This is a continuation of Reviewing the Reviewers: A Dialogue about Book Reviewing with Steven Reynolds and Carol Buchanan, which led to a very lively discussion.
Self-Publishing Review: When a self-published novel is awful, do you think the reviewer has any responsibility to spare the writer’s feelings?
Steven Reynolds: A writer will always be somewhat hurt by a negative review. You have to assume they’re reasonably happy with the book they published, otherwise why would they bother? So to have some stranger publicly detail its apparent failings is going to hurt.
When confronted with a book that doesn’t quite work – like Scott Cherney’s Red Asphalt – I try to do three things which I also do in manuscript assessments:
1. Explain what I think the author was trying to achieve, so they know if their intention was legible even if I thought the execution was lacking;
2. Explain why I think it doesn’t work, so the author has at least one considered opinion of what the novel’s core problem(s) might be; and
3. Foreground any good elements or signs of potential, so the author has something to work with.
It’s entirely possible to do those three things in sarcastic and humiliating language, or you can do them with a modicum of compassion. I choose the latter because that’s the way I’d prefer to get feedback about anything, and I assume other people are the same. Writing and publishing a novel is a serious creative undertaking by another human being, and that deserves some basic respect no matter what you think of the result. As John Lacombe recently said, the most important aspect for an author is the review’s tone. I’m also aware that my review might be one of only two or three a self-published novel ever gets. This doesn’t mean I apply lower standards. It just means I feel obliged to be more even-handed and to look at all aspects of the novel, rather than simply picking on the one thing that annoyed me the most.
Carol Buchanan: Yes, but not to the extent of writing a dishonest review. I think I’m responsible for letting readers know the quality of a book as I see it, and second, for giving writers an idea of how I think their writing might be improved.
“Quality,” that much over-used term, includes both the good and the bad. Aside from pointing out the book’s flaws, the reviewer should point out what the author did well. There’s always something to recommend a book.
It’s not easy for some writers to hear that a book they may have poured their souls into is not good, or has flaws. That hurts. I know. I had a bad review for my own novel, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. I thought about why the reviewer didn’t like the book, and went on.
I assume when reviewing a book that it’s not the only book in that writer’s career. And while the writer may react as if that book is the best he or she can do, I don’t think so. We can always, always do better. If writers don’t let themselves quit, but consider what I and other reviewers may have written, the next book can be better. A career can grow.
SPR: Do you think reviewers should be paid for their reviews?
SR: Writing a review involves a good deal of effort, and that effort is valuable to other people. So, theoretically, yes, reviewers should be paid for that work.
Reviewers writing for newspapers are paid – much less than they used to be, of course, and there are fewer jobs. But they’re still paying ones. The business model of traditional media allows this. Newspapers earn money from selling advertising, and this requires content. Reviewers are content providers, and are paid by the publication. There is usually no connection between the publication running the review and the publisher/writer of the novel. Of course, it would be naïve to think media conglomerates with interests in both newspapers and publishing don’t run reviews of their own books – or that others aren’t influenced by publishers with deep pockets. But in most cases, there is no clear conflict of interest. The reviewer deals with an editor looking for good content, not necessarily “a good review”.
Self-publishing is a different proposition. Newspapers aren’t (yet) interested in running reviews of self-published novels. Websites that are interested, like SPR, usually aren’t monetized. So who would pay me to review for such a site? Only the book’s author. That seems to setup a conflict of interest: authors might have an expectation of receiving very favourable reviews; and reviewers who met that expectation might get more work from authors. So for money-grubbing reviewers there’s an apparent incentive to praise bad books. That’s the theory, anyway. This issue has been tossed about endlessly in self-publishing circles, and it always seems to land on the notion that author-paid reviews will be compromised and/or exploitative – or will be perceived to be so, which might be just as bad.
As I commented recently on another thread, I’m starting to think this “conflict of interest” notion is flawed. There is no incentive to write favorable paid reviews of bad books. You wouldn’t get away with it for long. Anyone reading your paid review can just as easily read the novel to test the veracity of your claims. The spotlight would be on you. So if you’re charging for reviews, there is actually a greater incentive to be honest and to work to declared professional standards. Everything in your paid reviews would need to be clear, well argued and justified with detailed examples. This could actually raise critical standards, not lower them. Successful reviewers trade on their reputation for impartiality and insight, and that would be quickly eroded if you were an obvious shill. So what’s the incentive to lie? You’d damage your reputation, and the reputation of self-publishing. And for what? The money you made until you got busted, I guess. A few hundred bucks at most. Wow, how exploitative.
Of course, the perception of corruption might still prevail, even if it’s a false one. But so what? Bowing to a perception strikes me as a strange path to follow here. Isn’t self-publishing advocacy founded on the notion that false perceptions can be changed? Aren’t sites like SPR dedicated to shattering the perception that self-publishing is a vanity ghetto of bad books that refuse to die? If we’re going to let our choices be driven by perceptions, we all might as well give up now.
