This is not a book review

[I keep writing posts and then letting them rot as drafts as I know I haven’t time to respond properly – so here is a thought from a few weeks ago.]

I have a modern dilemma. As a writer/reader/blogger I review books I love, but by no means all the books I read. I try to support fellow writers by reading their books, but if they write in a genre I don’t enjoy (horror, thriller, fantasy), although I sometimes buy, I don’t read them. There are some other genres (sci-fi, romance, chick-lit, historical fiction) where I’ll buy and read a few pages and occasionally the whole book, because I like the writer and am interested to see their work. Mostly I read general fiction, and a lot of non-fiction.

Tom Gauld cartoon

Tom Gauld cartoon

I recently read two books by authors I had come across online and expected to enjoy and in many ways I did. Both were fiction, but full of interesting subject matter, well-researched; the writing was fluent and grammatical and the proof reading was exemplary.  The first few chapters were enjoyable and yet as I read I fell into a state of simmering irritation.

The first one needed more editing. Some very strange ‘darlings’ that spoiled the atmosphere should have been cut. Most of the characters, including a very crucial one, were well-drawn and the pace was good. BUT the two protagonists and their whole story arc were straight out of central casting and belonged in a different book. The writing (for these two) was what my husband refers to as the ‘he gazed into her sunburnt eyes’ style. It was repetitive and very soupy.

The second was a very good read in many ways with a fascinating background and story. BUT, once more, the two main characters and their interactions were not credible. In this case the characters were undercooked, their behaviour towards each other age-inappropriate and the whiff of teenage romance in a serious setting was odd.

I really want to review these books and I cannot without hurting the authors.

Now, here’s the embarrassment, is this how my writing comes across to others? I still remember one very irritated reader/relative saying, why do you write like this when you could write like A S Byatt if you wanted to (I couldn’t, but I wouldn’t want to either). Were these books perfect for a different reader? Am I just reading out of my genre comfort-zone? Is this just the curse of the writer as reader?

I see that this post has become an (unintentional) demonstration of how dull writing becomes when you generalise instead of being specific – ah well!

Meanwhile winter has turned to spring – Hooray!




45 thoughts on “This is not a book review

  1. Dear Hilary,

    Before my third book came out I asked a few to be beta readers. One is employed as an editor and he was a great help. However, one who read it was not to be believed. He said it took him five chapters to figure out where the story took place. This boggled my mind since the first chapter is under the heading “Kansas City, Missouri.” His comments went way out from there. Even though my agent, publisher and other readers assured me the man was ‘all wet,’ his comments threw me into a tailspin and had me questioning my own writing.
    I still haven’t read any of your books, but I plan to in the not too distant future.



    • Ah, you have touched on something I am well aware of, but don’t have an answer to – you cannot please all your pre-publication readers (and I try). With three novels published, I have friends/relatives who are quite certain that one is much better than the others… but it is never the same one. I also use literary consultants (who are expensive, tough but worth the impartial advice). Incidentally, many, many people simple simply don’t read chapter titles…!

  2. Appreciation of writing is somewhat subjective, don’t you think? For instance, I know that in memoir writing, using the 2nd person (instead of “I”) in the present tense has become a “thing” and many people have adopted it. This particular style drives me bonkers. I’m reading a memoir right now that I keep editing as I go along. I persist because I like the story despite the flaws. I recently read a novel by Zadie Smith (Swing Time) with which I have a love-hate relationship for a long list of reasons but she’s a much loved author. So there you go. No accounting for taste!

    • Of course, you are right. Each of us comes with baggage as a reader that we cannot throw out. I try to experiment with both person and tense when writing, but have only ever written one story in the second person – it is difficult to pull off and sounds an odd choice for a Memoir. A kind historian, reading my recent non-fiction book as a draft, suggested gently that it might be better in the past, than the present, tense. I followed her advice! By the way I loved White Teeth, but didn’t get on with On Beauty.

