This post, from Henry Baum, originally appeared on Self-Publishing Review on 9/17/09.
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?