Reviewing Short Stories, by Pauline Masurel

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

I don’t regard myself as an academic, a journalist or a non-fiction writer. So reviews may seem a curious form for me to write. But I would argue that there is also something creative about concocting a coherent book review. It’s a statement that is, necessarily, partial and entirely personal and is also an exercise in constructing a ‘voice’ and a point of view for getting across your message.

In the past few years I’ve done a fair bit of reviewing, mostly of short story collections. It’s something that I enjoy and I think it’s a really useful discipline for anyone who writes short stories. Not least, because it befits short fiction writers to read plenty of short stories. And while it’s good to read simply for the pleasure of the activity it can also sometimes be worth taking the trouble to do the sort of close, critical reading that’s required to write a review.

I think it’s a common misconception that a book review should tell readers whether or not the book is ‘any good’. Personally, I regard a review as more useful if it actually indicates what a book is….and what it is not. If I were asked to review a book that I actively disliked I think I would probably turn down the opportunity rather than spend my time constructing an argument to slate it. However, I inevitably do find myself making value judgements based on my own preferences. I believe that the trick is to say what you like about a book and why and to point out those things you find less successful and why. Then leave other readers/buyers to decide whether or not they agree with you and whether they’d like it themselves. Others may regard this approach as simply shilly-shallying and prefer a more judgemental approach to reviewing.

So, how do you go about writing a review? Well, I think that these Rules for Reviews, from Contrary Magazine, present some useful advice and interesting cause for thought. My own personal approach is to simply begin by reading the book and making notes about what strikes me as I go along. These may be particular quotations that stand out or observations on themes or styles that seem to be emerging. I don’t approach a collection with any specific check-list to examine, such as commenting on the plot, characterisation or use of dialogue. I simply try to reflect what I find myself reading and how it strikes me. Needless to say, I usually have to re-structure my rough notes to construct a review.

There are some specific challenges to reviewing short story collections as opposed to novels or non-fiction. Firstly, anthologies often feature multiple authors, so it can be harder to sum up the writing style or capability and you may need to spend more time discussing the breadth and diversity of writing voices. It is also much harder to construct a pat summary of the plot or the over-arching theme of a publication. It’s quite likely that it won’t be possible (or desirable) within the word count limit of a review to mention all of the stories in a collection. So which do you single out for mention?

I think it’s important to get reviews of short stories out there to raise the profile of short fiction in the consciousness of the reading public. Tania Hershman, editor of the The Short Review, describes her rationale as follows: “I love short stories. I love writing them and I love reading them. But it’s not so easy to find reviews of short story collections, especially ones published by small presses. They just don’t get the column inches that novels receive…So I thought I would create a space just for short story collections and anthologies, to give them their turn in the spotlight.”

If you fancy giving short story reviewing a go, then consider whether you already know of existing outlets for book reviews that seldom feature short stories and offer them your services. Are you aware of local, trade, leisure or specialist professional publications that might welcome the injection of a review of short fiction that’s on a relevant theme? You can always hone your reviewing skills by writing reviews of short story collections on Amazon.

Finally, I think that the act of reviewing short fiction can be a valuable promotional opportunity for a short story writer. It’s a chance to get your own name out and about, so don’t forget the space offered by that all important ‘biographical note’ at the end of most reviews. This can be a chance to promote work of your own, either by mentioning individual short stories or publications or by linking to your own website or blog for the curious reader to follow up for themselves.

About the author

Pauline Masurel has written 11 articles for THRESHOLDS

Pauline Masurel is a short fiction writer with a particular interest in very short stories and writing for performance.  Her writing has appeared in anthologies from Tindal Street Press, London Magazine and Leaf Books, been published online and also broadcast on BBC radio.  One of her stories is included in the anthology published by Flash-Fictions South West to celebrate National Flash-Fiction Day 2012. You can also listen to her stories at A Word in Your Ear.  She is a reviewer for The Short Review website and Contrary Magazine.  More about her writing can be found on her website www.unfurling.net. You can also follower her on Twitter @unfurlingnet.

4 Responses to "Reviewing Short Stories, by Pauline Masurel"

  • Mike Smith 06:22 PM 10/10/2010

    An interesting article. it made me reflect on some anthology and collection introductions I have been reading lately, as part of my exploration of the short story form. It seems to me that antholgies are often introduced by essays on the form, whereas, not surprisingly, collections are introduced by ‘reviews’ of the particular writer: a similar case to that of the reviewer? But then, of course, an introduction is a sort of review… so no surprises here perhaps.

    • Pauline Masurel 05:06 PM 11/10/2010

      Mike’s observation is certainly true of the last couple of reviews that I’ve written.

      Tove Jansson’s Travelling Light (http://www.contrarymagazine.com/Contrary/Tove_Jansson_Travelling_Light.html) is introduced by Ali Smith, with a reflection upon Jansson’s writing and the collection of stories which follows. This introduction, in itself, constitutes a type of review of the stories which follow. In fact, an introduction by such an august short story writer actually presented a difficulty for me in reviewing the collection because I felt I had to take care not to single out the same quotations or themes in my own review, even if they were genuinely independently arrived at.

      A collection of Victorian Vampire fiction (http://www.theshortreview.com/reviews/DraculasGuest.htm) edited by Michael Sims is introduced with a reflection on the vampire story form, its origins and successors. However, it also usefully goes on to include mini-introductions to the individual authors which I thought was quite an appealing approach for an anthology, albeit one which gives quite a strong interpretive voice to the editor.

      I wonder if anyone knows of examples where the introductions to collections or anthologies do something radically different from reviewing either the book or the story genre?

  • Tania Hershman 07:15 PM 11/10/2010

    I agree – with everything! I find reviewing immensely educational for me as a writer, having to read so closely. And it is a good feeling when The Short Review reviews short story collections that haven’t been reviewed anywhere else. I hope that situation changes though!

  • Elaine Wilson 09:15 PM 22/10/2010

    Hi Pauline
    That’s a great article. I’ve spent the last year and a half writing reviews for gigs and art shows, and it’s a really good exercise for the writing muscle. I’m not sure why I haven’t ventured into book reviews, short story or otherwise, but I’ll definitely give it a go.

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