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« Towers of books | Main | Thankyou »

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Claire

Wow and hear, hear!! That is why I am often reluctant to purchase from an unknown author and why you, and DGR, are so useful with your recommendations.

Mary

Unfortunately, I have to agree with you. That is why, like Claire, I find it so helpful to have someone (you) with wit and intelligence providing some insight and guidance on newly penned books. Too often, I find myself returning to old favorites just to satisfy a need to read lovely prose, especially after reading an uninspiring book.

Barbara

Well said!

m

I wish you'd name and shame. I know you don't like giving negative reviews but the publishers who let loose books so poorly-executed still charge full price for them. I've always felt that reviewers owe kindness to amateurs - but once you start charging professional prices, for books, theatre, or whatever else, then criticism is fair comment.

Dark Puss

Kindness is not incompatible with a negative review surely? I am weekly criticised for all my (numerous) errors by my flute teacher but it is always done kindly and with positive suggestions for how to improve - I wouldn't want it any other way!

I also would very much like to know which books have caused you so much irritation. My own view, for which I am not yet able to provide any supporting evidence, is that actually there are just far too many novels being published these days and it isn't surprising that a significant amount of rubbish escapes into the wild. I suggest your plea should also be going to authors as well as publishers.

Erika

I am in complete agreement. I suspect that editing may have taken drastic staff cuts in recent years. It is so lacking. I first noticed this with the New Yorker magazine which went from superbly polished articles to rambling inconsequential messes. Fiction has followed in these footsteps. It used to be only possible to identify Ph.D. theses because they were so poorly executed--no omissions of course, every little fact crammed in to text or footnotes, but now much fiction reads in the same way and as for those huge biographies, words fail me...

adele geras

Yes, I agree too, Cornflower. A good and sensitive editor is a rare bird and increasingly decisions seem to be being made by sales and marketing. The main question seems to be: WILL IT SELL? And yes, there are far too many books out there....

Carole

I'd love it if you named names too!
I read favourite authors as their new books come out, hits and misses alike(!) and look at this blog (and a couple of others) for gems I would otherwise miss.

Nick Green

An awful lot of emphasis from publishers these days is on content - 'what a book is about' - with much less on how well written it is (because of course, 'that's all a matter of opinion, isn't it?' Well, no.) If a particular topic is popular - let's pluck one from the ether at random - vampires! - then books with vampires appear rapidly, and if they meet the most basic standards of literacy, they're in, usually. But if a particular topic is out, you can polish the book till you're sick of it, and still be unlikely to interest a publisher.

LizF

Couldn't agree more and I do think that you should name and shame because someone needs to tell them!

catharina

Very well said and I very much agree.

Ruth M.

Agree, agree, but there's a deeper issue here... readers. I see people all the time who don't know a sentence when it punctuates all over them. Some of those people are in publishing but far more are out there on the street, mangling tense and syntax and ultimately meaning. People who can't hear or express properly in words don't think well either. Raising good readers would create demand for well-written work which would prod publishers into ... well, you get my drift.

Karol/New York City

I agree 100% with your comments, Mrs. C. Since my retirement 3 years ago, I have more time to read (although I read a great deal all the years I worked), and have explored more contemporary fiction, mostly by borrowing from the library. I have come to the realization that I must read many "good to mediocre" books before I find one gem among the dross. I have made several resolutions to avoid new fiction and stick to the classics, but I don't want to miss those magical books that lift my soul to a higher plane. Last year I read 94 books, and cannot remember more than 15 titles, but those 15 books were very special, so I put up with the rest. I don't read many novels by writers whose work I don't know, unless it is recommended by a friend whose reading taste I respect, although I do take a chance from time to time, in the hope of finding something special. I also agree with many of the above comments about the poor editing of most books - I find myself correcting grammar, syntax and spelling all the time.

Linda C.

I agree completely. My book club members will echo my agreement. Very often, when we discuss a book, someone will say, "Editor, please!" I find myself marking books with the comment, "Editor!?" It makes one wonder if books are, in fact, edited by humans or computers. I agree with m's comment: It's time to name and shame.

Deirdre

I agree. I often scream and then give up on some of these books. Your comments are much more constructive! So, thanks.

Rhys

I hope you are able to redress the balance from time to time !!!!!....and there was a very interesting article about this kind of thing by Robert McCRUM in yesterday's Observer....and have you had a go at my Literary Quiz on Dovegrey yet ????????

