This isn’t the first time I’ve written here about how hard it is to find useful reviews of commercial fiction, especially of romantic fiction. (Here’s my previous post on romance reviewers I admire.) If you like reading literary fiction, it’s not hard to track down a well-written review of a book before you commit yourself to reading it. Literary reviewers pride themselves on their craft, so much so that in the UK the Hatchet Job of the Year award was launched last year, for the best written scathing literary review. (The reviewer who wins gets a year’s supply of potted shrimps. If you have time, do check out the book reviews in the link – they sum up exactly what a review should be: witty, entertaining and above all informative.)
Writing a thoughtful review takes time. The writer Thomas Macauley once reviewed Socrates by saying: “The more I read, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.” That made me laugh out loud – but it didn’t really tell me what Macauley’s problem was with Socrates’ writing, or why he felt we shouldn’t bother with him. It was funny, but as a review, it wasn’t particularly useful!
To my mind a useful book review does the following:
- tells us what the book’s about (but without giving too much away. Definitely no spoilers!)
- is not just a summary of the plot, characters and themes, but also gives the reviewer’s opinion
- when the reviewer gives an opinionon on an aspect of the writing (good/poor dialogue, for example) he/she should try to back it up with examples from the text
- the reviewer should try and understand what the author was trying to achieve with the book, and give an opinion on how successfully the writer has achieved it
- finish up with the overall “effectiveness” of the book (ie does the reviewer recommend reading it?)
Ideally the reviewer will be well-read in the genre he/she is reviewing, and will have read any other books by the same author.
A really excellent review will also show the reviewer’s voice and will be witty and entertaining.
So you see, writing a useful review takes time, and it takes more time than the average Amazon reviewer (or even the average book-blogger) has to give. The organisers of The Hatchet Job of the Year write in their manifesto that “The cultural deficit from years of reckless use of clichés and superlatives will take generations to pay off. The emergence of a new global superpower, with its sock-puppet dictatorship and one-Kindle policy, means we can no longer afford to be complacent.” They are referring to Amazon, and to Amazon’s reviewers, with their clichés and superlatives. I agree I’d never buy a book based on an Amazon review. I do think there are good reviewers out there, though – it’s just that you have to wade through the crap. There are more than 5,000 reviews of 50 Shades of Grey on Amazon UK, for example. I read a few, and actually found a couple quite useful. Take this one, for example, where the reader has spent some time finding examples in the text to show his outrage at the quality of the writing:
“This has to be the most appallingly atrocious writing I’ve ever seen in a major release. The pseudonymous British author sets the action (such as it is) in Washington State… for no reason than that her knowledge of America apparently consists of what she read in “Twilight”… but the entire first-person narrative is filled with Britishisms. How many American college students do you know who talk about “prams,” “ringing” someone on the phone, or choosing a “smart rucksack” to take “on holiday”? And the author’s geography sounds like she put together a jigsaw puzzle of the Pacific Northwest while drunk and ended up with several pieces in the wrong place.”
In the main, though, I wouldn’t go to Amazon for a constructive review – although I do enjoy reading some of the readers’ comments, such as this one below, which is again about 50 Shades:
“I downloaded this for Mrs GB (who said she didn’t want to add one to the Morrison’s trolley as she knew all the checkout girls). She said that all her friends were reading this book and perhaps she should also so that she could find out what they were going about and why they were coming up with such strange ideas. Well, she got about a third of the way through and said it was quite a ridiculous story, and why have we wasted our money again buying nonsense, and what on earth were her friends going on about. (I said maybe she ought to ask them or get some different friends.) Luckily it was a Kindle download so we didn’t have the problem of taking it down the charity shop, we just deleted it instead. Next time we went into the charity shop there were a load of them in there (plus the sequels), so that must mean something.”
If you are looking for readers’ opinions and comments on romantic fiction, and not for a balanced review, then Amazon and a lot of book-blogs are the perfect place to find them. Who can beat what this reader said about 50 Shades?
“I loved it……it’s the first book I have read to the end. I’ve never known any thing like it, an amazing experience.”
E.L. James has inspired someone to read their first ever book. No matter what you think of her books, that’s an achievement any writer would be proud of. Has anyone ever said the same about one of Martin Amis’s books (one of which is reviewed for this year’s Hatchet Job)? I doubt it. So, my opinion? The reviews might not be as well-written, but stick to romantic fiction and forget Martin Amis. To steal a phrase from the reviewer Phillip Hensher: “He couldn’t write ‘BUM’ on a wall.”