The trouble with 350-word book reviews

I wrote about Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light for the latest issue of Maclean’s. After the magazine hit newsstands, my dad sent me an email saying he’d read my review. “I think it was well-written,” he wrote, “but I don’t think I’ll read the book, judging by your description of it.” I’d intended to recommend the novel, so to Danticat, I apologize for costing you a sale.1

The difficulty with reviews this short—a function of a pretty trim books section—is that it can be hard to convey what you think about a book without lapsing into clichés or hyperbole; there’s no room to expand the way you’d like to. It’s also too easy to fall back on plot summary, which is banal, although I’m sometimes guilty of it myself. The solution is simply to try harder to compress what you want to say without letting that compression distort your ideas.

  1. Of course it’s not a reviewer’s job to sell books, but discovering a great one is a lot like finding a fantastic dentist—you feel compelled to share your good fortune. It’s the bookish version of “I know a guy!”