Random Musings: So an author wants a reader to ‘get’ their book?

Writing a work of fiction requires skill, persistence and determination. An author pours a part of themselves into their creation, crafting that original spark of an idea into a world and structure that the reader will find coherent and engaging. Like a child, when it is released the creator wishes it to be treated fairly and thoughtfully, recognised for the essential qualities that have been so carefully cultivated. The author wants the reader to ‘get’ their book and to appreciate, maybe even revere it.

The problem, of course, is that each reader views a story through the lens of their own lived experiences, and these may differ greatly from those lived by the writer. Readers wish to learn of other lives and cultures but also to find aspects they can relate to. What they take from a book, what resonates in the reading, may be far removed from the author’s intentions. To suggest that this reader is therefore incapable in some way smacks of the type of elitism that is holding back greater diversity amongst writers and readers.

When authors have thanked me for a review by expressing delight that I ‘got’ what was intended I have caught myself preening a little. That fleeting feeling of fellowship is warm and fuzzy, a rare treat for someone who generally feels a social outsider. Yet all that is being said is that, in reading the words, I travelled the path intended. I spotted the signposts and followed, noticing the highlights provided along the way. Other readers may be distracted by personal demons, struggling to navigate because they have been taught to interpret differently. They may still ultimately enjoy the reading experience but in a different way. This does not in itself make them a less able reader.

I have been writing in detail about events attended at this year’s Greenwich Book Festival. One author there suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction. The authors and publishers were eager to promote and encourage a widening of access to writers being published, and a broadening of readership. I ponder if this fine ideal would lead to greater divergence of opinion on what is regarded as impressive literature.

I regard a book as a success if it has been enjoyed by the reader. I understand that certain books I dislike are still well written, that it is the content rubbing against my wounds that has repelled me.

Other books, that have received a rapturous reception with reviewers expressing amazement at the art created, I have found dull. At times the impressed readers appear to regard themselves as somehow superior rather than simply having different tastes.

An author owns a book only until it is released. If it reaches a wide enough audience there will be a range of interpretations. Increased diversity means accepting difference. I think this is a good thing.

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Book publicists and bloggers

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My relationship with book publicists presents a bit of a conundrum. For an awkward, anxious, introvert like me their infectious enthusiasm can sometimes make them appear like my next best friend. Of course, they are not. They are looking at how best to promote their books and do their job. As a book blogger I can play a small part in this, but I will not necessarily be at the top of their list for ARCs. Sure, they want review quotes they can use in promotions, but ideally they want these quotes to come from widely recognised sources. What they look for from me is that I talk about their books on social media and elsewhere, post reviews on public sites, spread the word along with others to generate a buzz. If I like a book then I am happy to comply.

So, where is the conundrum? Most of the books I receive have been sent at my request. I approach many publicists accepting that my request may be ignored, particularly by the bigger houses. This is fine, they are busy people and need to get their books in front of those with the most influence. Naturally I am cheered by those who respond positively to my requests. Who doesn’t wish to feel valued?

Recently though I have found myself in a troubling place. Publicists promise me books which do not arrive. Requests placed via Bookbridgr go unfulfilled. I know that there are a limited number of review copies available so assume that my potential contribution is not regarded highly enough. This makes me sad. I see the buzz around the book and feel that I have not been invited to the party.

Over the summer I had some amazing books to read for which I am very grateful. These came from a number of sources, but I noted that books from the smaller publishing houses reminded me in particular of why I am such an avid reader. The variety of subject matter and quality of prose were unfailingly exceptional. With the big push towards Christmas approaching, and my feelings of dejection growing, I decided that I would see how I got on reading only books from these smaller presses.

As with any rules I set myself when reading, I will break them if it suits. Thus, when I had the opportunity to attend an event where Hilary Mantel was to speak I diverged from my plans to read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. These were such great works I am glad I did. I would not wish to rule out any source.

Otherwise though, I have given this month to books from Orenda, Urbane, Salt, Galley Beggars and Arcadia. Had I been more organised I would have made requests to Cutting Edge, Cargo and Influx whose books I enjoyed so much earlier in the year. I decided that, as part of this series, I would also read a self published book or two. In the past I have accepted a few of these with mixed success. Whilst I do not doubt that there are many high quality, self published books out there, the pool is so much bigger and it can be hard to find those I will enjoy. We will see what I think of the two that I have added to my pile.

The quality of the books read to date has encouraged me to seek out other small publishers and I have been promised more titles which I hope will arrive in due course. I am still likely to request certain books from the bigger houses. ‘A Little Life’ came from Picador and was an incredible read. I would not have wished to miss ‘Purity’ which came from 4th Estate, the same press as the Mantel books.

Being sent any book to review is a privilege, especially when I am sent an advance copy and may join in the publication buzz. If I put the time and effort into reading and reviewing though, it is good to have my efforts appreciated.

What are other book bloggers recent experiences? Would anyone else care to share their thoughts?

 

 

Random Musings: Book blogging

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As a book blogger I wish to champion books and authors. I love books. I find it gratifying to promote a book that I have enjoyed, to tell others about it in order that they too may gain pleasure from reading. It takes time to absorb all those magical words but it is time well spent when a book has left me sated.

Naturally I do not enjoy every book that I select. I will not choose to invest the hours it takes to read a book if I expect to dislike it, but neither am I likely to enjoy every book that I pick up. Until it is opened I cannot be sure what is between the covers.

A good review is more than simply a judgement on whether a book is a good example of its type. Of course this matters. If a book presents itself as a thriller or a romance then it should be judged against other thrillers or romances; the expectations of the reader must be considered. However, genres are fluid and the best books cross boundaries and offer more depth.

