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.
January was a cracker of a month as far as books were concerned for me this year. And in their different ways they’ve contributed greatly to my own writing (a novel about organ donation) which has taken off again now that other deadlines have been met. The one I want to tell you about this week has given me the courage to take risks. It breaks all sorts of ‘rules’ about writing but nonetheless – or is it as a result? – garners praise.
‘Flora Dunbar is dead. But it isn’t over.
The spectre at Flora’s funeral is Flora herself, unobserved by her grieving family and the four men who loved her. Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin…’
The Kindle version was only 88p! Positively scandalous for a novel as good as this one.
The prologue is narrated by Flora, a tortured soul, reflecting on her life after her death. There’s no carefully paced introduction of each new character to avoid confusion; the entire cast are there in one fell swoop – at Flora’s funeral. And the author even gives away key elements of the coming plot right at the outset. You are left in no doubt: this is going to be an uncomfortable read.
‘Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair … Dora’s wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory’s son – like Rory, but much darker …
Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo’s Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through …
My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son …
Grace hated me. I can’t say I blamed her. She had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. That’s what Grace would say. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.’
But far from stealing the coming thunder prematurely, this tantalising glimpse into a complex family structure where nothing is as it seems, and where powerful emotions and talents lead to complicated and unlawful liaisons, serves as an irresistible promise of the haunting and disturbing story to come. And the book certainly lives up to that promise.
It’s well written as well as cleverly constructed. Flora’s posthumous revelations interwoven with third person narrative keep the story spinning along. The setting spans six decades – from the 1940s to 2000, and the story dots backwards and forwards in time. Initially I found this disconcerting. You’re just getting involved with the twins as children when the fifty-eight year old Flora interrupts. You’re sympathising with Dora’s struggles with her toddler twins when the scene flashes forwards a generation to her daughter’s confused feelings for her son. But once you get to know the characters, you start to appreciate how effectively and subtly the author is steering you towards an understanding of the ‘why’, as well as the ‘how’, of the Dunbar family shenanigans. This has to be a fiendishly difficult kind of writing to pull off successfully; in the case of A Lifetime Burning it’s a brilliant accomplishment.
The Dunbar characters are fully rounded, fallible, and utterly believable. They’re often objectionable and their behaviour leaves you torn between all sorts of emotions – incredulity, acceptance, revulsion, pity, sympathy, dismay, admiration, disgust. At once gripping and disturbing. And the title is perfect (shame it’s been used by several other authors though).
Gillard weaves apparently effortlessly between a wide range of subjects too – music, literature, Shakespeare, gardening, acting, horticulture, wildlife. A master of each.
To date the book’s got 28 comments on Amazon all with a 5 star rating! I too am lost in admiration of this writer’s skill. I’ve downloaded two more of her novels but am loathe to start reading them just yet in case they don’t reach this incredibly high standard. Could they?
And there’s a wee postscript … I reviewed this book on Goodreads this week and to my delight the author herself saw it and contacted me, so we’ve now established several links and I was able to tell her that this post was coming. An unexpected bonus. I should post more reviews obviously.
I’ve been chortling quietly to myself this week as the Man Booker process has reached its grand finale with the announcement of the winner. First there was the criticism levelled at the panel of judges. How dare they dumb down the competition by choosing readable books? How dare they? I mean!
Then, the winner, Julian Barnes, is famous for having scorned the whole MB enterprise as ‘posh bingo‘. Bet he’s not repeating that this week!
And now one of the judges, Gaby Wood, has gone to print saying that ‘Almost nothing happens in the book.‘ That’s the winning The Sense of an Ending she’s talking about. OK, she does go on to qualify her remark: ‘yet it becomes a psychological thriller of extraordinary technical virtuosity.‘ But even so, I think I’d be miffed if someone said nothing happened in my books.
Which brings me nicely to a post written by Simon on Stuck-in-a-book on 7 October. Yes, I know, two weeks ago. But I needed time to mull this one over. And I’ve been much exercised by this matter during those two weeks.
