A year ago I decided to start doing more reviews of the books I read, partly to gain exposure, and partly out of curiosity. How could I understand reviewers if I’d never walked in their shoes?
My favourite genre is literary fiction. The longer the better. I’m attracted to big fat books that will take forever to read and will end up giving me neck-pain from carrying them around. The more serious and enigmatic the better. The only books that made me laugh in a sustained belly ache fashion were P.G. Wodehouse‘s Jeeves books and Gerald Durrell‘s animal family books. John Irving has made me laugh in a different way; with Irving laughter is painful because it highlights what being truly human involves. I find most books which aim to be entertaining boring. I like them complex, devious, mysterious. I’m apt to wallow in all that chiaroscuro atmosphere like a kid in a mud pond. I guess you could say I’m a niche market voracious reader.
Today a voracious reader is called a rabid reader; that tells us something about a new generation of online consumers. In the small towns of my growing up years there were no bookshops, only libraries: plain covered volumes were extracted from plain shelves in plain local libraries and handed to plain librarians week after week, year after year. Mostly we’d take a chance on the story title. A new author was an adventure waiting to unfold; their books wouldn’t be in the library if they couldn’t write. What mattered was what was inside, not the packaging. There was one thing though that was the same. We took those free books as our due. So why are we so surprised by the Internet model?
How does one shift one’s perspective to get away from a lifetime’s subjective absorption and review the work of others in a fair and discriminating fashion? The life of a writer is a work-in-progress. Asking someone to review one’s novel or short story or poetry collection is an act of faith; the writer trusts that the reviewer takes their work seriously or why do the review?
If one assumes that the acknowledged masters of English Literature (such as Brontë, Faulkner, Hemingway, Shakespeare etc.) are what we (as serious writers and readers) aspire to, then the old literary favourites are logically the only 5’s there can be – the pinnacle of the star system.
Where does that leave us with novels by Atwood, Coetzee, Irving, Mitchell, Oates, Ondaatje, Shriver and others who exhibit exemplary dedication, skill and that something ‘extra’ again and again? Where does that leave us with up-and-coming writers who with brilliance, ingenuity, word dexterity and bravado energetically pursue the prizes and take on the current generation of literary greats?
On a different, but no less confusing note, is it fair to compare a superbly composed novel (with all the gravitas of a major publishing house behind it) with an Indie novel which is rougher and rawer but is more accessible (usually an e-book) and has sold more volumes (although net sales worth may be far less than a traditionally published book).
The more reviews I undertook the more my head spun; it was an impossible task to do justice with stars; I was allowing myself to be seduced by a consumer-orientated star system which demanded simplistic judgements based on a highly personal read. Adding objective criteria didn’t help. I still couldn’t fathom how an Indie bestseller could be fairly evaluated on the same star chart and by the same criteria as Lionel Shriver‘s meticulously crafted We Need To Talk About Kevin or David Mitchell‘s monumental epic achievement Cloud Atlas. I became increasingly convinced that review stars were false symbols which collapsed meaning.
Why isn’t the work of visual artists measured with stars? Because it would be a meaningless pointless exercise. Every painting exerts a unique force of push and pull on the observer. Or the work of a composer? Because it would be ridiculous, laughable to assign a concerto 3 stars as it is being performed on the stage. It is recognised for what it is; its own unique design and execution. Why should a piece of writing be any different?
It’s liberating to throw away a whole influential star system and try being a different kind of reviewer. It feels like the only thing to do if I want to be worthy of the writer’s act of faith.
***A different view on reviews: “I’ve decided to stop calling these ‘reviews’. I’m not trying to be a professional reviewer…”.