Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews

Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…

Books, from wired.com

My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.

Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then...
Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then…

I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.

Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?

However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.

stars

I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?

Book launches.
Book launches.

Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…

Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.

Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.

From classicrarebooks.co.uk
From classicrarebooks.co.uk

As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’

So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

From red24management.com
From red24management.com

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Raven?

7e42f475d4f202bdd68eac647fceabf5_bigger (1)After a little business-related break, here is another installment in my series of interviews with crime fiction afficionados. Raven is the mysterious nom de plume of one of my favourite book reviewers, whose opinions have an uncanny tendency to match with mine. In real life (as if books were not real life?!), Raven is a bookseller as well as an avid reader and reviewer. And I am delighted to say that we are also comrades-in-arms as contributors to the Crime Fiction Lover website.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Thanks to the encouragement of my mum, a keen reader, who started me reading at a very early age, I have always been a regular library user, and surrounded by books. I remember dipping into mum’s fiction collection so started on Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Eric Ambler and possibly some others that weren’t entirely suitable for my age at that time! However, the real turning point for me in terms of my passion for crime fiction came with the early issuing of my adult library ticket, and discovering the as yet unexplored delights of what seemed to me a never ending wall of crime books in our local branch. Consequently, I remember some of my first discoveries including Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, William McIlvanney and Derek Raymond, and my crime reading career was forged in earnest from that point on.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

Thanks to my early reading experiences, I have a long-held affection for American crime fiction, not so much the more mainstream ‘mass-produced’ authors, but those that practice the noble art of sparsity and social awareness underscored with a nod to the dark side. So currently, I would cite authors such as George Pelecanos, Ryan David Jahn, Dennis Lehane, Frank Bill and Ace Atkins as among my more recent favourites. Likewise, I am an ardent fan of Scottish and Irish crime fiction, despite being neither, as this feeling of the darker side of the human psyche seems more in evidence in the police procedurals of this sub-genre. Also, with what I call ‘the Larsson effect’, I am positively lapping up the increasing availability of European crime fiction in translation, thanks to publishers such as Quercus, Europa Editions and Gallic Books et al, producing crime fiction that really ticks the boxes for me. Not one for cosy crime I must admit!

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex and Irene, I found astounding in both their execution, and different take on the crime fiction genre. With my natural propensity to veer towards the darker side of the human psyche, and the positively masochistic preference for the probing psychological read, he has been a real discovery.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

No quibbling on this one. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series would be firmly ensconced in my washed up, hopefully waterproof, trunk. Also one of my numerous boxes of books that I would try to rescue in a fire!

Huge_pile_of_booksWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

In the very lucky position of being an established crime reviewer and a bookseller, every day unveils a new reading treat, and a new or not so new author to read. Therefore, every new arrival on my crime radar is a treat in store and I particularly relish the discovery of a cracking new debut author. I look forward to reading them all, although I’m increasingly edgy about the new George Pelecanos collection not appearing until next year…

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

With my brilliant ‘day-job’ as a bookseller, I am also a keen fiction reader, so actually spend an equal amount of my time recommending my fiction finds. I am an avid reader of classic and contemporary American fiction, less mainstream British fiction, Australian fiction, as well as European fiction in translation, and have a store of favourites from Elliot Perlman, Andrey Kurkov, Jim Crace, Magnus Mills, Gregory David Roberts, Ron Rash, Tim Winton and oh- countless others. When time allows I also enjoy an eclectic range of non-fiction titles, as I suddenly develop a strange interest in something, and am driven to read extensively about it. Reading is my passion and I love sharing this enthusiasm with anyone kind enough to listen!

Thank you, Raven, and that explains why your reviews speak to me so much – since you mention so many of my favourites: George Pelecanos, Ed McBain, Pierre Lemaitre… Looks like the dark side of crime fiction appeals to both of us. And of course we are all envious of your day job!

For previous revelations of reading passions, see here. And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.