Simon asked the question: How would you rank the three main components of a ‘good’ novel: plot, character and writing style? Of course, the evaluation of ‘good’ is a very subjective business, as he acknowledges. But that makes your own answer to the question the more intriguing.
OK, have you thought how you’d answer? Before contaminating your opinion with his answer. Or mine, come to that.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading of late – not least because it’s that time of year to think about filling the Christmas shoe boxes for Operation Christmas child/Samaritans’ Purse, so I’ve been rattling off woolly hats like a veritable conveyor belt. I concentrate for much, much longer if my hands are busy too. But the more books and bonnets I finished, the more difficult I found it to separate out those jolly old component parts. The best books are a clever amalgam of all three. Can they be assessed as ‘good’ without that balance?
What’s more, the boundaries can be less than distinct. A character can’t be well drawn without skilled writing … can it? And a storyline can reel you in subtly if it’s well written – it doesn’t have to be an overt edge-of-the-seat-whodunnit kind of plot if the writing is seductive. But if either characters or plot are badly written they aren’t going to appeal.
Simon chooses writing style as definitely most important, and from what I’ve just said, I guess I’m initially concluding much the same. He puts character second, but relegates plot to way less important. In his words he ‘can happily, contentedly adore a novel where nothing happens – so long as the writing is good and the characters well-drawn.‘
And that’s were we part company. I would say at the end of such a volume: ‘So what?‘ There needs to be some tension, some kind of change or resolution, to leave a satisfied taste for me. Something more memorable and substantial to hang onto other than beautiful phrases and clever metaphors. I like the characters and what happens to them to linger after I’ve returned the book to my shelves.
I also think the balance can change according to the genre. A mystery or thriller can’t work without plot. A romance doesn’t gel without character. And if the storyline is really gripping in any genre, the writing doesn’t have to be spectacularly good to keep those pages turning. Sheer story-telling ability has a power that transcends minor anomalies – though they might irritate at some lower level.
Still with the genre issue: I know that in my own books, the balance of the three components was different in the reflective diary of Adam as he contemplated his own death in Right to Die, compared with the search for Viv’s rapist in Vacant Possession. Writing in Doris’ voice as she sank into dementia in Remember Remember, required a different approach from that of Dr Justin Blaydon-Green when things started going pear-shaped in his infertility clinic in Saving Sebastian. But characters have been important in all of the books, whatever the genre. If you don’t care what happens (which is not the same thing as liking them) why should you bother to read on?
So, at the risk of sounding totally feeble, I personally can’t rank the three components. They all matter to me. It depends. What about you? You can reply to Simon instead if you’d rather. The idea came from him. But if you’re angling to judge the MB books next year … think … very … carefully … before you commit your thoughts to the ether. Simon’s still in the running I should think.
I confess I’ve been feeling rather less perky than usual this week. Two causes:
a. our trusty chariot has been written off after 7+ years of valiant service
b. the beautiful cast iron railings at the front of our property
have been crushed to pieces by a vehicle out of control on black ice, and reduced to this.Now, of course, I’ve told myself (and the shell-shocked driver) many times that these are only ‘things’; nobody was hurt. The floods in Queensland, the murder of Joanna Yeates, the shootings in Arizona – our trials pale into insignificance. And I would defend my healthy perspective to the death! But it still makes me sad to see all that glorious craftsmanship demolished.
So perhaps it wasn’t the most auspicious week to get a mixed review of Remember Remember. I don’t usually comment on reviews of my books – smacks too much of trumpet-blowing; but because this one was qualified I feel I can share it, and in so doing give you a little insight into the life of an author.
Now, nobody relishes criticism; and strangely enough authors are no exception. When you’ve laboured for months or years over a book, agonised over every detail, and given birth painfully to each one of the characters, nurturing them through the growing stages to full maturity, it’s hard to have them slaughtered by someone on mere first acquaintance. And the level of personal commitment and involvement means that a negative comment can linger ten times as long as a positive one. Especially because a review involves fairly public exposure with very little opportunity to defend oneself – bit like royalty, huh?! So I’m sneakily using this blog to redress that imbalance somewhat.
