What We Talk About When We Talk About Books (Part 1)

I’m not a reviewer. Or, to be more precise, since school I have prepared only two pieces that could be called reviews of books, neither of them this century.

One of them was of Rosie Scott’s Feral City in 1991. A bunch of us had spent ten days or so together on the first Writers’ train through western Queensland. I still have the tour poster on my wall. As I recall it, a publication – I can’t remember which – came up with the idea of getting a few of us to review each other’s new books.

I liked Rosie and, after our nightly performances, her writing voice was already in my head, which set me up perfectly to read her novel. There was a lot that impressed me, and it was easy to put it into writing. If I’d hated the book, would I have trashed it? No. I don’t feel I own anyone that display of objectivity. I would simply have declined to write about it.

A reviewer, I think, aims for objectivity. The reviewing business is, I think, to some extent about taking a template that fits perfectly over a good book and seeing how it fits over the book in question. But one of the things I most love about reading is its subjectivity and how personal it is.

A book is not a footrace with a clock timing each lane, or a row of insanely large pumpkins lining up to be weighed. Nor is it even paint on canvas, or ninety minutes of a roomful of people digesting exactly the same images and sounds via a screen and speakers (and then doing the template thing, or not). A book is maybe ten hours of words passing through a human brain that’s lived a life and comes loaded with baggage and insights, and it’s the look and feel and everything else that that complicated organ imparts, as well as being about the words on the page.

While two reasonable people might hold quite different views about the same painting or movie, there’s even more scope for them to differ when it comes to books, because the neurology of reading seems far more participatory. You take the words and make your own sounds and pictures, and that’s your copy of the book.

Here’s an example of how subjective it can be – three quotes from reviews of my novel Perfect Skin:

‘One of the joys of Perfect Skin is the author’s deceptively casual and conversational style which draws you into the complex texture of the characters’ lives … You are seduced into caring about the life of the central character … The greatest joy of this book is the depiction of the growing intimacy between Dr Jon and the tiny baby he calls the Bean. This sense of a man engaging at depth with the care of a child reinforced the hope I have that big changes are on the horizon … When enough men genuinely bond with their babies, in the way Dr Jon does in this book, the world will change … I thank Earls for this warm, funny and deeply moving literary contribution.’
The Courier-Mail

‘… a light and breezy tale of one man’s struggle to cope as a single father-single man. A subject tackled before, sure, but the book stands on its own simply for its humour. I doubt Earls has any delusions of literary grandeur, for this is writing at its most basic. It’s overly conversation driven, lacks any real depth and is seriously bereft of descriptive prose. But so what. It’s fun … that’s why Perfect Skin works: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. So it’s not Shakespeare, who cares? Sometimes you just can’t beat a damn good chuckle.’
The Sunday Mail

‘There is a gentle, generous feel to Earls’s humour … The comedy reaches beneath the skin to expose bereavement and loneliness … So much is said within its modest boundaries that more pretentious claims to literary worth look shallow by comparison.’
The Australian’s Review of Books

See what I mean? Same words every time, three different human brains, with their different expectations, different scoresheets and different lives brought to bear.

Am I saying there’s no such thing as merit, and that the relative merits of two books can’t be compared? No. I’m just saying I don’t believe we’re necessarily as surefooted as we like to think when we step into that territory. Genres have conventions and expectations, and aficionados of any genre can name good or bad books within it. Some books float higher on lists than others, and more consistently, and that can start to resemble consensus and the beginnings of a set of performance measures, a notion that hovers close to objectivity.

But I want a book for the magic it might work in my brain, so for me any notion of objective criteria can only be part of the story. Beyond that it’s personal. Any writer of a book I’ve loved will have done something smart that triggered the right response in my brain. Will it do the same in anyone else’s? The best I could manage is an educated guess, on a person-to-person basis. So I don’t take on the responsibility of applying objective criteria to pass judgement on a book for a wider audience. I don’t feel I want to take money for that, and I don’t feel I want to play a role in killing the market for a book that didn’t click with me. And I’m not going to talk up a book I don’t believe in, because neither do I believe that all books are equal. So it’s best to stay out of it.

Plenty of people I like and respect do review books, and no doubt see reviewing rather differently. It’s settled into their brain in a different way. I may be the odd one out and, if so, that’s quite okay. And I can see that reviewing has a role. It can help a book find its people. There’s also, though, the risk that an ugly reviewer-book mismatch can see people who might have liked the book turned away. The one Australian reviewer who really didn’t click with Perfect Skin called it banal, and I know that’d turn me off if I read it in a review. I’m sure it was an honest opinion, and I guess that’s what he was paid for, but it comes with consequences. And, while it was banal for him, it clearly wasn’t for everyone. That’s my point about some things that might feel objective but actually might not be. There is no reliably calibrated banal-o-meter to hold up to books, or any other meter, so I won’t be talking down books that didn’t work for me, particularly not to many thousands of potential readers.

