Reviewing reviews PART THREE

Part ThreeHow do you write a ‘good’ review?

How do you write a ‘good’ review?  

Let me deal with reader expectations right from the off here. I am not about to give you 10 easy pointers in how to write a good review. I can’t. Why? Because among the many things that writing is or can be (it can be a gift from God if he exists, or a talent you are born with if talent exists), one thing it is, is a skill. A craft that has to be learned. It takes time, effort and application. And there are no short cuts.

I am going to be looking at ‘good’ reviews from a different angle. The one that comes before you actually sit down and try to write a review of any sort.  The theory that goes before the practice but which is essential to achieve any sort of praxis.

The first thing I’d say though, is that to write a good review you firstly don’t have to write a bad review. What? Don’t scream ‘tautology’ at me, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that we have to define both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ before we start talking.

My working Definition of ‘good’ review for the purposes of this debate is:

A review that serves the purpose of a critical appraisal of a work with the purpose of mutual understanding between writer (critic) and reader.

And obviously it follows that my working definition of ‘bad’ review means one that does not do or achieve this goal or aim.

Which in simple terms means one that

a)      is simply trying to sell something

b)      voices nothing but personal opinion

c)      is an attack on the author (using critical in the way we dismissed in Part 1)

You need to think of your motivation in writing anything but certainly in writing a review. As you’ll remember from the earlier parts, review writing gives you power beyond your wildest dreams.  Possibly more power than you can or should expect to cope with.  It offers lots of pitfalls and can be very damaging both to yourself and others if you ‘get it wrong.’

The Times They are a Changing as Bob Dylan so rightly reminded us all those years ago. Anyone and everyone can write something that is called ‘a review’ by product placement. That’s just trying to sell something. Don’t do it. It’s not a review. Literature deserves more than that. And before we get too high on our horses regarding the words good and bad: You know what a good kettle is right? One that heats efficiently, pours well and doesn’t break down the minute the warranty expires.  And you know what a bad kettle is? Right. That’s all the theoretical distinctions you need.  That’s how we are using the words good and bad. Don’t get all moral on me.  We’re just going to substitute writing and reviews for kettles.

Of course that’s where part of the problem comes in.  Literature is not a ‘product’ (unless you are ‘selling’ it) and so simply ‘reviewing’ it in the parlance of ‘this kettle doesn’t work’ won’t really help you. Or anyone else. That’s not what I’m calling a critical review.

You might see a review on Amazon (other sites are available!) where someone says: this kettle’s rubbish it doesn’t work.  Next to one that says: this is the best kettle I’ve ever bought. And one which says It’s black. I like black. It’s really cool and you should buy it.

Okay. It’s up to you what you make of these ‘reviews’ and what recommendation you take on the strength of them. I suggest that none of them are particularly helpful to you in your choice of buying a kettle. However if 100 people all said the kettle broke the day they got it home, that might influence your decision. And might indeed be a reflection of something ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ about that particular make or brand.

But literature is not like kettles and should not be discussed in the same way. (Though of course we can still discuss both as good and bad which is what we are doing.)

Analogies abound across the range of creative endeavour. I’ll turn to music now. It’s something I know nothing about except as a ‘listener’ or ‘consumer.’ I play music (badly) and write songs (nearly as badly) for personal enjoyment and I LIKE some kinds of music and I don’t LIKE others.  If I like John Denver it’s because of a range of personal issues and I’m not going to try to convert you or tell you you should like him too. It’s to do with my individual lived experience and that is not the same for anyone else. So why should I try to convince them to ‘like’ him?  Of course it’s nice if I find someone I can listen to John Denver with and discuss his lyrics and ideas. But that’s still in the personal realm. It’s not worth publishing.  To restore street cred I’ll point out I also like The Jam. But the same rules apply.

