Wednesday 8 April 2020

Reviewing and Being Reviewed

Do book reviews matter? As someone who has reviewed crime fiction since the late 80s (and legal books before that), I'd like to think the answer is yes. As an author myself, I'm pretty sure the answer is yes. This isn't to say that great reviews necessarily equate to great sales; the publishing world isn't as simple as that. But reviews affect a writer's morale, both positively and negatively. Perhaps most authors remember the poor reviews more than the good ones, but I think the key thing is to see what one can learn from reviews. As a reviewer, I try to make judgements based on my opinion about what the writer was trying to achieve. And as an author I find that the reviewers whose comments are most valuable are those who "get" what I was aiming to do.

I vividly remember the pleasure I had when Frances Fyfield gave a glowing review of an early Harry Devlin novel of mine. She "got" what I was trying to do with the characters, and that was highly satisfying. Years later, I met her in person and had the opportunity to thank her. The late Matthew Coady and Marcel Berlins were other critics who worked for the national press and showed an understanding of and empathy for my early books. That too was gratifying at a time when I was trying to establish some kind of niche.

The Puzzle Doctor has recently been generous enough to review three very different books of mine, two novels and The Golden Age of Murder, on his blog In Search of the Classic Mystery. Once again he's demonstrated the virtues and value of a thoughtful and insightful reviewer. His comments about The Dungeon House, which is probably my own favourite of my Lake District books, remind me that many fans of series hope for a significant focus in the storyline upon the recurring characters. This is something I'll bear in mind with my current work-in-progress, The Crooked Shore. It's shaping up to be a story that is at least as much about psychological suspense as the police investigation, but it's helpful to be reminded that readers do like to know what's going on in the lives of Hannah and Daniel. 

His comments about Mortmain Hall I found equally interesting. And it's enormously heartening (as well as a relief!) when a good reviewer enjoys a book so much. I'm particularly glad that he feels it's a book that keeps you thinking long after you've finished it. That's a reaction, like Frances', which delights me, because although my focus is definitely on entertaining my readers, I also like to include elements in all my books that provoke thought. Sometimes those elements are a long way under the surface (probably they were too far under the surface in Take My Breath Away, which I wrote nearly twenty years ago and hoped would be something of a breakthrough - but commercially it was about my least successful novel.)

I do understand why some fellow novelists prefer not to read reviews, but my own feeling is that it's well worth hardening oneself against the occasional brickbats, because there's so much to be gained from a well-crafted and constructive assessment of something one has written. The Puzzle Doctor's trio of reviews illustrates what I mean, and I'm grateful to him not just for his kind words but for taking the time and trouble to analyse what I set out to do with each book.

1 comment:

Val said...

Your discussion on the role/purpose/value of a review reminded me of Joyce Grenfell's discussion of the role of a reviewer her case I think she was discussing theatre reviews... that it should be the role of a reviewer to assess how well the author/playwright/production had achieved what they had set out to do..not the personal likes or dislikes of the reviewer. They should analyze the intent and observe how well they had achieved it. Which I found interesting,