Monday, 5 March 2012

When a Reviewer "Gets" a Book

The internet has made it possible for anyone to become a reviewer, and like all developments, this one has both advantages and downsides. I'm very clear in my own mind, however, that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. It's good for a very wide range of people to be able to articulate their views, and it's also (usually) to the advantage of those whose work becomes the subject of debate.

Of course, there is always a risk that reviews will be written in bad faith (which is very rare, but does happen) or without a good deal of thought (more common.) But if one writes a book, or a song, or paints a picture, and allows the end product to be made available to the public, one has to accept that not everyone will care for it. Bad reviews can be very hurtful, but there is no escaping them. And the more successful a creative artist is, the more frequent bad reviews are - a paradox, but true, I think.

On the other hand, a good review is heartwarming, and may help a great deal with motivation. Sometimes, writers and other creative artists need a boost to keep them going, and a positive critical reaction can help. So, when I am writing a review, I do my best to maintain a balanced approach, and try to understand what the author was trying to achieve. Sometimes, of course, it's not entirely easy to figure out the answer!

I've also found occasionally, after taking a second look at a book or a film, that my original and immediate reaction seemed to have missed something. Sometimes you see more clearly the second time around.

As a novelist, I've found that one of the most positive experiences is when one's work is reviwed by someone who "gets" what you were trying to do. My first couple of books enjoyed, luckily enough, a lot of positive attention (though one review was one of the worst I've ever had.) But perhaps the best moment was reading a long review, in the New Law Journal, by Frances Fyfield, who had clearly figured out what was in my mind when producing the book, and appreciated it. I'll never forget the pleasure this gave me. Years later, I had the opportunity to say thanks in person when I finally got to meet Frances.

From time to time, I come across other reviews that are equally pleasing. A recent online example is this review of The Arsenic Labyrinth, by a blogger who was prepared to put up with the gradual build-up of suspense (an approach I thought about quite carefully when working on the book) and was pleased to have kept faith in the story. This kind of reaction is good for morale, and there's no doubt that, for any writer, maintaining morale is extremely important. I was at a writers' meeting recently when someone made mention of a vote of no confidence. As the chairman (a very successful novelist whose work has been filmed and televised) wryly remarked, writers are constantly giving themselves votes of no confidence!

11 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Oh, no doubt about it; a reviewer who really seems to understand what one's attempting with a book can make all the difference. So glad you got that well-deserved praise for The Arsenic Labyrinth. The buildup of suspense actually works quite well in that novel...

seana said...

It is very much of a boost to get a review, or even a comment from someone that seems to get where you are coming from.

And yes, getting a knowing positive review from Frances Fyfield would be very motivating indeed!

Maxine said...

As a reviewer, this has happened to me a couple of times and it is most rewarding - eg Marlaine Delargy (the translator) passed on an email to me from Johan Theorin when I reviewed his fist book, and Steve Murray passed on a very kind message from Karin Altvegen when I reviewed Shadow, as I had drawn attention to an allegory and its relation to the characters in the book, which other reviewers had not spotted.

Needless to say, both these reviews were written unpaid and for love - though I have written paid-for reviews also!

Puzzle Doctor said...

Martin - thanks for the kind words about the review. And, of course, for writing the book in the first place...

Wordup said...

Martin - you can't assume there is something to get. You obviously want to understand the writer and when I review a novel I yearn to ‘get the author’ to understand, but it can be like pulling teeth.

If you look at the first 3 novels of say Stella Duffy - who is not to everyone’s taste I get her right from the get go, but I can see how some reviewers might not, but it’s there. As a reviewer you might be reticent but it’s there all the same.

Now with others and some in your genre there are some very poor novels out there and many I won’t review because I value every minute I have left. Sometimes as a reviewer it’s also useful to know the author too.

On that note, I hope you like the reviews of three of my favourite novels of yours in our new website launching in a few months. www.wordup.co.uk @wordupwriters

Martin Edwards said...

I'm really grateful for these comments on a subject I find of great interest, boh as an author and a reviewer.
Margot, thank you. One of the reasons that review pleased me was that I was trying in that book to vary the formula by making Guy a major focus in the first part of the book. It felt like a radical departure, in terms of the series, and I did worry during the first draft that it might leave some readers dissatisfied. So the reviews were a great relief when they did come in.

Martin Edwards said...

Seana, that's right. Frances hasn't reviewed that many crime novels over the years, and I think she can be quite a demanding judge, so her reaction continues to this day to fill me with pleasure.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, it's good to hear about the feedback you have received and pleasing that those two notable authors responded like that. I suspect there will be numerous other authors who may feel bashful about contacting you who are also very grateful for your reviews of their work. I do admire, for instance, the way you look for the positives, while being willing to mention things that you think don't work.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Wordup - very much looking forward to the appearance of your site. I guess it is true that sometimes there is nothing to get! As for Stella, I've read one or two short stories by her (excellent) but no novels as yet.
You make a very fair point about knowing the author. Many years ago, I thought it might be better not to know personally an author one reviewed. But now my views have changed, as long as personal friendship (or enmity!) do not get in the way too much. And I try to look for the positives whether I've met an author or not. it's a bit different with films, art and music as I don't know many directors, painters or composers!

aguja said...

Martin, this is an excellent post and encapsulates the art of reviewing. Yes, it is good that anyone and not just paid reviewers, can have their say. I really enjoyed your post, the content and the way in which it is written, especially as the second book in my trilogy is out in kindle form and shortly will be in paperback, too, which I prefer, but so many children are more used to reading from kindles or pads that it makes sense to give that choice.

Dorte H said...

"...when I am writing a review, I do my best to maintain a balanced approach, and try to understand what the author was trying to achieve".

That is certainly the best a writer can hope for, and congratulations on yet another fine - and well-deserved - review of your book.