind me of. I think that is helpful to the reader, especially if it’s a first book of poems.

How do you choose the books you review? What are some dos and don'ts for authors when trying try to get their books into the hands of quality reviewers?

AMB: Up the Staircase Quarterly used to accept unsolicited submissions for review, and we may again in the future, however with only two reviewers on staff this became an incredibly daunting task. We got many more submissions for review than we could handle. So, currently we only review writers who have appeared in our journal before.

As for do's and don'ts, a good synopsis, especially if the book is a novel, is key. Grammar and punctuation issues within the synopsis is a major turn off. It should be edited and make we want to read the book---fairly simple. For poetry books, depending on the length of the book, should include a few samples of the work. Two or three poems for a chapbook, and 5-10 poems for a longer collection is acceptable. I enjoy a short interesting bio, but a full page bio is never desired.

MG: Like I said I just kinda stumbled into the two reviews that I did. The fact that they both did query did work. Basically if you have a product that you feel is worth it don't be afraid to ask. There are always people around that want to help.

JA: I generally choose books to review based on whether I’m attracted to their subject matter. Sometimes it’s a title that catches my eye. This can be an elusive process for me, because I am not always in the mood to write reviews. As a poet, I never feel this way toward writing my own poems, but the reviewer part of brain often tires of writing and often needs a long break, as one would from writing term papers. On one occasion, I reviewed a book on Wilfred Owen’s poetry and was practically groaning as I wrote it, like a child being told the hundredth time to do his homework. But I never give the books short shrift, even if the final produce looks more like a “book notice” –Library Journal produces – than an in-depth review. Most of the time, I review books that people ask me to, such as other poets. On occasion, it is a book I’ve purchased without suggestion, and just feel excited enough to tell the world about. On other occasions I’d solicit books to review from the book review editor, such as Nancy Mazzia, my editor at Military Review. When I’m done with the books she sends me I can trade them in, or donate them, if in fact I don’t keep them myself.

For getting books in the hands of quality reviewers, a few things come to mind. First, I’d say offer it to people whose work seems to resonate with yours. That’s more proverbial than aphoristic, simply because readers and reviewers likely appreciate a spectrum of writing broader than their own. That is, they may be performance/slam poets, but they also like tighter, traditional lines of verse written by others. At other times you may ask another writer blindly to review your work, but in that case, assure them that if they don’t like it they are under absolutely no compulsion to write the review. Of course, an easy way out for potential reviewers is for them to say they're too busy, or are backlogged. I was recently asked by a poet to review her book sometime after I’d already written the blurb for it. I thought that would be too weird, but frankly my mental energy was on low octane at that point anyway.

Secondly, if you write a book of poems with a regional tilt to them, you may want to seek a regionalist/landscape poet to consider reviewing your book. This would apply to other genres of writing as well.

For me, a strong Don’t to is never bother the person who agrees to write the review, unless you are facing a deadline, either from a publisher who’d like to publish the review, or from yourself. If you sent them a book of twenty poems and haven’t heard from them in a year, you may want to check the obituaries. Another Don’t is being over-precise in your description of the book you offer to them. And always be professional, even if you know them.

What is the most difficult part about reviewing a book? Do you find it harder or easier to review a book by an author you know, and why?

AMB: I never find reviewing that difficult of a process, however, I do find it easier to review a writer that I know, because I am already familiar with their work. It is inspiring, as a reviewer, to see how that writer has evolved and which direction they have taken with their writing. It becomes a compare and contrast process, even though this might not reflect in the review. It helps me write about the new material.

For writers I do not know, I am a clean slate. I take my knee-jerk reaction and combine it with a more focused reading of the work. It is a little more difficult, but not overwhelming.

MG: The most difficult part for me about reviewing a book is finding the time to read the book so I actually can critically review it. It's a lot of work editing a monthly magazine, or any magazine for that matter. Most people don't realize how much work goes into that. There are several submissions to be read and reviewed. Plus you have work, life, and hopefully your own art to think about. Most editing jobs in the small press you don't get paid for. You just do it out of love. I know that's the answer for me. Everybody has their own.

JA: I would say the most difficult part is writing substantively without the flowery adjectives I spoke of earlier. One has to be as objective as possible, and avoid being political (i.e., worrying over whether or not I’ll anger the wrong person if I write a review someone doesn’t like). A reviewer can criticize constructively; in circumspective ways you can say, “this book is horrible,” by phrasing it something akin to “the author should have considered the fact that….” or, “the write seems to have neglected…,” and so forth. This is hard to do if the book is extremely disappointing, or, as in the case of history works, the author has played fast and loose with the facts. In one particular case, a book of military epigraphs, a writer had attributed several sayings to the wrong speaker, or included inconsequential epigraphs, when with a little research he’d of known better.

Another difficulty is in reading and compiling notes when you prefer to expend energy elsewhere. In that case, you need to pitch a tent and get it done, letting other non-critical writing tasks be put in abeyance. That may sound odd – why did you agree to write the review in the first place, damnit? – but sometimes we get behind in various projects, and let priority considerations slip. Sometimes the difficulties are structural, such as cutting down reviews you think need no more cutting lest the readers be sold out for chicken change, as a bluesman once crooned. For instance, Military Review likes its reviews between 500 and 750 words, or about a page-and-a-quarter of double-spaced text. The flip side of that is that online reviews, which often don’t face the same verbal space limitations, and don’t need the trimming (of course, reviewers should be wary of losing the reader’s interest through verbosity).

It is often harder to write a review by an author I know simply because of the social proximity factor, if you will. There are some people who are friends or acquaintances who’ve asked me to review their work, but if I don’t like it – or it’s frankly not my style, as in certain kinds of poetry – I’ll say something to the effect that it’s not the kind of work I normally read, and thus would not have a way to fairly evaluate it. In such cases, if at all possible, I offer suggestions of people who may be better suited to review it.


  1. I think these three have covered the bases on this question. As someone who has written reviews I can tell you that I haven't written a negative review. I figure there are so many good books out there, why take the time to talk about the weak ones?

    1. I agree, David. That's my policy here at HCR as well. I'll read a book, but if I don't like it, I won't finish and I won't write a review. Why bother? But if a book works for me, I'll do what I can to spread the word. But just because someone sends me a book and doesn't see a review, that doesn't mean I didn't like can also mean I'm just swamped.

      Also, sorry for the typo or two I saw in this column. I think I have fixed them.


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