[Browsing through the murky depths of my hard drive the other day, I came across a handful of articles and interviews—some from quite a few years back—most of which were published on blogs or websites of fellow writers. So that I have everything I’ve had published collected in one place, I’ll reproduce them on my blog from time to time, with a brief note of when they were written and, where I can remember, why. There is often overlap between interviews and articles, and so inevitably the later pieces will repeat, sometimes verbatim, some of the earlier material.
Let’s kick off with this article, written in 2002 and first published in the long-defunct Cambrensis magazine*. To the fifty-six-year-old me, this piece displays a fairly high level of naivety on the part of thirty-eight-year-old me—it is evident that the possibility of a self-publishing revolution, which was around five years away when I wrote this, was not on my radar. Hardly surprising, given that I didn’t notice the revolution until around five years after it had started.
On with the article…]
How should an unknown writer approach the preparation of a review of another writer’s work? With extreme caution, I would suggest.
To state the obvious, though it’s surprising how often it seems to be overlooked, a review is a showcase of your own writing talent. Don’t make it dull and uninspiring, even if the book you’re reviewing is. Use it to demonstrate that you, too, are a writer, but without losing sight of the work under consideration. It’s a question of balance: providing a fair appraisal of the book, while revealing a glimpse of your own writing ability.
Books are like any other entertainment medium or artform – films, music, comics, photographs, paintings, theatre, etc. Beauty is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Take the film The Blair Witch Project, a perfect example. People who have seen it seem to fall within two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I come within the former category. I thought the film was brilliantly conceived and executed, one of the scariest films made, yet without showing a single supernatural image or gory scene. That’s probably why many people felt it a waste of time.
The point, of course, is that art is completely subjective. This can best be expressed in relation to books by mutilating a well-known proverb: one man’s ripping yarn is another man’s sleep-inducer. And that’s a sentiment that we should always keep in mind when reviewing another’s work.
The best sort of reviewer is he (or she) who tells us enough about a book to give us a flavour – no more – of its plot and characters, tells us why he likes or dislikes it, then, regardless of personal taste, encourages us to go and read it. Such a reviewer appreciates that simply because he hated a book it doesn’t mean that we will, and recognises that his role is not to read a book in our place, but to draw our attention to it so that we may read it and judge for ourselves.
That, I believe, is the ideal we should all, as writers, particularly of the unknown variety, aim for when reviewing. The key word is objectivity. Let’s not dismiss other people’s work out of hand. We know, or can give a shrewd estimate of, the time and effort that goes into writing a book. Who are we to be contemptuous of the result of those labours? Moreover, do we want to run the risk of the first reviewer of our debut novel or collection being the same author whose work we so callously dismissed? Nor should we talk up good writing so much that it can never meet a reader’s inflated expectations. Remember: we have all had work that we feel is good summarily rejected, showing that we are not the best judges of our own work. Why should we be of others’?
And there’s a sound practical reason why a reviewer of, say, a novel, who is himself an aspiring novelist, should encourage people to read the book for themselves, even if he considers it the worst piece of writing he’s ever encountered. The more books people buy, the more money publishers make and the more should be available to filter downwards, making the publishers more willing to take risks on unknown writers. That’s you and me.
But wait, you’re saying. I have to review a novel that’s badly written, has a hackneyed plot, stereotypical characters and clichéd conflicts. It has no redeeming features and I can’t conceive of it being anyone’s ripping yarn. How can I encourage anybody to read such drivel without being completely dishonest?
Well, try to remember that somebody thought the book had something going for it – they’ve published it, haven’t they? Assuming the author isn’t the daughter of the publisher’s managing director, the book must have some good points. Take another look. Then another. If you still can’t find anything positive to say, then I suppose you’ll have to let rip.
Just don’t forget that in doing so you may be harming more than the reviewed author’s prospects.
*if you were a writer of short fiction or book reviews in South Wales at the turn of the Millennium, you will almost certainly have heard of Cambrensis