The idea for this dialogue came after the controversy regarding the review of John Lacombe’s Winter Games. If you haven’t seen that thread, check it out, it’s a long one – it has a lot of interesting commentary about how writers and/or their fans should respond to reviews, including examples of how not to respond to a review. Carol Buchanan, who reviewed the book, didn’t like the novel. Steven Reynolds, who reviews for SPR, liked the book in a review for the now-defunct Podler. Carol and Steven got together to talk about the controversy and book reviewing in general. This will be the first in a series.
Self-Publishing Review: You’ve both read Winter Games by John Lacombe and had quite different responses to it. Why do you think this is?
Steven Reynolds: It’s because Carol doesn’t know what she’s talking about! Just kidding. We had different responses because we’re different people: we have different backgrounds, interests, reading histories, and tastes. Carol’s an award-winning novelist, I’m not. Carol has a PhD in English Lit, whereas I have degrees in Economics, Literature and Film Studies. Carol’s a woman, I’m a man. Carol grew up in the 1940s-50s, I grew up in the 1970s-80s. Carol reads James Lee Burke, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly and Craig Johnson, whereas if I’m looking for chills and thrills I might pick up Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton or the darker volumes of Robert Cormier. Some of these factors might have influenced our readings of Winter Games, whereas others might be irrelevant. Who knows? What I do know is that it’s possible for two, three, or thirty-three people to read the same book and each form a different view. Some will be broadly similar, some will differ wildly.
Without wanting to get too esoteric about it, the act of reading – making meaning out of words on a page – is an essentially subjective experience. They’re just dots of ink assembled into shapes we call letters and words. The magic happens in our minds, and it’s going to be influenced by what’s already there. This is why I can read Ian McEwan’s Saturday and think it’s wonderful, and my friend Kath can read it and declare it “ideologically rancid”. Who’s right, Kath or I? That’s not a question with an objectively verifiable answer, and it’s actually an extremely boring one. This is why I don’t give books a score or a star-rating anymore (unless it’s compulsory). I’m more interested in exploring what the novel’s about, how it works, its relationship to other books, and who might enjoy it. You must pass judgement, in some sense, because readers expect that. But when I say of Winter Games, “Overall, this is a slick and solid action-thriller from an emerging writer of considerable strength,” readers know this isn’t a statement of fact, even though it’s phrased as one. It’s my opinion. Whether or not they value my opinion is up to them.
Carol Buchanan: As Steve says, we’re different people. We both read thrillers, but by different authors. Steve appreciates Michael Crichton’s work, while I’m partial to the novels of James Lee Burke.
Novels are an art form. Being a writer myself, as well as a former college English teacher, I pay attention to the writing of every book I read – how the sentences and paragraphs are constructed. I listen for rhythm and variety, to hear the English language sing, which it does for good writers. One of my favorite authors disappointed me recently with this sentence: “Rows of windows … rose above ….” The kernel of meaning in that sentence, the part a writer can’t strip out and have anything left, actually reads “Rows …. rose.” Not “windows rose,” which would say something entirely different again. For some people, windows rising might recall sash windows; for others it might portray a different window action. But these windows could not rise. They were set in stone. Whether “Rows …rose” or “Windows …rose,” it’s sloppy writing. It jars the ear.
Does that mean the book wasn’t any good? Or the author is a poor writer? Not necessarily, but if I were writing a review, I would be obligated to point out problems and let the readers judge for themselves if it might interfere with their enjoyment of the novel.
I write reviews primarily for the reader, who may lay out money for a book. If the author reads a review and learns from it, so much the better.
When Steve says his reviews are his opinion, that goes for me, too. The reviews I write are not fact. They are my opinion, even though they are based on some decades of reading and studying and writing fiction. Readers can take them or leave them.
SPR: What makes a “good” novel? Similarly, what makes a “bad” novel?
SR: For me, a “good” novel has most of the following qualities: an absence of typographical errors and basic grammatical screw-ups which shows the writer cares about language and about readers; an appealing voice; a tone and style appropriate to the subject; an effective narrative viewpoint; engaging characters (usually with interesting flaws); a compelling plot, or at least an effective use of structure and length; internal consistency; it’s “about something”, in the sense that it involves serious ideas or themes (optional); some kind of intertextual or metafictional cleverness (highly optional); some kind of innovation (again, highly optional); and a satisfying ending. By implication, a “bad” novel lacks most of these qualities.
