I know: writing book reviews can be really difficult.
That’s why, mid-2019, I put together a Book Blogger Resource post offering 63 book reviewing prompts to help book bloggers write book reviews that they found challenging. I suppose I’m not the only one who struggles to write book reviews, because my book review prompts post is one of my highest viewed posts at The Quiet Pond. Today though, I want to get a little more specific and offer some guidance on writing book reviews when you feel a little out of depth.
If you have ever felt a little out of depth when tackling a book review, don’t worry – you’re not alone! There have been many times where I have felt like I was a little out of depth to adequately write a book review – to the point where, I just decide not to review it altogether (but more on that later).
To help those of you out there who feel like you might be out of depth to write a book review, I’ve put together a simple guide with some questions and advice on what to do. As a disclaimer, these are based on my personal opinions of what I think is ‘best practice’ when it comes to book reviewing, particularly from a book blog as a hobby perspective.
I hope this resource will help any book bloggers out there. Keep up the great work, keep your chin up, because you’re doing a wonderful job!
First: defining ‘out of depth’
It might be helpful to actually define what I mean when I say that you feel ‘out of depth’. This can mean a variety of things, but this book blogger resource is based on the perspective that ‘out of depth’ means:
- You may not be able to accurately represent or describe how you feel about the book
- You didn’t “get” what the book was trying to do
- You don’t feel like you can adequately discuss a specific experience or theme in a book because it is outside of your lived experience
- You don’t “understand” identity-specific experiences depicted in the book and therefore didn’t enjoy it
In this resource, I’ll cover all of these definitions.
Second: Recognise that you feel out of depth, and that’s ok
Book bloggers feel immense pressure to express our thoughts and feelings accurately – and sometimes we feel pressure to describe or offer our perspective on every aspect of the book. (I feel that too!)
As I have always maintained, book reviewing is not an ‘objectivity’ exercise. There is no such thing as an ‘objective’ book review, because how we view, interpret, experience, and evaluate books is very much intertwined with our own personal and lived experiences. In other words, your perspective of a book and its story will be different to someone else, because your experience will be different.
There is understandably a difficult balance between a book that doesn’t do the best job at storytelling and a reader who doesn’t understand the story because it contains nuances that the reader might not be able to grasp and understand. It’s a delicate art, but recognising the difference and adjusting your expectations or evaluation is important and is a skill that makes a good book reviewer. (But I’ll talk more about this later!)
The most important step though? Have the grace to step back and consider that, not only do you feel out of depth, you may actually be out of depth – and acknowledge that it is okay and not a bad thing.
So you feel out of depth because…
You can’t adequately describe how you feel about the book
Sometimes, a book just feels so good and is just so brilliantly-told that you feel out of your depth because, well, how can you write a book review that does it justice? If you feel that way, don’t worry; you’re not alone!
I certainly felt that way when I wrote my book review for Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. Raybearer was just such a magnificent book with so many themes that intertwined with each other to create this fantastic and layered story. I felt intimidated to review it because I wanted everyone to know how amazing it was, and I wanted to do the book justice!
My advice when you feel out of depth because you don’t think you can write a review that does the book justice is:
1. You don’t have to talk about every single reason why you liked the book; three reasons will do. Sometimes, when a book is magnificent, it’s tempting to cover every single reason why it’s a good book. The reality is that the reader doesn’t need to know every single reason why you loved it – giving three very compelling reasons is often more than enough.
Ask yourself one of the following questions to help you figure out what your ‘three reasons’ would be:
→ ‘what were three things that I enjoyed the most?’
→ ‘what were three things that I think everyone would love?’
→ ‘what were three things that make this book unique and special?’
2. Write an outline of your book review. Like writing a book or tackling an essay, sometimes having a plan can help you. It can take only five minutes, but it will help you stay on course.
→ write out the sentences or main points that you want to talk about
→ using your main points, ask yourself, why? and then just build on that
→ use the prompts here to expand on your points and build your paragraphs
3. When stuck or in doubt, write simple. One of the traps in writing is thinking that writing fancy means writing well. At the end of the day, you are writing a book review, not a sequel to the book you are reviewing. There have been times where I have wanted my book review to be just as eloquent and well-told as the book – but I had to remind myself that that’s not the purpose of my book review!
