In praise of reviewers and bloggers

Launching Without Rules as an indie author is a considerable challenge when you’re relying on word of mouth recommendations to drum interest and encourage crime fiction lovers to buy (although once purchased you don’t have to read it, according to my partner, Catherine). Reviewers and bloggers will have an essential role to play with raising the initial interest in Without Rules. But it is a tough gig to review creative endeavours, whether it is books, films, music or food. 

From my point of view as an author, it’s much easier to write a novel than it is review them. There is a special skill involved that comes from impartially dissecting what is happening on the page or device — without wanting to rewrite somebody else’s book in your own head as you’re reading. 

When I did my MA in novel writing at Manchester University, our course divided into two areas. First, creative workshops where we critiqued our works in progress. And second, reviewing and feeding back on selected contemporary novels. The brief was to read a designated title each week and then have a round robin discussion about the selected book for an hour. You could tell when students hadn’t read the book in question because their reviews were a version of “I like the beginning, thought it sagged in the middle but the end was good …” 

I must confess I was guilty once or twice but I was working full time in PR. And I much prefer shorter novels such as Coetzee’s Disgrace, John McGahern’s Amongst Women and Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door rather than the doorstoppers like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings. 

Probably the hardest part of writing a review is the conflict of interest you have as an author commenting on another writer’s work where any criticism could be construed as green-eyed jealously. Or perhaps I am being over sensitive. When I originally reviewed one of the Manchester University creative writing lecturers books on GoodReads, I commented that the book fell away in the last third as it sailed towards a rather contrived conclusion. I felt bad about dissing the work. A quick edit scuttled the offending sentences — and focused on the movie potential of the historical crime drama.

In my situation, if it is negative feedback it is best left unsaid. Certainly, in the day job, I know I get better work from designers, photographers and printers if I praise their work and encourage them.  

One of the shortcomings of social media is the accessibility of authors to a very small majority of readers who seem to enjoy negativity. This is a highlighted in an insightful article by Danuta Kean in the Guardian where she asks why some readers seem incapable of holding back from telling an author that they didn’t like their book? She cited crime writer Alex Marwood, who revealed that somebody delighted in telling her about a scathing Amazon review (since removed), which she later printed off and framed.

Steve Powell, who writes the brilliant Venetian Vase blog, said: “Generally, I only write a review if I enjoyed the book and want to share my thoughts. If a book is not to my tastes, I see no reason to damage the authors’ chances by writing negative comments. That said, some of the most interesting reviews come when you have mixed feelings about a book.”

How reviewers and bloggers will respond to Without Rules when it is published is no longer under my control. I do know I’ll get reviews where people will get what I am trying to do and others where people won’t – while some will be totally indifferent.  All are welcome because if you’re encouraging reviews, you have to take the rough with the smooth.  

One of my favourite books is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. On GoodReads, it rightly receives almost universal four and five star reviews but the odd one or two stars pop up now and again. 

This one caught my attention — “Maybe I’m an idiot or my ADD was acting up, but I just could not follow this book. The lack of simple punctuation like a comma made this book incredibly difficult to read. I gave up half way.” 

And this one — “To be honest, I found this a bit irritating. It jumped around a little too much and the violence was pointless and excessive. I also found the ‘home-spun’ philosophy a bit hard to take.”

Whatever the reaction to Without Rules, I am in good company.