Are these standards objective? Of course not, beyond a certain point. But that “certain point” is real, and includes spelling, grammar and the ability to construct a meaningful sentence. Now, before all the experimental prose stylists out there start drafting their outraged and uniquely formatted responses, let me say this: I know some very talented writers have shattered these conventions and remade the language to their own ends. There are other exceptions, too, such as a novel written in the voice of a character. (I’m not about to decry The Catcher in the Rye because Holden splits his infinitives). But most novelists aren’t attempting either of those things. So for a writer to justify their novel’s manifest sloppiness on the basis of artistic license is both lazy and ridiculous. I’d argue such a novel is objectively bad, and it’s bad because it’s careless and essentially unreadable. Rules don’t exist to confine you. They exist to enable you to communicate clearly. If you’re not interested in communicating something with your novel – an idea, an emotion, an experience, or even just a damn fine yarn – then I wonder why you’re writing at all.
Beyond that one objective measure (basic competence), all judgments are subjective. Someone could have a list of “good” qualities completely different to mine. Even if we had the same list, what they deem “appealing”, “appropriate” or “effective” may well be different. It’s subjective. But subjective and groundless are not the same thing. All reviewers have grounds for their opinions. Ideally, a review will imply these through its analysis, argument and examples. Subjectivity then ceases to matter: the grounds are exposed, so readers can inspect them and reject the review if they disagree.
This raises an obvious question. If reviews are subjective, why should readers care what reviewers think? Well, they shouldn’t – not automatically. But reviewers do bring certain skills and experience to the task. One is wide reading, which gives them a deeper understanding of how fiction works. It also means they can position the novel in relation to others – not on a scale of one to ten, but in terms of its themes, techniques, and its historical and commercial context. A good reviewer can also clearly articulate their reaction to a novel, and this may be shared. I’ve received e-mails from people saying, “You know, I couldn’t figure out what I liked/loathed about this book, but you nailed it for me. Thanks.” So the perspective and clarity reviewers bring can be valuable to other readers.
CB: The elements of fiction are character, plot, dialogue, setting, scene, and structure. Each element has certain “standards” by which they are judged to succeed or not, and entire books have been written to define those standards. Writers Digest Books has published separate titles for all of them. I would add writing to this list. Effective sentences, even effective fragments.
Still, standards of “good” and “bad” in literature have been debated fiercely ever since Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B. C.), and I don’t expect Steve and I will lay any controversy to rest now. For one thing, standards evolve with every new audience and within a culture over time. For example, Aristotle thought violence must take place off stage, while nowadays a writer’s or a film’s depiction of violence might well be judged for how well it portrays what happens when bullet meets bone.
If the elements of fiction are all well done, though, and I still have no emotional reaction to the novel or story, I wouldn’t consider it “good.” Years ago, I heard a pianist play a difficult Beethoven concerto perfectly, in excellent tempo, with all the right expression, and nary a missed note. But without feeling, though it was technically good. Years later, I heard another pianist play the same concerto with abandon, damn the torpedoes, rocketing through it seeming not to care if fingers hit the right notes or not or landed somewhere in between. At the end, we in the audience leaped to our feet, applauding. I wept for the beauty of it.
Just yesterday I read a story that still needs work, but the suspense had my heart beating faster because I feared for the protagonist. At the end, a truly original and surprising conclusion that grew out of the protagonist’s change in attitude, I felt that prickle up the backbone that tells me this writer has the gift.
So, yes, once again Steve and I basically agree that our reviews are subjective.
Based on experience, education, and wide reading, we can tell if writers respect their stories and their readers.
Many self-published writers, I might add, quit revising about three drafts too soon. They don’t seem to realize how much sheer hard work goes into a novel, and they go to press with their first drafts. Also too many writers don’t seem scared enough. Writing a novel is frightening, because a writer can put heart and soul into something and it might still suck. It happens. Just now, writing the sequel to my first novel, I’m scared because I have an obligation to the readers, to write a book as good as or better than God’s Thunderbolt, not to disappoint them, and I have no idea if this one will or not.
SPR: Do different genres have standards for “good” and “bad”? Or are standards in genres primarily expectations?
SR: For me, the standards I listed above apply to all fiction. They’re the things I want in a novel, irrespective of genre. But how I apply them to any particular book is influenced by what you might call “genre expectations”.
For example, I say I want “engaging characters”. A middle-aged, alcoholic, Irish-Catholic spinster can be an immensely engaging character in a literary novel, as evidenced by Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. But she’s unlikely to engage as the heroine of the latest erotic release from Silhouette Desire. Similarly, I say I want an “effective narrative viewpoint”. Narrating from the unreliable perspective of a single character can be very effective if exploring that skewed perspective is a central concern of the novel, as it is for Zoë Heller in Notes on a Scandal. It would probably be less effective in an action-thriller, since the genre is more concerned with the detailed depiction of physical action, and that’s usually better done from a position of reliable omniscience.
