Guidelines for literary fiction reviewers

Here is some guidance that (we hope) will help you write the kind of review that will be useful to Dactyl Review readers and writers alike, no matter what you think of the book. Literary fiction reviews should focus on writing style. Reviewers should spend less time discussing the characters personalities, and more time analyzing the techniques the authors used to create the characters. Reviewers should spend less time describing what happens in the story and more time considering the choices the author made in the way he/she tells the story.

A good review is not necessarily one that is full of praise–although the reviewer who likes a book usually understands it better than someone who does not like the book. In any case, your tastes, the writer’s tastes, and potential readers’ tastes may vary wildly. So saying you liked the book is pretty much useless information to people who don’t know you. If you feel the urge to give a thumbs up or down, be specific about the kinds of books you generally like, so that readers understand something about the criteria you are using. If you like novels with coherent narrative lines and the book you are reviewing is “experimental fiction,” or vice-versa then your thumbs down on the book might actually convince readers to buy it rather than not.

The objective of any review should be to help readers make their own decisions. Therefore, a good review is specific and provides examples from the writing to support the opinions offered. If you think the characters are well developed or not, quote a passage which shows that development and explain why the choices the author made work or don’t.

A review of a work of literary fiction must concentrate on the style of the writing. Do a good close reading of the writing. Do not analyze the characters’ personalities as if they were real people; always keep in mind that they are constructions. If you are writing more about what this character did and said than you are about what the author chose to have the character do or say, then you are still in a reader’s state of suspended disbelief and you are not looking at the book critically.

Define the author’s style (see tag cloud) and quote examples. Of course, the examples should be more or less typical of the style. All good reviewers read with pen in hand and mark passages that stand out so that they will be able to go back and choose lines to quote. Never rely on your general impressions of a book. Always be prepared to back up what you say.

Take less than half of your review for a synopsis and remarks about the book’s subject matter. In general, it’s a good idea to summarize the initiating event, explain what the main character does in response, and, if appropriate, say whether the response worked out for the character or not. Then pick a crucial scene and/or favorite aspect to focus on. Some novels may not have “initiating events,” but they will likely have something similar, e.g. initial conditions that either change or stay the same.

Apparently, most reviewers have been told as students to “say what you liked about the book and what you didn’t like about the book.” I can just see schoolmarms all over the country writing this down on blackboards and students diligently copying it out. These days too many reviews, even in professional publications, seesaw their ways through their analyses in a grotesque parody of “unbiased” reporting. If you don’t have anything bad to say, don’t bother or at least don’t bother too much. Whatever you do, don’t try to make the “good” and the “bad” points equal in length.

Most importantly, don’t be so quick to assume that the writer fails. Too many reviewers judge books according to their own expectations. If you like happy endings and the book ends in disaster, resist the temptation to say “the ending wasn’t very good.” Don’t say the “pace was off,” assuming the writer meant to keep the pace to your liking. Don’t say the writer failed to make the main character likable or consistent when this may not have been the intention. Whatever the effect of the book, you might assume, for the sake of the review, that the writer intended this effect, then show how it was accomplished. For example, if the main character is not a likable person, quote lines that show the character doing/saying/thinking offensive things. I cannot stress how important this piece of advice is for writing good reviews. It shows respect for the writer, and it will help prevent you, the reviewer, from seeming like a pompous ass.

You also might want to say something about whether or not the writer sticks to the conventions of the genre he or she is working in. This, of course, assumes you know for certain the genre and are familiar with its conventions. And here again be careful not to assume failure. The book might be a parody of a genre or the writer might be intentionally breaking convention, which is a common characteristic of literary fiction. You can compare the book to others like it in style or to previous books by the same author. Again support your assertions with quotes from the book. In the end, say something that seems to sum up your review by confirming the points you’ve made throughout.

“Objectivity” in book reviewing does not mean that you keep your opinions to yourself, or that you disregard your biases for or against certain types of writing, or that you don’t review books written by peers and friends. If you follow the advice here, your review will  be “objective” in the sense that your opinions will be backed up by evidence, quotes from the book. Good luck and remember to always review responsibly.

–V. N. Alexander, editor Dactyl Review

3 thoughts on “Guidelines for literary fiction reviewers

  1. I have just started my own lit-blog where I intend to review books. I want my reviews to be informative, well-written, and to be something that could generate intelligent discourse. I’m not really sure how to do it, but this post seemed like a good instruction. Thank you! I have a question, though. What is your opinion on rating a book? Is it necessary? How would you do it?

    • Thanks. Glad to be of help.
      Most blogs come with rating options already built in. We chose to use a “literary” or “not literary” option in place of a “like” or “don’t like” option. Not that many of our readers use our rating system, so it has not been an important part of our site.
      Good luck with your blog.

  2. Tori, I think this is the best article I’ve read regarding this issue…I admit to taking advantage of “retirement” to voice my opinions much more openly… LOL I was especially happy to hear your comments re excerpts. One article distribution site for which I was once writing had placed a limit on excerpts, stating they wanted our own writing instead. I found I had moved away from this because of those guidelines…but I certainly do have my pen in hand while reading, marking passages, making notes. I’ve asked elsewhere, but I would greatly appreciate your permission to reblog this, either with references or with you as a guest blogger (latter preferred) and to also be able to share it with a large group on Facebook, Reviewers Roundup which has about 2000 members. I can be reached at on LinkedIn, Facebook…if desired. My blog is Thank you so much for providing this helpful guidance as the publishing world/book reviewing expands into “blogging!”

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