OK, this particular critic, who is he? ‘A Christian-bookoholic-vegetarian-twin’ is how Simon Thomas describes himself. Otherwise known as Stuck-in-a-Book, and currently ranking sixth on the Wikio Top UK Literary Blogs list. And he guarantees an honest review. So far so good. Oh, and I should add, he’s been nothing but friendly and charming and encouraging in his personal contact with me during this process. Sounds very much like my kind of person, in fact.
His grandmother had dementia, and he admits he’s drawn to authors who portray any sort of illness or mental state well, when it requires a ‘wandering narrative voice’. That probably explains why he preferred the scatty voice of Doris in the depths of Alzheimer’s to the more steely logic of her daughter, Jessica, struggling to impose order and everydayness on the chaotic world of a carer. But I’ll come to that.
So what did he take exception to? Well, he was rather dismissive of one of my characters – Aaron. He’s a lawyer in love with Jessica, but she gave him up when her mother needed her constant attention. He (Simon, that is, not Aaron) writes:
‘I did wonder a bit whether Aaron was added at the suggestion of an editor, because he didn’t seem quite to fit with the rest of the novel – does every book need a love interest, really? – but we shan’t squabble over him.’
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Simon, you entirely missed the point of Aaron. He was never add-on love interest. He represents so much:
- yet another sacrifice made by a dutiful daughter;
- the dispassionate but rigid voice of laws and human rights;
- the gentle empathy of someone who has learned to pace themselves to the tune of dementia
Oh no, Aaron was not the suggestion of a dubious editor. He is mine entirely, and he is absolutely intrinsic to the structure and purpose of the book. And I wholeheartedly, unequivocally defend his right to be there.
Jessica’s voice is rather damned with faint praise: ‘perfectly serviceable, but perhaps a little uninspiring’, ‘perfectly good – and perfectly ordinary’. On first reading I felt rather crushed by this. But on reflection, hey, to be regarded as ‘perfectly good’ as a novelist is something. To get a review at all, indeed! I gave myself a mental shake. After all, a few days earlier, on the same blog, this same reviewer said of the highly-acclaimed Sarah Waters who’s up there with the big names:
‘At her best, Waters can tear a story along – but at her worst, it feels rather self-indulgent and unedited … is she destined to always fall short from her potential?’
He talks of her ‘dud 100 pages’, how she ‘drags occasionally’.
Phew! I’m in good company, then.
And then there’s the time line. Now, this blogger is clearly no intellectual slouch, but he admits to being confused by the dates in the second part of Remember Remember. Well, hey. Confusion fits! But I can confide, my editor and I were sorely exercised over the best way to capture the passage of time without bogging the book down with tedious facts. We finally agreed to mark the number of years as chapter headings and drop in occasional historical detail as anchors (obvious ones like WW II), and trust to the reader’s intelligence to follow the clues. I guess you have to care enough to stop and work it out. And Mr Stuckinabook gallops from book to book, so I should be content that he read the book as he did, and not look for more. And I know the chronology is impeccable!
So, against this frankly honest critical context it was particularly gratifying to read his conclusion:
‘What I will say to anybody who does pick up Remember Remember is: persevere. The first half may feel a little ordinary, but I think McHaffie was just readying herself for the second half. That’s when things get interesting – in terms of structure, narrative events, and especially narrative voice.’
‘What McHaffie cleverly presents is a mind, and thus a prose, that gets gradually more and more coherent – the mirror image of a mind disassembling through dementia.’
He reckons it ‘offers a unique twist to the narrative of dementia.’
Why thank you, kind sir!
And he graciously awards a ‘big gold star’ to Tom Bee, the cover designer – as do I. A commendation I’ve been delighted to pass on on to Tom himself.
So, there you have it. I’m genuinely grateful for the review, and on reflection accept is was actually mild criticism. It feels good to have staunchly defended my friend, Aaron, and therapeutic to have written a response. So, here I am back to my perky self. Helped the day after the review was posted by a big box of scented flowers from a grateful bookclub who studied the very same novel. Bless you, ladies – you can never know how timely your gift was.