The spectre of the bad review…

Let’s face it, no reviewer wants to give a book (or a film or whatever) a bad review, unless they’re either particularly mean-spirited, or they enjoy wallowing in schadenfreude, or have absolutely no other choice. I have been lucky so far in my time as a book reviewer; I wasn’t so lucky when I was a CD reviewer (as I am sure I’ve noted on these pages before). I’m sure that that state of affairs won’t last forever and, at some point, a mindnumbingly awful book is going to land on my desk. And then, I am going to have to make some choices.

As Stephen Jones said at alt.fiction earlier this year, it’s quite a feat to write a book, and he has nothing but admiration for those who actually go ahead and complete a book-length manuscript. I’ve attempted this myself, having written some 65,000 words of what would have been (had I completed it) a massive epic on the scale of 500,000 words or so (okay, so maybe a slight exaggeration there, but even after the number of words I’d written my main character hadn’t even ventured outside his home village). I can appreciate, then, the sheer effort needed to keep juggling all the various threads together, to stop them from tangling up and getting in the way of the story. On that level, I can give a writer kudos just for sitting down and completing the whole thing.

Inevitably, though, it isn’t about the number of words, it’s the quality of those words and whether the story can capture the reader. In these days of self-publishing, writers can now bypass the whole editorial control thing and so, equally inevitably, there’s a great deal of dross out there – some of which might find its way to a reviewer like me. (And, before anyone else says anything, dross isn’t restricted to the self-publishing field – even mainstream publishing houses occasionally let one slip by). I have recently given much thought about how I should approach a book that’s so bad that the reading of it turns into a painful experience.

One courtesy I extend to all writers is that I will read the whole book right through, regardless of whether it deserves it or not. I believe that’s the least any reviewer can do. If it turns out that it really is that bad then I could just not write anything at all about it – but, is a non-review the same as a bad one? Would the writer even notice that you hadn’t said anything about the book he/she is proud of. That’s debatable. Plus, what would they learn from it? Nothing. However, I am also not in the business of wilfully destroying someone’s dream of becoming a writer, so a review where I spend the entire 500 – 1000 word tearing their efforts apart with vituperative gusto wouldn’t serve any purpose either. So, caught between a rock and a hard place; wanting to tell the truth but not in a manner that’s inevitably going to get you called any number of unsavoury genital diseases.

Constructive criticism is what I would offer at the very least, but even that can be something of a tightrope act. Some writers get extremely precious and guardedly jealous about their work, and don’t take kindly to any kind of criticism, be it constructive or otherwise. For many of them, their views of their own work have probably been shaped by relatives and friends, who consistently tell them they’re brilliant and that they should get it published. It’s uncomfortable when the real world around you doesn’t share their views, or offers the untarnished truth. This is why they get a little hot under the collar at the reviewer (or editor) who rips their story apart because it isn’t very good and this is why these writers will never get anywhere. In other words, if offered a useful critique of your work, then absorb what it’s trying to tell you.

I have a dream of becoming a full-time writer and so I am constantly aware of how a review can make or break. I certainly want to praise those whose work merits it, but being in the same position as many who are attempting to turn something they love doing into their principal means of earning a living enjoins me to think carefully about how I write that review. I want to encourage talent where I come across it, of course, but the question arises should I do the same with those whose ‘talent’ only they themselves can see. For instance, I desperately wanted to become a musician but I have the musical facility of a brick, so I gave up. I also shelved that career option because my friends very politely told me that I ‘was crap’. When enough people kept saying similar things I took the hint, albeit after 18 years of trying to fool myself.

What I am trying to get at is, should I, as a reviewer, perform the same service as my erstwhile friends did (and were they saving me from embarrassment or saving others from my musical efforts?)? It’s a quandary that I face every time I set about reading a book for review. Like I say, I have yet to be sent a bad book, so I haven’t had to face the question so far. I also, as noted above, want to encourage genuine talent, or where I see a writer exhibiting some promise. By the same token, I don’t want to delude people , nor do I want to shatter dreams. However, every author, from whichever level they write, needs a realistic assessment of their work. I expect nothing less when I offer my work for review, which I will do some day.

‘Reviewer’ is a distasteful word in some quarters, and judging from some of the nasty reviews I’ve been told about, that isn’t much of a surprise. That’s why I spend quite some time reading a book, rather than rushing through it and making some rough notes. I may be a slow reviewer, but I am methodical, and give every book equal weight. My reviews will then set out what I think is a fair assessment of the work.

Ultimately, I know, the final arbiter of any book’s worth is the punter, the one who is deciding whether to spend his/her money on it or not. The reviewer’s aim should be to steer said punter to those books/films/whatever that he/she deems to be worth their while, and their hard-earned pennies’. They should also help support those writers who genuinely have something to say. And, in my capacity as a reviewer, that’s what I try to do every time I sit down in front of the computer to compose my thoughts on any particular book.

Even so, at the end of the day, those thoughts only constitute one person’s opinion, and that person is very human… =)

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One Response to “The spectre of the bad review…”

  1. I think a review, good or bad, is what any honest author wants. The key to a bad review is finding what didn’t work in the story or novel and showing how or why it didn’t work. A simple, it sucked, is not going to help the writer improve in the least.

    Thomas

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