I’m not sure how far I am competent to ‘appreciate’ music on anything other than a personal level. And that’s fine for me.  I know that music can be quite key in the construction of an identity and I expect that’s why people get hot under the collar about it. I have to say that I think being able to write a 3 minute pop song that ‘says it all’ about the human condition is one of the finest things one can do. But being able to write a full orchestral symphony is not something that excites or interests me. I do, however, appreciate it takes hard work and dedication to write either.

But largely, when it comes to music, I’m an ‘I like what I like’ kind of person and so it’s not something I have (or voice) critical opinions on.  I certainly don’t write reviews on it.

Bob Dylan is many things but you wouldn’t claim him to be a ‘good’ singer in the same way that Bing Crosby is a ‘good singer’ or even Elvis is a ‘good’ singer.  When I was young and thought that Donny Osmond, David Essex and David Soul were what one looked for in music, I thought that Bob Dylan was ‘rubbish.’  He couldn’t even sing properly I thought.  Yes, I’ll agree he is not exactly melodious BUT is that what he was aiming for?  He may have fallen short of my pre-teen expectations (which I suggest had less to do with music and more to do with image) but then it was not his goal or responsibility to match my individual expectations was it?

As I grew older and encountered Billy Bragg, a strange thing happened. Here was another man who ‘couldn’t sing’ and yet this time, because of his political message (which I liked) and his insight into social relationships (cynical, which I liked) I forgave him his voice and listened to what he was saying. And realised that Bob Dylan was more of a ‘voice’ than a ‘singing’ voice.

‘Don’t criticise what you can’t understand.’  Thank you Bob. Thank you Billy. Lesson learned.

And ‘Come writers and critics who prophesise with your pen.’ This is also important. Writers and critics are placed together. They are doing a similar (if not the same) thing – they are engaged in communicative acts (interactions). And Bob noted that they have a power of prophecy. Okay, well I’m not going to debate the definition of the word prophecy because I think that’s not the point here.

Though it does lead me onto another analogy. From the Olympics this year.  I was sitting watching Michael Johnson talking (with others) about Usain Bolt (before the 200 meters) Someone said to him – how can you analyse his performance? And Michael replied that it was relatively easy because as an athlete he’d had to analyse his own performance over many years in micro detail and therefore he could see the patterns and component parts of another athlete’s training etc even if he didn’t know the specifics for any given individual.  (That shut them up I can tell you.)

Then someone said to him ‘so give us a prediction who’s going to win.’

And Michael replied ‘I don’t do predictions’ (implication that they are not relevant to his ‘professional’ status or analytical stance. )

I had barely had time to cheer him when someone else (who shall remain nameless to hide their shame!) pitched in ‘but you’re a pundit, it’s what you’re being paid to do.’  Ultimate crass comment no?

Johnson gave him the kind of look that remark deserved.  ‘I expect that Jamaica will get a 1-2-3’ he said (I may be paraphrasing here slightly) He made it clear, anyway, that he was not in the game of giving opinion for money, that what he thought he was doing on the programme was offering a professional analysis of the sport/athletes.  And of course Jamaica did sweep the board.

Now. Can you see the difference? And can you see the analogy? Michael Johnson as analyst is critic and as pundit is product placement.   I thought it was a neat way to show the difference between someone who has ‘authority’ to make a critical comment (or write a critical review) and someone who is doing it for other motives – money, entertainment etc.

If you don’t want to be Michael Johnson in this respect then I don’t think you’ll write good reviews. Because I don’t think you are trying to engage with literary criticism which is at the core of a critical review.

To keep the Olympic analogy. We all watched the diving right? We all wanted Tom Daley to win right? And we all got to the point where we thought we knew how to judge the dives – the amount of splash, helicopter legs and over rotations etc – right?  Do you really think it’s that simple?  Or did we all just become experts because we ‘wanted’ him to win so much.   Of course it doesn’t matter for Tom Daley how much we want him to win or how much we ‘like him’ or ‘say he’s good.’ It’s not going impact on his performance (unless there’s a massive hate/slur campaign that crushes his confidence perhaps. Or unless we all flash our cameras at him as he dives in order to ‘capture’ the moment or be part of  his ‘success’).  As spectators we are not really ‘important’ in the process. We have no power and no authority.  It’s different when you write a review. When you engage in literary criticism (which is what writing a review is) you are taking on board a fair amount of power.  Which needs to be backed up by authority.