Every genre has broad conventions. These exist because its readers want repeatability: they want the same kind of immersive, pleasurable experience each time. The conventions help deliver that. That’s why they became conventions. So a “good” genre novel will usually hit those marks – and if you’re going to review genre fiction, you’d better be aware of them, no matter what other “standards” you wish to apply.
CB: I think standards exist, although (as Steve says) standards for one type of fiction apply to all types. Fiction is best when characters are multi-dimensional, plots are plausible, conflict is believable, dialogue helps to move the story along, and scenes foreshadow events or reveal character (among other things). And the writing sings.
Some genres define those elements differently, because each genre expects something specific from its own “fictive world,” as it’s called. Within that world a writer can do pretty much whatever, as long as the laws governing that world are understandable. A thriller world differs from the world of an Amish mystery, and a science fiction world differs from the world of a Western.
Standards in all fiction are expectations. We expect certain laws of physics will apply unless the writer makes it very clear why they don’t. We expect human beings to be subject to hypothermia or gravity, unless the writer makes it plain that Planet Xenon has the same specific gravity to that of Earth. If the world of the novel plausibly extends the envelope of what we know about the sun rising in the east, then we’ll accept the sun rising in the north.
When it comes to historical fiction, I expect characters who think and feel as people in that era thought and felt, not like a 21st-century person dressed oddly. That puts a burden on the writer to block out a great deal of technical information we take for granted, but that’s the easy part. I found it very difficult to write about the Civil War era and develop some sympathy with pro-slavery characters. In previous eras people might hold views that we find reprehensible, and still be decent people in other ways. Writers, I think, cannot pass judgment on our characters.
Mystery and thriller writers understand this, when they write sympathetically from the point of view of a serial killer, a pedophile, or drug dealer. It’s a supreme challenge in fiction to write from the POV of a character we have little sympathy with. Yet it has to be done to make a good novel.
SPR: Do you think those who write or prefer one kind of fiction are qualified to review another kind? For example, can a fan of literary fiction capably review genre fiction, or vice versa?
SR: I’ve said a reviewer brings certain skills to the task. I suspect the more you read a particular kind of fiction, the better you become at applying those skills to it. So I’d say we probably are better at reviewing the kind of books we prefer to read. A Dan Brown devotee isn’t the first person I’d ask to review the latest David Malouf – or vice versa.
Still, I challenge this notion that we must label ourselves as one kind of reader, and therefore one kind of reviewer. I grew up reading Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Robert Ludlum and the Scholastic novelizations of the Star Wars trilogy. Today, my favourite writers include Saul Bellow, A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan and Philip Roth. I can spend a weekend with an airport novel and enjoy every sordid minute. Nicholas Sparks can make me cry, and Georges Simenon can leave me thinking for weeks. What I read depends on my mood. The same applies to music, film and television. Some days I want to watch Krzysztof Kieslowski, other days it’s Judd Apatow. I’m not barred from appreciating Knocked Up because I happen to love Three Colours: Red.
So if a fan of literary fiction is familiar enough with a genre’s conventions and can approach the book with enthusiasm, there’s no reason they should be deemed “incapable” of reviewing it. The same goes for a genre enthusiast who also enjoys literary fiction. It’s a matter of calibrating your expectations. Just don’t tell me you hate Austerlitz because the sentences are too long and it doesn’t have enough explosions.
CB: Yes, although I’d have to excuse myself from reviewing some types of fiction I can’t appreciate as well as someone else might.
Stephen King, for example, is a brilliant writer, but I can’t appreciate the horror genre, so I don’t think I could reliably review it.
When people regard literary fiction as superior to genre fiction, I suspect an element of snobbery. Why the prejudice exists, I don’t know. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and others wrote cracking good stories. Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, in the mystery genre were among the best novelists of any era, and in our own time, I’d put thriller writer James Lee Burke in the same category with any Pulitzer winner I’ve read. Literary Westerns have given us some American classics from Willa Cather, Jack Schaefer, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and Wallace Stegner. And Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove did actually win the Pulitzer. The mystery novels of Britain’s P. D. James merge into the literary category.
Fashions in literature change. For some time it has been fashionable to explore the inner psyche of a character, to write about grotesque individuals and their mistreatment, and among women writers, to write about how awful men are. During the 1930’s, with 30% of the population out of work, the plight of the working class was fashionable in novels.
I suspect that someday readers may well look back on much that we admire and shake their heads. “How could they like that?”
Update: John Lacombe responds to the controversy over his novel.