Book Reviews: Who Cares? by Catherine Czerkawska

A very 'traditional' book.
Among the many writing jobs I've undertaken in the course of a long career, I've sometimes reviewed books in a ‘professional’ capacity. I was writing for reputable magazines and newspapers and they paid me. Not a lot. But it was one more way of staving off penury. 

Mind you, even there the times are a-changing. A well published (but by no means wealthy) writer friend told me how he was asked to review an autobiography of a Very Famous Person for a popular newspaper, on the understanding that no money would change hands. ‘We thought you’d be honoured!’ they said. He told them that the day Asda or Tesco were honoured to supply him with free food would be the day he’d work for a big commercial organisation for nothing.

Most of the time, book editors would – and still occasionally do - ask me to review a particular book because they've seen something in my professional experience which lead them to think I might be interested in it. I’ve never been asked to do a hatchet job, nor have I been asked to review something just to praise it to the skies.

As a young writer, I wrote a couple of reviews I now regret, of novels I disliked. But experience long ago taught me the folly of griping in print about what is, after all, a purely personal opinion. What good does it do anyone? You vent your spleen and have a bit of a laugh but it doesn’t make you a better writer or a better person for that matter.

Non-fiction is a different matter, since it's possible to engage in civilised debate over factual matters without becoming personal. (Well, it should be!) But novels are, by their very nature, personal. They are our babies and we love them, warts and all.

The novelist whose book you are slating is hurt, angry and defensive. The reader who agrees with you will only have his or her prejudices confirmed. The reader who loves the work in question will feel hurt, angry and defensive on behalf of the writer, and resentful at having his or her taste denigrated.

Nobody is ever persuaded.  Nobody learns anything. And besides, it’s pretty much subjective. All matters of taste are. If you disagree with me (as you’re fully entitled to do) please read John Carey’s elegant dissection of just this topic, ‘What Good Are The Arts’. His arguments are very persuasive and he’s better qualified than I am to put them. So is the gently ironic Grayson Perry for that matter.

Positive reviews which don’t just say ‘I liked this’, but which try to tease out why, are helpful not just to readers but to writers as well. Because, surprising as it may seem, you don’t always know what you’ve done. It often takes a comment from somebody else to make you understand. One of my most illuminating  reviews to date says, 'The writing in this book is so tight you could bounce a quarter off it.' Bless you, Lorissa K. Evans, whoever you are. But cheering as it was, this was a review which also made me realise it was exactly that ‘tightness’ of prose which I was trying to achieve throughout many rewrites of the Curiosity Cabinet, honing it like a poem. Perhaps the book isn’t, as I once feared, either too short or too quiet. Maybe it’s just ‘concentrated’!

This is not to say that a review needs to be wholly positive to be useful to reader and writer alike. When I think about reviews I’ve had for my plays over the years, it was the equivocal comments which intrigued me enough to make me think ‘maybe she has a point.’ A critic might give a play a generally positive review – clearly she had been sufficiently engaged to take it seriously. But she might also want to point out what didn’t quite work for her and why she felt like that. I may not have been overjoyed with this kind of review – who ever is? - but because I felt that the reviewer was in some way ‘on my side’ I was more inclined to take on board her honest reservations and learn something useful in the process. That’s what the very best editors do as well – they ask the difficult questions, the ones you don’t really want to hear. But in finding the answers, you improve your skills. 

It’s so often a matter of respect. As a reviewer, you respect the reader, but you also respect the writer. I think your job is to illuminate the book in some way. So yes, you are telling the reader what it is about – but any cover or Amazon blurb will do that. You are also being careful to review and analyse the book on its own terms, as it is written – not the book you wish it had been, nor yet the book you would have written yourself.

Essentially, you are treating the work seriously enough to try to get at what the writer intended, to get to the heart of the book. Reservations are perfectly acceptable, but if you don’t enjoy a book enough, if nothing strikes you as ‘true’ about it, you may as well not bother. And by truth, I don’t mean realism. I mean the idea that the writer has created what the brilliant Bernard MacLaverty calls ‘made up truth’. 

Which leads me to the current debate about reviews of self or independently published books. The problem for anyone trying to take a definite stance about all this is that the publishing lines have become immeasurably blurred. Publishing is no longer reputable versus vanity. It’s a huge and exciting spectrum which runs from the all-singing, all-dancing major corporations, through hundreds, possibly thousands of medium sized and small presses, reputable or otherwise, paper or eBook and sometimes so small that they involve one dedicated person working hard in a room. It’s a spectrum which encompasses the individual self publisher who may be just one dedicated writer working hard in a room, the ‘authorpreneur’ who begs or buys in whatever help is needed.

