If you’re an author, you might have had the misfortune to read at least one DNF + rude comments, or a one-star review of one of your novels where you’ve wondered if the reviewer has actually even read the book being critiqued. ISOLDE MARTYN is a reviewer as well as a writer of historical novels, and today she shares with us her insights into how to write good (ie fair) reviews. She was the first Aussie author to win a Rita Award in the USA and the RUBY Award in Australia (for her first novel, The Maiden and the Unicorn) and she loves doing historical research. Her recent novel The Golden Widows (pic. below) focuses on two young women on opposing sides in the Wars of the Roses: Elizabeth Woodville and Katherine Neville, sister of Warwick the Kingmaker.
Isolde, can you start by telling us about your experience in reviewing, please?
I’ve worked for a particular publishing house for ten years. I also regularly reviewed books for a major Australian newspaper but that was a long while ago.
That’s a lot of books over the years. So what are the essentials in writing a review?
Actually reading the book makes a good start. Scanning or just dipping in here and there and expecting to be paid for that review shows a lack of integrity.
What’s the most important factor when writing a review, in your opinion?
Take the ‘I’ out of REVIEW. If you are being honest, you are writing the review for ‘potential ‘ readers. Sadly, many reviewers are actually writing the reviews to promote themselves.
Can you elaborate?
Well, if a reviewer is just trying to prove how many books they’ve read and how superior they are, they are not being fair to the book they’re reviewing. Authors, like actors, deserve respect not a kick in the ribs from someone who has never written a book or stood beneath the spotlights. Authors have put years into building their career let alone their latest novel. Unfortunately, there are some very vicious narcissists out there who don’t care how much they stick the knife in, so long as it makes them feel good.
One of the frustrating things is that there’s no come back especially on the internet. These people are safely anonymous.
Yes, annoying, isn’t it? Mind, even well-known professionals can be just as bad. Let me give you an example: A much respected literary author friend of mine had a famous critic come up to her at a party and say: ‘I bet you hate me for that review I did of your latest novel.’ My friend kept her cool and the critic went on: ‘I was having a bad day and I felt like mauling someone and you were it.’ That’s an astonishing admission by someone who should have been totally professional.
Some reviews of fiction on the internet just seem to be a regurgitation of the plot.
Absolute spoilers! I don’t know whether they’re just being stupid or deliberately destructive. No reader wants a precis of the entire plot otherwise there’s no adventure. That’s not reviewing.
So when you’re writing a review, what do you need to do?
I suggest don’t start straightaway after you’ve finished reading but let your ideas marinate for a day or so. Many of your thoughts will end up on the cutting room floor. What you hope to have as a finished product is an interesting piece of writing that sums up what the book is about and maybe zooms in on why it’s a good read. Unless it’s an academic book, a shorter review is better. If it’s not a good read, maybe don’t even bother to do a review or at least find something good to say before you criticise it. Ways of doing the review are looking at the big picture, the research, has the author a particular expertise that they made use of in the novel? What they were trying to achieve and say? Is this a novel that is trying to change peoples’ thinking?
But there are so many readers out there with different requirements.
That’s true. If you are writing for fans of a specific genre, you need to consider whether the book will fill their requirements. If it’s a great read, a ’keeper’ that they might read again, what makes it exceptional? The author’s research, the characters, the wonderful imagery? Did it affect you emotionally? I recently read Kate Mosse’s novel Citadel, set in France during the Second World War and that resonated with me for a long while afterwards. If I was reviewing that, I’d like to discuss why her writing achieved that.
I guess some readers will just look at the star ratings.
Giving stars will help the reader but I don’t know why there are five stars as giving someone only three stars is considered an insult so most books are given between a four and five range, which is rather restricting. The publishing house I review for uses a much broader marking system.
There’s been a lot of discussion about whether news editors are even handed and male reviewers are given more space.
Here’s a comment on the US and UK scenes from The Guardian: The New York Review of Books displayed a similar imbalance, featuring an overall 677 men to 242 women. The New York Times book review featured an overall 909 male contributors and authors, compared with 792 women; the Nation’s male-female split was 469 to 193; and at Harper’s fewer than half the authors reviewed were women. The figures are at odds with the publishing industry in the UK, where some of the biggest-selling authors of 2014 were Hilary Mantel, Donna Tartt and Kate Mosse. Women are also responsible for buying two-thirds of the books sold in Britain and figures compiled in 2009 found almost 50% of women were avid readers, compared with 26% of men. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/07/male-writers-continue-dominate-literary-criticism-vida-study-finds
I’d question the motive of an editor who gives a romance, for instance, to a reviewer who would never go near that sort of novel. Would you send a classics lover who loathes jazz to crit a jazz quartet? The usual defence is that every book should be able to stand on its own merits but reviewing a genre that you don’t normally read is not being fair to those readers or the author. It would be like having male judges on an award that was set up with Regency Romance novelists in mind: the original purpose is lost and devalued.
So what final advice would you give?
You can check out Isolde’s many wonderful historical novels (including Mistress to the Crown, pic left) on her website: www.isoldemartyn.com; FaceBook Author site : https://www.facebook.com/Isolde-Martyn-29899980189/; https://twitter.com/isoldemartyn