  3. People are flabbergasted that I don’t like vegemite. Australians living in London (Kangaroo Court) used to get the jars of the meat extract flown in. It is the same with books. A personal choice always comes in. That too is subject to change. I now can’t stand Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but read it under the blankets with a torch when a teenager. Liking and not liking flows like coastal tides.
    Feedback on books can be very touchy for the writer, but I suppose wanes in importance when we continue enjoying putting down words.
    Compliments are nice and a good review makes heart sing. I cling to anything complimentary and can’t pretend that a month without a sale is somewhat depressing. But, I still keep going and time is somewhat short.
    I enjoyed your books, Hilary. One of them still pops up each time I open my Kindle.

    • Indeed, we are, thank goodness, all different. Like you, there are books I enjoyed as a teenager that are now either in the yuk corner, or turn out to be a completely different book 50 years later. I recently reread Kipling’s Kim, it was brilliant and satisfying but a much more complex and testing read than I remembered. I, too, have your book on my kindle and drop into the memoir on train journeys, I like your humour and idiosyncratic voice very much.

  4. I once paid more than $50 for a book on a subject I was really interested in and it was so poorly edited (it was hard to believe it had even been proof read) that I couldn’t read past the second chapter. It has put me off buying books that don’t come out of reputable publishing houses. But even they sometimes let slip some grammatical or printing error that takes me out of the story and into teacher marking mode.

    Our preferences for writing styles and genres IS a very personal thing, but poor proof-reading and/or editing in any genre is unacceptable. That’s my tuppence worth any way!

    • I agree, editing is a tricky, and I must accept, subjective activity. $50 for something below par – ouch! There is something to be said for cheap ebooks. I have a feeling that the books I was talking about work fine for other readers, and perhaps more to the point, for readers who are not writers. The grammar and proof-reading were good in both cases, so I fear I have become a very exacting reader. I also struggle to know what works as a writer, so the problem may well be mine, not theirs.

  5. I read three self-published books during the first year when I started blogging, and three times I couldn’t wait for them to end. I skipped a few pages, what is a sign of boredom. Three times I bought a biography of a fellow blogger.

    I do believe that I only like “interesting” biographies” and I simply might have ordered the wrong ones, just because I liked the blogger. I recently offered to be a beta-reader for a fantasy book but couldn’t make it through the book in time, because I was busy and sidetracked with my husband’s health issues. It was beautifully written, I wish I would have had more time.

    I think there are genres that we like and others we don’t. Take Danyelle Steel for example. Some people like her books and her writing style, I fall to sleep in under five minutes.

    There will always be books that we don’t appreciate. It does not necessarily mean the book is bad; it just means it’s not our taste. As for not editing, or bad editing -it can kill a book.

    I left one review at a blog for a book that I didn’t care for. I was very friendly and didn’t hurt her feelings because she was an older lady. I wrote nicely about her and her writing style, never mentioned the book -nobody noticed.

    Now I only buy books when I am curious, and I only buy signed copies. I don’t do Kindle; I want the paper book in my hands. One of your books is on my wishlist -not sure how we do that with the signature. 🙂

    The cartoon is hysterical.
    (Sorry for the novel)

    • I agree, biographies are wonderful – but ONLY if the writer either had a riveting life or writes like a dream, and both are rare. I cannot cope with ‘fantasy’ now, yet I loved Ursula le Guin and Tolkein in my youth. Our reading group sometimes comes up with best-selling authors whose writing make me feel ill (Philippa Gregory), so maybe I have become too picky. It is actually wonderful that different writing styles are enjoyed by a variety of people, so, as writers, we can have a fling in our own way and don’t have to fall into one particular line.
      Like you, I have made appreciative noises about books, without committing myself too far. People work hard and there is usually much to enjoy in any piece of writing.
      If it is the POW Railway book (hardback) you were interested in, you can get a physical copy in the States and I can send you a card (as I did for another reader). With the novels, the first is out of print, but I can post signed copies of Unseen Unsung or Border Line to the USA. BUT you do not need to read any of them. Life is very crammed these days, I know. I feel constantly metaphorically out of breath!

      • Hmm… the POW book is heavy (a hardback and some sad subject matter). I think I would like to send you Border Line (also some serious subject matter, but a lighter package altogether, since it is fiction). Could you email me at threadgoldpressatwaitrosedotcom?

