As you know, my current novel is out for review and expert critique. And as comments come in I’m revising the text. With confidence.
I’m not a great fan of books which rely heavily on local dialect and idioms – they can be jolly hard work. But a touch of linguistic colour here and there, used judiciously, can be a happy substitute for wordy description. So, I’m indebted to my expert in Scots for the correct use of words like ‘wursel’ and ‘baws’ and ‘faither’, and the knowledge that kids from an area of multiple deprivation wouldn’t say their mother had ‘scarpered’, she’d have ‘skidaddled’.
scarper Brit. sl. run away, escape [prob. f. It, scappare escape, infl. by rhyming sl. Scapa Flow = go]
An Irish friend tells me that ‘slutty’, ‘ponsy’ and ‘poxy’ aren’t authentic currency even amongst the coarser element of the emerald isle – although I confess I’m too craven to use some of the more startling alternatives.
My contact in the police force has given me invaluable insights into the work of Family Liaison Officers and the protocol at the scene of a car crash, saving me from a significant faux pas.
All tremendously helpful advice, and in my judgement, a very necessary part of the editorial process.
It grieves me when I spend good money on a book that hasn’t even nodded in the direction of a sound edit. I don’t want to embarrass a well-intentioned novice so I won’t name and shame the author of a particularly bad example I read this month, but one does wonder what possesses some publishers to send out real garbage, whilst others pass over masterly writing. Seems like a cross between whim and lottery. And there seems to be a growing trend towards fads and ‘copy-cat’ publishing of mediocre or downright substandard books, rather than supporting originality and exciting trend-setting.
Did you know that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was rejected by 30 publishers! If you’re in the mood for a bit of light relief click here for some of the misguided and rather rude comments made to 30 other authors whose work then went on to be acclaimed and lauded. Yesss!! As Frank Sinatra once said: The best revenge is massive success. Indeedy.
Am I being too precious? What are your thoughts on the quality of what you read? Do you look for authenticity and accuracy? That’s the question queen of blogging Dovegreyreader asks in her review of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. A health care professional herself, she was shocked by the implausibility of certain sections of the story. As a writer I suspect my own personal approach borders on the obsessive, but do you, the readers, really care?
What makes a good review?
I suspect an author would have a rather different take on this from a dispassionate reader – especially if their own book was under scrutiny. So I was interested in the blog of Simon Thomas on this subject. No, no no, not the politician, not the footballer, nor even the TV presenter – no, I mean Simon Thomas, blogger, of Stuck in a Book fame. On 12 June he wrote:
‘I’ve seen many bloggers work out their own approach to reviewing books, covering all aspects – from whether or not you ought to say where you got a book, to whether or not negative reviews should feature at all on a blog. Some bloggers (wisely) just outline their own preferences – others, at the shoutier end of the blogosphere which I frequent very seldom and to which none of you belong, lay down the law for all bloggers. I’m not going to attempt to do either, but today I stumbled across John Updike’s criteria for writing a review (which first appeared in the introduction to his essay collection Picking Up The Pieces in 1975) and I thought it was very interesting, and maybe even very sensible… what do you think?
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.’
Now, Stuck in a Book’s own reviews are delightful to read. Simon comes across as fair and kindly, discerning but not arrogant. And I had a lovely friendly exchange with him some time ago when he reviewed my own Remember Remember. He readily admits that he has certain ‘blocks’ or idiosyncratic tastes – like his aversion to several high-profile male characters in the classics (Mr Rochester, Mr. Knightley, Heathcliff) for instance. Imagine!
So do I agree with these views on reviewing?
Well, let’s look at the six points first. Basically, yes … for serious review-bloggers. It’s the kind of yardstick I’d like critics to use when judging my books. And I specially approve of the bits about not giving away the plot (a pet hate), and treating the author with respect, and not complaining because he/she wrote the book he/she did and not the one you wanted to read.
Will I change my own reviews? Probably not, although I might just add more quotations from the texts in future. OK, OK. I can already hear several of my regular followers groaning. Short and snappy, they cry. And I know they’d hate lots of secondhand quoting. So fear not, I’ll be circumspect.
And I think I can afford to take this line because my blog is not principally a review-blog. My comments are designed to draw attention to the things I’m reading as a writer; things that are influencing me in some way. Quotes that give a flavour of the author’s style, or that emphasize important points they make, are legitimate in that context. I leave the longer more thorough critiques to luminaries like Dovegreyreader or Cornflower or Stuck in a Book himself who all do it so well. If you haven’t visited them I recommend you do.
I must confess that I started my blog because I felt I needed
a) to make my website more active and
b) to relate to visitors more as the real everyday me.
But I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy writing it. It’s rather compulsive, actually. Getting feedback from readers has spurred me on and proved unexpectedly encouraging. Plus there’s the bonus this year, when my mind has been distracted, and time fractured by matters to do with my mother’s deteriorating health, of the therapeutic value of regular writing. Producing something is definitely better than producing nothing. The latest novel has hiccupped along; the weekly posts have demanded focus and imposed gentle but necessary deadlines.
