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While the Internet may be suffocating the world of print media, it has only enlivened the genre of the book review. In addition to the scores of websites posting book reviews daily, anyone with an Amazon password can share her opinion on a book with the waiting world.

P.D. James wrote her autobiography Time to Be in Earnest in 1997, when fax machines still played a vital role in the life of a successful author. She included in her memoir a list that she called “presumptuous advice for reviewers,” based more on her extensive experience writing reviews than on her (also extensive) experience of being reviewed. If you set out to review a book, James advises


  1. Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.

  2. Don’t undertake to review a book if it is written in a genre you particularly dislike.

  3. Review the book the author has written, not the one you think he/she should have written.

  4. If you have prejudices—and you’re entitled to them—face them frankly and, if appropriate, acknowledge them.

  5. Be scathingly witty if you must and can, but never be deliberately cruel, except to those writers who themselves deal in cruelty, and therefore presumably expect it.

  6. If you absolutely hate the book and have nothing either interesting or positive to say, why review it? Any review gives a book much-wanted publicity and it is a pity to waste space on a book which is meretricious or dishonest when you could be saying something of value about one worth reading. An exception to this rule is an eagerly awaited major work by a well-known writer when the verdict of leading critics is expected.

  7. If you are given a book to review by a close friend and you strongly dislike it, don’t review it. We none of us like hurting our friends and the temptation to be over-kind is too strong.

  8. Resist the temptation to use a review to pay back old scores or to vent your dislike of the author’s sex, class, politics, religion or lifestyle. Try to believe that it is possible for people of whom you disapprove to write a good book.


What say you, Internet? Is Baroness James’s advice still good? Have you ever been tempted to pan a book of little consequence purely because antipathy is so eminently tweetable?

Photo courtesy of J. Brew

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