CB: It would be nice, considering that we generally put in quite a bit of time into reading a book and reviewing it. After the initial reading, I’ll mull it over, sometimes for days, and then go back to it repeatedly to be sure of my reaction, especially if I find serious problems with it. By the time I click “Send” on a review, I have several hours into the writing alone. Fortunately, I’m a fast reader.
Conversely, paying a reviewer may bring problems, too. Salaried reviewers at some publications may be pressured to favor books from publishers with sizable advertising budgets. Or not to write a negative review of any book because the author or publisher might not advertise with that publication. From time to time, it has happened, but thankfully, not often. When someone’s job may be on the line, it would take a hard person to blame him or her if they chose to put principle behind feeding a family.
SPR: Aren’t reviews of self-published books simply another form of promotion?
SR: That’s never my purpose in reviewing a book, but most self-published authors certainly seem to see reviews in that way. They seek them out because they want to create a buzz or to build a readership, or because they want something to dangle in front of traditional publishers or agents. “See, I have all these readers who think my book’s magnificent! Interested now?” Despite all the posturing about “indie” spirit, a mainstream book deal is still the perfectly legitimate dream of many self-published authors. This is another reason I don’t mind the idea of authors paying for my time as a reviewer. They ultimately want to derive a financial benefit from my review – either a mainstream book deal or sales of the self-published edition – so why shouldn’t they invest a little money in trying to secure that?
It is questionable, though, just how valuable favourable reviews really are. They can help authors sell books online, no doubt. But no publisher is going to buy a book on the strength of reviews alone. They’re going to read the book themselves and make their own judgement. Same with agents. But good reviews could be one factor that helps them decide which books are worth considering.
CB: You might ask that about any book, self-published or traditionally published, but I have to say no. An author can use a good review for promotion, or learn from a bad review. The purpose of a review is not to puff the book, but to assess it, to analyze it for its strengths and weaknesses and to report on those to the reader and to the writer.
SPR: In your experience, what are the most common achievements and most common failings of self-published work?
SR: The near-universal failing of self-published work is the absence of editing. I find it immensely disappointing as a reader, not only because it’s annoying but also because it’s so unnecessary. The single biggest flaw in your work is the easiest one to fix! So why don’t you hire an editor to fix it? There are probably thousands of viable self-published novels out there that might have had a chance with a major publisher if the first ten pages were flawless.
For me, the singular achievement of self-publishing is that it provides an avenue for risk-taking. Authors who want to experiment with new styles, unpopular forms (like the novella), or confronting subject matter can leapfrog the gatekeepers and get their work out. Bonnie Kozek’s Threshold is a good example. It’s a terrific book, yet I can understand completely why mainstream publishers would shy away from it. It’s short, and way too weird and confronting for mainstream American tastes. Most publishers are too gutless to back weird-and-confronting. Until, of course, a weird-and-confronting book sells a million copies. Then they’re all into only weird-and-confronting for the next year.
I have to temper this praise with the observation that this achievement is far from common. Most self-published novels take no risks. Most appear to be sub-par attempts at mainstream fiction. I know it’s heresy to say this in self-publishing circles, but I believe the editors at mainstream publishers – the demonized gatekeepers – do a pretty good job in that regard, despite their conservatism. There is still a significant gap between the worst traditionally published novels I’ve read, and a lot of self-published fiction. The gap is narrowing, because the smart self-published authors have discovered the benefits of professional editing and good presentation, and they don’t mind investing a few hundred dollars to get these things right.
CB: The most common achievement is telling a good story. The most common failing is not telling it well. Notice I didn’t qualify the most common achievement, because simply telling a good story is not easy. From the most common failing, not telling it well, comes a host of other errors, or perhaps the errors add up to not telling the story well.
Add up. Notice that phrase: Add up. Quantity breeds quality. Like the Chinese water torture, an occasional typographical error, homonym, or grammatical mistake need not kill a book. Likewise, a flaw in characterization or plot construction or scene building might not ruin a story. But after awhile, when the errors have dripped long enough or often enough onto the reader’s consciousness, they may cause him or her to take the book back to the store. Or put it in the recycle bin. Or throw it across a room. Or worse yet, close it and forget it.
The broad categories of items writers should pay attention to are these:
- Mechanics: grammatical errors, typographical errors, homonyms, spelling errors, punctuation errors
- Plot construction: backstory, coincidence, illogical causation, deus ex machina*, conflict
- Characterization: motivation, psychology, physical realities, emotion, consistency
- Dialogue: speech patterns, dialect, carrying the story
- Point of view: clarity, logical changes, characters’ voices
- Setting: adequately described, suitable to the character
- Scene: reveals character, moves the story forward, forecasts events, builds conflict
- Description: adequate, lively, pictorial, effective
- Image and Metaphor: effective, building
- Writing (besides mechanics): sentence rhythm & variety, paragraph structure
Overall: These elements blend together into a story that engages the reader and keeps him reading.
Although there are no “rules” for writing fiction, there are best practices that time and again have proven to provide better reading experiences, i.e., to keep the reader in the novel’s fictional world, in the “fictive dream,” as one author calls it.
