At the Decatur Book Festival recently, I attended the panel on the art of book reviewing which was made up of three local reviewers and two authors. Since this is a topic of great interest to me as a bookseller, I thought it would make an interesting blog post to increase our collective knowledge.
Gina Webb, book reviewer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, agreed to speak with me about her wealth of experience in the book world. First, some personal background. Webb was raised in Princeton, New Jersey, then attended art school in Philadelphia and always felt a tug between art and writing, as she loved them both. She had a “fabulous” English professor in college who taught her how to read a book: “It’s not just what’s on the page, but what the author brings to it—read between the lines.” And although she moved several times during her career—Philadelphia, Raleigh, Atlanta—she would always gravitate to the artsy parts of town to mingle with those with whom she felt a real kinship—to continue to affiliate with creative people.
After landing a job in Brentano’s Bookstore in the late 70s, Webb began submitting fiction mostly to literary magazines and newspapers like Creative Loafing, hoping to gain experience and to hone her craft. Her career got a boost in 1980 when the Atlanta Journal accepted a review, and she was very persistent, continuing to write and send out submissions constantly. She freelanced as a proofreader and copy editor for local publishers including Longstreet Press and Turner Publishing, and ended up as editor on a wide range of books for both adults and children. She also wrote interviews and feature articles which led to her becoming music editor at Creative Loafing, and in 2009, she began reviewing books for the AJC, where she remains today.
So, here’s the obvious question—how does a reviewer choose the books? Webb says it should be whether or not you want to share this reading experience—you MUST be excited about it. She tries to choose something different, interesting and important—something about which she has little first-hand knowledge or experience. “I look for good writing, a different slant, a book with heart.” She shies away from subject matter that has been “done to death” such as re-dos of recent runaway bestsellers like The Help or the many variations on The Secret Life of Bees. One of her special joys is discovering an under-the-radar book and introducing it to the reading public; a particular favorite is Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which went on to win the National Book Award. Webb also believes in giving most books more than a cursory read: “Sometimes what the author has to say takes time to discover.” For instance, she recalls, a woman once complained to William Faulkner that she didn’t understand his novel The Sound and the Fury, to which he replied: “Read it again.”
These things enable her to pare down the mountain of books sent to her on a daily basis. At the AJC, Webb’s niche is Southern writing, and although she was raised in the “land of Northern aggression,” she feels having read so much about the South has been a humbling yet educational experience, and she is emphatic that much of the best writing comes from the South. Well, we ALL knew that, right?
For those of you who yearn for or imagine a career as a book reviewer, Webb has some advice for you.
You have to want to do it and to be willing to learn to be professional about it. There’s no point in sizing up a book by saying, for example, I didn’t like the characters, or there’s too much violence in it. Maybe the writer is trying to bring you to a point of understanding through that violence and those characters you don’t like. Open your mind—you can’t like books the same way you like people.
The book reviewer is the bridge from the book to the reader—is this just a book to curl up with to pass the time, or do you want a deeper meaning, which is the author’s purpose?
Education, is, of course, an important part of being able to delve deeply into a book, but it is by no means the only component of what makes a great book reviewer. Life experience is certainly key, as is a willingness to learn and to be patient. Obviously, you should be a fairly fast reader, as a reviewer normally reads two to three books a week!
Webb says that she certainly never set out to become a book reviewer, but the sum total of her life including her art, writing, travel, education, and a life-long love for books led her to this wonderfully fulfilling career.
Do you base your book choices on book reviews? If so, why? Do you read book reviews in newspapers and magazines or online?