→ the main purpose of a book review is to communicate your feelings and thoughts in a way that the reader understands
→ in other words, write simple and aim for ‘easy to understand’
→ whenever I feel stuck on a sentence, I ask myself, ‘what am I trying to say?’ and if I can express myself in simple words, then I go with that
You don’t “get” the book
Although I firmly believe that every book reviewer has a responsibility to try and engage with the work as much as possible, sometimes there are some books that, despite your best efforts, you just won’t “get” or “understand”.
My biggest advice when you feel this way is to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is it that you’re trying to get, specifically?” In other words, what is it that you are trying to “get” or “understand” – is it the book’s themes? the “point” of the book? why it’s so popular?
If I can tell every book reviewer something, it’s that I think it’s important to actively manage and adjust your expectations when reading a book. By this, I mean that sometimes readers will go into a book expecting it to be something it isn’t, and it’s sometimes important for readers to take a step back and recognise that we may be expecting something that the book never intended to be in the first place.
For example, if you go into a book expecting it to have hard science-fiction elements but it’s actually a contemporary romance with space themes, you’ll come out feeling disappointed – but that’s not necessarily the book’s fault. Rather, it’s your expectations shaping what you think the book ought to be. Granted, sometimes our expectations are set by how the book is marketed, but it’s also important to adjust your expectations as you read, especially if you have reflected and felt that you might have wanted something other than what the book offers.
1. Reflect on what your expectations of the book were.
→ did my expectations shape or influence why I don’t “get” or “understand” the book?
→ am I reviewing the book for what it is or for what I wanted from the story?
→ are my expectations rooted in ignorance? did I want a book to be educational, even though it’s not necessarily an author’s responsibility to educate me?
2. Re-adjust your expectations, if needed. Readjusting your expectations can be difficult, because your expectations will influence how much you enjoy a book and how you have experienced and/or evaluated the book.
→ read other people’s book reviews to get a sense of why people liked or disliked it – though you don’t have to follow what they think, sometimes it helps to get a different perspective
→ ask yourself: if my expectations are unrealistic or unreasonable, what would be a more appropriate or relevant expectation?
3. Consider that there may be nothing to “get” or “understand”. Sometimes it pays to step back and consider, ‘maybe it’s not that deep’. I remember a few times where I’ve wanted more from what the book was giving to me, and it took me a moment of reflection (and reading why everyone else liked it) to realise that I was imposing my expectations or overthinking on the book.
→ am I overthinking this?
→ is there anything for me to “get”, or do I want there to be something and I’m imposing my expectations on the book?
4. Be honest! There’s nothing wrong with going into a book and expecting something else entirely. And it’s okay to be honest about that in your book review – it’s part of the reading experience, after all.
→ “I went into this book expecting X but instead, I discovered that this book was about Y“.
Conversely, sometimes a book doesn’t do the best job at storytelling, so by the end, you feel a little lost or you feel like you didn’t really understand what it was trying to say or do. What do you do then?
1. Talk about what you felt didn’t work for you and be open about it. There’s a section in my book reviews prompt page that helps you frame why you weren’t a fan of something.
2. It’s okay to be honest if you feel unsure. I think there is this unsaid expectation that book reviewers have to be absolutely sure and certain in their book reviews. Maybe the expectation exists for a reason, but I’d much read a review where the reviewer was honest and open about if they were unsure about a specific aspect of the book or were unsure about their feelings of the book. To me, that demonstrates self-awareness and an openness to discussions about the book.
→ “I wasn’t really sure what the author was trying to get at here, but I interpreted it as X and my thoughts are Y.”
You don’t know how to discuss an experience/theme because it is outside of your lived experience
As we open our selves to different stories and narratives, we will inevitably read about characters with a different identity or lived experience to us, which means that we have to engage in themes or ideas or feelings that we may not be familiar with.
