An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On negative reviews

This post was kicked off by something Neil Gaiman had written on his Tumblr site. He kindly made it rebloggable so I am posting it here in full:
 I think authors are allowed to point out errors of fact in a negative review, if they really have to and it’s important to them (errors of the “I understand that the reviewer feels this is the worst account she’s ever read of the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–1648. I would like to point out that one reason for this is that my novel is actually set during the Hundred Years’ War, which occurred from 1337 to 1453…” variety.) And otherwise we should swear loudly to ourselves, probably startling our cats, then we should keep our mouths shut, and go and write other things.

Because I think it’s a good thing that people don’t like everything we do.

I mean that.

I do not write books that everyone will like. Human beings like different things. If human beings did not like different things — if there was unanimity of opinion on what was good and what was bad, what books were enjoyable and what weren’t, then the odds are that I would starve. My books and stories are not to everyone’s taste, which is why I am so pleased that all people do not share the same taste.

Some people like what I do. Some people don’t. The ones who like what I do are the ones who keep me fed, and to them I am grateful; and the ones who do not, well, fair enough. There is no letter that I could write to a website, nothing I can ever say that would make someone like a book that they do not like.

(Occasionally time can do that, and experience, and life, and people will come to me and tell me how much better American Gods got during the ten years between them reading it at sixteen and at twenty-six. But that’s a different thing entirely.)

Opinions are true. But they are only opinions. Once you’ve written a book, it belongs to everyone, and they are all allowed to have opinions, and the spectrum of opinions is the spectrum of humanity.
Sometimes I write things I am not satisfied with, and every now and then I run into people who think that thing I did that I didn’t like was the best thing in the world. I feel more uncomfortable around them than I ever do reading a scathing review.
This kicked off some thoughts of my own about this blog, and what I am trying to do with it. Because while, like everyone else, I had a chuckle at the 'Hatchet Job of the Year' award, I'm still on one level deeply uncomfortable with something that could be read as unjustified vitriol in any other context. Perhaps it's my training as a lawyer, but I try to keep things professional (even thought I am not, in fact, a professional book reviewer).

So how do I manage books that I don't like on this blog? In three ways.

1. Don't review them.

This goes back to the principle of, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Most of the time, if I can't say anything interesting, or constructive, or in fact anything positive at all about a book, I won't review it here.

2. Make sure criticism is justified

Criticism needs to be supported, usually by examples. In addition, it's helpful to the reader, because it gives them an idea of whether they are likely to agree. If i say "I hated this book," the reader is left in the dark as to why. If I say "I hated this book because the characters were flat, the plot dreary and the whole thing morally dubious" it at least gives them some clue. If I am able to say "I hated this book because the characters ranged from dumb blonde to stereotypical soccer mum, nothing happened in the first 100 pages and the characters never left their apartment," even better.

3. What would I say if I met the author in person?

This is the "don't say behind someone's back what you wouldn't say to their face" principle. Given the nature of the internet, it's entirely possible that someone will end up coming across a review of their book - if not now, then years down the track. In general, I tend to have more sympathy for writers who have obviously done their best, even if the results have some flaws (see, for example, my review of Sharp Shooter by Marianne Delacourt). I reserve my sharpest criticism for those who should know better, like Annie Proulx with Bird Cloud). And yes, that was a very critical review, but believe me, I agonised over whether I should go that far. I tried to imagine other readers' who might enjoy the book and couldn't. I finally decided that I was happy to stand behind the statements I made in that review.

All of the above notwithstanding, the biggest laugh I've had this year came from this review of Fifty Shades of Grey. I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and other people in the office were looking at me very oddly. If you haven't yet - go read it.

In summary? Try to not let the anonymity of the internet lead you to say things you wouldn't say in other contexts. Be nice. And if you have to go for the hatchet job, be sure they really deserve it!

Monday, June 11, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Damsel in Distress by Carola Dunn

Damsel in Distress can be summed up in four words as, “Famous Five Grow Up.” Apart from the fact that there aren’t actually five of them and the growing up seems to happen in some respects but not others, those who fondly remember Blyton’s jolly adventures are likely to find Dunn’s novel right up their alley. I can’t say that I count myself in their number. Much as I would like to enter into the spirit of the thing, I can’t help harbouring suspicions of anyone who can use the word “spiffing” apparently without irony.

The plot could come straight from Blyton, if you add twenty years or so to the main characters’ ages. Phillip, Daisy’s likeable but somewhat dimwitted pal, falls for an equally likeable but equally dimwitted American heiress. The heiress is kidnapped in mysterious circumstances. Phillip calls his investigator friend Daisy for help and together with a further bunch of pals, they scour the surrounding countryside with the idea of rescuing the damsel in distress. It’s probably not giving too much away to suggest that the result is a daring rescue and just desserts all round.

You may at this point have some inkling of why I referred to growing up in some respects but not others. There are token nods to class issues, as well allusions to the fact that some of the characters may, at some point, but let’s not dwell on this for the sake of delicacy, be having sex. However, the sheer improbability of the plot is hard to overlook. Somehow, I was left with the impression that Dunn just adores these characters so much that she can think of nothing better than a thin device to have them all together having jolly good fun solving a mystery in the English countryside.

 I wonder if the fact that Dunn appears to be American has anything to do with her frothy view of English rural life – as Agatha Christie could tell you, there are plenty of dark secrets behind the bucolic idyll.  But comparing Daisy Dalrymple to Miss Marple is like comparing Edward Cullen to Dracula. If it came to a fight, I know who I’d be backing.

There’s nothing wrong with a light read, and perhaps it’s simply that Damsel in Distress is not my preferred form of escapism (for the record, I always preferred Mr Galliano’s Circus to the Famous Five and would have happily given up both for a new Swallows and Amazons novel). Others may find it more plausible, and the characters more likeable, and be less inclined to laugh at the (no doubt historically accurate) vocabulary (but seriously, are there people out there who can read “oh right ho, pip-pip” without at least suppressing a smile?). I might as well go with the theme and use a very English metaphor - it’s just not my cup of tea.