It’s August again! The past year has spun by in a tumult of political anxiety and creative fervor, in a dizzying haze of personal achievements, challenges, and heartbreaks for each of us, and, somehow, we have arrived again at this time of year when the sun hangs hot and heavy in the sky, the garlic in my garden beginning to yellow as it readies itself for the harvest. It is time, again, for Connotation Press’s annual retrospective issue! But this year, which marks my fourth as Book Review Editor, I would like to do things a bit differently.
One of the most exhilarating aspects of working with the Connotation Press crew, is that we are never afraid to shake things up. Under the guidance of our intrepid and brilliant leader, Ken Robidoux, we are always looking to grow and evolve, to try new things. We are willing to risk failure. To ask ourselves, What haven’t we tried yet? and then to start again as many times as we have to.
Anyway, we’ve been chatting about the Book Review column lately. We want it to be bigger and badder than ever! We want to publish as many amazing reviews of nonfiction and fiction books as we do of poetry collections. We want to continue to publish reviews of books from underrepresented presses and authors. And we want to hear from as many different voices as possible. And for that we need submissions of book reviews.
The reality is that Connotation Press—like many other journals—receives far more queries asking us to review books than we do actual review submissions. I simply don’t have the resources to review all the books suggested to me. And in the interest of publishing a well-balanced column that presents a wide range of voices, I can’t personally write all the reviews we publish anyway. More and more, I find myself replying that while I can’t take an ARC at this time, I would love to see a review of the book, and that if the author or publisher knows of a reviewer looking to place a review to please have them send it my way. I don’t like doing this though, because it puts the burden back on the author and it’s already tough enough being an author. I know. I get it. It’s excruciating trying to get a book accepted for publication. And then, once it is accepted, you’re terrified by the thought of a bad review or—worse and more likely—no review at all.
So rather than presenting a column that recalls the wonderful reviews we’ve published in the past year (though do go check them out!), I am presenting a call: please friends, send me your book review submissions! Write to me at [email protected] with reviews, conversations, ideas for books you’d like to review, or if you’d like to be added to the network of reviewers which I’m hoping to gather. Write to me if you have questions, thoughts, grand schemes, or if you’re another book review editor at another journal looking to crack the same conundrum. If you sent me a review in the past and I published it, send me another. If you didn’t and I didn’t, please try again. Just as it’s true that it takes a village to write a book, it is also true that it takes a village to promote a book after it’s released into the world. Let’s see what we can do, together, to build a community of support for the books that matter to us most!
So what exactly am I looking for in a book review anyway? I don’t want this to be prescriptive, as there are many approaches and styles that lead to quality reviews, and like I said, at Connotation Press the last thing we want to do is embrace a cookie cutter approach, but here are a few very rough guidelines:
Pick a book you care deeply about. A book review is a chance for you to truly explore a book, to engage it in conversation. A well-written review also takes a lot of work. So there’s no sense in pouring all that energy into a book you feel “meh” about. Pick the book you want to roll around inside, the book that keeps you up at night or seeps into your dreams, the book that leaves you with gnawing questions, the book you wish you had a whole box of so you could stand around on a street corner passing it out to strangers. It’s okay to engage things you don’t think are working; you don’t have to be strictly positive. But you do have to care about the work you’re reviewing.
Directly engage the text you are reviewing. Quote passages, of course, but also provide a little close reading of these quoted passages. How is language being used and why? How do the author’s formal choice affect your reading? Reading is a collaborative experience between author and reader. What do you notice and what does that noticing do?
I like a review that is cohesive, well developed, and makes fluid transitions. Polished prose matters in a review as much as it does in the book itself. Your review is a small window into the book you’re reviewing, and it should be just as rewarding to read.
Length: I tend to publish somewhat longer reviews at Connotation Press (roughly 1,000 – 1,500 words) because I like the insights that come from thorough exploration. But if you have a review that feels fully realized, send it, even if it’s a little longer or a little shorter.
I wish all of you a coming year filled with discovery and terrific books! Please share this call far and wide, and send me your reviews!
---------Julia Bouwsma is the author of the poetry collections MIDDEN (forthcoming from Fordham University press in fall 2018) and Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). She lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Muzzle, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. She is the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine, and the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Please send her book review submissions to [email protected].