Monday, 18 May 2015

Everybody Hates Critics, but I'm a Reviewer... Honest Guv!

'From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1.) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.' Isaac Asimov.

Recently, on Facebook, I read two entries by authors who were devastated by nasty reviews of their books and were doubting the validity of their work. There was nothing I could do to help, except send encouraging messages and urge them not to quit. I'm sure they won't. At least I hope not. Nobody who loves writing should give up because of a stranger's ill considered, or possibly spiteful, words.
That set me thinking: why would anybody take the time and trouble to write a really nasty book review? For that matter, why take the time and trouble to read an entire book that you despise? I suspect that very few of these reviewers are employed to do the job, so why read and review something that gives them so little pleasure?
I suspect that many of these 'reviewers' are getting mixed up with the old-fashioned role of the critic, the two words have been interchanged a lot. Traditionally the critic was employed by the media to review a book/ film/play/concert/piece of artwork, but, as the title 'critic' suggests, the most popular critics are often those who, in a fluent and derisive way, are nasty about several aspects of the work they are reviewing. Amongst creative people, the popular perception of such critics is that they are embittered by their own creative failure. As Robin Sharma puts it: 'Critics are just dreamers who got scared and gave up.'
When writing a review, the reviewer should remember that they are exposing not just the book and its author to public scrutiny and judgement, they are exposing themselves as well. Ego trips, spite and jealousy, or simple showing off, will all be obvious. They should also remember that, in the crime genre, critics are one of the categories of people that frequently end up as murder victims and their killers often claim it was 'justifiable homicide.'
I write crime novels: Police Procedurals and Victorian Murder Mysteries, and I've just completed a cosy/comedy crime book. So I've been on the receiving end of reviews, although I admit I've been fortunate so far. The worst star rating I've had on Amazon was a 3 star and the reviewer was perfectly civil, and that is far outweighed by the numerous 5 stars and occasional 4 stars I've received.
I'm not saying an author should ignore all but fulsome praise, just evaluate it and work out what the reviewer is actually saying and whether, even if it's said crassly, they have a point the author can learn from. When I receive feedback of any sort I consider it carefully. Sometimes a reviewer will put their finger on a weakness that I can amend, at least in future books.
'In my reviews, I feel it's good to make it clear that I'm not proposing objective truth, but subjective reactions.' Roger Ebert. 
I review books for Mystery People and the thing that I try to keep in mind, and hope the readers of the reviews do too, is that this is my opinion, not some great Everlasting Truth carved in stone.

Deciding which books I review for Mystery People has an element of luck in it from the start. The editor, Lizzie Hayes, sends a list of books that have been submitted to her, and her team of reviewers race to email her in order to ask for the ones they fancy. There are often books by authors I know and admire, which makes things easy, but the choice of others are a matter of a lot of luck and a little judgement, (done at high speed before another reviewer beats me past the post.) Sometimes books are not as exciting as I hoped but, as a rule, they are interesting, and occasionally, I've discovered an author whose work I love. Most notable of my new finds in the last year is Gary Corby, whose fabulous mystery series is set in Ancient Greece.

My reviewing process is basically the same for any fiction book that I review.
Having read the book I would:
1.) Write a brief account of the central characters, state whether it is contemporary or historical, mention the location and outline the start of the plot. I am careful not to put in any spoilers and will use the 'blurb' on the book's back cover to guide me as to how much the author wants revealed.
2.) Comment on any outstanding features, such as a fabulous title.
3.) Include any facts, such as whether it is the 1st book in a series, or the 101st.
4.) Write about my reaction to the book, making sure I put in all the positive points (e.g. lively characters, clever plot, satisfying ending, but not giving the ending away.) That doesn't mean I ignore anything that is less than positive, but, unless it is a glaring, factual error, I make it clear that this is my opinion. After all, I could find a character irritating that many other people love.
5.) I include any information that the reader might find useful, (e.g. exceptionally small print, which is hard to read.) I have been known to suggest that, in my opinion, readers should start at the beginning of a series; although, in other cases, characters and situations are are so clearly drawn that I feel the order of reading matters a lot less.
6.) I sum up, often suggesting the readers who would potentially enjoy the book.
7.) I provide the information readers would need: ISBN or ASIN number and publisher.

I would try to match the style of my review to the over-all tone of the book and, if appropriate, use a brief quotation from the book to show the style and quality of the writing.

For me the important thing about reviewing is to offer positive but honest feedback and to share information about books so that other people can seek them out and enjoy them too. And of course, to let authors know that some reviewers enjoy their work and admire what they do, and are happy to say so.

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