For me, if you’ve never heard of F.R.Leavis and Northrope Frye (whether you agree with them or not) or Roland Barthes or postmodernism then you have no place in writing (or calling what you write) a critical review.

Writing reviews is an exercise in the communicative action/interaction that is literary criticism. End of.  And to engage with it you have to know something about it.

My suggestion is that to write a good review you have to question your motives and your authority  – before you write.

Remember there are a number of motives for writing reviews:

Product placement (money or kudos)

Communication (sharing a view or stance)

Critical analysis (exploring and explaining the nature of a thing)

In my view only the latter two have any place in critical reviews. It doesn’t matter whether you are saying something is good or bad if you are only saying it for money or to make someone (or yourself) look or feel something.

Of course writers like to have reviews which are positive. They want people to like their work .But I bet any writer worth their salt would give up all the  ‘this is great because I like it’ reviews to be rid of the ‘this is crap because I hate it’ reviews. These are NOT reviews, they are comments. And not even very appropriate ones. They may help sell product, they don’t tell you anything about whether a written work is good or bad – in any way.

Even saying ‘this is great because it’s a thriller and I like thrillers’ tells you a bit more. And certainly more than ‘this is rubbish because I like thrillers and it’s too literary’ (which is actually the guts of a real ‘review’ a real writer I know got!)  The first one at least tells you the genre of the novel (if the reviewer has got it right!) The second one just tells you that the reader’s expectations were dashed – but unless the novel pitched itself solely as A THRILLER he has no come back at all. And even then… it’s the responsibility of the reader to do the research (free samples and ‘good’ reviews) to make sure that their expectations will be met (If meeting your every expectation is why you read a book – some people like to challenge and go outside their comfort zone in their reading.)

I am adamant on the point that unless a writer deliberately misleads you in the blurb or free sample as to the ‘nature’ of their work, then it’s your responsibility as reader to make sure that it will ‘live up to’ your personal expectations. And not to whine, cry or belly ache if it doesn’t.  If  you’ve wasted your money or made a bad choice that’s your responsibility and your problem.  If you’ve been lied to and cheated that’s something else.  A serious matter. But don’t write as though an author has deliberately lied to or cheated you without being able to back it up.  It’s not nice, it’s not helpful and it may well even be actionable.

Usain Bolt’s responsibility it to train hard and run the best he can to win the race.  A writer’s responsibility is to train hard and write the best book they can and NOT to tell people it’s something it’s not in the promotional material.  It is not the writer’s responsibility to pre-empt and serve the personal whims and expectations of any and every individual reader.  Anyone who thinks that needs to take a long hard look at themselves and the reason they read.

But while we’re on the subject. Let’s look at the motivations for writing.  I’m concerned here with the motivations for writing a critical review primarily but you may apply them to the writing of a work of literature/fiction as well if you like.  If you agree that you write a review to engage in communicative interaction and to critically analyse a work of literature/fiction (or indeed non fiction) then we are on the same page. If not, I don’t think anything I say will be of interest or relevance to you.  And for me, if your motivations are genuine then why would you want to write a ‘bad’ review.  Indeed why would you want to write a ‘bad’ review even in terms of ‘this is a bad book’ because it may just expose your own limitations. If you don’t start by giving the writer the respect that they are using their honed skill doing something intentional which is for you to interpret, but think that they are just wittering on with no reason or skill –WHY ARE YOU STILL READING? And why comment on it?  If it’s not to your taste or you don’t understand it – whistle the Bob Dylan tune – and don’t commit pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

Question your authority – before you write.

