“Don’t write reviews. Ever. That’s the work of specialist critics. Do what you do well – i.e. fiction writing – and stick to it. I mean, really, you want to review your friends and enemies in broadsheet newspapers???”
Novelist James Phelan (from jamesphelan.com.au/faq/)
“Reviewing is an important investment in my professional profile. I appreciate that people are time poor and even the most avid readers have a limited amount of time. Before a reader commits to purchasing my book, reviews ranging from 250-500 words are examples of my writing.”
Novelist Lynette McClenaghan (from “Staying Connected” in Issue 9, 2015 of The Victorian Writer)
For writers still learning the craft and the trade, it’s easy sometimes to become confused. Two diametrically opposed and conflicting pieces of advice from published authors like the ones above can be part of the reason why. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with this blog will know I post book reviews every Monday, so it’s clear which side of the divide I fall on. But does that make me (and Lynette) right?
Let’s look at the circumstances of the two writers above. James Phelan is a commercial fiction writer with seven adult novels and sixteen young adult novels, as well as a non-fiction book of interviews with Australian writers, editors and publishers under his belt. Lynette McClenaghan is the author of four novels, variously described as “dark”, “psychological”, “gothic”, “supernatural” and “horror”. Clearly their writing experiences are very different because everybody’s writing experiences are very different. (How many times have you met another writer who says, “Oh my God! That’s exactly the same thing that happened with my writing.” Never, that’s how many times.)
I suspect someone like James Phelan doesn’t really have the time to be reading books and posting lengthy book reviews so it’s easy for him to make his judgement of “who wants to review your friends and enemies in broadsheet newspapers???” Lynette McClenaghan, on the other hand, looks at “reviewing as a way to stay connected”.
Still we’re no closer to an answer on who is right. Possibly because, as with so many things when it comes to writing, there are so few black-and-white definites. What works for one writer may not work for another. Which is why, when I post advice for writers, I tend to use words like “tips”, “tricks” and “suggestions” and not “rules”, “laws” and “regulations”. I don’t know it all but I’m trying to help, trying to let my experiences if not guide others, then at least give them something to think about.
Why do I post book reviews? I started doing it in 2012 when I self-published my first novel, Enemies Closer. I was looking for ways to establish an online profile so in addition to joining Twitter, giving some interviews and doing some paid advertising, I also signed up to Goodreads. It was only later that I started my blog and decided to post them here as well as a way of collecting all my writing in one place.
Because whatever you might think of them, reviews are still examples of writing, just like Lynette McClenaghan says. I also think I have an interesting perspective given that I have trained and worked as both a writer and an editor, as well as being a reader. And just because I would like to be a little more on the other side – being read and reviewed more than I am reading and reviewing – doesn’t mean I should err on the side of not reviewing at all because it might hurt the feelings of my “friends and enemies”.
I like to think that most of my book reviews are balanced and don’t contain targeted attacks on writers (because writers are not their writing). Even if I don’t like a book, I try to find the positives and I try to deliver the message that I wasn’t a fan in a positive way and give reasoned arguments as to why. I hope I am achieving that.
Certainly, last year, when I reviewed Tracy Cembor’s novella Gaslight Carnival at her request, giving it 2.5 stars, I also gave her the option of not having the review published on Goodreads and my blog. But she seemed thrilled with it and promoted it on her own blog. This is an extract from the review (you can read the whole of it here):
“This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a piece of fiction specifically at the request of the author. Now I realise there is a temptation to be kinder than I might ordinarily be because of that small personal connection. I don’t know Tracy but she reached out to me, no doubt in the hope that I would have all positive things to say.
“The best I can do is half positive, half negative (which accounts for the 2.5 star rating – normally I rate according to the Goodreads system, which doesn’t allow for half stars, but I genuinely believed that Gaslight Carnival deserved it).
“The positive half first – the novella displays the bones of a very good idea and the way Tracy Cembor has written the second task Margo has to perform drew me into the scene in the best possible way. It was the most evocative and interesting part of the novella. The character of Rook was so endearing, I wanted more of him. And I genuinely believe that fans of Samantha Shannon could easily be fans of Tracy Cembor.
“The negative half now – despite the bones of a very good idea, there is very little flesh on them. I suspect that this story – which easily contains enough characters and ideas for a novel – is a novella because the author isn’t ready to commit to and develop a more complex narrative.”
I know some people and websites who review books have a policy of only posting reviews of work they consider worthy of three, four or five star ratings but I don’t subscribe to that. If you are prepared to put your writing out into the big wide world, you have to also be prepared for the reactions to it. I’ve written previously about the one star rating I received on Goodreads. There’s no hiding it. It’s there for all to see.
I’ve also previously written about the five star rating and review I posted for Tara Moss’s The Fictional Woman. The author herself liked my Goodreads review. The author herself! Someone who wrote something I thought was fantastic thought that something I wrote was fantastic, too. If I’d never written and posted that review, it would never have happened.
The truth is that we can’t all be successful and well-paid fiction writers, no matter how much we aim for and aspire to it. But content is a growing market. The world needs writers. Maybe one day I’ll get my reviews in front of someone who says, “We like the way you review and we want to publish them and pay you for it.” It’s not quite the same as having someone deliver a three-book publishing contract, but I’d still be tickled pink. Sometimes dreams don’t happen quite as you want them to. You have to be open to tangents.
But I’m still writing. I will continue posting reviews. Maybe I will get that publishing contract. Maybe I will become so busy that I don’t have time to write and post reviews anymore. Either way, it’s my choice.
And that’s my ultimate advice to all writers. Do whatever it is you feel comfortable doing. It doesn’t mean you will be successful. It doesn’t mean everyone else will like what you are doing. But I suspect you will be happier than if you were doing something that made you feel uncomfortable.
Write. Review. Don’t review. Publish. Don’t publish. It’s up to you.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing