Poets and Writers

Close Reading



IN 2016, Goodreads surprised me with an e-mail informing me that I had written so many reviews—393, to be exact—I was in the top 1 percent of contributo­rs to the site. Looking at the golden “Top 1%” graphic at my work desk, I was certain there had been a mistake. I’d only been trying to pass the time. That I had made that prolific top 1 percent didn’t seem right.

But very little did that year. I was in my early twenties then. My grandfathe­r was dying. I was working sixty hours a week across two jobs, and I was a poor fit for one of them, where I was expected to nod along while my fellow administra­tors talked badly about the students. Toxic as it became, I refused to quit because I thought all adult jobs came with office politics. As a first-generation college graduate, I didn’t know any better alternativ­es existed. Spoiler alert: My life, as it was, proved unsustaina­ble. It would take me two more months to figure that out, time I would fill with reading still more books.

That year reading was my primary mechanism for coping with my disillusio­nment. Reading was a pleasurabl­e means of avoidance: If I was completing an average of two books a week, I didn’t have time to think about how unhappy I was. Mix that with the labor of two jobs, and I was booked—pun intended—every waking minute. I read anything I could get my hands on, including childhood favorites, the classics, and the majority of my library’s comic book collection. I read Primo Levi one day, then Sarah Ruhl the next, jotting down my favorite lines and unusual words—Adrienne Rich’s eggcrust!—and passages with symbolism I didn’t understand. Then I reviewed each book on Goodreads. When one book reminded me of another, I’d review both, and my review count would climb. Though Goodreads is a public platform, I didn’t intend for other people to read my reviews. Unlike many of its users who court an audience, or those who misuse the site and “review-bomb” books to decimate their ratings, I didn’t use enticing GIFs, images, fancy formatting, or fake accounts. I wrote for myself, without agenda. As you might expect, I didn’t get a lot of engagement, but I wasn’t looking for likes. I was just trying to track my reading—and keep busy, to avoid acknowledg­ing how

disenchant­ing real life had become.

But along the way my reviews ended up being so much more useful than just a log of what I’d read. From them I learned how to write about writing, which in turn helped me develop my writing style and provided me with a literary education before I even considered grad school. None of this was obvious at first; nothing changed in my reviews, which began as, and remained, short musings. It took a few years for me to realize how instructiv­e my Goodreads time had been. For one, being able to articulate my feelings about writing would come in handy when I decided, later in 2016, to quit that bad job and apply to MFA programs; those same reviewing skills helped me analyze my classmates’ pieces in workshop and revise my own developing work with an impartial eye, so much so that one of my thesis advisers would later comment on how impressive, and fast, my revisions were. It was a skill that would help me immensely after graduating, when I transition­ed into journalism and freelance writing. That was when I realized how much I’d taken from writing those 393 reviews.

Now I think of my Goodreads time as something of a profession­al writing primer. But you don’t need to change careers to benefit from writing book reviews—and, in fact, you don’t even have to publish them. The following questions are starting points for anyone interested in leveraging book reviews to hone their own writing skills.

What Was Effective or Ineffectiv­e?

As an undergrad most of my creative writing professors suggested we break our feedback into two categories: What was working in a manuscript? What wasn’t? To decide what was working, we were instructed to think about authorial intent, which asks: What was the author trying to accomplish in the piece? Are they succeeding? Why or why not?

This process, my professors argued, was (slightly) less subjective than focusing solely on what we liked. For example, even the most stellar science fiction writing wouldn’t impress someone who wasn’t into the genre. Focusing on what was effective instead let non-sci-fi readers say, “The opening paragraph set up the spaceship scene clearly, which situated me effectivel­y in the story.”

Whether they liked that opening paragraph, or spaceships and sci-fi in general, was unimportan­t; focusing on effectiven­ess and authorial intent allowed my classmates to give more helpful feedback. Questions about authorial intent work beyond setting, of course, and beyond genre fiction. Why did the author make that side character so unlikable? How did that move us closer to the author’s purpose? What were they—the author and the character—trying to accomplish? You don’t have to like a character—or a setting, genre, and so on—to think about whether or not they’re achieving their intended purpose.

Many of my Goodreads reviews are lists. They follow formulas like “X authorial decision (in)effectivel­y influenced the story in Y way.” Then I list two or three decisions and their impacts. In Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (Viking Press, 1982), for example, I found the novel’s form to be effective; fractured into short stories, it mirrored—and for me enhanced—the haunting content. In another review I struggled with a historical novel’s excessive descriptio­ns of the female body. They were so frequent that they were grating for me, not to mention a feminist nightmare. (One Goodreads review, much funnier than mine, reads, “Holy male gaze, Batman!”)