  6. With a sense of dread that I fall into your roll call of dishonour: I have found developing a deep friendship with beta readers is essential, the ones who can tell you honestly “that doesn’t work” or “you’re writing like a angst ridden teen” and still be friends afterwards.

    And yet even those beta reading brutally honest friends will suffer from some degree of selection bias.

    I’ve found critiquing other’s work to be very helpful as it can give you that “I don’t like what you did there… oh wait I do that too” moment.

    • I love your blog, Ali, and have not read any of your books, so none of this was addressed to you. I bought your recent novella yesterday, but I think it is in a genre I don’t read, so I may not get to it. I agree, having readers who will tell you honestly what doesn’t work for them is a boon. You have a small ouch moment, then try to work out how to fix the problem. I have also experienced the contradictory comments of these readers and have to accept that there is no way to please all the people all of the time. I, too, have found that reading and commenting on fellow writer’s work is very helpful. I think that was what gave me pause when I read the two books I mentioned in the post. If only we could we could, as Robbie Burns said, ‘see ourselves as others see us/ it would from many a blunder free us.’!

  7. The drafts I abandon are like winters that never progress to spring.

    I have been stunned time and again by the hazard of reviewing books on request –not that my two pence make a dent in the space-time continuum of publishing. If I enjoy a book, I rave about it sometimes.

    • I am not a book reviewer and, like you, tend only to review books I want to rave about. However, the kindly blogger/writer support network means that I do read books I might not otherwise have picked up (which is good), but feel frustrated when I cannot rave about what was so good in them, because of major elements which marred them (and which could have been addressed).

      Me too, many forlorn drafts, but I think this is healthy. It’s best to have lots of ideas and discard some, than to have few and wear them to death.

  8. I understand what you’re saying. I have another blogger’s book on my e-reader and I’m struggling to get through it. I found it jumps around too much and causes me a bit of confusion as to who’e talking, but maybe that’s just me! 🙂

  9. Hey you: stop showing off about your Spring, okay? Because we here in a little pocket of southern Ontario got more snow last night.
    Actually, do please post lots of Spring photos — they will lift my spirits.
    Now then, about your post: I hear you. I think books are like shoes — everybody has their own style and taste. And rightly so.
    There are many prize-winning-and-critically-acclaimed-books that I just couldn’t get through. I put them aside, thinking I will try again one day. (And occasionally thinking I must be very stupid to not be able to get through these allegedly wonderful works of art.)
    At the same time, I know that only certain segments of the reading population will like my own books. And that makes total sense to me.
    I don’t review books I don’t like. I leave that to others. I’m reading some books now that aren’t great literature, but nor were they meant to be. And knowing that, I can enjoy these books for their fresh expression and lack of self-importance.

    • Good, sane advice all round, thanks Cynthia. I, too, enjoy books of very different qualities. I did like both of these books a lot (perhaps that’s why I am frustrated by what felt inappropriate in them), but I am programmed so that, should I write a review, I would have to say not only what worked for me, but what didn’t. If I met the writers, I could easily talk to them and give plenty of appreciation… but a review (or worse still star allocations on Amazon) I can’t do.

  10. I found your thoughts on this very interesting because I’ve had similar experiences myself. I think the more you write (and edit your own writing), the more critical you become of other people’s writing. This isn’t necessarily because you think you could do a better job yourself, but because things that could be improved jump out at you. I’ve found this even with experienced authors who have big publishing houses and no doubt top editors behind them. It is also, as others have said, a matter of personal taste and some things that wind one reader up don’t bother another. Your comment about supporting fellow authors by buying their books without necessarily reading them struck me as strangely refreshing. I’ve done that occasionally myself, although I always hope I’ll come back to them one day. I can think of several books I bought and didn’t read for years, but when I did read them I enjoyed them in a way I’m sure I wouldn’t have done earlier. There are others I’ve still not read and possibly never will read. I’m making an attempt this year to clear out some of those, especially if I’ve had a bash at them more than once.

