Friday, May 25, 2012

Review the Reviewer – a Writer’s (and Reader’s) guide to Book Reviews

As writers, we are all aware of the changes happening in the publishing industry. These changes are, for the most part, very positive: never before, in the history of the ‘printed’ word, have so many books by so many new authors been available so easily to so many readers. This exponential explosion is a good thing in that it promotes evolution: in the way we read; the way we write; in how we communicate ideas; in how literature, of all types and genres, evolve. Never have there been so few obstacles to trying out something bold and new – it’s an opportunity to rival, perhaps even surpass, the Renaissance period.

However, whilst authors are beavering away getting their tales out to their new audiences, there are other events happening on the periphery of this new publishing paradigm that should not be ignored.

One of these is book reviews, or more precisely, book reviewers.

Now, at this point, you might be mistaken for thinking I’m about to embark upon a rant against book reviewers – you would be wrong. If you keep reading, you will understand why I, as a novelist, feel that book reviewers need to adopt a somewhat different posture from what is rapidly becoming the norm, before they lose their credibility.

First, I intend to use the word ‘novel’ as a generic substitute to simplify the following, when referring to any piece of fiction from poetry to full-length blockbusters. I choose to do this for two reasons: one, it’s the medium I’m most familiar with, and two, its complex construction possibilities allow mention of distinct aspects in a coherent whole.

Just as the number of people writing and publishing their work in electronic format has grown exponentially in the last few years, so have the number of self-proclaimed reviewers. Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but bear with me; I am not berating all reviewers at all, just a minority that are growing and are tainting the waters for those who take the task seriously.

For a writer to produce a novel, they have to come up with the theme; develop it into an interesting story with a beginning, middle and end; populate it with intriguing characters that the reader can root for or hate; create believable, coherent backdrops against which events and the characters can do their thing; then… craft this into a form the readers will enjoy (or to put it in Kurt Vonnegut’s words – “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”)

The key word in the above is ‘craft’.

As all writers know, irrespective of their experience, writing is a constant apprenticeship. You just don’t sit down at the keyboard and paste words together – if that were the case, for some time now, novels would be written by computer software, probably employed by the big publishing houses.

Crafting involves the constant polishing and learning of a myriad of skills which all live under the global banner of ‘writing techniques’. Only very rarely, almost never, do you encounter a writer with a natural gift for their art, from the first day they pen their first word, such that publishable prose is produced seemingly without effort. The rest of us have to work at it… hard, constantly, dedicatedly, ever seeking to improve; practice, practice, then… more practice – slowly we improve. It takes time; years usually, not just to produce a single novel, but to improve our skill set.

In contrast, and please remember I’m not talking about all of you book reviewers out there, in the ‘new’ e-book reviewer era, labelling yourself a reviewer, setting up a web and proffering your opinions on others’ labours can take as much as… five minutes! That’s just not right!

Please note my use of ‘opinions’ instead of ‘review’ in the previous paragraph – it’s important as you will see.

Reviewers need to develop a ‘professional’ approach.

Do I mean you need to get paid for your reviews? No, but if you’re good enough to receive financial reward, good on you. It shows you’re probably trying to do it seriously.

Do I mean you need to have studied Creative Writing or English Lit? No again. These, and other learning sources, should have provided you with tools in your toolbox, but, if you only ever use a hammer… And there are other ways to reach the same knowledge levels.

No. Professional reviewing is an attitude of mind and discipline, and above all, honesty.


Let’s take a step back for a moment and ask a couple of basic questions before continuing: What should a review be all about? Who is a book review aimed at?

The last question first: there are two, yes two, clear targets, each with their own needs.

The first of these, and for ‘un-professional’ reviewers often the only destination, are the potential readers. People want info about their future literary purchases. Yes, there are those who only populate their virtual shelves with the top twenty best-sellers, or giveaways, without any other criteria, but these are the minority. When I, as a reader, encounter a novel from an unknown (to me) author, I’d like to know if it’s worth investing my time or not (remember Vonnegut). If the opinions of other readers, on the book’s web page perhaps, or in blogs or review sites indicate that it might be interesting, I’m more inclined to give it a try, even if its subject matter isn’t initially to my liking.

That’s where surprises come from – I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve reluctantly started to read a book, because nothing else was available where I was, only to discover an author whose work I would then follow faithfully for years, or a tale so original and intriguing, it impacted the way I think about the World. I still remember Isak Dinesen’s (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke’s pen name) ‘Out of Africa’, plucked off a dusty shelf in a house in Nairobi many years before Streep and Redford turned the tale into a two-hour romance on the screen, solely because it was the rainy season; the heavens having opened that morning depositing a dense downpour that defied any attempt to leave the house. Two paragraphs later, I was transported, in time, although the place was much closer. In a respite the next day, I drove to Karen’s farm in the Ngong Hills; the novel having given me ‘new eyes’ and many questions. That was thirty-five years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. That’s the impact a surprise can have.