Of course you may be Michael Johnson. You may have some authority to write critically. And if so, I hope you do, because we need more people writing ‘good’ critical reviews, especially in the ‘indie’ publishing sector where it’s hard to get ‘noticed’ without selling yourself right left and centre.

What is this authority? Well, I’d suggest its having engaged with and learned some of the skills of critical writing (specifically about literature). Understanding what this thing literature (or fiction) actually is and how and why it is constructed and communicated.

Note the way I move seamlessly from literature to fiction. For me they are the same and not the same. Literature is perhaps subject to more rigorous ‘rules’ than fiction. Fiction (for me) implies genre fiction.  But I don’t like the term literary fiction because it seems to me that something isn’t literature until it’s stood some sort of test of time. For me I prefer the term contemporary fiction, which may indeed become literature or literary fiction in the future.  I use contemporary fiction to describe writing (literature perhaps) which is not primarily in a recognised ‘genre’ (crime/thriller, romance, horror, chick lit etc) but which maybe ‘aspires’ or plays with the notion of being ‘literature’ or is attempting to explore and experiment with ‘forms’ and ‘styles’ of literature.  You’ll note I’ve been giving you a personal opinion here. I’m aware of that. It’s something open to debate. What is not open to debate is that you have to judge something on its own relevant merits. No point calling something a bad kettle when it’s actually a toaster.  So if, you don’t know anything about horror, as I don’t, you don’t write critical reviews on it. And you don’t dismiss it either. You don’t criticise what you can’t understand – right?

Let me give you a little heads up  – critical analysis is not all about personal taste.  There are things in literature/fiction which can give you an idea whether it’s well or poorly written. This is a whole other article (and probably book) by the way. I’ll just point out that there are certain basics: internal consistency with the stated aim being one.  A literary work is made up of certain things – themes and devices we might call them (nuts and bolts. Tools in a toolkit as Stephen King would have it – I don’t like his horror but I read his book on Writing) and it is how the writer employs these and melds them together to form an internally consistent creation that is the guts of a written creative work.  This is what it is before it is sent on its journey. It is a communicative act BEFORE it becomes a communicative interaction. It has an identity, a self, a being BEFORE a reader interprets it. It does not solely exist when the reader gets his hands on it. It exists before that (and after that) and independent of that.  What it means is on two levels.  1) what is the intention of the author and 2) what is the interpretation of the reader/s.  Meaning is dynamic and mutable. Meaning is mediated. But before all that it still exists and it still can (and should) be ‘good’ irrespective of the audience it receives.

If we are to judge how well a carpenter makes a table, we need to know what kind of table he’s making, what kind of wood he’s using and what choice of nails he’s using and why. Screws, hammers and all that stuff (I know nothing about woodwork and only know a good table is one that I find aesthetically pleasing and stands full square on its legs) are what it’s about. For writing that’s things like themes (main and subordinate), language, style, genre, symbolism, plot AND story (they are not the same) structure, characters and their development – there may be other things I’ve missed. But these are the basics. Until you can recognise these and their relevant usage in the work you are critiquing, and until you can talk intelligently about the construction and exposition of them, you have no point writing a critical review.  A review is NOT a trailer and a spoiler and a personal opinion followed by a loving or sarky comment. Oh, and five stars have NOTHING to do with it.

So what is my authority?  I could honestly say that not a week has gone by in the past 30 years that I have not thought about literary criticism in some form or other.  I have university qualifications (in abundance) and I have a lot of relevant teaching experience (A level and University ) and have always had an interest in what makes ‘good’ literature – and what we can mean by ‘good’ literature. I have been a ‘professional’ reader and  I have written (and have striven to write ‘well’) and made a living out of it for the last 20 years.  I’m not Michael Johnson but I think I could represent the Scottish ‘team’ in a number of categories.