    As for your own books, I’ve only read one of the novels (‘Borderline’) so far, and am currently reading ‘Surviving the death railway’. Happily for me, I believe I could write positive reviews of both without feeling compelled to do so by friendship. I read ‘Borderline’ quite quickly a while ago and as soon as I’d finished it I knew I wanted to read it again, so I look forward to that occasion. ‘Surviving the death railway’ is a very different book but what strikes me so far (I’m about a third of the way through) is how well edited it is and what an extraordinarily daunting task it must have been to select and organise all the information at your disposal. Without wishing to offend the person who asked you why you don’t write like A S Byatt, that seems to me a ridiculous question. Every writer has their own unique style, which is why it’s worthwhile making the effort to write. Nobody else can write quite like Hilary Custance Green (I bet A S Byatt couldn’t), and thank goodness she’s shown the determination to complete several books already and will hopefully complete many more in the future.

    • Yes, that’s it, it’s the ‘jumping out bits’ that spoil the story and that I would never have noticed before I took up writing. Like you, I always hope that in some mythical future I will be in a remote spot with my iPad and a pile of books with no other task than to catch up… it may even happen one day.
      Your reaction to Border Line, especially given your circumstances, was very special to me. The POW book started life about 40,000 words longer than the published version! There is a private family version with unabridged letters, but I took years to decide what should go in, how much I should add, what to correct (from the memoirs) and which order to put everything. I still think there are some awkward links, but I couldn’t go on forever. Pen & Sword were quite gentle, but thorough with their editing, so I was very lucky. I am glad you are getting on OK with it, though it is a tough read in many ways. The friend/relative who disapproves of my writing, disapproves of me for other reasons too. Some people assume all writing is autobiographical; mine is not!

      Thanks for all your reassurance, it makes a difference.

      • I didn’t know quite what to expect from the POW book, but I’m finding it compelling and inspirational. It is a tough read, but the love your parents had for each other shines through all the hardship. Apologies for wrongly using one word instead of two for Border Line. I have a habit of running two words into one, something Word likes to remind me with frequent underlining. What happened with my brother is perhaps one of the reasons I’m so keen to read Border Line again. My dad was interested when he saw me reading it, but he hasn’t yet felt ready to read it himself. I hope he will one day because I think he’d enjoy it. As you say, although writers do draw on their own experiences, I imagine very little fiction is truly autobiographical. I would have thought that most people who write fiction do so as a way of escaping into another existence, almost the opposite of writing about their own lives.

      • I always felt that Border Line was a panic title, it is already overused in both its forms and everyone finds it confusing to remember. I got through so many titles during the writing and all of the ones I wanted didn’t work. I think it started life as On the Bus! I write for many reasons, but for me the fun is to live vicariously these lives that I haven’t had, while writing about things I love, often music or poetry. Border Line was an attempt NOT to write about music.

  11. How well I know that feeling of irritation when the writing of a book you expect (and want) to enjoy rubs you the wrong way due to genre or POV or writing style. When you are reviewing a book and you have to finish it, it can be an excruciating experience.
    For most of my life I read as a reader and raced through books that I liked, tossed books aside after fifty pages if they didn’t grab me. For the past couple of decades I have read as a writer. Much slower. Kind of like chewing food well instead of gobbling. Makes me a better writer (or so I like to think).

    • You are so right, reading makes writing better. Hopefully, reading even more critically, while it may reduce enjoyment, will also reduce errors and poor writing in ones own efforts. My own writing is still amateur in many ways and I am probably simply aware of the particular hurdles I have learnt to avoid, but which I was blind to when I was falling over them.

  12. I know this feeling, we have classes at University where your class critiques the singer’s performance. H hmmm. I’m a very honest person so I learnt very quickly, way back to keep my critical opinions to myself and try to always see the positives that people are trying to help me with any harsh critique when it’s my turn.

    • You’ve made me realise something, Charlotte. When you provide feedback face-to-face, you can see the person, even known them well, and you can temper your words to their personality and needs. Online, with a stranger, you cannot get a sense of what will help and what will hurt. Of course, when you know them you also have to live and work with them afterward too, which makes it even trickier to get right and be honest at the same time!

