Wednesday 22 July 2015

So, what about those reviews?

You wait ages for a blog post then two come along at once...

A couple of people have asked me, when I've mentioned I do reviews, what my star system is. People are used to Amazon/Goodreads & others that rate a book with a number of stars. Librarything even lets you do half-stars.

But I don't. I had an explanation of my "star" system (basically without the stars) on the 'Review Criteria' page of the blog (which has been updated following this post) I used to review on a 5 star rating scale but, although it offered good granularity, didn't really fit my needs. I then named the stars but dropped down to 4 categories a while ago (I used to have a "Bad" category but now I mostly just drop bad books without finishing them)

My categories were:

Unfinished - self-explanatory really, a book so bad or so dull I can't be bothered to finish it, so many books, not enough time means that I use the Pearl Rule generally (based on Nancy Pearl Rule of 50)(

Pearl's approach to enjoying reading is the Rule of 50 which states "If you still don't like a book after slogging through the first 50 pages, set it aside. If you're more than 50 years old, subtract your age from 100 and only grant it that many pages."

I supplement this - if someone I know (& respect their opinion of books) tells me it is a good book I'll probably give it 100 pages if it has a slow start (I abandoned Perdido Street Station the first time I read it but went back to it after prompting and really enjoyed it)

Average - also fairly self-explanatory, the book has done nothing to raise itself above the level of being an average example of the genre. I read it and it was OK but I doubt I'd recommend it. I didn't hate it but it didn't excite me either.

Good - Books that I rate Good are books that I've read and would say are a good example of the genre, ones that I'd be happy to recommend, ones that stand out somehow  - maybe with an excellent plot or excellent characters, or maybe really cool world building but, and for this category there is always a but, there is a flip side. I'm likely to say things like "I really enjoyed the plot but the characters were a bit 2-D", or "The world building was amazing but the plot didn't do anything for me". Always leave yourself somewhere to go though (that's why I have a Brilliant rating) - people who get a Good rating should be happy with that rating, I can be pretty scathing when I don't like something.

Brilliant - These are the books you put in other people's hands and say "you have to read this", these are the books that I buy for friends and families as presents, these are books I can't fault, or whose faults actually add to their charm. These are the books that remind you why you read. They are the world changers, they are the books that make you laugh out loud on public transport or make you blub into your cornflakes (what do you mean you don't read at breakfast what sort of freak are you?) These are books that touch you (and I don't mean in the "show me on the dolly where the naughty man touched you" sort of way)

So why did I stop using my review category system (stars in all but name)?

Judging books on whether they are good or bad, no matter how many gradations there are, is just too narrow a focus (and yes I am the same person who has ranted about various movies and books on this very blog)

To read critically you can learn just as much about the craft of writing from 'bad' books as you can from 'good' books and what constitutes what's good or bad is, to a greater or lesser extent (depending upon your opinion) completely subjective.

At work we have a pile of books on a table that is a lazy library - take a book, leave a book (or leave a donation to the given charity). They tend to be 'airport' books - there are plenty of Grishams, and Pattersons, Cooper's and Picoult's.

Whilst I was browsing the titles and dismissing pretty much all of them a work colleague wondered what my criteria was for choosing a book.*

"I'm looking for something well-written" I said.

"How about this?" he said holding up a copy of a Dan Brown book.

I launched into a well worn groove of how the author was a hack and blah blah blah (I'm sure many writers could be prevailed upon to repeat why it is a badly written book)

"But it's sold millions of copies, lots of people love it, I love it, that makes it a good book." He said.

I obviously dismissed that argument** and thought nothing more about it (for quite some time)

I then got more and more involved in the "Lit scene" and started getting friends books to review and over time that review criteria started to be more and more problematic. I don't think I've finished that journey yet and there are good reasons why many writers don't review other people's books.

A common question writers get asked is "who influences you as a writer" and there is only one real honest answer to that, which is "everyone I read" because you can't just pick up a novel by, say, John Fowles (to choose a random novelist I admire) and go - "I'll just do what he did, it's easy" you also have to read stuff that you think "woah that was pretty bad, I must make sure to not do that in my own writing"

Also by classing books as 'bad' you are in danger of closing off stuff that seems the same, or another book by the same author, which could be awesome. Back to John Fowles - if I'd read Daniel Martin first, which I found turgid and pretty much unreadable (but persevered with for far too long because I'd loved the rest of Fowles's work) I may have thought to myself - this guy can't write, this book is bad, ergo all his books are bad. And I'd have missed out on some pretty formative literary adventures. (Fowles is definitely an influence on my own writing - although see previous statement about influences)

So, and this is an evolution of my thinking I'm just beginning to articulate, this is why I stopped using a review star system (or a derivative thereof) - not because it's dishonest (and not saying that I disliked a book could be seen as that I guess) but more that just rating a book is not the most interesting thing you can say about it.