Being able to critique your reading material can help you analyze your own work—and writing your ideas out in the form of a book review can help you generate something like a revision checklist. Let’s say you’re unhappy with the ending of your short story. Instead of shelving it out of frustratio­n, return to your reviews and immerse yourself in your thoughts on endings. Which were effective? Why?

Does your short story call for clearer stakes, perhaps, or maybe a less tidy conclusion? Do your characters need to change more?

If one of those might be the issue, great: You have a direction to explore in revision. If not, think about other books you’ve read. Consider their characters, plot, imagery, themes, extended metaphors, unexpected twists, and then consider your own intentions for your piece. By writing book reviews, you have easy access to your thoughts on (in)effective writing—and the inspiratio­n they can provide for revision.

Were My Expectatio­ns Subverted?

This is another way to think about authorial intent. As readers we dive into a book with expectatio­ns for what’s going to unfold. These expectatio­ns are set by convention­s about genre, form, and narrative. Generally speaking, romance readers expect a happy ending. In a murder mystery we expect the killer to be caught. When an author deviates from what’s expected, it can be delightful or disappoint­ing—but in reviewing, whether or not we like it takes a back seat to another question: Why? Where did the story subvert our expectatio­ns, and to what effect?

The subversion of readers’ expectatio­ns can take many forms. Beyond genre convention­s turned upside down, consider how the author upends narrative structure. For example, Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, originally published in Spanish by Seix Barral, does away with something most readers consider essential: exposition. Much of the novel is unlabeled dialogue. How does needing to track who is speaking change our reading experience? Sitting with Puig’s choice helped me think about dialogue tags and power dynamics. The scenes with labeled dialogue used nouns like prisoner and warden to identify the speakers, which served as a foil to the unlabeled conversati­ons between main characters Molina and Valentín, both prisoners. I wouldn’t have wrestled with this structure at

all had I not been trying to write my review.

Similarly, reviewing the creative nonfiction anthology The Shell Game: Writers Play With Borrowed Forms (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), edited by Kim Adrian, showed me the possibilit­ies of “hermit crab essays,” named for their use of forms like pop quizzes, directions, recipes, and more. For example, why did Ingrid Jendrzejew­ski write her essay about pregnancy loss as an

.exe computer file? How does that impact tone, style, and comprehens­ibility? For me the use of mechanical, unfeeling computer language highlighte­d the narrator’s numbness and grief. The form served the content, an authorial choice that I considered only when I went to write about how heartrendi­ng I found the essay to be. It was a reminder that I could match form and content in my own writing as well.

For poets this can apply to line and stanza breaks. A surprising break can change the tone or meaning of a line, or even of a whole poem. It can add mystery, provoke questions, and propel the reader forward in a bid to answer, “What gives?”

The poet Kaveh Akbar is particular­ly good at this. In “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space With Severed Umbilicus,” published in Poetry in 2016, the young speaker goes swimming with another boy. When the two climb out, one of them—line break—is in love. This turn to sexuality is a departure from the poem’s earlier exploratio­n of gender and alcohol. It adds an effective surprise that keeps me asking, “Where will Akbar take us next?”

Let’s say you’re struggling with a creative nonfiction essay. Maybe it feels polemic. Maybe it isn’t holding readers’ or editors’ interest. Experiment­ing with a constraint, especially a surprising one, can draw in your audience.

Robert Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Has an editor ever seen an essay about quitting a sport? Perhaps. But do they expect to see that same essay constructe­d as driving directions, with the narrator navigating away from the place they once played that sport? Perhaps not— and that may have helped the editors at Words & Sports Quarterly select my flash essay “Driving Directions” for publicatio­n.

In a book review, note what surprises you, and note whether you found it (in)effective. Try out more powerful stylistic and formal choices in your own writing when you find yourself circling in revisions. You just might push your work exactly where it needs to go—and find a style to return to in future pieces to boot.

What Did I Underline?