It will also nowadays include the writer who thinks he or she needs no help whatsoever, and soldiers on regardless, putting rough and ready work out there for friends and relatives to enjoy - or not. These are the people who were once regularly conned out of thousands by vanity presses. So at least one set of sharks will soon be rendered extinct. (Unfortunately, they are still managing to prey on the unwary, just doing it differently.) 

But what harm does the plethora of self publishing actually do in a world where bandwidth is virtually unlimited, and where you can download a sample to try before you buy? 'There is so much garbage out there' commentators will say. 'How will anyone ever be able to find the good writing amid the dross?'

But if you ask them whether they themselves can find the good writing they seek, they never seem to have much trouble. I have young friends who love fan fiction. They never have any problems finding what they want either. I like to read blogs about vintage perfume and textiles. I never have any difficulty in finding excellent blogs among the millions online. So who, exactly, is this 'anyone' they are so worried for? 

Dedicated writers will carry on writing and publishing. Well published writers who have fallen out of favour because of shifting fashions (not always reflecting what the readers out there actually want) will carry on writing and publishing. Beginning writers will learn, revise, and improve. Deluded dabblers will get bored and move on to other things. Or they too may learn, revise and improve. Who can say for sure? Who should say for sure? In fact the real irony of the debate is that the more good, thoughtful reviewers refuse to engage with the new generation of self publishers, the harder it becomes for readers to find the books they might enjoy. But not that hard. Somebody will always step in to fill the breach. It's the nature of the online world. 

Charles Schulz and Snoopy on fine authorial form.

Of course if you’re running a review blog, you can review (or not review) whatever you damn well please. If you only want to review post modernist fiction with elements of intertextual magical realism, that's your prerogative.  On the other hand, if – like me - you’re also writing for a dedicated eBook review site - the Indie eBook Review in my case, where I review and have also been reviewed - you have every right in the world to (a) tackle self or independently published books and (b) only review books you’ve enjoyed. This is a million miles away from agreeing to promote a colleague’s work without genuine admiration. And believe me, traditional publishing does more than its fair share of this. It’s accepted practice within the industry, to the extent that an agent will ask you if you know any insider ‘names’ who might be prevailed upon to give you a ‘submission’ quote. I’ve written a few of those begging letters myself, and that’s another thing I find myself regretting, with all the benefit of hindsight. 

But as for reading something and enjoying it enough to want to tell other people about it, regardless of who published it - isn’t that what most of us do most of the time when we tell friends about the books we've enjoyed? Isn’t that what we do with just about everything in life? So if some of us - professionals included - want to take a little extra time and trouble to put those judgements into words for more people to read, if we’ve engaged with something enough to want to illuminate and explicate it and pass on our thoughts about it, whether it was conventionally or indie published or, indeed, stencilled on purple paper and thrown into the sea in a bottle - who's to say that it isn't a worthwhile activity for all concerned? 

Catherine Czerkawska


Dan Holloway said…
Tangential to one of the things you say, have you seen the beautiful very recent anthology Penning Perfumes? It is a wonderful collaboration between poets and perfume makers
Lee said…
A good, balanced post. And while I agree that it's a blogger's right to review what only what he likes, I'm still not convinced that it serves the larger reading or even indie community well. If nothing else, this stance tends to contribute to the 'backpatting' dismissal of such sites as this one.
Thanks for the link, Dan! Interesting. I've written a long poem about perfume myself - called The Scent of Blue. About l'Heure Bleu to be precise.In fact I have a collection published, of which it is the title poem. An American woman used extracts from it in a film. If you google 'poems about perfume' it still comes up as the second listing on google.
Dennis Hamley said…
Catherine, you've hit so many nails on the head in this post that I feel quite dizzy. I was cheering all the way through. I've only ever written two really, really bad reviews in my life, one of a very, very famous author indeed. Neither was published and I wondered if
I should have written them. About the famous one, the editor said, 'It's about time someone stood up and said that.' But he still didn't publish it. And yes, I should have written them, because I was right in both cases - and not just intuitively but absolutely objectively because they were both very, very bad books, it seemed to me almost wilfully so, and it needed saying. If you're very good, I'll tell you who the famous one was.

John Carey. Iconoclastic but irrefutable. Great stuff.
Diana Kimpton said…
A really interesting post. When I started our children's book review site at, I rapidly decided to concentrate on good reviews. That seemed more helpful to my readers who were looking for help finding books on specific topics.

Like you, I'm not sure how much reviews matter anyway. One of my books had loads of good reviews in magazines but never earned out, while another that had virtually no reviews has sold and sold and sold.
Bill Kirton said…
First, I agree about John Carey - that book should be required reading for ... well, everybody.

