Sunday, 3 March 2013

Why I'm a terrible book reviewer and don't do it!

Sorry for the gap in blogs, I was feeling unwell the last week or so, serious man-flu, you know the kind that stops all men from completing any task other than putting in the next DVD to watch…and combine that with the feeling that I am living in a postal sorting office! If you read my last blog concerning having a big clear out then you will understand. It was a fantastic success, I was brutal and unwavering and the only change to my plan, which I will be eternally grateful for people persuading me on, was not to get rid of my books. At first my plan was to empty my life totally but after consideration and a few cries from friends I changed my mind about the books, they are now looking beautifully arranged in pride of place on the…well, pretty much everywhere actually, as there is nothing else to display, so it is books, books, books! However, a word of warning for those considering the same thing; plan it better than I did! The hundreds of cd’s, dvd’s and random oddities from over the years I managed to put up on the various auction sites more-or-less at once…that means they sell more-or-less at once! There were certain days I was packing and posting fifty or sixty items, think about the bubble wrap and sellotape involved, and the possibility of mixing up the envelopes and labels! It was like a session at the gym the amounts of sweat and frustration I felt! Anyway, doing all that while unwell meant the last few weeks have been a bit rubbish but the outcome is great, I feel so much more relaxed and comfortable at home now that the clutter and the distractions are gone. There will soon be just me, my laptop and hours of empty time to focus on writing…

Okay, so back to this blog. It is a subject I have been thinking about for a long time, ever since I set up my Goodreads account at the beginning of last summer in fact. For those who don’t use Goodreads, well firstly, sign up, it’s great, but that aside if you want to create an ‘Author’ account you need to register a certain amount of books read, I can’t remember the number now, perhaps 50 or 100, not sure, and then link your account to the books you have written and are on sale somewhere, also there are tonnes of other features which are really good and I am yet to utilize properly, so please do sign up if you haven’t, it’s a really interesting community. Eeeeeeennnnneeeewwaaaaaayyyy, when you upload a book you have read you have the option of reviewing it, and when I was uploading my 137 books I had in my room at the time, I felt extremely anxious. This anxiety has played on my mind since and then recently a few articles you may have read in the papers jogged that anxiety back to the front of my mind again. Take a look at these two links to newspaper articles and see how it makes you feel:

“Don't tell lies. But don't tell untimely truths either”
A writer who won an award for the brutality of one of her reviews cited her obligation to be honest. Should we all live by such standards?

John Walsh
“Hatchet jobs: Agony for the author but bliss for us to read”
John Walsh describes how he and his fellow judges chose a winner for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award

Let me just make a point that I am not interested in social commentary, I never have been and hopefully never will be. The whole Hilary Mantel dismantling of Kate Middleton thing you may have seen does not interest me in the slightest. Personal attacks like that are just vile and don’t give me the excuse that it was relevant to the nature and topic of her books and her expertise on the subject matter. To me, it’s just plain nasty, and I couldn’t care less who the subject was, transfer it to the world of celebrity for celebrity sake, movie stars, etc. When a person verbally assaults another person based solely on their perception of their personality, then it’s no better than playground bullying, I don’t care how many letters you have before or after your name, how many awards on your shelves, or how established you are in your field. If you want to attack someone’s work, then that’s a different matter, that is what I want to talk about today.

Let me repeat my title, ‘Why I’m a terrible book reviewer and don’t do it!” As with all my blogs, I don’t want to write for hours and there is a lot of good academia out there on this subject so this is an entirely person view. When I think about what it takes to be a good reviewer, it is similar in a way to what it takes to be a good teacher, a good coach or a good manager; you need experience in the field, knowledge on the subject and a desire to progress, whether that is by contributing to the field of research or by educating the people involved. For me, there has to be a purpose. It’s just the way I look at the world, I take no pleasure in tearing things apart for the sake of tearing things apart, simply because I feel it is a waste of time.