The reviewer might have said “a collection of anecdotal incidents; a jumble of characters; a rambling memoir without a clear direction. Bad women’s fiction.”

Perhaps, if I had the misfortune to read that beforehand, the thin volume would have remained on the shelf as the home of the bright green spider I disinterred, rather than enrich my appreciation for that marvellous country.

That’s one target; the obvious one.

The other is… the Author.

The instant gratification mode imposed by Internet book selling often conditions the reader into buying a book, downloading it, reading it, then forgetting about it with no time added to pen a few words about what they thought of the novel, or even tick a box on an evaluation chart. And it’s in this vacuum that many e-book ‘reviewers’ have emerged.

When a writer receives a review of their work, their first reaction should be “thank you, person x, for taking the time and making the effort to let me know what you think of my novel” rather than “is it a good or bad review?” Bad reviews, if written professionally, can be extremely useful to a writer, because they can draw attention to aspects of their writing technique or even the tale itself, that the intimate proximity of preceding months prevented the author from assessing objectively. Good reviews are often not that useful.

Yes, I confess, when I read a reader review of an extract from my Work In Progress, ‘the CULL’, last week, I had a fleeting moment of gratification. But, words aside, I quickly set about ‘investigating’ the author of those comments. Fortunately the review was on a review site where some information about the reviewers is available; so basic demographic details, gleaned from the reviewer’s profile info and perusing their own submitted extracts, provided me with much more interesting insights than their kind words.

The novel is my take on vampires. I have deliberately gone hard-line thriller on the subject; nary a shadow of romantic overtone. My reader audience, at least in my mind, will probably not be fans of the “Twilight” saga, or “True Blood” et al. There are no mythical morphing beasts either; just genetics, DNA, uncompromising real scientific facts, bound together with screwed-up characters and a particularly callous serial killer. Shaken vigorously; not stirred. So the demographic information from this review, added to that obtained from several other recent reviews, is helping me draw a picture of what kind of reader is really enjoying the way I’ve treated the subject, and who isn’t and why. Fangs very much to you all.

That’s an example of how a writer should use reviews.

However, keep in mind the reviewers on this type of site are, for the most part, and without any slight intended, amateur reviewers. Most are fellow writers who have taken the time to read the extracts published and provide structured feedback.

Now I’ve introduced another word; ‘structured’. What do I mean by that? Well that speaks to the first question, which to save you pounding on the cursor key was ‘What should a review be all about?’

A ‘professional’ review should, first and foremost, be unbiased; untainted by personal preference. Or put more clearly, if you, as a reviewer, live and breathe Chick Lit for example, don’t decry something that obviously isn’t just for that reason. At least be honest about your bias: of the over 100 reviews received prior to publication for my last novel, ‘Full Disclosure’, some of the most useful ones started with phrases similar to this: “I wouldn’t normally read fiction in this genre but…” That’s honesty. To continue with my fictional analogy, don’t pretend you’re reviewing objectively when anyone can see you always give ‘good’ reviews to Chick Lit and crappy comments to everything else. Nobody is forcing you to do the review, but at least be honest and open about it. Give me, and the potential readers, value, not just a soapbox opinion.

Then, write about the novel in a structured manner: talk about its themes and ideas; its originality; its settings and characters; the dialogue; the novel’s pace, rhythm and flow; the narrative voice; and of course its plot, and any of the many other aspects of the writing process that you feel of note in this particular instance. Of course you don’t have to reproduce a checklist; but what transposes an opinion into a professional review is the overt use of reference to writing techniques. Look up several ‘professional’ reviews in respectable journals (such as the New York Times literary supplements, The Sunday Times etc.) and you’ll quickly see what distinguishes a hack from a professional reviewer

An (almost) final word: there’s nothing worse than an un-professional reviewer with an agenda! For example, someone who is trying to become the e-book equivalent of Hedda Hopper (if you’re less than 70 years old, Google the name), by instilling FEAR into all and every authors’ work that comes through your hands – that may have given people unwarranted power back then, but today it is too easy to see the overall game plan. And never shotgun-blast copies of your reviews to any and every website you can find; it will show you for what you are; someone craving attention by attacking others, rather than a would-be serious professional.

So, as a final message to all writers and readers out there, I say the following:

Read reviews, please.

Good ones, bad ones; it doesn’t matter.

Read more than one if available.

Check out the reviewers (even Googling their names will tell you more than you think).

Review the review, and its author, in context.


Make up your own mind. Surprises may await discovery.