I want to stand well clear of reviewing and be a reader. I want to love being reader the way I have since the first time a book went off in my head like a firework when I was a small single-digit age and marvelling at the cadences and imagination of Dr Seuss.

So, after Rosie Scott’s Feral City in 1991, I reviewed just one more book before retiring from the game. It was 1996 and it was called Art in Suburbia. There were thousands or people more qualified to review it, but I was offered a dollar a word. I came at it as a total outsider, but I found it genuinely interesting. I couldn’t give it the expert attention it deserved but, come on, a dollar a word. I had a mortgage, and there were some good things I could say about it. So, I said them, I took the filthy cash and I decided talking about other people’s books for money – with some promise of objectivity and that I had brought a template to bang around – wasn’t something I could comfortably do again.

Last August, Melbourne Writers Festival put me on their ‘Read Any Good Books Lately?’ panel. When I accepted – the answer to the topic question was ‘yes’, after all, and the question asked me to be a reader, not a reviewer – I think I knew that the audience would be 16-18, but I didn’t realise that this was a famous feature panel of the festival at which experts on young adult books each get up in turn and do a ten-minute slide show covering ten of the recent YA titles that have impressed them the most.

I was 49 then. I hadn’t written a YA book since 2006, and I don’t read YA books. Not as a matter of principal, but life’s short and reading time is shorter, and I want it to be as selfish as I can make it. I want every minute of my reading life, if possible, to be spent on those firecracker-in-the-brain books, and I’m not feeding them into a YA brain. I’m totally open to reading books about teenagers, but they need to work for me, for this old brain, whatever genre badge is on the spine. And most of the few books that get a start aren’t classified as YA.

The session started late and, the longer it went and the more that was said by others, the greater the sense of dread I had that I was going to go way down the wrong track. I had two books to cover instead of ten and those choices were locked in – their covers were in the slide show. I had crafted a ten-minute piece about two totally wrong books and I ended up with six minutes max to deliver it and I stood up and barked my way through it at high speed, with sweat gathering on my temples. It didn’t feel like my finest hour, even though I’d walked in feeling genuinely good about what I had to say on the subject of reading, and on those two books.

At the close of the session, a friendly YA expert came over and said to me, ‘You should publish that somewhere,’ probably meaning somewhere quite a distance from that room and its somewhat nonplussed teenagers.

So, partly in the interests of spreading the word about some books I think are great, that’s what I’ll do, and a little more. After a blog hiatus following a pre-election rant in August, it’s back to core business here, and this week a blog rush on the topic of reading and books. One post a day for five days, with each of the next four to be about a chosen book, and perhaps loosely associated thoughts around it.

I make no guarantees that these books will work for other people, but I’m going to try to work out why they worked for me. Please feel free to opt in and have your say, about these books and others, and how we read them.

Tomorrow – Part 2: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

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5 Responses to What We Talk About When We Talk About Books (Part 1)

  1. Norah says:

    Thanks, Nick. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I love your use of “firecracker” and the need for a book to work magic in your brain – great images; certainly nothing banal about them. I look forward to reading about the books that have that magic for you!

  2. Cally Jackson says:

    I’ve always been fascinating by the subjectivity of the reading experience. As you know, I often review books, but I usually only review books that I like rather than trashing books that haven’t connected with me, for a similar reason to you – just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean others won’t.

    I’m looking forward to reading about the books you’ve had a ‘firecracker’ experience with.

  3. islandkylie says:

    I am an amateur reviewer. If I don’t like a book, I will preface it with “I found” or “I feel”. Reading is do subjective and I never take a reviewers word for it unless it is someone who has shown to have similar tastes to me. For the record, I don’t think I’ve ever given one of your books a bad review!

  4. Jill Smith says:

    Hi Nick, I often review books, mostly I read and review books I like, sometimes a fellow writer asks me to review a book I struggle to enjoy. I still try and give an objective assessment of the book, rundown of the story for readers, without being too slamming, it is, after all only my opinion and the next person reading the same book may love it. I have always enjoyed your books. Funny you should say you don’t read YA books, I love your Word Hunter books. I also love how you challenge yourself in your writing. You are an inspiration.

    • nickearls says:

      Thanks very much Jill. Your prod about my blogging invisibility before Christmas was a significant factor in me deciding to write these pieces.

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