Consistently poor mechanics arise from not learning the tools of the trade, and can be prevented by studying writing or by hiring a good editor, or both. Problems in plot construction generally arise from not studying how good plots are constructed.
This illustration of Freytag’s Pyramid shows the general construction of plots in both novels and film. You can find more detail at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freytagspyramid.
Dialogue should carry the story forward as well as plot does, and good dialogue sounds individual to the character, but without using dialect. As I’ve said in a couple of reviews, I don’t think writing dialect is the best practice because the reader’s eye and brain stumble over unfamiliar spellings.
Another best practice in fiction writing is to keep to one point of view in a scene so as to avoid confusing the reader about whose thoughts he’s eavesdropping on. If a reader has to go back and figure out who’s speaking, acting, or thinking, he may stop reading. That’s not good for the writer and it’s not much fun for the reader, either.
The best writers not only know and understand English grammar, but love and respect our common language as well. These writers have an ear for the music of English, the elements that poetry teachers break out with terms such as alliteration, dissonance, assonance, and onomatopoeia. (Yes, I had to check the spelling. Doesn’t everyone?) All these combine to form the music of English, its sounds and rhythms, which help carry the story even though they may be considered “poetic values.” Besides these are similes and metaphors, which can add to the novel or detract from it.
Of course, if these values call attention to themselves instead of subliminally (as it were) increasing the reader’s enjoyment of the story, they also pull the reader out of the story. In that case, they become detriments to the novel.
SPR: Does a self-published book need to be free of grammatical errors to be considered for a good review?
SR: It’s a matter of degree. If an otherwise excellent novel has a few typos, or one consistent error that demonstrates a misunderstanding of formatting requirements (as Winter Games does), then I couldn’t condemn it. Sadly, the more common case is a book littered with errors of every kind: spelling, grammar, formatting … the works. It actually makes you wonder if the author has ever read a book.
I’m quite serious when I say that. The people who are best at spelling, grammar and layout are big readers. Spelling is 90% recognition, not recall: the word just “looks right”, and that only comes from a lot of reading. The same applies to grammar and layout. So broad sloppiness tells me the author has no real interest in reading. Why does such a person want to write a book? Because they want to be famous? Because it would be cool to see their name on the cover? Those aren’t good reasons to sit down at the keyboard, and even worse reasons for others to waste their time reading the result.
CB: Yes. At the very least a carpenter should know how to drive a straight nail. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are part of the tools of our trade and we damn well ought to know them. Standards for self-published novels should be no different from those of traditionally published novels.
However, the grammar has to be appropriate to the characters, and sometimes the narrator is a character, too. If the narrator is big into rap, he might narrate the book in that form of English. I’d have difficulty reading it unless the writer is careful, or perhaps I’m not part of that author’s target audience. I’d recommend considering the audience, then writing for it. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean dumbing down anything just to get more readers.
Being able to write in a different form of English implies that the writer can write good standard English in the first place. It’s entirely one thing to write grammatical errors because the character doesn’t know better (Martha McDowell in my own God’s Thunderbolt, for example) and another thing completely to write ungrammatically out of sheer ignorance. The first contributes to characterization; the second cheats the reader.
SPR: Should a reviewer always include positive aspects of a book even if it is deeply flawed?
SR: For sure, but only if the book actually has positive aspects. Some books don’t have any. If I can’t find anything to praise within the first 100 pages, I refuse to review it. This isn’t because I want to spare the writer’s feelings, but because I want to spare myself the agony. Life’s too short to waste a week reading and writing about something that bad, when there are so many better self-published novels to read and review.
CB: Yes. I would hope that novelists – myself included – can learn from a negative review. In the bad review I mentioned earlier, the reviewer did not at all like the love story in it. He mislabeled the book a Romance, when in fact it is anything but. I had included the love element in to lighten the story, to mitigate the violence. However, his review prompted me to consider why he might have come to that conclusion and to think about the role of a love story in a novel about violent times. One of my test readers had not liked that sub-plot, either. I won’t be changing my approach in the next novel (now under way), as it turns out, but I have refined my definition of my audience.
To answer the question directly, if there are no positive aspects in a review, the writer is less apt to consider anything the reviewer says. Including only flaws in a review is as useless as including only a novel’s strengths. Eventually, neither readers nor writers come to consider that reviewer trustworthy . And you know what? They’d be right.
(*Deus ex machina, literally god out of a machine, comes from an ancient device that brought an actor portraying a god down from the clouds to resolve the plot. Modern equivalents include the cavalry or the police arriving just in time to save the protagonist. )
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About Henry Baum
Author of The American Book of the Dead, which won Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival and the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction. Largehearted Boy says it's "reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and Haruki Murakami, a book that boldly explores the future and defies genre." Also the author of North of Sunset, winner of the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize, and The Golden Calf - first published by Soft Skull Press, with editions in the U.K. (Rebel Inc.) and France (Hachette Littératures). Henry was a finalist along with Alan Moore and Dr Brooke Magnanti for his novel " God's Wife" at for Best Writer at The Erotic Awards London UK in 2013. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He is the founder of SPR. Visit henrybaum.com for more information.