Former Boston Review Editor Gail Pool has been involved in literary journalism for three decades. She has been a magazine editor, a review editor, a critic, a columnist, and a freelance journalist. Her columns, essays and articles have appeared in publications such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Houston Post, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Petersburg Times, the Kansas City Star, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times, among many others. She has also written about reviewing for the Women’s Review of Books, Boston Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Pool is the author of Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, published by the University of Missouri Press. For her impressive compilation of articles and essays on book reviewing, visit her Web site.
Thank you for being my guest today, Gail. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I’ve been involved with reviewing in one way or another for about 30 years. I started out as a reviewer at Boston Review, where I later became an editor, assigning essays and reviews. Since then, I’ve been a reviewer, columnist, or review editor for publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor and the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Women’s Review of Books, the Nation, the Radcliffe Quarterly, and the library press. I really feel I’ve seen the field from many angles.
What constitutes a good review?
Well, I think there are many ways of writing a good review—I don’t think there’s a formula. But a good review should include an accurate description of the book that places it in a meaningful context and an assessment of whether or not the book succeeds in what it set out to do and why. As an article in its own right, a review should also be well-written and interesting to read.
What is the difference between reviewing and criticism?
There are different kinds of criticism, and reviewing is one kind. Historically, reviewing has referred to the criticism of new books. This means the reviewer is writing for readers who haven’t read the book — which is why an accurate description is so important. And it also means that critics haven’t discussed the book before, so reviewers are on their own in forming their opinions. This is one of the reasons reviewing is so difficult.
Do you see a review as an opinion or as a critique of someone’s work?