Becky

I agree--as an English teacher, I agree with extra emphasis! I've actually written to publishers and authors about error-riddled books. In addition, I think the slack editing often applies to the next work of a best-selling author. One of my favorites finally rocketed to fame, only to publish a sprawling "next book" that really begged to have about 100 pages chopped out of the last section. I like the idea of the "name and shame" (such rhyme! such meter!), but I do respect Cornflower's honorable silence.

Mr Cornflower

If too many bad books are being published (agreed) and at the same time many good books are being rejected (unknown but intuitively plausible), the answer is no doubt in one of the earlier comments about how commercial imperatives (trendy subject, author's 'back story' etc.) over-ride judgments of literary merit. As publishing will always be a commercial business I fear one answer, albeit a negative one, may be to retreat into reading only what successive generations of critical readers have approved: the 'canon'.

Harriet

I do agree. Sadly, people are not taught to write properly these days -- having taught Eng Lit for many years I can tell you that we were frequently appalled by the standard of English of students who had somehow managed to pass their English A-levels. If a book is badly written I simply can't read it. And I agree with Ruth M -- poor expression is often accompanied by woolly thinking.

Dark Puss

I don't agree with that level of negativity. Let's not get this out of perspective, lots of awful books (albeit with "proper" grammar) were published in those rose tinted days of yore. Fortunately most of the rubbish is no longer in print so almost by definition the classics look unsullied by comparison. I've read quite a lot of books that would be in most of your canons and many of them I found a dreadfully turgid and dull reading experience; some of course were wonderful. It is the same today, I read and abandon many books and I read with immense pleasure many books by unknown and not yet famous authors. Many of the latter you might hate, or at least regard as less than perfectly written but they have for me got that vital spark that makes me want to turn page after page as the midnight hour approaches.

I'm all for improved writing, but not for a retreat into the past!

Polemical Puss

Celia Rees

I fear it is not wholly the publishers at fault here. In the UK, Waterstone's, the only big chain left, is reluctant to stock what they deem as 'literary' novels, for children's and teens, anyway. The books might be out there, but they are not on display. The ones that get the bookshop prominence and publicity are likely to be books with mass market appeal. Literary merit not necessary and probably a disadvantage. Also, writing seems to be the only the only creative art form where people believe that skill does not come with practise. The brilliant debut novelist gains more plaudits than the experienced practitioner and is far more newsworthy. The youthful ingenue may well sell books but might be a less than skillful writer at a time when there are fewer editors about to re-write the book for them.

Simon (Savidge Reads)

Great post and one I completely concur with. It's hard when you get sent unsolicited books you want to love and then dont(especially if you dont write negative reviews) but to have paid good money for a hardback or even a new paperback and then get that is even worse - and we have all been there, not naming any names.

Dark Puss

Simon, those of us who DO buy books (and I do, even if not for myself) really would appreciate some naming of names! Many respondents to this post have said the same. I review books (technical) and if they are poor in any way I always, always say so. Why is everyone reluctant to keep poor reviews secret?

Michael Faulkner

Ouch!Speaking as a writer and in defence of editors, I think one thing is worth pointing out. My experience is that during the editing process, unless there is a glaring factual error or a passage which speaks for itself in terms of its awfulness and therefore absolutely must be excised or edited, then the editor is there to make suggestions, sometimes strongly felt (and usually right), but the final decision tends to be the writer's. If the writer digs his or her heels in, the editor will ultimately say, 'It's your book.' This is a strength or a weakness depending on the quality of the writing and possibly the ego of the writer. As an example: in my first book I used far too many long and rambling sentences, and my editor battled with me on a good many of them. It was quite good fun in fact - my editor would say, 'This is an EXTREMELY long sentence' and I would say, 'Thanks!'; but she did bring me round, skillfully and tactfully, to her way of thinking in a good many instances and I know the book was better for it. I dug my heels in a few times though, and got my just deserts when Scotland on Sunday, in an otherwise positive review, said I had 'a penchant for mammoth sentences, which sprout clauses and somehow claw their way back to sense.' All I'm saying is - poor writing has more to do with the writer than the editor or publisher, and when the publisher takes on a manuscript in the first place, which has merit but needs work, they are taking on trust that the author will have the humility to learn and grow during the pre-publication period - which is inordinately long.

Speaking as a Reader, I agree with Cornflower about the amount of dross out there, although I would say that unless you are buying online and therefore to some extent blind, the first line of defence against poor writing is that wonderful five minutes when you pull down a book in Waterstones or whatever, and read the first paragraph and then, if you're like me, a few more at random. That way, you only have yourself to blame..

As to naming and shaming - please don't! Writers are vulnerable and angst-ridden enough as it is!

Verity

I often find that I just can't be bothered to review a poor book.