The experience of writing my own blog has also given me a new interest in other bloggers – especially bookish ones. I’ve learned a lot from studying their entries, what appeals, what repels. You’ll find some of my personal favourites on the blogroll on my homepage (Cornflower, Dovegreyreader, Stuckinabook, top the list). I’ve been fascinated by their reviews of a wide variety of books, as well as the way they let readers into their lives. Not to mention gobsmacked by the sheer speed of their reading in the midst of busy lives, and the thoroughness of their analysis. Where do they find those 36 hour days?!
It was purely by chance though, that I discovered blogs by a paramedic had attracted sufficient interest to be converted into books. Tom Reynolds won the Medgadget Best Medical Blog and Best Literary Medical Blog for randomreality.blogware.com. I’ve been reading his books: Blood, Sweat and Tea and More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea, on my travels this past month, and in odd moments when I needed diversion but couldn’t concentrate on my normal kind of reading. The short extracts lend themselves to those with a limited attention span; you can dip in and out without losing the thread. And these particular stories fulfill a useful function for me right now because I want to get a feel for the life of paramedics for my current book; these snippets give me a little insight.
I like the air of self-deprecation Reynolds adopts – the honest accounts of how he failed the ambulance driving test several times, how he fell for patients’ tricks and colleagues’ banter, how he froze at critical moments. And in spite of the serious nature of the work, there’s a pleasingly wry humour mixed in with the compassion. No effort is made to disguise the sheer mundanity and sameness of much of the work; the glamorous moments, the adrenaline rushes, few and far between.
But there were things about Reynolds’ writing style that irritated me, so I’ve moved on to Peter Canning’s Paramedic. At the age of thirty-six Canning left his well-paid and cushioned life as a speechwriter and top health department aide to a Connecticut Governor, to work on the city streets as a paramedic. Here’s a man who wrote for a living and it shows. But, though more fluid, the writing is delightfully unadorned too. And again there’s that light mocking tone that appeals to me. He recounts his failures more than his successes, and the effect they and his job have on his confidence and self-esteem.
‘I’ve been in a bad funk lately. Normally it is only on Tuesday morning when I ride into work for my first shift of the week that I feel the doubt and wonder why I am doing this, but this week the doubts last all week long. I just turned thirty-seven. I have no pension built up. I have no law degree or medical degree or business skill to fall back on. I am barely living on what I make, borrowing from savings to buy books. I will have to borrow again to get a new used car as my trusty old Plymouth has a limited future. I think if I gt married and have a kid by the time I’m forty, I will be sixty when he is twenty, seventy-seven when he is my age. That’s old. I wonder how I will be able to send him to college or help him out with pocket change. My body is stiff and sore now. What will it be like then? Will I be able to throw a baseball around with my grandson, or will I have to be led on a walker to his Little League games on day-leave from the nursing home?.’
‘I watch the doctors in their offices or at their workstations as they consult and hobnob with each other. There is a real class system here. The doctors are at the top, then the nurses, then us at the very bottom. I tell the nurses what I get for vital signs. They retake the vitals themselves and write them down on their pads. I tell them the story, they say thanks, then turn to the patient and ask what is the matter. They need to do it, but it makes me wonder what the point is sometimes. I might as well just pick them up, put them on the stretcher, and deliver them. I write my run forms, but they seem just like pieces of paper that will go unread.’
‘In a few days I will snap out of it. I will remember that I love this job. I will start doing challenging calls again. I’ll give nitro, Lasix, and morphine to a man in congestive cardiac failure, and it’ll chase the suffocating fluid out of his lungs, and he’ll be able to breathe, and relax, and live for a while longer. And I’ll be on scene just six minutes at a bad car wreck – I’ll get my lines, make a patch, and get the patient into the trauma room. And I will gently convince an elderly woman suffering from gangrene to leave her north end home which she loves for the medical treatment she desperately needs. And I will goof with some kids …’
Surgeon, Atul Gawande, adopts the same kind of self deprecatory tone too, in his series of books about life and experience in a busy American hospital. (I wrote about him back in July.) These are men who do a hugely valuable job, earn public trust, hold lives in their hands, but they know that they are but cogs in a larger machine, and that everybody makes mistakes. They are humble enough to acknowledge their own fallibility. As Canning says after one particularly gruelling call when everything seemed to go wrong: ‘I feel again that overwhelming burden of failure that I try to ignore for fear the sheer weight of it will crush me to the ground.’ Later that day he says, ‘I learn from every call I do. I have never done a perfect call.’
I guess I instinctively warm to people who aren’t puffed up by their own importance. And most of the people I know who have achieved great things are like that, in my experience. They don’t need to trumpet their prowess; their lives and achievements speak for them. And they’ve had the courage to learn through their mistakes.
Because, of course, very few successful people were born with a silver spoon. They’ve just not allowed failure to daunt them. I think I feel another blog coming on on that subject …
Tags: paramedics, Tom Reynolds, Atul Gawande, Cornflower, Dovegreyreader, Stuckinabook, Peter Canning, humility