As a consequence, a reviewer who doesn’t understand, for the example, the nuances of queer Asian identity and its fraught relationship with white queer spaces or the experiences of a poor disabled person in a world that caters to able-bodied people (just to name a few), might evaluate a book in a way that is ignorant. (But, to be fair, sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.)
However, book reviewers are absolutely not expected to be experts in all lived experiences and identities – and, believe me, book reviewers are not expected to always provide in-depth commentary on themes or experiences, especially such themes or experiences don’t resonate with you.
My advice, then:
1. Be gracious that you may not understand all cultural/identity-related nuances. No one expects book reviewers to be the expert in every single unique experience and to offer commentary on it. Be gracious with yourself.
→ if you are not an expert on a lived experience, don’t try to play an “expert” (nothing is more obnoxious and pretentious than someone who has no idea what they are saying)
2. Consider that discussing the lived experience and its validity/accuracy may not be needed. If you don’t share the same identity or lived experience as the main character, consider that it isn’t necessary or worthwhile for you to talk about how good the representation is, how accurate it was, how valid it was. It probably isn’t relevant to your evaluation of the book, and it probably is not helpful to readers.
→ avoid making statements like, “I don’t share the same identity as this character, but I think the representation was great”; this evaluation is not helpful!
→ instead, you can talk about other aspects of the character; e.g., character development, whether you thought the characters were interesting, whether you were interested in their growth, etc.
3. Do acknowledge, do empathise. Conversely, don’t pretend that the themes or experiences depicted in the story didn’t exist!
→ acknowledge what is depicted/explored in the story; it tells your reader what they can expect from the book, especially if it’s a central theme
→ acknowledging would sound like, “this story explores the intersection of queer identity and Asian identity”
→ do empathise; you may not “understand” on a fundamental and deep level, but do embody empathy; accept that you may just never “understand” because your world view may limit you from understanding, and be open to a different perspective
→ “even though I don’t share the same identity as this character, I liked these parts of the book”
4. Link to book reviewers who provide insight instead. So what can you do if you feel like you cannot or should not weigh in? Refer your readers to another book review that can provide insight! In other words, if the book you are reading is about a character that is, for example, Malaysian, consider including a link in your book review to a review written by a Malaysian reviewer.
→ be mindful that one book review/opinion does not represent the opinions of all; link a few, and let your readers decide on their own
You don’t “understand” identity-specific experiences depicted in the book and therefore didn’t enjoy it
This point seems to be a culmination of all the points before – and it’s certainly a tough one.
A huge frustration for some book reviewers is seeing their peers evaluate a book negatively simply because they “didn’t understand it”. You know, the frustrating Goodreads review that says: “I didn’t understand the worldbuilding or the culture. 2 stars.“
There is a tendency when evaluating books to believe that, because you don’t “understand” its nuances means that the book failed somehow – when it may be anything but. To some degree, I can understand that – you didn’t “connect” with the writing, so you felt disengaged and disinterested and you felt lost. No one likes feeling disengaged or ‘othered’.
However, consider these perspectives:
→ was the book written for a specific audience in mind; an audience that may not include you?
→ historically, books have been written for a white, cis, able-bodied, and heterosexual audience; if you don’t understand the book, especially if it centers a person outside of the historically targeted audience, does it entail that the book is not a good book?
→ what unfair expectations could you be perpetuating if you expect all books to cater to your singular, specific worldview?
→ reflect on acknowledging the limit of your personal experiences; were there other aspects of a book that you can enjoy or relate to?
→ would someone who would “understand” it enjoy it? why would they enjoy it?
→ reflect on how you could be more empathetic when evaluating books
→ understand that you don’t have to like or love or enjoy all books by marginalised authors – and that they should be evaluated like any other book – but also reflect on the impact or your biases and ignorance
I hope that this resource was helpful to you! The crux of this Book Blogger Resource is to encourage book reviewers to be more thoughtful in the ways we write book reviews, and I hope that this resource helped you write a book review where you felt out of depth.
If you found this list helpful, please don’t hesitate to share this post with your fellow book reviewers! And if any of you have any spare change, I do have a Ko-Fi if you want to show a little appreciation. Thank you for reading!