Saturday, February 11, 2006

Russel on Reviewing

With JA Konrath talking recently about blurbing, and Tess Gerritsen talking about how sometimes writers need thick skins, I've been thinking about reviewing. After all recently I've been harsh about novels because I don't think they have much in them that rocks the boat (even if they are really entertaining) or because I didn't buy the plot (but I loved the writing). Were these then negative reviews? I don't think so. I bloody well hope not. Because among the stuff I picked on I had stuff to say that was very positive, too. If I finish a book these days it means it gets a passing grade. And there are some novels I have not reviewed because, really, there just isn't anything I could say about them that was any good. Of course these tend to be flung my way from PA authors or similar who lie or omit about the publishing house they've come from (Because they must know how PA makes my blood boil).

And then someone whose novel I reviewed wrote to to say, "you're a harsh grader". He appreciated the review, thank goodness and found the positive in there among the other stuff. But its probably as well I didn't do my PhD as part of that would have been marking undergrad essays and he's right: I'm a harsh grader. I demand a lot from the books I read. Its the way I am and the way I always will be. I'm not writing blurbs and I would feel like I was cheating if I was. Of course sometimes I write love letters to novels but that is because they seriously float my boat. But even when I'm criticising I hope in my heart that I'm not being cruel. My intent is to explore the experience of reading a novel through the eyes of a reader. That reader being me. So it would be dishonest of me to skip over that which didn't work for me. And I always accept that my reviews are subjective. What doesn't work for me may work for someone else. I could quite easily miss the point of a book.

But why am I seen as harsh? I think maybe because its easy for a writer to see the negative in a review. God knows that when and if I ever get a book out there I'm going to tear out my hair at the first bad review I see. But, to quote one writer's description of my own reviewing style, if I see "an honest appraisal of the book's strengths and weaknesses" then I'm going to be quite happy. That's what a review should be: honest. Its not about making the reviewer appear smart by delivering pithy insults in the book's general direction and neither is it about crawling up to the author and smothering them in saliva-drenched kisses (Like a certain Ms Klausner). Its about discussing the reading experience. Its about sharing what a novel gave you. And of course its hard when you know the author or have met them. Even when you know the publisher a little. But I think in their hearts most authors crave a little honesty. Except when that honesty becomes displaced by a bitter, mean streak that certain reviewers out there seem to delight in showing off.

Au revoir



Sandra Ruttan said...

"an honest appraisal of the book's strengths and weaknesses"

That's what you want. Exactly.

What bothers me, of course, is people who don't qualify their criticism. "The book is shit." Why?

Of course, another thing about some reviewers is that they don't have anything to back up their position and it is strictly based on taste.

I'm thinking I need to be a bit more well-balanced in my reviewing, but I find it so hard to criticize wee little things in the writing that I notice as a writer when I know how easy it is to make those mistakes - and that the average reader isn't picking up on them.

But people who trash based on taste alone? That kinda bothers me.

Now, my goal is to get a half-decent assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of my book from Russel.

But here's a que for you: I've been told that many reviewers will be more forgiving on debut novelists. Is that true for you Russel, or do you even consider that?

Jennifer Jordan said...

No forgiving just because it is a debut. In fact, there is a thing called "debut-itis" in which one expects to find faults and lo, do find them. That's why reviews that say, "This book does not read like a debut," mean something.

I am beloved for my mean streak. Beloved, I tell you!

Stuart MacBride said...

Ah Russel, you want fair and balanced reviews, just wait till you get your first b******g on Amazon. Tis a right of passage and no mistake.

Russel said...


I'm with Jen on this. A debut is not something to be treated with extra care. If its out there it should be out there because it is ready. Now sometimes, yes, I have said, "Okay, this book didn't quite work for me but there's enough that I'm looking forward to a writer's future endeavours" but I would dearly love not to have to say that. I have encountered two perfect debuts in the past two years: The Big Blind and Deadolk. Read those books and you'll forget by page two that these guys are debut novelists.

No special favours. Like I said I odn't expect any either.


The thing is with Amazon that whether they admit it or not you can always see the loony reviewers' alternate agenda. In the case of any book set in Scotland it is "this is not Rankin" which is the beating I'm really looking forward to.

The other good one is when you set your book in a specific place and it doesn't quite match up to what everyone thinks you should be writing about that place. That's the other one I'm looking forward to, getting told that I'm making Dundee look horrible/too nice/whatever.

Russel said...

By the way my excuse for all those spelling mistakes is my cold.

Or stupidity.

One or the other.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Fascinating guys! This is why you should talk to many people in the business, because you get a broader perspective.

Note, I didn't say they should get an easier go of it - just that I've been told that they do. Maybe 'tis a Canadian thing?

And Russel, you aren't Rankin. Dammit man, can't you just get that through your thick skull?

(Those wankers. I mean, I still collect the Ian Rankin trading cards in the corn pops boxes and all, but I get just as excited when Stuart MacBride has a spinning top in the fruit loops box. If Rickards had his monkey mask in cocoa pops (shudder) I'd buy it too.)

Russel said...


I have heard that argument before about giving new writers an easy time. I don't see why. Should we go easy on To Kill A Mockingbird because its a first novel?

And by God I don't want to be Rankin. He's probably quite happy being himself and I know I'm very happy being me.

Except when my big ass screws fall out.

Ray said...

Hey, you're nobody until you've had your first crazy person review on Amazon. As soon as the Squeaky book comes out, I'm there:

"This buk is like a buk what I red ages ago and its like fucked and not goof cuz its like fulla people an shit. AND HE IS NOT RANKIN HE IS NOT RANKIN I WILL MURDER HIS PETS HE IS NOT RANKIN HE DUZZNT EVEN KEN HOW TO SPELL LIKE WHAT AS GOOD AS AH DAE."

Russel said...


So that's the blurb I can use on the cover, then?