Todays guest post is the second post from Bookgeeks reviewer, Mike Stafford.
Mike has been a regular contributor over at Bookgeeks since January of 2011. He reads predominantly crime, and one day hopes to make the fabled transition from blogger to author. Today’s guest post has been written about how he actually goes about reviewing books. A topic I’m sure many of us are interested in.
Over to Mike.
Nobody likes a critic. The word itself has powerful negative connotations – a critic is someone who sits on the cultural sidelines, sneering smugly at those who think and dream. To me, it also sounds like a word befitting of professional intellectuals, rather than we humble bloggers. For these reasons, I’ve never considered myself a critic, and never will – but our function is the same. Matthew Arnold argued that criticism was necessary in order to bring the best of culture to the fore, and I agree – though in contemporary terminology it would probably be known as “building buzz.”
So what’s the thought process of a reviewer as they set about their work? In practical terms, I’m a note taker. It’s a somewhat perverse approach to literature, especially in crime fiction, and I’ve often frustrated myself by stopping halfway through a paragraph to scribble down some insight I’ve had. Having said that, real life has a way of interrupting the thought process, and what can seem so crystal clear at the time can often be forgotten days later when the time comes to write a review.
As much as writing in genre offers crime writers some conventions to put their backs up against, it offers me certain elements to look for. For me, the big three are character, place and mood. If an author can create a complex or endearing hero(ine), wrap them in a convincing environment, and engage me on an emotional level, I consider that a roaring success. In degree terms, I consider it a 2:1, comfortably doing all that might be expected of a writer at the top of their game. An author who can achieve this can expect a glowing review from me (for a demonstration of how it’s done, check out Horace Silver’s Judas Pig, or Stav Sherez’s A Dark Redemption).
Of course, crime fiction isn’t just about this little trinity. There’s a great deal of social commentary, for example in the work of Denise Mina, and I’ve not yet come to mention style. While I’m a sucker for a book that peers under society’s rocks, I don’t think social comment is essential in the way character or place is, and while I go mad for a distinctive voice like Bruen or Sallis, I consider individual prose style an added bonus. Many fine storytellers produce triumphs without ever sounding truly unique. When I’m reviewing, I’m always on the lookout for these things, together with any recurring themes the author may be throwing in (for an author juggling several of these, check out Parker Bilal’s The Golden Scales).
I read with this mental checklist in place as often as possible. While it may sound dry and academic, I assure you it’s not. I like to think if you can squeeze every drop of meaning from a book, you’re not only getting good value, but doing the author the courtesy of appreciating a year’s graft on their part.
This brings us on to the dark side of the reviewer’s art – the bad review. For me, this is a rare thing. There’s a school of thought that suggests traditional publishing acts as some tyrannical gatekeeper, rejecting good work as if publishers loathe nothing more than selling books. For me, publishers do a fine job of quality control, and I’ve generally enjoyed about forty-nine of every fifty books I read. On the rare occasions I haven’t, or I’ve read books in which the negatives were too significant to be ignored, I’ve tried to be as clear and fair as possible. I work on the basis that one day I might come face-to-face with an aggrieved author – if you can’t defend your comments in person, then don’t blurt them out online.
For me, there’s also a mental checklist on bad reviews. If a book achieves what it sets out to do, I’d argue you need to give credit to the author for that. If a book wasn’t for you – don’t waste your breath. I wouldn’t give house room to a celeb autobiography, but seeing as I’m not the target audience, my thoughts are immaterial. Many readers will gleefully pick on factual errors; for me, if they’re not too glaring, I’m unconcerned. Satisfying pedants shouldn’t be a writer’s priority. Take note Amazon reviewers – if you couldn’t finish the book, don’t offer an opinion. Nothing enrages me more than seeing a 1* review followed by “I gave up at chapter three.” Books can shift gears on you at any time, changing your whole perspective on them. Brian McGilloway’s Little Girl Lost was a gradual starter, but the final two-thirds were phenomenal. Simon Beckett’s The Calling of the Grave packed a colossal punch into the final few pages. Thomas Enger’s Burned finished with a single killer line to whet the appetite for the sequel. If you didn’t read the whole book, you waive the right to have your opinion taken seriously.
Finally, don’t revel in it. I’ve never believed the act of finishing a novel entitles a writer to freedom from criticism. After all, as Hyman Roth said – “this is the business we’ve chosen.” Sportsmen will sometimes lose, and artists will sometimes fail to strike a chord with the audience. But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and self-satisfied bashing of a writer’s work. Good art comes when the artist pours their soul into it, and it’s unedifying to trample over their efforts for your own amusement.
Overall though, I always try and enjoy it! Academically though I may approach it, there really is little more enjoyable than getting my snout stuck into a volume of crime fiction…
Next week we hear from self published author Dave Sivers, who discusses Marketing.