I've been reviewing pretty much everything I've read for the last five years, first on Librarything and then on this blog. Joining Librarything in 2010 and doing a 10/10 challenge made me concentrate on reading like never before.

That reading challenge and the ones that have come each year after have had a profound effect. Getting re-engaged with literature (I did an MA in Publishing in 1997 but for reasons ended up in a career that had nothing to do with publishing) led me to the Bristol Festival of Literature in 2012 and to volunteering, and from there to running events in 2013, and to writing. Like most writers I started writing through a passion for reading.

In 2013 I started writing fiction (I'd been writing for a game for almost 20 years before that, but that also came to a close in 2013) and in 2014 my writing was taking up a lot more time - I read half the number of books in 2014 than I did in 2013. Now in 2015 I feel like I'm getting to a place where I'm going to have to make a choice.

Do I really want to review everything I read?

Do I just want to rate a book in a review? - Or do I want to have a conversation about it (the value of a book is subjective, but it may spark an interesting thought)

There is another fundamental at work here too. If you've ever tried your hand at writing, short stories, novels, whatever, then you know that it's actually a lot more difficult than it looks. It also drives home the difference between knowing what makes something good and being able to make something good yourself. There are a lot of reasons a book may be 'bad' (even in an objective sense) but it is still someone's brain-child. It is still the result of hard work (and writing is hard work, fun, but hard)

Besides that story, or book, may have been someone's first faltering steps into literature and it may get them noticed and get them a better editor next time, or allow them to write more, and any writer worth their salt seeks to improve with everything they write. In a few years time that writer may actually produce a great work. And they deserve encouragement. Even if it's truly execrable it's still a lesson. A possibility to discuss something interesting about the craft, about technique or about the business of publishing.

So that's why I'm ditching my pseudo star system (essentially it emerged from me defining what a 1 star, 2 star etc. book was). It is also why I'm changing the what and why I review as well as the how.

Usually in August the following year's challenge is posted on Librarything and is when I start thinking about how to challenge myself with my reading. This year my challenge to myself was to tackle Mount TBR, those hundreds of books that have entered the house but have not yet been shelved, due to not being read yet. The year before was based on "Book Bullets", books that received a high amount of recommendations and therefore became 'must-reads' (as well as challenging myself to read more women writers.) But last year I was still reviewing everything I read. This year, not so much.

This is due to a combination of spending my time writing other stuff (short stories and novels) and reading books that I am hesitant to put forth any feelings upon because they are written by friends. Added to that is the fact that I'm reading ever more 'Craft of writing' books (I know the answer is not inside the pages of a book - but they have become pretty addictive, and I get something useful from most of them - but then see the bit above about knowing what's good and execution...) which are pretty dull to review.

I read Doug Smiths - Playing the short game and he's very adamant about reviewing - his advice? "If you write, don't review." He covers a host of reason why you shouldn't, some of which I don't agree with, some of which I can see the logic of. But one thing that did strike me was the attitude that writing reviews was "an astounding waste of time." because you should be writing stories and novels, not reviews. I disagree but this has made me re-evaluate. Why am I reviewing?

I'm one of those people that clarifies their thoughts by writing them out or discussing them. And that's why I'm going to carry on reviewing things. But my thoughts previously have mostly been about 'is this book good' and from now on will be 'what does this book do that is interesting to discuss' and that's different.

Which brings me to my final point (hoorah) - What I'll review. Clearly, at this juncture, 'not everything' is a given. I am no longer (just) a reader so it is unfair of me, and also to me (as I don't want to make enemies) to be critical of fellow writers. So what does that leave? To try and find out what's most interesting about any given work and try and talk about it, hopefully in an intelligent way***

I would like to use the books I read to cogitate on matters and, as my thoughts are clarified when writing, my cogitations will make their way on to these pages.

So the best I can say is that if a book sparks a particular thought then I'll explore it here.

Like my other blog post today - the inherent problem I have with big books...

I will be doing one old style review still, for a book I've already started, which was a review request. But that is likely to be the last.

* Take all of this with a pinch of salt - something similar did happen although I can't really remember who the author was, but Brown suits my needs for illustrative purposes.

** I think I muttered something about thinking whatever the book was it was something I'd not read but had heard other people describe as bad writing, which was why I hadn't read it.

*** I owe a debt of thanks to Film Crit Hulk for much of the thinking in this. This particular sentence is almost a carbon copy of his 'mission statement' - "To try and find whatever is most interesting about a given movie, show, or subject and try to talk about it in as nuanced and thorough a way as possible."

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