So what does it really feel like to have your book reviewed?
I mentioned a series of interviews I would be doing on here as a follow-up to the recent Everyone's a Critic debate at PEN, thinking that having slipped a foot in the door on that evening it would be interesting to get a glimpse behind the scenes in the world of book reviewing. So I have been slowly compiling a series of questions which various people will be answering for us, and today I am very grateful to Amanda Craig who has very kindly put on the author's hat.
As well as being the author of several novels, Amanda is also a reviewer and so has an in-depth knowledge of this world from from both sides. We often meet up when Amanda is staying down in Devon and have had some fascinating discussions about all this in the past, so it's good to be able to include all of you too, and Amanda has agreed to respond in comments if you want to ask anything else or comment on her replies.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I am the author of six novels, including A Vicious Circle (which was very much inspired by the experience of being reviewed, and then reviewing other works of fiction) and most recently Hearts and Minds. I review literary fiction for a number of national newspapers and magazines, and am children’s critic for The Times
It seems an obvious question but what do reviews mean to an author?
Part of the problem with being reviewed is that they mean so many different things. Firstly, that you and your book exist – all reviews, good or bad, being a form of advertising. Secondly, they give a public response to what you have spent years writing, in isolation. Thirdly, if intelligent, they give an indication of the merit of the story and its execution. Fourthly, they may help you sell hundreds or thousands more copies of your book, thus enabling you to continue both in terms of morale and contracts. You become hardened over time (see below) to the extent that a bad review can spoil your day but won’t cause a total crisis, but in the beginning they are hugely important.
Whether favourable or unfavourable, what is it important for you to sense about a review of your books as an author?
Firstly that it’s written by someone whose intelligence and aesthetic sense I can respect. There’s almost nothing worse than a review by someone who has just not “got” your book, whether they like it or not. Accuracy matters. Having someone so careless that they get the plot or the character’s names wrong is especially galling. Fair-mindedness, political neutrality and lack of spite matter. It’s fine for someone not to like what you’ve done, but it’s not fair to give the thumbs down from personal grudges, imaginary slights or their own conception of how you should have handled your material.
Equally, the rave review from a friend, though extremely rare in my own experience, never really counts, either privately or in the circle of those who know.
The stinker... does it help or hinder an author, or is all publicity good?
In theory, reviews being a form of advertising means that it is worse not to be reviewed than to get a stinker. The Literary Editor who tried to stop A Vicious Circle being published never, for instance, had any of my novels reviewed before or after, no doubt with this in mind. Very occasionally I think a stinker can be so funny that it arouses curiosity and produces the opposite effect to making a book drop dead. Mostly, people are only too glad to be alerted to yet another book they don’t have to read....and even one stinker tends to stop a novel from getting onto the all-important submissions for prizes. So a stinker is almost always instant bad news from a publisher’s point of view even if they pretend it’s not. Publishers, too, have to have quite a lot of guts – especially nowadays.
Another obvious question but is it possible to define how those 'stinkers' really make you feel and how does an author deal with these and still carry on writing?
A real stinker is a form of public flaying, especially if you’re new to being published. For my first novel I got such venomous ones that I miscarried a baby at three months. It was one of the most terrible times of my life; I was completely defenceless, I was in tears every day for two years, despite writing a second novel that was better-received, and it also meant that I never had any of the encouragement that new novelists of any talent usually get. I always remember this when reacting against a novel I’m given to review, especially if it’s a debut. Of course, over time you get tougher. A bad review now is not nice, but it’s not something to brood over unless very silly and a bit mad.
How do you feel the litblogs sit alongside the review pages?
I tend not to read blogs on newspaper websites, but I really like the good ones like yours, John Self’s, Kevinfromcanada, Susan Hill, Danuta Kean and Norm Geras; and, in the children’s sphere, Katherine Langrish’s Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, Lucy Coats’s ScribbleCity and Meg Rosoff. I like the way litblogs respond to novels much more as readers do, as a part of life and often as the start of a debate between readers. What worries me about print reviewing is the way critics so often act as “gatekeepers” and stop people getting through. Sometimes that’s due to shortage of space (my own problem on the Times) and sometimes it’s because some critics ascend to a kind of Olympian cloud, from which they dispense judgement. Blogs are more leisurely and earthy. Above all, they seem to be written by people who still love reading for pleasure, rather than seeing it as a way of earning an increasingly poor living, or operating what I called (in A Vicious Circle) “the fear or favours market”, or reminding their own publishers of their existence.
Amazon reviews? Helpful or Unhelpful to an author? To be trusted or not?
Amazon reviews, long or short, are incredibly helpful. I now ask readers who say they’re liked my books to write them, which may be why mine have shot up – and believe me, they’re read not only by publishers but by talent scouts. In fact, I probably have my Amazon reviewers to thank for my just getting an option to have Hearts and Minds adapted as a TV series by a company called Hat Trick. I’m always grateful to anyone who tries to help. I review lots of other books on amazon if I think they are good, or interesting, and I happen to have the time. Apart from buying a book, it’s the best way readers can help each other, and writers.
I think amazon reviews can be trusted if the reviewer has clearly read the book and gives reasons for liking or disliking it. We probably all know about the notorious Orlando Figes case, now in the public domain, in which he gave rivals 1*, and his own work 5* (adding, hilariously,“may he live forever!”) on amazon. He then threatened those who exposed him for doing this with libel, got his wife to claim she had written them on his account, and finally, after being forced to make an admission and an apology, claimed to be having a breakdown after studying Stalin’s Terror. This is an extreme case. However, I’m pretty sure there are a number of authors who review their own books in ecstatic terms, just as there are those who hate someone and give them 1*. If you read amazon reviews, it’s nearly always obvious – they’re the stuck clocks striking twelve or one. The reviews I trust are the 3* or 4* reviews. There are no such things as perfect novels, I fear, and if you want one you’ll be stuck re-reading the same handful of classics that achieved this. Anyone who reviews, or is reviewed, does well to remember this.