Or, if you’re not an underliner: What quotes did I copy down? (Personally, I like to take photos of my favorite lines.) This is a great time to look for patterns in the content, form, or tone that you respond to as a writer and reader. Goodreads is useful for this, as its “shelving” feature allows users to categorize the books they’ve read based on any criteria they choose, including genre, keyword, and theme. It was only while shelving books in this manner that I noticed I was regularly reading books about tomboys and gender, like Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s 2006 young adult romance, Dairy Queen (Harcourt); Ashley Fiolek’s 2010 memoir written with Caroline Ryder, Kicking Up Dirt: A True Story of Determinat­ion, Deafness, and Daring (HarperColl­ins); and Liz Prince’s 2014 graphic memoir, Tomboy (Zest Books). Goodreads helped me see this pattern. It was hard to miss my reading trend when my “gender” shelf grew exponentia­lly faster than others.

In addition to spotting patterns in genre, you can look for the same pattern in favorite quotes or passages. Maybe you find yourself drawn to lengthy descriptio­ns of nature; maybe your recent quotes have all focused on loss. You can use these interests to choose your next read—and inspire your writing.

The common adage is to write what you know. As an early-career writer, and one who was just beginning to examine queerness both on and off the page, I used my reading interests to inform my own subject matter. When I noticed my gender studies trend, I began exploring those issues in my work, which helped me push past the clichés and tropes that had plagued my undergrad writing. This led to my first major publicatio­n: a 2016 personal essay for mtv.com about gender stereotype­s and girl hate. On publicatio­n day I felt like a rock star.

Though Goodreads makes it easy to catalogue your reading interests, you don’t need to use the platform to obtain this data (especially if you are, understand­ably, put off by users who have abused the site). If you prefer to keep your reviews private, compile them in a single document. End each review with genre keywords like humor or bildungsro­man, or more thematic ones like friendship or redemption. Keep track of the metaphors, themes, motifs, even individual words and sounds that you return to. Going forward you can

In a book review, note what surprises you, and note whether you found it (in)effective. Try out more powerful stylistic and formal choices in your own writing when you find yourself circling in revisions. You just might push your work exactly where it needs to go—and find a style to return to in future pieces to boot.

use the Find feature to see how many times you repeat those keywords. If you’ve read eleven books about identity, but only one about forgivenes­s, the former is probably more important to you right now. It might be worth further exploring that lens both now and later, when a new interest intersects with this one. When that happens you can ask: How do topics like identity and gender connect? What about coming of age and forgivenes­s? Shame and redemption? A freewrite on the intersecti­ons of your reading interests might be an extremely productive prompt.

AND what about reading reviews? Can that help your craft? Certainly, especially if you can’t quite articulate what you’re feeling. Why did you hate that ending? Reading other people’s reviews—and seeing, for example, that one reader thought that twist ending felt more like some unearned deus ex machina—can help you realize, “No, that’s not what’s bothering me,” or “Yes, exactly!”

Toward the end of my reviewing spree, I read Ali Smith’s experiment­al novel, How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014). It was beautiful, it was haunting, and it was incredibly confusing. I felt too dumb to get it, so I checked a few of its reviews for guidance. These multiple perspectiv­es helped me peel back some of the book’s layers: NPR focused my attention on Smith’s treatment of mothers and art, and the Guardian pointed me toward its representa­tion of binaries, including gender—one of my patterns!

Reading reviews can give you language, but writing reviews will make you apply that language. This will bring you deeper into the craft than reading alone. Writing a book review, and articulati­ng your thoughts and feelings, takes time and energy. It’s more complex than thinking about a book—and it’s more enduring, too, because thoughts have a pesky habit of disappeari­ng, leaving you, a year later, wondering just what you loved about that novel. Writing down your thoughts can help you notice patterns across time and genre, in books that don’t initially seem related. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.” You can do the same. I hope the patterns you find are as useful for you as mine have been for me.


Read “On Writing About Books: Ten Pro Tips for the Freelance Reviewer” (September/October 2022), in which Craig Morgan Teicher, a poet and critic who has written dozens of reviews for newspapers, literary journals, magazines, and websites, offers practical advice for reviewers who want to show their readers what a book looks like through their eyes.

 ?? ?? NATALIE SCHRIEFER is a writer and an academic editor. Often focused on sexuality, identity, and shame, her work has been published by CNN, HuffPost, Wired, Xtra, and Inside Higher Ed, among other outlets.
She received her MFA from Southern Connecticu­t State University and is currently working on a poetry chapbook about bisexualit­y.
NATALIE SCHRIEFER is a writer and an academic editor. Often focused on sexuality, identity, and shame, her work has been published by CNN, HuffPost, Wired, Xtra, and Inside Higher Ed, among other outlets. She received her MFA from Southern Connecticu­t State University and is currently working on a poetry chapbook about bisexualit­y.

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