Wannabe Pride welcomes Guest Blogger Sara Bain!
Sara published her debut novel, The Sleeping Warrior, in 2013 under her imprint Ivy Moon Press. She is a freelance journalist, photographer, graphic artist and author living in South West Scotland.
“I demand that my books be judged with utmost severity, by knowledgeable people who know the rules of grammar and of logic, and who will seek beneath the footsteps of my commas the lice of my thought in the head of my style.”
There was once a time when the book review was called a “literary criticism” and involved lengthy scholarly theories that focused on analysis, description and interpretation of literary works, expounded in a critical essay. Sometimes constructive, often destructive, and occasionally even deconstructive, authors and publishers would hold their breaths while they waited for that important evaluation that would make or break a lifetime’s hard slog.
Daphne du Maurier’s critics hated her: they called her a second rank “romantic novelist.” Adolph Huxley’s Brave New World and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies were immediate commercial disasters after they received a harsh press from their critics.
Moreover, there were, and still are, a few mischievous columnists who would use a book review as an opportunity to showcase their own writing aptitude or expertise on literary theories to the detriment of the author’s finest efforts. Also, with any form of arts critique there is always a danger of over-analysis by attempting to get into the writer’s mind.
Whether we authors like it or not, criticism is unavoidable. Sometimes a novelist will use a plot device or sentence structure because he or she ‘just did’. There is not always a reason for placing every individual word in a certain series or introducing a particular character half way through the storyline. It just happens that way and, if the reader doesn’t like it, you just have to take the blow of their disappointment on the chin.
As DH Lawrence said, “the touchstone [of literary criticism] is emotion, not reason” and, thanks to the internet, the judgment of the literary critic holds little sway against the might of public opinion.
Emerging from the World Wide Web is a new breed of literary critic whose opinion counts for everything: the book reviewer. Today’s reviewers tend to be book lovers who wish to spread their enthusiasm through dialogue on social media sites. They give up their time to read your work and make the effort to tell others about their experience. Their opinions are as varied as the stories they read and they stand as representatives of the diversity of individual taste.
Sometimes waiting for a book to come back from the reviewer feels like standing in the gladiatorial arena, with one eye locked on the teeth of the lion and the other on the thumbs of the crowd. Will my efforts get that row of shining stars or will it be struck with one?
No author wants a bad rating but, at the same time, must realise that you can’t please everyone. The one star rating is inevitable. Some reviewers will complain about the story; some can’t invest any emotion in the characters; some don’t like the colour of the cover; and some are cross because the book didn’t arrive on time.
Taking a look on Amazon at the reviewers’ comments on a selection of the top-selling books of all time was a stark reminder that individual readers will applaud or jeer you for what they get out of your book, which is not necessarily what you, as the author, intended them to experience. Here’s a small sample of what some reviewers said about the world’s most successful books:
- Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (top-selling book of all time): “last 100 [pages] could have been taken out and, substituted for something a little less dull” – 2 stars
- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five: “OK, I read it, but I literally have no idea what this is about” – 1 star
- Virginia Wolf, To the Lighthouse: “Slow and monotonous” – 1 star
- Robin Jenkins, The Cone Gatherers: “Awful, depressing and cruel” – 1 star
- J D Salinger, Catcher in the Rye: “very annoying and extremely boring” – 1 star
- Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie: “What a load of rubbish!” – 1 star
- Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None: “one of the most boring and, at times frankly irritating, murder mysteries I’ve ever read.” – 1 star
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick: “too nautical for me” – (that one made me laugh) 1 star
- Jack Reacher, Personal (Waterstones’ top seller 2014): “Unbelievably bad” – 1 Star
- Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code: “foetid mess of a book spewed by accident from the substandard brain” – 1 star
- Jeffrey Archer, Be Careful What You Wish For: “Boring and repetitive. Requires no brain!” – 1 star.
- E L James, 50 Shades of Grey: 2,145 – 1 star.
Up until today, when I made the above list for this blog post, I was always afraid of that dreaded one star which would negate my efforts to publicise my precious work as an “excellent” read. My five-star majority ratings gave me a sense of pride and self-worth as I felt it somehow validated me as an author of good fiction.
I now understand there is a certain amount of freedom of expression for the self-published author. With the coming of the online book reviewer, who is more interested in a good story than a missing semi-colon, the once mighty literary critics are no longer the watchdog of readers’ tastes. I would advise any author, therefore, to write what you would like to read. Some readers will hate it, others will love it, and a few will completely miss the point. The number of stars don’t necessarily increase sales but the opinion of the reviewer is important. Even if those views don’t agree with yours or whether you feel they have got it wrong – everyone’s entitled to their own opinion and you’ll never get it completely right.
- Sara Bain