  13. I know exactly how you feel, Hilary. I also review on my blog and I’ve made it a policy only to review where I can say something nice. If I can’t (unless the author is very famous or long dead), I don’t review.

    • Precisely, though there are times when you really want to review, because there is so much that is good, or you they have been helpful to you and you feel caught between the two impossible choices.

  14. As someone who depends on reviews to make book buying decisions, I would rather someone like you wrote an honest review than none at all, Hilary, but I am biased, because I think reviews with negative points do more to sell books for authors than vapid positive ones, which are a pollutant as far as I’m concerned. However, so many authors are incredibly sensitive to even the slightest criticism, I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it for fear of attack. I don’t think any author can do any more than listen to your beta readers, get a good editor, and accept that not everybody will like everything.

    • The problem is the honest review versus the mutual support network. I have been a student for so much of my life that I positively crave criticism because it enables me to move forward. But I find it quite difficult to get people I know, unless they write themselves (and even then, as you say, sensitivity can interfere), to tell you what isn’t working, which is why I always shell out and send my MSS to a Literary Consultant.

      • Another thing that strikes me is that by the time the book is published it’s too late – it’s not like the author is going to rewrite based on your review. Which is why reviews should be written for readers, not authors.

      • Very good point! That’s another reason I didn’t review these books, because I have a feeling they may be just what some readers like and I’m just not on the same wave-length.

  15. I think expectations are sometimes the issue when reviewing and reading books. I don’t publish negative reviews and try to describe what I find in the book (as I’m fully aware other people might like things that I didn’t). As I’ve said before, I’d only publish a negative review if something I read (or an item, if I was reviewing something else) I thought was dangerous or ill-intentioned. Otherwise, other than factual errors and grammatical mistakes, editing is an art and subjective too (I’ve read many books that I thought would have been better done differently, but I’m sure somebody else would think the opposite. And yes, I’ve disliked books that have got wide acclaim and the opposite has happened too). I try and be constructive and be detailed so people can decide for themselves if they might or not like the book. There are some books that it’s impossible not to show one’s enthusiasm for, but like with personal recommendations, I know some of the ones I’ve loved wouldn’t appeal to a lot of people.
    Thanks, Hilary.

    • I find your reviews and your reviewing policy very professional, clear and satisfying. Particularly as you don’t go near the murky waters of the star system. I also think it is admirable that you, and others, take on this task and read such a variety of books in so many genres. I have read books, because of your reviews, so you really are providing a conduit between author and reader! It’s a tricky role – reader, writer and reviewer – and I think not for me. Such reviews as I give, are not part of of a methodical system and I really only write about a few books that work for me in special ways. Incidentally, I started reading Escaping Psychiatry on my iPad on the train the other day, and I find myself drawn in to the story. As I think I said, I don’t enjoy the thriller element in fiction, so if it gets too dark I may not make it through to the end, but at the moment I am involved with, and care about, the character’s dilemmas.

  16. I found this very interesting. I used to review books as I read them and posted the reviews on Amazon, but really I wrote them as aide memoires for my own fell purposes. Since then I have become involved as a reviewer, for Amazon mostly (stopped that now) and of self-published writers. Some of the books I read for this purpose were good, others were not. Now, I have largely stopped reviewing anything, having come to the view that all my life I have spread my efforts too wide and could have achieved more by adopting a narrower focus. LIke Gerrard, the fact that I am no longer thirteen has intensified this feeling.

    A further disadvantage for me is a tendency to illustrate points by quotation, which can make the task more time-consuming. I used this approach for two blog posts on Turgenev, but resisted the temptation to deal with Oblomov in this way. And now I am re-reading The Man Without Qualities, which I would be an idiot to think of reviewing at all (I already have 21 pages of notes.)

    I have only used a professional once. She confirmed my suspicions that I should tighten certain things up and we agreed about what those things were. But it must be possible that beta readers can throw a writer entirely. Until you read the comments you are reasonably sure of your ground but now you find yourself on thin ice. You doubt yourself. With certain people that can be disastrous. I am thinking of Anton Bruckner, who lacked the courage of his convictions and rewrote/cut complete works to a a damaging extent in the light of critical/hostile comments.