As a reader I read ‘critically’ rather than for escapism. I read to learn. To be part of a communicative relationship.  Recently for a couple of years, when researching a book of my own, I read mountains of literary criticism mainly 20th century, and for the last six months I’ve run a review site, reviewing the work of digitally published indie authors. And I don’t think I know it all. I just think I know enough to have something to offer that is positive in the literary criticism debate.  And I can tell you, I’ve learned a lot in the last six months about the practical art/skill of reading with an eye to writing a review, and writing a review itself. It’s not easy. And it’s not about ‘I like this because it’s black and I like black.’

So Question your motives – and your authority  –  before you write and after you write and before you publish – which is what you are doing when you ‘post’ or write a review on any public forum or site.

I started the indie review site because I wanted to ‘put back’ something into the ‘indie’ publishing world.  I wanted to ‘understand’ more about the new way of publishing and the unmediated environment it was sparking.  And because I wanted to find ‘good’ things to read and be able to talk about what’s ‘good’ in indie writing. Because I don’t believe that conventional/traditional/mainstream publishing has all the answers. Or signs all the talent. Or has a right to tell us what and who we can or should read.  It’s our world too.  I want to find work, where and however it’s been published, that speaks to me, that has a value which can be substantiated by critical evaluation and analysis and that is worthy of critical review.  Yes, I know there’s a lot of ‘rubbish’ out there but there’s also a lot of really really good stuff out there.  And I want to find it. And tell other people it exists.

I write reviews of books I’ve enjoyed. Yes. Books that I feel are ‘worthy’ of review or ‘good’ enough to recommend to other readers (perhaps those with similar tastes).  I write reviews of books in genres I don’t ‘like’ per se, and sometimes am not that familiar with but I will always differentiate between my personal opinion and critical analysis. And if I’ve got nothing to give but personal opinion I won’t write a review. (I aim always to point out where I am offering personal opinion and where I’m working with my toolkit. If I fail that’s my failure not that of the work I’m reviewing.)  I believe my responsibility is to give each work the fullest and best exploration and explanation I can. And if I think it’s not ‘good’ enough, I need to look harder and work out whether it’s me who is not ‘good’ enough to understand it. I give writers respect. I’m pretty good at researching a work in advance. A sample will usually give me an idea whether this is ‘well written’ or not.  There are the odd occasions when something just ‘tails off’ but usually this doesn’t happen and sometimes when it does you can think a bit harder and realise that it was your expectations that were awry not the writers.  Far from being a forum to ‘big myself up’ I have found the Indie eBook Review both a humbling place and an exercise which teaches me about my own skills and those of my fellow independent writers.  It’s taught me to be less ‘critical’ in the poor sense of the word and more critical in the ‘good’ sense of the word. It’s taught me the depth behind two little clichés:

‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ and ‘better keep your mouth shut and have people think you’re a fool than open it and confirm this’ and it’s taught me that it’s a big responsibility to engage with review writing. It’s also a lot of power to wield and it’s hard not to abuse that power.  And finally, I’ve found it a complete privilege to get to know the work of a number of writers (and people who wouldn’t even dare to consider themselves as worthy of a place in the Olympic team when they could give Usain a run for his money) and to be able to read and comment on what I’ve read.  And money has never come into it. Which is a bonus for me.

Finally, I have found running the site to be a vindication of the belief that there are a lot of really good writers and writing out there which has been withheld from us readers for a long long time for a lot of really ‘bad’ reasons.  And that’s why I wanted to embark upon this three part series of exploring critical reviews – because I think there’s a lot to be said, a lot to be read and a lot to be understood.  It’s a communicative act made in good faith and I hope will prove a valuable contribution to communicative interaction.   It’s not just my personal opinion, but it is a personal hope, that critical review writing is a tool that can be harnessed in the cause of ‘indie’ publishing.

I’m not trying to sell you something. I’m not trying to make a name for myself or enhance a reputation or show off or gain your approval or acclaim.  I’ve tried to be open, honest and positive in my critical appraisal. I hope you can receive my communication in the same spirit and manner.  That’s all.

 Cally Phillips  Visit my Festival Page 

and if you’re interested in ‘without fear or favour’  indie writing and reviewing  visit Indie ebook Review site