Friday, 10 July 2015

If Honesty is the Best Policy What About the Stinker?

I like writing reviews. I write them about movies that I have seen, hotels that I have stayed at, restaurants that I have eaten in and books that I have read. Now I studied English Literature at college and as a result I learnt the art of constructive criticism, so when I write a review I employ the tools that I acquired from that course.

The approach to review depends on what the subject matter is. People want to know what the ambience of a restaurant is as well as what fare is on the menu or how what kind of movie is it for example. With a book I think that most prospective readers want to know if it is well written. It is a curious thing but many readers seem to hate giving up on a book; I know I do. The review really has to consider this requirement and to be honest in most cases I probably would say that even with certain limitations the majority of books can be completed without too much arduous work on the part of the reader.

I wrote a review of Nick Smith’s ‘Gentleman of Fortune’, a book about pirates based in Whitby, North Yorkshire. It had an interesting tale with some great accounts of sea battles, better even than those of Patrick O’Brian of ‘master and Commander’ fame. It also had its problems in that the central character was supposed to be something of a loveable rogue but actually he possessed very few redeeming qualities. I saw this as something of a failing on the author’s part simply because after Jacob Hollum commits a rather reprehensible crime it was difficult to care about what happened to him. I actually started to dislike him but he was supposed to be the central protagonist.

Honesty has to be a part of writing such a review. The story was quite good, certainly enjoyable, and I made that point clear but balanced it with the failing of the main character. It was, I think, a fair point.

There is another write that I came across on the internet and they quite impressed me with the fact that they had written a short novel when they were younger and it had won a prize. I eventually bought a Kindle version and looked forward to writing a review about it.

The book was what Stephen Fry refers to as a ‘stinker’!

Now Stephen Fry is a man whom I much admire. He did a spell as a literary critic amongst his many other employments and he said that he quite enjoyed it until some publisher or agent forwarded him a copy of a book that he simply could not write a constructive criticism about; it was that bad! He did think about simply putting out a complete diatribe against the author but then stopped. It occurred to him that the writer was another human being and did he really have the right to attack them over a piece of work that might well be forgotten in a day or two? Besides that, where was the input from the editor, the agent, and the publisher? Shouldn’t these ‘professionals’ have interceded at some point before the book was submitted to a critic. Finally he decided not to write anything at all and gave up being a critic.

I understand this point of view. We authors invest a lot of time and energy in writing a book, whether it is good or not. Hopefully someone along the way has the courage to say that it is good enough to continue working on along the way, certainly before it gets into the hands of a critic. At least that is how it should be if you are going down the traditional publishing route but it is slightly different for independent authors.

We independent authors have to be out own worse critics. We really have to possess enough honesty and integrity that we can stand back and look at our own work and give a brutally honest appraisal. We have to do this because in many instances there is no one else to take on this role because we are independent and most of us do not know a skilled editor or cannot afford their services.

Now I could take a harsher stance on this and say that people who put out sub-standard material get all that they deserve but then I do not believe that. I do not agree with the ‘X-Factor’ show type approach to humiliating people and destroying their dreams. Being cruel is an act of weakness. The fact is that when someone writes a bad book, a stinker for example, the worse they have done is just that; presented something that is not up scratch. They have not killed anyone, swindled pensioners, lied in public office, or hurt anyone else in any way imaginable. They wrote a poor book. It is not a crime.

That then is my position but I now face the same ethical problem that dissuaded Stephen Fry from pursuing a career in literary criticism; what do you do about the stinker? After all, the book is being put out there for people to buy and invest a small portion of their lives in reading it; doesn’t it deserve some kind of response? Yes it does but the problem is balancing the integrity of constructive criticism with a consideration of the author’s genuine intent.

I have not found the answer yet. The book is still there in my Kindle library, the memory is still in my mind, and there’s this annoying itch that I cannot quite scratch. I should do something, I know, but it just seems beyond me at the moment. A part of me wants to believe that it is just not worth the effort because it was after all only a book, but the author in me wants to make a stance because I do not want prospective readers to think that the ‘stinker’ is representative of the quality of work put out by independent authors.

When I make a decision I’ll let you know!

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