Next, as usual, you're giving us a thoughtful considered survey of the topic and I agree with all of it. But the gap between writing such as yours and the sort of stuff with 5 stars from the writer's granny which makes you want to throw the Kindle against the wall is vast and we don't have time to waste reading it. (That's not sycophancy, by the way - my sycophancy is much more subtle than that.) I always try to make my reviews constructive but when things really are appalling, potential readers should be warned.
Jan Needle said…
lovely, thoughtful post, catherine. i used to know people at cambridge (them, not me) who seemed to believe the leavis line that some writing is actually, concretely, 'scientifically' better than the rest, with dickens at the top of the tree, and to 'like' 'bad' things is intrinsically wrong. nobody 'liked' nmoby dick when it first came out, and lots of people don't now. so what? it suits me! and i suspect, lee, that many of the sharpest critics are most often 'wrong.' just a thought...
Jan Needle said…
bill's comment came out before mine went up, so i might add this. yes - jeffrey archer is a shite writer, and one of britain's authentic best sellers. millions of people love him. so define good writing, do. you see, i agree with you, bill. and where does that leave us?
CallyPhillips said…
Without becoming an apologist for Leavis Jan, (and I didn't like Moby Dick in fact I can probably say it's the book I have enjoyed LEAST in my whole life but I tried to read it when a teenager and so maybe my critical faculties were not that refined - or maybe I didn't understand what he was trying to do. I shall give it another go from a different perspective - but not THIS week) I do think there is a place for some 'objectivism' in literature. I shall write a post somewhere sometime explaining my THEORY/ beliefsystem because I can't fit it in a comments box. Jan - good writing certainly isn't equivalent with 'popular' or 'successful' writing but.. oh goddam it, I'm going to have to write the flipping blog post because I don't think one can have a sensible reasoned debate about important topics in blog comments. And anything less seems to miss the mark and risk being labelled sycophancy! Thanks Catherine for a thought provoking post which will kick me into some POSITIVE action.
Lee said…
@Jan, I'm sure you're right about critics, even the sharpest ones, but that doesn't mean we can't learn something, even a lot of somethings, from negative reviews. And frankly, I'd rather have a negative review which makes me think about what I'm doing than a positive one, which only gratifies me for about two minutes and then leaves me with a sense of skepticism and profound mistrust - aside from the fact that negative reviews often make me want to read the book for myself!
Dan Holloway said…
The subject of reviews is one I wrote about recently on The Cynical Self-publisher - though from the angle of why as writers we shouldn't get hung up about them (

I think the key thing as regards negative and positive reviews is thata review blog will be at the centre of a unique community that will have its own expectations and conversation - good reviews within the context of that blog will be ones that contribute to the conversation. Of course, in the early days, a blogger will need to create a community and that is best done by creating a distinctive voice with their blog and allowing the conversation to grow around it. There are many many types of blogs that form the hub of many onversations - from the directory-style ones through the all-encompassing to the absolutely specialist - and they will all focus on different aspects of the books they review. As readers, we find those conversations we want to be part of, as bloggers we start those conversations we think are imprtant and can't find elsewhere, in our capacity as writers (though we may jump at will between these capacities) I think we are best talking about other things
I'm glad this has provoked some debate, as I thought it would! I'm kind of with Dan here - and essentially all the other cogent comments. Most of my English Lit lecturers at Edinburgh had the attitude that some things were intrinsically good and others were ... not. (If you like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing you like, one of them used to say, a thoroughly miserable little person with few friends and no wonder.) Carey's book was like a breath of fresh air for me in so many ways, and his prose is so elegant, so beautiful, that he's utterly persuasive. I saw the same faintly amused tolerance, or do I just mean wisdom, a lovely quality, in Grayson Perry, one of my heroes.
I didn't tackle (the post was already too long) the very valid point that Dennis raises - some writers become too 'big' and too 'sacred' to be reviewed properly. And don't get me started on those hugely successful writers whose later books could obviously do with some editing, but you just know that they've become too powerful for anyone to suggest as much, however tentatively. But then there's another part of me that thinks who am I to make such judgements so long as they are giving so much pleasure to so very many people. And not harming anyway. It's like the current 50 Shades controversy. I don't mind that she's making a fortune out of it - good on her if people like it. I don't even mind that publishers are jumping on the bandwagon with all the rip-offs... well, I don't mind it much. But what I certainly DO mind is that these same publishers have been banging on about how much and how selflessly they curate novels and nurture novelists. Aye right, as they say up here. But that's a whole other can of worms, isn't it?
Dan Holloway said…
I will confess to loving Moby Dick. Sorry :) I also adore Grayson Perry - not only an incredible artist (and champion of the idea of craft) but one of the most reliably articulate and reasonable panelists on Question Time
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
It's been said before, but I look for a review (as opposed to a piece of criticism, on the one hand, and a book report, on the other) to give me a sense of what the book is about, ideally a couple of quotes to illuminate its flavour, and then an evaluation on its own terms, which ought to give me enough of a sense of the reviewer's reading experience to know what mine might be -- i.e. whether I want to read it for myself. Even though I myself started out commenting in such terms, perhaps we should avoid the whole negative/positive dichotomy - too simplistic.
Ruth Harris said…
Well reasoned & informative blog but, as a former editor & publisher & NYT bestseller, what I really want to say is that I STILL miss vintage Vent Vert.

Why did Balmain ever let it lapse? And what were they thinking when they issued the banal "reformulated" VV?
I'm with you there, Ruth - and good to hear from another vintage scent addict. Most of the reformulations are awful. Have just bought a bottle of vintage Toujours Moi on eBay. Original Arpege which I love, is nothing like the new formulation, which isn't bad but still smells synthetic to me.
“Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know’st what, in one another’s eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round men, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ‘Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half-stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, yell hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—to-morrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?”
MOBY DICK by Herman Melville, 1851

I'd always assumed that Melville must have gone on to a life of authorly comfort after MOBY DICK was published. It was only after reading his tale, BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER, that I spent time reading about Melville's travails at the hand of "the editors" of his day.

Robert Pirsig wrote two long books about the pursuit of Quality. In ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE a crucial scene revolves around a class taken by Phaedrus, in which he asks students whether some pieces of creative writing have quality as an innate value, beyond mere matter of personal opinion, and yet, is that all he is asking?

"And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good -- Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

Which refers back to the line of 400BC Platonic dialogue:
"And what is well and what is badly - need we ask Lysias, or any other poet or orator, who ever wrote or will write either a political or any other work, in metre or out of metre, poet or prose writer, to teach us this?"

These are interesting statements because they would seem to unite Leavis at one end and, those who give literary classics on Goodreads one star, at the other.
We all have an internal sense of what is Good, and what is not Good, and yet...over time it can de developed and refined, so that we come to value that which we inititally despised, or vice versa...and so long as that is true, why worry about "negative" reviews...or "positive" ones.

Great literature is peppered with one-star reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, written by people who couldn't relate to MOBY DICK or THE CATCHER IN THE RYE...or THE GREAT GATSBY...etc etc...or can't relate to them YET?

I wonder whether Snoopy is an objectivist or is he staying loose and keeping his options open? As long as there's something to eat in the dog-bowl and a kennel roof over his head, I suspect he remains serene in the face of opinion.

Or perhaps he can look to the night sky through the pain of his manucript's rejection, and try to view it all like the conclusion of Pirsig's first book...after a long study of dualism's subject-object dichotomy...he can shift into an alignment with "the One"...which would mean just as Leavis had hold of one end of the elephant, and John Carey the other, but it was still only one elephant...equally Snoopy can take a more balanced subjective view of his literary failure come the morrow morn...but objectively his mailbox will still be trashed and in need of serious repair.
Jan Needle said…
final thought before my bedtime. i didn't say, cally (or anyone else) that good writing is equivalent with 'popular' or 'successful' writing. but more people like 'popular' and 'successful' writing than what like the other stuff we're talking about. which proves what? that there are more idiots out there than we approve of? or in the words of the old song 'who's the fool now'? i don't have an answer. but just because leavis (or anyone else) tell me dickens is better than anyone else at writing novels doesn't mean i've got to agree with him. and just because i think archer writes crap doesn't make me proveably right. does it? what is writing for....?
CallyPhillips said…
Ah Jan,sorry didn't mean to imply that you BELIEVED good = popular. Was trying to be conscise and failing miserably. Still some nice debate was got out of all this and a range of diverse opinions expressed which has been very interesting.

What indeed IS writing for? ha ha...

I will nail my colours to the mast and simply say that whether I subjectively believe in Objectivism makes not a jot of difference to whether OBJECTIVISM exists or not (which may indeed be what you were saying more simply) And I think JL hits it right on the head. Snoopy holds the answer!! (I know he said a lot more important stuff than that but it's late for us country folk) Goddam, have I just agreed with everyone again, I don't know. I just know we are all learning more about what other people think about things and that's interesting. No one HAS to agree with anyone else but everyone should be able to defend their position relatively consistently no? Which I feel has largely been achieved and when not, I blame the constraints of the BOX format here. Now, let's see if I can prove I'm not a robot or no one will ever hear this last thought!
Lee said…
Respected critic Ruth Franklin on the 'vice of amiability':

Not my personal vice, evidently!


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