Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Writer Reviewing Other Writer’s Books Experiences Great Consternation

     (Film at eleven!)

     Seriously, as a writer with nearly three decades of experience under my belt, it can be very difficult to assess another writer’s work in a fair and evenhanded manner. After all, most readers are not writers themselves – yea verily, even today – and are mainly interested in learning whether they would be likely to enjoy the book in question. If your review doesn’t give them a sense for that, it’s essentially pointless.

     But readers who write approach others’ fiction with a different perspective. Its essence is well expressed in this piece by Writing Observer:

     When a writer reads someone else’s work, unless they are one of the lucky few that can switch off that part of their brain at will, they are simultaneously analyzing the text flowing beneath their eyes. We can’t help it — like any other professional, we are constantly looking for help with our own efforts. What doesn’t work here, and how do I avoid it? What is a beautiful, shiny piece of prose, or scene, or entire chapter, and how do I make mine look so good?

     It’s an uncomfortable feeling — and sometimes a dangerous one. We can lose sight of the forest for the trees, people. We have to cultivate an ability to step back and look at the work as a whole — that is what makes a good (or bad) piece of work, not a few blemishes or a few shining passages. The whole work is what matters in the end...

     A writer who undertakes to review is obliged to remember that any writers who read his review will be heavily outnumbered by ordinary readers looking for a few hours’ entertainment. Any nitpicking he might express to himself about the book in question should be downplayed in favor of an emphasis on the book’s entertainment value.

     An example: Back when Tom Clancy was churning out the techno-thrillers, I purchased, read, and greatly enjoyed virtually all of them. Yet Clancy’s prose is a study in a wide variety of errors young writers are counseled to avoid. Some of those errors are serious: for example, ambiguity of viewpoint and head-hopping in mid-scene. Others are minor glitches of phrasing and style that a multitude of other writers – far less gifted than Clancy at crafting and narrating a compelling story – also commit. But the writer-who-reads and notices them can still be enthralled by the storytelling. If he chooses to review, he’s ethically obliged to keep that uppermost in mind.

     And so we come to my episode of consternation.

     I receive a daily email from Freebooksy that reports on the day’s free-eBook promotions. Now and then I pick up a book from that email. I last did so about a week ago: Emergence, by Liberty Speidel.

     The nitpicky, Uber-perfectionist lobe of my brain was in overdrive from the very first page. There were a lot of stylistic glitches. There was also a revelation that should have occurred but didn’t, as I would find out much later. Main character Darby was portrayed in a fashion that struck me as ambivalent: equally likely to strike a reader as sympathetic or unsympathetic. But the central premises are original, especially considering that the tale is part of the “superheroes” genre, and the plot moved me smartly along. So when I finished Emergence, I went on to Retaliation,the next book in the series.

     Well, the stylistic glitches didn’t trail off. If anything, they increased in frequency. Darby’s characterization continued to be jagged, not always effectively sympathetic. I also deemed one of Speidel’s “structural” choices to be dubious. But there was a sense of freshness about the story’s sociopolitical backdrop and its most important plot motifs. When I finished it, I went directly on to book three, Capitulation.

     I could go on in this vein through books three, four (Omission), and five (Escalation). There were more errors of the sort in the previous books, plus lots of loose ends, and at least one continuity error of note. Perhaps worst, main character Darby was ever more portrayed as headstrong, disrespectful of higher authority and heedless of others’ greater experience, and prone to acting without thinking or pondering the probable consequences – i.e., who struck me as a brat who should be sent to her room without her dinner or cell phone.

     By now you must have the idea. As much as the writer in me wanted to take Speidel across my knee and spank her soundly for her myriad errors of craft, she’d invented a setting of considerable originality, had made use of motifs that were either inherently original or original as employed, and had kept the stories moving forward at a good tempo. How to review the series?

     Great God in heaven! My writerly side kept wanting to chastise Speidel. But I’d read all five books, end to end, without pausing. To write a nitpicky, hypercritical review, as if I were critiquing my own fiction, would unfairly shortchange the entertainment value of the books. Yet not to mention the flaws at all would grate severely against the part of me that values craft and precision in writing.

     I’m still dithering. Perhaps the only place I’ll mention my consternation is right here. (Or at my fiction-promotion site, where this will be cross-posted.)

     I wrote some time ago about the importance of being reasonable in one’s expectations of an indie writer, especially a relatively inexperienced one. I still feel that way. So if and when I get around to actually posting a review of Speidel’s “Darby Shaw” series, I’ll have to rein in the impulse to harp on what I saw as failings of craft and emphasize the entertainment value the series offers. Ordinary Christian charity would dictate that course. For now, the above emission of steam should bring the pressure down to a manageable level.


Linda Fox said...

That's a tough one. Since the book is already out, and you cannot use your critiqu to assist the writer, perhaps you ought to settle for a mixed review:

I really loved the fresh point of view/use of setting/themes/characters in these books. The writing is raw - and, might well benefit from an editor's look - but I was interested in the story despite that.

Nothing wrong with being honest. For you, the mistakes/errors/"not quite right" aspects jangle, and hit you with hard. Many others would simply enjoy the story, without picking up on that aspect (or, just ignoring it). You are precise in your use of words, and will work to find just the right phrasing.

Others would have little hesitation with speeding through the writing, and, as long as they told their story in an interesting way, hit the Publish button. Different strokes.

Linda Fox said...


Linda Fox said...

not "with hard" - should be very hard.