Book-Struck: Talking with Donna Seaman, Recipient of the 2019 Louis Shores Award

For 29 years, the Louis Shores Award has recognized excellence in book reviewing, honoring individual reviewers, groups, editors, and/or organizations for their contributions to libraries across the US. This year, we’re proud to announce the Collection Development and Evaluation Section of RUSA has selected our very own Adult Books Editor, Donna Seaman, as winner of the prestigious award.

To celebrate, I chatted with Donna about reading, writing, and the singular art of book reviewing. (If you know Donna, you know each of her reviews are themselves wondrous works of art.) Here’s what she had to say.

What led you to begin reviewing books? Is it something you sought out? Or did it find you?

I was destined to come to Booklist! As a book-struck girl I kept lists of all the books I read and all the books I planned to read. And I wrote about books in my diaries. When I first came to ALA as an editorial assistant in ALA Editions and I found out about Booklist, I started writing reviews as a freelancer and then, lo and behold, an editor left and I was so very fortunate to take his place.

While any writer of a Booklist reviews knows the short word count (often around 175 words) can be quite the challenge, any reader of a Donna review will marvel at your ability to fit in absolutely everything that matters—and to do so with passion, grace, and gorgeous language. How do you maintain that balance? Are there any absolute musts when it comes to what to include or not include in a review?

No matter how many Booklist reviews I’ve written, I still struggle with the brevity, so I thank you so much for your generous words. I always tell freelance reviewers that they have to answer all the journalistic questions, the who, what, where, when, and why aspects of a book accurately, while also conveying the book’s voice, perspective, concerns and themes, as well as the pace, atmosphere, and texture. I try to express what it feels like to read the book, and what you discover along the way. I spend a lot of time looking up words, trying to find just the right nuance. In short reviews, each word has to accomplish a lot.

As for what not to do, plot summaries must be kept to a bare minimum; spoilers are forbidden, and one should always acknowledge the author, providing a bit of background when possible.

In addition to reviewing hundreds of books each year, you’ve also written books of your own [Donna’s most recent book, Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists (Bloomsbury), published in 2017]. When working on a book, how do you find your reviewing instincts influence your writing (or editing)? And when working on reviews, how do you find your author instincts interact with your writing?

Certainly all the reading and reviewing I’ve done influences my writing. I try to emulate the sort of rich and vivid prose I love to read. Released from the constraints of Booklist reviews, I do delight in playing more freely with syntax and shaking things up. Yet I also find that the practice of making every word count in reviews carries over into my own work; I go to the dictionary just as often, trying for the precise word. I also find that my experience as an editor allows me to flip that mental switch and edit my own work quite critically. Having had books published has deepened my already strong respect for authors—good books require an enormous amount of effort––and my commitment to reviewing accurately, fairly, and passionately.

I once saw a bingo chart made up of review clichés (“Tour de force!” “Writer at the height of her powers!”) Do you have any favorite or least favorite review clichés? Any favorite or least favorite words to include in a review? Please tell me all of them.

I really struggle with worn terms. There are times when “tour de force” is absolutely right, but I try to use it sparingly. And masterpiece! That’s a coin rarely spent. I try not to write “page-turner,” or “sparks fly,” or any of the “edge of your seat” phrases, though these are perfectly legitimate and readily understood. You don’t want to use clichés, but you also need to be careful about trying too hard to come up with an alternative that may seem forced or just darn awkward. The best approach is to be as specific as possible and avoid generic terms.

What advice do you have for beginning book reviewers, or those looking to begin reviewing books?

Read actively and critically. Mark up your galley; take notes. Pay attention to patterns, style, and tone. Reviewing, at its heart, is more about reading than writing. The book will shape the review; reviews can harmonize with the book, subtly echoing its voice and pace, its gravitas or humor.

For writers seeking reviewing opportunities, including here at Booklist, I suggest writing sample reviews in the style of the publication you want to approach if you don’t already have published pieces. Also, when querying editors, list your particular interests or areas of expertise, from fiction genres to nonfiction subject areas. Book review editors are often in need of specific coverage, so an aspiring book reviewer versed in some aspect of history or science, gardening or child care may well find themselves with a byline.

The book review is a literary form; it deserves all the care and feeling every creative endeavor demands. Review with thought, craft, and zest.

Donna also says . . .

Book reviewing is deeply satisfying, but it can also be difficult and frustrating. We don’t always know if our advocacy for books we believe are important or glorious is having an impact. I usually feel that I haven’t done enough for books and readers. With the press of deadlines and editorial rigors, the convictions and aesthetics of reviewing can feel overlooked. Receiving the Louis Shores Award is an enormous affirmation. A truly uplifting recognition. I’m very honored and I thank the hard-working award committee—Julie Ann Murphy (Chair), Dena Heilik, Kaite Mediatore Stover, Sarah Barbara Watstein, and Neal Wyatt—and all who supported my nomination, as well as my amazingly creative and inspiring Booklist colleagues from the bottom of my book-loving heart! I’m so happy to have received this while Bill Ott, who has been an essential mentor to me, is still at the helm of Booklist, and I will always treasure this award in honor of a remarkable educator and librarian. I’m proud to be part of Louis Shores’ legacy. 

About the Author:

Briana Shemroske is Booklist's Marketing Associate. She graduated with a BA from Lake Forest College where she studied English Writing and Art History. In her free time she can be found eating cheeseburgers, frolicking with her schnoodle, Moritz, and feebly attempting to play board games. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Briana.

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