If I am not learning or improving myself by an action, then why am I doing it? This is the distinction between the ‘for me’, and the ‘for you’, point of view. It may actually prove to some that I am a seriously selfish person but I would disagree. I use to be involved in sports coaching and I remember that time fondly, it was fantastic to see people working hard and trying to improve themselves, and it wasn’t always about looking good, it was to do with self-defence, health and fitness. However, there are times when you really have to push people, and when it comes to fighting and self-defence it matters because people can get hurt and there is a strong emotional side. Pushing people, and yourself, to the point of exhaustion is not easy and tearing people apart when they are at a weak point in their life can be devastating. I am saying all this because at that particular time in my life, that was my subject of expertise, I felt capable of instructing people and of being vocal in my opinion of their work, however, it was always because I wanted them to be better, there was never a time when I took pleasure in humiliating someone (publicly remember) to make me feel better, never. Now, one person can’t be an expert on everything. I know about subject ‘a’ and you know about subject ‘b’. That doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else, it makes us different, that’s all. Does it make you feel superior to have more knowledge on one or more topics than the person next to you? Well it shouldn’t in my opinion. It should make you feel proud, and make you feel successful and plenty of other positive emotions, but it should not make you feel better than someone else. There are a million reasons behind this and not for this blog but just remember that as I now finally go on to get to the point…

I gave every book a five star rating in Goodreads. I know, and you know, that’s a bit silly as I don’t believe they are all worth five stars and they are not all as good as each other. However, I did that because I didn’t want to give them no stars and I didn’t want to give them 1, 2, 3 or 4 stars each either. I know how hard it is to finally finish a piece of work. You put yourself out there. You accomplish something a lot of people talk about but rarely do. You open yourself up. I don’t feel I have the right (yet) to then tell that person what I think they have done wrong (Also, I have to admit, I am one of those very annoying people that enjoy everything! I very rarely don’t like a book or a film or a meal, no matter what happens, I really do have a problem with being critical!)  I don’t feel at a place where my experience, my knowledge, my confidence and my skill can be of benefit to someone, either the person I am reviewing, or the people reading that review. That is why I give them five stars. I am congratulating them on their work but I am not going any further than that, and I am talking about giving positive or negative reviews, I am not capable of either. Perhaps I should have given them all no stars in hindsight.

So the next thing to say is that I am absolutely convinced of the importance of reviews. I am not debating that in anyway. I think reviewers do a great job but I don’t think anyone can be a reviewer.  Also, when I say above, someone needs experience in their field, I do not necessarily mean as a participator in that field, just good knowledge is enough, think about all the great coaches and commentators there are, and have been. They may not have ever run on the track, boxed in the ring, pushed in the scrum, bled on the field and so on but they do know a lot about the subject and that is what is important. Sure, there is something to be said about having someone in your camp that has been there and done it, but I am talking more generally here. I may have dipped my toe into the world of writing but does that mean I am entitled to tell the world the faults of a Booker prize winner’s latest novel? I’m not convinced it does. Everyone can have their opinion, that’s not up for debate, of course people are allowed to say whether they enjoyed something or not, every time I walk out of the cinema I happily argue the merits of a film for hours with friends and I’ve never been on a set in my life. That’s what art is for! But there has to be a middle ground. What if someone has the power to stop careers? What if someone has the power to stop someone from earning money? What if someone has the power to cause a person to be ridiculed? There is an enormous responsibly there and one I don’t want the right to have.

So, to those who take pleasure of seeing someone hurt, I hope you change your mind and use your energy for being positive.

To those who are vicious, blunt, hard, merciless but all for the good of the person then I thank you. You use your time and your energy for the good of others, to improve the field of art you love, to show others what they are missing! The world is short on people who work for the good of others. You are an educator and we need you.

The Toronto Review of Books

I’ve just gone over the hour so I haven’t edited this as much as I normally would have so excuse the mistakes, I think that is quite apt for the topic though don’t you think.


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