Novelists on Novels

When @Booktopia said on Twitter ‘Do novelists prefer to be reviewed by novelists? If you were a novelist, would you?’, I couldn’t find any way of responding in 140 characters or less, so here I go in quite a few more …

My ideal reviewer is obvious, and the one we never admit to. S/he approaches my work with blind adoration and thinks even the envelopes in my bin are genius. His/her worship knows few bounds, and s/he has their wits about them only just enough to know it’d be crossing a line to pitch a tent in my backyard and live in it with a life-size doll made in my image. He/she is welcome to be a novelist, but I’ll leave that entirely up to them.

I realise, though, that in the real world I’ll have to settle for something less. Maybe something as rigorous and nerve-wracking as a fair hearing.

Whatever I get, I can’t pretend I’ll see the end result objectively, or even for what it is. I have to remind myself regularly that reviews of my books aren’t written for me, as a source of potential validation, quotes for reprints and free advertising. They’re actually for people who have an interest in books and might value a smart reader’s view of one. When my book’s not the one under the microscope, I’m one of those people, so occasionally I get that.

But do I think readers and writers benefit from a novelist doing the reviewing? Depends. On the plus side, novelists should have at least a few ideas of how the things are made, and they should know how a stinky review feels and how a lazy review feels. I don’t mind it at all if a reviewer has felt the consequences of the action they’re embarking on. If they haven’t and won’t, I’d at least like them to think it through. If you’re writing for a publication with a big circulation, maybe imagine your readers filling a stadium. The author’s in the front row and you’re in the middle, alone, at a microphone. You’re about to read your review. Do you still feel okay about everything you’re planning to write?

But back to the novelist reviewers. How good a reader is she/he, and how good a thinker about other people’s work? There’s nothing that says that’s an automatic part of the novelist package.

I love reading, depending on the book. I think my tastes and take on what I read may be a bit idiosyncratic. I don’t review. My views don’t pass my stadium test, so I don’t put them out to vast audiences.

My ideal reviewer aside, I suppose I want my books reviewed by someone who knows how to read and to think about when they’ve read, and who has the time and patience to give the process what it needs. I want someone who has some affinity with the book in question, or at least the kind of book. I don’t want someone who’s too busy, too aware of how underpaid they are or who’s just in it for the byline (novelist or otherwise).

I don’t want reviews that refer to ‘his usual needy divorced protagonist’ when, in eleven novels, only one of my protagonists has been divorced, and when the protagonist in the story being reviewed has never even been married. I busted my arse to write the thing. Whether the reviewer likes the end result or not, I’d like them to care enough about the process to at least respect it and to pay attention and not skim read. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, whether they’re a novelist or not.

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5 Responses to Novelists on Novels

  1. Hi Nick, welcome to the world of blogging (and WordPress)!

    Re your question, I reckon you’ve covered the essentials, namely it doesn’t matter who is reviewing your book, as long as they’ve read it and has done enough thinking to be able to offer positive feedback (and if negative, as least to do it constructively, because in the end, reviewing is subjective.)

    I like interviewing authors about the skill and the craft involved in writing a story, and finding out fascinating little things about them and their characters you would never know unless you asked. Just posted a couple of blog (on WordPress) with Karen Brooks, author of the newly-released, ‘Votive’. Fascinating!

    Have fun blogging, Nick! 🙂

    • nickearls says:

      Thanks Sheryl. I must admit I’m also intrigued about where small details in novels have come from. I’m sure it’s partly simple curiosity, but maybe I also find it reassuring that I’m not the only one picking up scraps and playing around with them. I know there are also plenty of people who want to have no idea, and just want the book to be the book (I’m probably one of them on my first read of anything new, but after that I’m quite keen to see behind the curtain.)

  2. DrD says:

    Hi Nick,

    Great post, and I look forward to seeing more of your blog.

    As someone who has just finished my first book, I do find that I read reviews with much more of an idea of how the writer would feel reading it. Writing a novel is bloody hard work, and there are ways of critiquing someone’s work that are respectful and thoughtful.

    My ideal reviewer would be myself! I think my book’s good, why on earth wouldn’t everyone? 🙂

  3. Lauren says:

    As someone kind of on the flipside (current music reviewer, would be one day novellist) this is a very interesting read. I find it difficult sometimes as the reviewer to write without thinking more of the artist than my audience. I worry what they might think if they read my paragraphs, and feel unqualified to tell someone who has just spent hundreds of hours working what I thought after a couple of hours (tops) of reflection on the product. It’s a challenging game we’re in!

    • nickearls says:

      It is. Maybe that’s partly why I take the easy option and don’t review (meanwhile conning myself into believing that position is some kind of moral high ground, which I know it isn’t).

      I’m sure reviews have a place. I’m not always certain what that place is. They’re not just promo for artists or a chance for clever snide people to show off their writing. Maybe from the reader/listener POV it’s about using the review to identify something they might like and might want to spend their money on. Maybe part of reviewing is waving the right flags so that the right people can find the work in question. Not that that addresses the question of merit, and how we assess that (and what it actually is, and how to distill it from personal taste).

      I’m impressed by your element of self-doubt though. I think that gets you over the line with my stadium test, and makes you a whole lot less likely to be casual, careless, glib, dismissive, self-serving and some of the other things that make the least good reviewing problematic. Fortunately, like what it says or not, much reviewing is better than that, and approached with some care.

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