    So I would say that if a writer knows one reader he/she can trust then that should suffice.
    I know a writer who used a team of 12, who were given to contradicting each other without knowing it.

    I hope this makes sense.

    • Interesting, Rod, I am certainly guilty of listening to advice from too many people and lacking the courage to make my own decisions. This is good advice, to choose one trustworthy advisor, but each time I get tempted to ask for other views. The readers closest to me certainly don’t agree on what works best in my writing. I love the idea of your 21 pages of notes on Oblomov – I’m not sure that would get more readers! That is sad about Bruckner, and I’m sure he is not the only genius to doubt himself.
      Good luck with the reading and the focus. I need to make some similar decisions soon.

  17. Great discussion. I can only speak for myself as writer-reader, of course, but what I can say is that your opinions are supported by data and my own opinions aren’t terribly different. At least in the U.S., but probably in the UK as well (though I’d imagine it less plagued by this, because of the make-up of the U.S. as people who like to believe we’re patriots and rabble-rousers and Wild West cowboys, etc.), people as a whole are choosing easier, straight-to-the-point books (with the exception of certain genres and subgenres); point in proof, I was researching how people choose books to read and ran across some telling data. In the 1960s, as far as the NYT bestseller list books, 40-some percent (I think it was 47%, but I’d want to look it up to confirm if I wanted to cite it somewhere official) were score 8 and above on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, I don’t know a lot about that scale, or whether it’s heavily relied upon in the UK or not. That said, in the 2010s, only 3-4% of books are reading level of 8 and above. I’m afraid we Americans, en masse anyway, reject intellectualism.
    As to the writing, again, not only is it personal, but I feel like it’s genre-specific. I’m reading (though I def don’t plan to finish it) a Harlequin “super romance” for research purposes and the plot and characters are predictable and the language unextraordinary and dull. But I’m hard-pressed to say it doesn’t work for the book. The readers who want a more difficult text will choose, I think, historical romance or some other romance niche (if not an entirely different genre).
    Finally, as a writer, I fear hearing what you’ve said . . . that my characters or plot are not credible. I know that sounds strange, given that I write SF/F/H for the most part, but I typically do tons of research, especially for the SF work I do, and try to make things happen logically and craft characters that are believable and authentic (not necessarily likeable characters, of course; it took me a long time to learn that). I worry that my life experiences are limited in some areas and that translates over to my writing, especially with regard to human relationships (since I’m an introvert, didn’t date widely, am married to, essentially, my college sweetheart, etc.). But I continually try to remind myself that one person can’t be or have lived everything; the ‘write what you know’ strategem doesn’t work for all people and all genres (or all stories). After all, when did Jules Verne go 20000 leagues under the sea, when did Stephen King know a nightmarish clown living in a sewer and murdering people, and when did Flannery O’Connor witness a granny traveling to Florida get waylaid and assaulted by a handful of criminals.
    You don’t have to reply to this long-windedness, btw. I know you’re incredibly busy. I just had to chime in to congeal my own thoughts on this subject. What’s that saying; I won’t know what I think until I write it down? Or something like that . . .

    • I found your thoughts very instructive. Writing today has become more and more genre-specific, but when people start writing I think they rarely know quite where in the genre range they belong. They know what they are interested in, but that is different. The mainstream publisher knows that it is the reading level and interests of the reader that created the boundaries of the genres. I think in the indie market place there is no one to say what you have written is, for instance, a YA fantasy in the style of Henry James and perhaps you should head in one direction or the other. What confused me so much about the books I was NOT writing reviews of, was the mixture of genre writing within the book. So you end up with, let’s say, YA romance crossed with non-fiction geology. The result does your head in. These books were well-written, the characters believable, but out of context for their backgrounds and each other. As a writer, I always fear my characters are not working. I struggle to write about villains, since I don’t like to read about them myself. I enjoy research too, but my mind is on a continual trip into experiences I have never had, so I tend to write about those.

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