“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Watchmen: Who Reviews The Reviewers?

Erm, I do. Occasionally. Or once, at least. Sometimes a review is so badly put together you just can’t help sticking your oar in. Take The Book Critic’s review of Alex Barclay’s BLOOD RUNS COLD, for example. To wit:
According to the blurb, Alex Barclay is the rising star in the world of crime fiction. With this being her third novel, you’d have thought that she might have got into her stride by now and be displaying the talent that her agent and publishers saw in her.
Sadly, with Blood Runs Cold, this talent is yet to show itself.
  This is a poorly plotted, lumpenly-written novel with about as much verve, sparkle and edge as a damp towel. In a genre filled with the likes of Janet Evanovich, Sara Paretsky, Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell, Alex Barclay needs to do a serious amount of work to do more than make up the numbers.
  The protagonist in this novel is totally unsympathetic and the dialogue is at times laughable, often impossible to follow. As a whole, it didn’t feel genuine or believeable.
  Another negative was the glut of supporting characters, none of whom felt real or sharply-enough drawn to hold the reader’s attention.
  I’m sure somewhere in the book is a semblance of a good plot straining to get out, but it’s mired in clunkiness of the highest order.
  Alex Barclay may be a talent, but on the evidence of this, it’s not clear if it will enough to sustain a career.
There’s an old phrase that runs, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.’ Another version runs, ‘If you can’t say anything original, fresh or constructively critical, crawl back under your stone.’ To wit:
According to the blog The Book Critic, bertieonrob is the rising star in the world of crime fiction criticism. With this being his umpteenth review, you’d have thought that he might have got into his stride by now and be displaying the talent that his ego saw in him.
Sadly, with Blood Runs Cold, this talent is yet to show itself.
  This is a poorly detailed, lumpenly-written review with about as much verve, sparkle and edge as a failed writer. In a niche filled with the likes of Peter Rozovsky, Glenn Harper, Karen Meek and Gerard Brennan, bertieonrob needs to do a serious amount of work to do more than make up the numbers.
  The critic in this review is totally unsympathetic and the critique is at times laughable, often impossible to follow. As a whole, it didn’t feel genuine or believeable.
  Another negative was the absence of supporting arguments for his case, none of which felt real or sharply-enough drawn to hold the reader’s attention. Or existed, even.
  I’m sure somewhere in the review is a semblance of a good critique straining to get out, but it’s mired in clunkiness of the highest order.
  Bertieonrob may be a talent, but on the evidence of this, it’s not clear if it will enough to sustain a zzzzzzzzz ….
  For those of you interested, here’s a rather different take on BLOOD RUNS COLD.

23 comments:

Twenty Major said...

Everyone's a critic.

Especially critics though.

Nice turnaround.

bookwitch said...

For a moment I thought you were talking about me. But then, why would you? Bertionrob seems not to read much. Or at least not to blog often.

I try to be nice, and try to say nothing when I can't. (Unlike just now.) But there's the embarrassment of having specifically asked for a book which you turn out to hate, or can't even finish.

Gerard Brennan said...

Hah! Love it.

gb

Uiscebot said...

PWNED!

adrian mckinty said...

I'd say PWNED too but I dont really know what it means.

You're are doing the Lord's work Dec and if not this life then your reward will undoubtedly be in heaven.

Declan Burke said...

My favourite bit was "mired in clunkiness of the highest order".

I'd attempt to deconstruct that, but where to start?

Cheers, Dec

Joe Barone said...

I guess I've always figured that once you put your book out to the public, there will be all kinds of reactions. There's no guarantees for any of us that we'll be treated fairly or with respect in anything we do. Nor does one person's opinion determine who we (or our writings) are.

I regret hurtful reviews, and this seemed to be one of those.

Declan Burke said...

Joe -

A very valid point; in fact, a number of valid points. However, I think that you earn the right to criticise books (or anything else, for that matter) by proving that your opinion is worth consideration. (For example, I don't think it's a good idea for anyone, including our friend The Book Critic, to denounce a writer for shoddy writing with shoddy writing.)

Personally, I'm offended by bad reviews because I earn part of my income from reviewing; and trust me, had I sent in a review like that to any of the papers I work for, I'd have received an email or phone-call solicitously enquiring as to when I suffered the stroke.

In terms of the bigger picture, crime writing gets sparse enough press in the mainstream media. The internet, on the other hand, offers the opportunity to critique (positively and negatively) those kinds of novels that don't get featuered in the mainstream press; and it's the kind of review I highlight here that gives internet reviewers a bad name, and undermines everyone else.

The Book Critic is entitled to call 'Blood Runs Cold' a bad novel, of course; we all have our own interpretations of what is good and bad. My issue is with the quality of the review rather than what he's saying.

Hope that clarifies a few things. Oh, and welcome to CAP.

Cheers, Dec

Twenty Major said...

My issue is with the quality of the review rather than what he's saying.

Yeah, there's nothing more worse than someone reviewing your book who does write badlier than you do yourself.

Declan Burke said...

More worselier ...

Uiscebot said...

PWNED,

The term implies domination or humiliation of a rival, used primarily in the Internet gaming culture to taunt an opponent who has just been soundly defeated (e.g. "You just got pwned!")

adrian mckinty said...

Uiscebot

Yeah but what does it stand for?

Is it something funny so I can LOL or is it something hilarious so I can LMAO?