I see my reviews as part of a conversation. I have read a book and I wish to talk about it, to share my thoughts with those who may be interested. My reviews are always my honest opinion which means that they will not always be positive. I wish that they could be. It is more fulfilling to recommend a book than to attempt to thoughtfully articulate why I disliked it, especially knowing that the author may read what I write. Often my reasons are nebulous, a reflection of my experiences. Every reader comes to a book weighed down by their own, personal baggage.

I am a writer but not an author. I write my book reviews for this blog, Amazon and Goodreads. I write opinion pieces such as this one. Occasionally I create some flash or micro fiction which I publish on my sister blog, Dreams and Demons. This work, alongside conversations I have had with author friends, has provided me with some small insight into the sheer graft required to produce a novel. Every book I pick up deserves respect for that effort.

In my reviews I try to offer recommendations. As well as a brief, spoiler free description of the plot alongside my opinion on the quality of the writing (which will take into account the expectations of the target audience from the blurb), I will comment on whether or not I enjoyed reading the book. I will also try to explain why. If I dislike a book because it contains a large number of graphic sex scenes then it may well appeal to a reader who wishes to read about such things.

There are many different types of reader which is why we have so many different types of books. Whilst I try to read eclectically, so as not to dismiss an entire canon of literature of which I have no knowledge, I see no point in selecting a book that I am unlikely to be able to recommend. I feel guilt when I cannot go back to the author full of praise for their work. I feel bad if a publisher has provided me with a book that I cannot then eagerly promote.

However, if I invest the time in reading a tale which, from the blurb, sounded as though it would be my sort of thing then I will review it for the benefit of other readers. It is for them that I write. I am always aware that infrequent readers may be put off the pursuit by a book that disappoints.

It is hard to beat the feeling I get when I recommend a book and then hear back from a reader that they loved it as much as I did. This is, of course, a pale reflection of the satisfaction authors must gain from positive reviews. I am merely a conduit. However well received my reviews may be I never forget that it is the authors’ hard work that triggered my abiding love affair with books. It is that joy which I truly desire to share.

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Authors and Book Bloggers

On Friday the author and blogger, Matt Haig, tweeted

There then followed a twitter storm that lasted several days.

Some agreed with the points he subsequently made, some disagreed. There was much vehemence and a fair few hurt feelings on show. From what Matt said he also received some disturbing private messages. We all know that social media can turn nasty.

I followed the debate with interest and felt personally affronted by two strands:

  1. There was a suggestion that some book bloggers simply wish to receive free books.
  2. There was a suggestion that bloggers promote books without discernment.

I put a lot of time and effort into reading and then writing honest reviews. I do it because I love books and I want to talk about them, to share my opinions with like minded others. When I enjoy a book I want to support that author in whatever way I can.

From the discussion there was a suggestion of disparagement.

It is obviously true that writing a book takes a great deal more effort than reading it and then writing a review, but that was not the main point of this discussion.

What really grabbed my attention was the original topic, that authors do not value reviews if they are always positive, that they want to see some negative reviews of their work.

This has not been my experience so I weighed in.

I started to follow this twitter storm because personally I provide my honest opinion of a book and sometimes that is negative. Negative reviews are much harder to constructively create than positive and that effort then gets ignored. Publicists and authors are not going to promote an opinion of their book that is less than enthusiastic.

Another author came back to me with this:

 

I rarely hate a book (such a strong word) but I did empathise with the hurt. I have been there, facing up to criticism of my carefully crafted words. It does not feel good.

It is understandable that authors want the fruits of their extensive labours to be well received. To try to argue that authors want to see negative reviews though? Hmm.

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One of the books that I read recently did not impress me. The plot was compelling but a good book requires more: a captivating writing style, comprehensible structure, convincing character development, readability, realism. I gave my opinion and the review sank to the bottom of my blog.

The author subsequently released a sequel and, curious to know how the plot continued, I requested a copy for review. I was refused. Rather than ignore me the author was kind enough to explain that, as I had not appeared to enjoy the first book, she felt that I was unlikely to enjoy the second. She also provided some constructive criticism of my reviewing style which I have since taken on board.

This author saw no point in submitting a book for review if the review was likely to be negative. To me this made sense. Negative reviews are not going to be used by publicists so why provide a free book?

Another thread in the Matt Haig twitter storm discussed the fact that book bloggers only want to read books that they will enjoy.

Before reading a book a reviewer cannot know exactly what it will be like. However, from the blurb there are certain types of book that I will never request (for me these include light romance or erotica). There are plenty who choose to read these genres but I do not. Life is short. Why spend time reading a book that is unlikely to appeal in order to write a review that is likely to be negative and will therefore be ignored?

Another thread bemoaned the book bloggers who endlessly promote books. Guys, this is why we do it! If I love a book then I will shout it from the rooftops, again and again. I only truly love a handful of the dozens of books that I read but as I tend to review a lot of books by less well known authors I want to play whatever small part I can in getting them noticed by a wider audience.

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Matt sounded a little down about many of the comments made in response to his tweets. He wrote this blog post to clarify his thoughts: A blog about blogging.

At the end of the day a book review is the opinion of one reader. Writers tend to be sensitive souls who want their creations to be loved. Not all books are good, and no book is going to be considered good by everyone.

Matt, I see what you were trying to say but there was too much in this discussion that I could not agree with. Authors may want to see more negative reviews, but not it would appear of their own books.

A well written review, positive or negative, can be useful and that is why they are read. As Joanne Harris tweeted: