A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BOOK CRITIC
Critics come in many varieties. Everyone has an opinion, and, with blogging, more and more people are getting that opinion out there. Even for those who DON’T blog, there are many opportunities to say what you think. My local Murder and Mystery Book Club meets monthly to dissect a crime novel. And boy do they criticise! Every author ( and wannabe) should join their local book circle. It’s free, usually, the critiques and analysis to be gained are invaluable; and, remember, this audience is potentially and actually your market.
I’ve been reviewing books seriously (i.e. reading, writing and getting paid by national media) for several years. And I’ve evolved my own personal approach. It’s my firm belief that a good critic should have written something, preferably, though not necessarily, in the discipline of the book to be reviewed. In my own case I’ve written a novel and even though it hasn’t been published – yet – the writing experience has proved invaluable in terms of understanding just where a book’s author is coming from . It’s no mean achievement to write a novel and the very least the author should receive is an honest appraisal doing justice to the work and the effort put into it. When you have put in that effort yourself you can empathise better with the author.
So. The book arrives. My first step is to establish the basics: the deadline for filing the review, the word count required, the length and subject matter of the book. Then I do some basic research on the author and any previous works. Obviously with a Jo Nesbo , a Val McDermid or any other established author, what you see is pretty much what you get, but with a new author it’s different. Websites and on line interviews are important here for getting inside the author’s head and finding out what she (he)has in mind for the book as well as its context.
After that I read the book – fully, and at a pace sufficient to absorb it and give it appropriate attention. Here, a reality check. Very few novels – and fewer nonfiction works – can be read at a session. Even the greatest critics have limited attention span. A 200 page novel just might be read in a day – and that over several sessions; longer books take longer. I take notes – sparingly, and only on specifics I wish to recall. Too many notes diminishes appreciation of the book as a whole.
What do I look for? On the macro front, the basic requirements are a good story, with well -developed characters and plot, and, ideally some original element or twist. On the micro front, clearly I look for style, pace and the absence of bad writing practices ( it’s amazing how they slip through). Then, taking the book holistically, I examine whether the author has successfully delivered what I perceive to be the book’s aim. This determines whether the review will be favourable or not.
Then, I draft the review – in rough at first, and about one third longer than the final version. After that it’s a case of editing, paring down and polishing up what I want to say. Quite a bit like the story writing process, in fact. And, always a ticklish point: what to do about other reviews which have already appeared. You can’t ignore them. As far as possible I make a point of never reading what anyone else has written about a book until that final draft and then only to verify I’m not overlooking something major. It is, after all, my review, not somebody else’s.