DEC

I've had it with book reviewers who: 1)dont read the book they are reviewing 2) get the book title wrong in their review 3) get character names wrong in their review 4)write sloppy prose 5) take bread from the mouths of my children with their ignorant, illiterate, rambling opinions and lazy writing.

It used to be that novelists would take the high road and ignore bad reviews but I think that was a mistake, now I think SCORCHED EARTH is the answer. I will fisk your review motherfrakker and you better be ready to go to war, because I am.

Stuart Neville said...

I'll preface this by saying I don't know the reviewer in questions, and I don't mean this as any criticism of them personally.

Anyway...

There has been some discussion online in recent days about what one editor called "cultural authority". Some argue that the disappearance of reviews in the traditional press is offset by the proliferation of reviews in blogs and forums. That it's come back to the masses.

There's a counter argument that says one person's opinion is not as valid as another's. There is not an equality of appreciation. The argument is that to offer criticism well, the critic must have the aforementioned cultural authority. They must have a viewpoint that is honed by experience and a greater understanding of what is being critiqued.

You could say that's snobbery, but take a look at the reviews on Amazon or IMDB.com. The latter in particular is prone to reviews that can be summarised as "This sucks because I don't like it."

While the Internet is a great leveller in terms of access to information and opinion, I'm still inclined to go to Empire magazine for my film reviews.

I frequent Blu-ray.com to keep up with the latest releases on that format. Unfortunately, that site has an ongoing problem with its reviews. The site owners defend the position of their critics by arguing that all reviews are subjective, just one person's opinion. I would argue that if you are going to offer public criticism of someone else's work, then you better have more to offer than a subjective opinion. I can get subjective opinions off my mum, but if I listened to her I'd have nothing but Cliff Richard CDs.
One particularly bad review on Blu-ray.com slated The Shawshank Redemption for its negative portrayal of a Christian character, saying it vilified religion. Really, if you're so blinded by you own personal beliefs, then you have no business offering critique in the first place.

Peter Rozovsky said...

In a string filled with comments from the likes of Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville, I take my place humbly. My quarrel with the review is not that it says mean things about the book, but that is does so poorly. “The protagonist in this novel is totally unsympathetic” is not a critical judgment, it’s barroom chatter. Such an assessment means nothing unless the review gives examples.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter Rozovsky said...

Er, did you mean Glenn Harper rather than Glenn Marshall?

I intend that constructively.

seanag said...

I feel a bit odd being the voice of the free market here, but I do think there is at least a sense in which the blogosphere regulates itself, especially with things like reviews. If someone has consistently interesting things to say about books or movies or whatever, people who care about these things will tend to keep coming back.

I understand Declan's criticism of this particular review. I have never read Alex Barclay, so can't know if I would agree with the review's opinion of this author. However, I did just read the Book Critic's review of On Beauty, a book I have read, and I did agree with the critique, including his or her judgement that White Teeth was superior. I found the review still a little lacking on detail, but also quite capable of doing a 'on the one hand, but on the other' type of commenting. In other words, I don't doubt the validity of the reviewer's opinion, harsh a it is in the review cited here. It really just lacks specific example to acquire depth.

Anonymous said...

Oh Peter, you're just so terrifically beardy.
Declan, good post. I don't mind reading a review, negative or otherwise, if I can glean something from it, but 'dunno why, just didn't like it' type of reviews tally me banana something fierce.
Arlene
855555555555555555 -- sorry, that was Bill the Cat's view on this review, unfavourable too it seems.

Declan Burke said...

Stuart - You read Empire for its film reviews? Seriously?

"There's a counter argument that says one person's opinion is not as valid as another's."

You're right, squire. Say we're talking about black holes: who are you going to take more seriously, me or Stephen Hawking?

Peter - why do I keep calling Glenn Harper 'Glenn Marshall'? It's beyond a joke at this stage.

Adrian - scorched earth is the only way. If you raise your banner, be prepared to defend it. Hoo-ah, etc.

Arlene? If Bill the Cat isn't doing anything for the weekend, I have a couple of novels I need reviewed.

Seanag - I'd suggest that Alex Barclay is entitled to the same degree of scrutiny and critique as Zadie Smith, particularly if you're styling yourself 'the Book Critic'.

Cheers, Dec

adrian mckinty said...

Arlene

Keep the cat away from the keyboard for all our sakes. Remember what happened to that brilliant young talent Rita Mae Brown.

Anonymous said...

I'll send him right over. He works cheap, Chinese take away should cover it, but requires a door butler and chin scratcher to be on hand AT ALL TIMES.
A

Anonymous said...

Heh Adrian, I understand purrrrfectly your concerns.
A

seanag said...

I'd suggest that Alex Barclay is entitled to the same degree of scrutiny and critique as Zadie Smith, particularly if you're styling yourself 'the Book Critic'.

Agreed. And I'm not saying it was a substantially better review, just that it makes me think that there is some level of discernment behind these critiques, even though poorly articulated and supported. And the only reason I bring it up is because I think the reviewer, and maybe others lurking here who might feel quashed before they're even started, probably can do a decent job, once they realize what's missing from their argument.

Gotta go. I'm off to sell some of those beloved Rita Mae Brown Snenakie Pie mysteries. Ka ching, Ka ching, Ka ching.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, you'll have to exorcise your demon by creating a villain named Glenn Marshall, then killing him off.

A kind of cosmic balance may be ay work here. I knew a kid named David Alper many years ago, but for some reason I could never remember his last name, and I always thought of him as David Harper.
================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/