Last week I read an interesting article on Romancing the Blog written by Deb Werksman the romance fiction editor for Sourcebooks on the subject of credibility in fiction. She begins by listing the criteria she follows in order to recommend a book to be published and they are:
*a heroine the reader can relate to
*a hero she can fall in love with
*a world gets created
*I can sell it in 2-3 sentences
But in addition to this criteria she also thinks about poet Philip Larkin’s criteria for the Booker Prize – Larkin asked himself:
*can I read it?
*if I can read it, can I believe it?
*if I can believe it, do I care?
*if I care, what is the depth of that caring and how long will it last?
She goes on to talk about credibility and the article is very interesting .
But the part that I focused on and couldn’t stop thinking about was Philips Larkin’s criteria and the way it is applicable to reviewing books. Lately, I have been thinking quite a lot about the way I review books and what is important to me when I sit down to write a review. I noticed that I have become more critical than I was before, and as the months go by and the more I read and the more I read what I consider to be REALLY GOOD books, the more I find myself to be extremely analytical which leads me to judging a book more severely.
As I wrote the paragraph above, I realise that I used a word that may come across as harsh and perhaps even a bit self-righteous: “judge”. But ultimately isn’t this exactly what I have been doing these past 14 months since we began The Book Smugglers? We have been passing judgement on books and the more readers we get, the more subscribers we have, the more I feel I need to be conscious of things I never had to worry about. I need to be conscious about HOW I read and WHY I feel the way I feel about a given book.
The exercise of writing articles about how one reviews is not a new endeavour of bloggers. Recently John Ottinger III from Grasping for the Wing posted his latest Inside the Blogsphere we he poses the question : What is your Reviewing Process to several bloggers and the result is really interesting. Jessica from Racy Romance Reviews wrote one reflecting if A Book Review is Just One Person’s Opinion .
The line that separates a reader from a reviewer is a fine one and we do proclaim ourselves as “readers” first and foremost but a reviewer has the not so easy mission of explaining what as a reader, we felt about a book. So, I tend to think YES – a review is one’s person opinion. A book reviewer is a reader and therefore subject to their own likes and dislikes which ultimately makes book reviewing a subjective art.
HOWEVER, this subjectivity does not preclude the attempt at being objective when putting one’s thought down to the paper – being subjective does not preclude procedure.
Going back to Philip Larkin’s criteria, I realise how close his points are to the way I look at the books I read and review :
1) can I read it?
I would definitely list this as first point I look for: good writing, good flow of sentences, good dialogue. If a book has BEAUTIFUL prose I can guarantee that the book will fall in my good graces
2) if I can read it, can I believe it?
If I find the writing compelling then the next step is definitely to determine if I am buying it. A book can easily fall from grace if the story take turns that ruin what the prose has accomplished. A good example is my review of The Price of Desire.
3) if I can believe it, do I care?
About what happens to the characters, about what happens in the story , about what happens to the world. A book can have good writing, I can believe in what I read…and still I may not care about it – usually it happens because the characters are underdeveloped or because there this something that I can’t quite name missing.
4) if I care, what is the depth of that caring and how long will it last?
THAT is the point isn’t it? What determines the final grade : is the book a keeper? Can I recommend a book wholeheartedly? Can I still think about it as a good book after a few days, few weeks, few months or even years? I try as much as I can to let books sink in before I write a review. The latest case was when I read The Name of the Wind and as soon as I finished that book I had a clear feeling that it was the best book I read in the past year. It had all the factors above: beautifully written , extremely well built world and characters I believed in and cared about. I waited three weeks to write my review and the feeling did not subside at all.
Although the criteria above provide good pointers where to depart from, I think one’s relationship with a book and afterwards, reviewing is not as straight forward as this. It may well be that against all odds, you will end up caring about characters or a world you do not believe in and I believe this is where suspension of disbelief comes into play. Similarly it seems to not take into consideration the “fun” factor or the “escapism” factor: what can one say about books (or movies) that are silly and preposterous and yet you can’t seem NOT to like it? Where all of your brain cells are screaming against it and yet you love it with all the fiber of your being?
And let’s not forget that what one considers readable, believable and loveable is largely based on the personal experience or personal likes and dislikes and there we have it , we are back to the subjectivity problem. I guess no matter from what angle you look at, the Subjective Problem remains.
I believe it is a good thing and it provides as many diverse opinions as there are books. My grandmother used to say: what would happen to ”blue” if everybody like the “yellow” – I ALSO take that into consideration when I am writing a review (“I don’t like it very much, but do I think other readers might? “)
As you can probably surmise this post is merely the ramblings of a mind preoccupied with what she is doing here and it is a work in progress. The questioning continues and I wonder: if you are a reviewer, do you have a process? If you read a review, what do you look for?