Thursday, March 26, 2015
Why I will or won't review your book.
It may surprise people to learn what is important to me when reviewing a book—indeed, when deciding whether or not to review a book. If a book is brought to my attention, the first thing I do is go to the Amazon.com site and read a few pages of the sample. I don’t pay any attention to the cover, and only scant attention to the blurb, although the latter can provide clues about the genre and the context in which the few pages I will read need to be understood. I don’t look at other reviews, or even how many there are or what the average star rating is. Past experience has demonstrated to me that these things have little meaning or value.
So what will make me decide, first of all, to purchase the book with the intention of reviewing? It is, purely and simply, the quality of the writing. This is about more than just spelling and grammar, although that is certainly important. If sentences are clumsy or too wordy, if words are used inappropriately, if paragraphs are not well formed and clearly defined, I am unlikely to bother. If the grammar is correct yet there is no sign that the writer will use imaginative language; if there are no interesting turns of phrase, I am unlikely to bother. If the writer just writes down ‘what happens’ I am unlikely to bother. I don’t read a novel for information. I read it, yes, for the story, but even more for the flair with which it is told. I don’t expect genius, but the writing has to be at least competent, and preferably a little more. I have usually made up my mind after a page or two.
Of course, I am not in a position to choose the book on the basis of plot or character development. All I have to go on, when reading the sample, is the standard of the writing. If it’s not up to standard—the standard I expect, of course—I won’t be purchasing it, let alone reviewing it. That’s how important the quality of the writing is to me.
So if I download a book which has a reasonable standard of writing, it is already likely to get three stars. This can fall away if the plot is full of holes, the characters poorly developed, or there are atrocious anachronisms. It will rise if the story and characters are interesting, and rise even further if some of the writing is actually very good, and not just passable.
Perhaps this makes me a snob, but I don’t think so. We might all go along to our children’s concert at school, as they play violin in the orchestra. We will grimace behind our smiles and complement and encourage the young performers. But we are unlikely to buy an orchestral recording if the performers are playing the wrong notes or their timing is astray, no matter how great the piece of music itself might be. A great story poorly written is like a great symphony badly played.
The upshot of this is that if writers want me to review their books, they won’t get past first base if what I read in the sample preview is poorly written, no matter how good the story might be.