Cornflower

Mike, that's a very interesting insight - thankyou. At no time when I was reading your books did my hand stray towards a red pen, so you're in the clear. As to long sentences with many clauses, once a lawyer .....(and it takes one to know one!).

Dark Puss

"Naming and shaming" is of course an entirely negative approach to giving feedback constructively and I hope I'd avoid doing it in such a crude way. But speaking as a reader I'd very much like to know about books and have their positive and negative points discussed intelligently. Why are writers of fiction more vulnerable than, for example, physicists who get their grant proposals turned down, papers rejected etc.?

Dark Puss

Why do lawyers write in such a fashion? I'm sure there is an excellent reason for it and I've often wanted to know what it is. I've read a number of statutes and have some idea as to why they are constructed in the way they are, but what about other aspects of "legalese"?

Dark Puss

Gosh, I'm not given that option!

Juxtabook

Whether to name and shame or even to review kindly but negatively is a very hard question. I had a review copy of a crime novel recently that would not have got a grade C as a piece of English coursework by a 16 year old. I didn't review it, and have never named it publically, as it was a first time novel and published by a small press. Oddly it has two five star reviews on Amazon. Am I really doing the book world a disservice by not running this author's name through the mud? Maybe I am.

Michael Faulkner

:¬) Thank-you, you're very kind - and that's my excuse from now on!

Michael Faulkner

My own feeling is that it may have to do with the discipline of the scientist's training: scientific conclusions are drawn and redrawn based, not just on the real world but interpretations of it (I feel a long sentence coming on), so I suppose if the scientist benefits from that process he has to be prepared to live with it - ergo peer review, risk, the barrier of current consensus etc. Fiction writers aren't exposed to that world of hard knocks until they put their precious work 'out there', and perhaps criticism comes as a shock! I think you grow a thicker skin over time..

Dark Puss

I doubt very much if your review would drag through the mud, that would be far from constructive. I am firmly of the opinion (opinionated probably) that the more information I have available about a book the better and I might well read a book with very negative reviews, particularly if I feel the subject matter or writing style polarises opinion, if there were qualities identified that made me want to give it a go. I'm always wary of reporting bias in that only the "good" reviews get published. I know we are not talking about trials of drugs here, where reporting bias has very serious implications, but even so ...

Dark Puss

I agree with your hypothesis up to the final sentence! Thank you for a thoughtful reply.

Elaine

I am in agreement with everyone on here. I received a package of books from a small publisher last week and they were all unreadable. I don't think I am hyper critical but I cannot stand bad grammar, sloppy writing and phrasing so turgid it was like wading through treacle. I have no pretensions to being a writer, but I am honestly astounded that some of this stuff actually gets published at all. It seems such a waste of time and effort as well on behalf of the publisher, they send me these books, I read one page and in the bin/charity shop bin they go. What a waste of money

Nicola

Good post. Can you clarify, are you talking about review copies that have been sent to you by publishers?

Michael Faulkner

You know what, I don't agree with the final sentence myself!

Linda Gillard

I've thoroughly enjoyed this thread and, as an author, have tried to keep out of it, but I can't resist saying, I also wish bloggers would express their disappointment, frankly and constructively. It doesn't always harm an author's chances! My 3rd novel, STAR GAZING, recently acquired its first bad review. (It's had many good ones.) The review was categorised DNF (Did not finish.) Personally I don't think it's fair to review a book that wasn't finished, but it didn't appear to do me much harm. These were two of the comments readers posted after reading the bad review: "For a book you couldn’t get into, you make it sound rather interesting" and "It’s funny but your DNF review actually makes me want to read this. It sounds intriguing. Sometimes I really like quieter romance novels. They’re a welcome relief after some of the more ridiculous ones out there. I think I’ll pick this one up." (If anyone's interested this is the link to the review http://tinyurl.com/ykjtjet )

I don't think book bloggers should "name and shame" but you needn't worry that you have the power to "make or break" a book or an author. A fair review will help a book find its readers.

Mr Cornflower

Long sentences didn't hurt Proust. Or Henry James. Or James Joyce. You just have to be very good to use them well. Which is why I stick to short ones.

Michael Faulkner

:-)

Juxtabook

I wouldn't be mean for the sake of it, or I hope not, but I still am conscious of the unavoidable fact that however bad a book is it is somebody's "baby" and that I, though I pride myself on being a very good reader, am certainly no writer. I want to mix proverbs along the lines of do as you would be done by/glass houses/stones/ don't thow the first stone/ what goes around comes around/if you can't say anything nice then don't say anything/those who can write and those who can't, teach, and probably review... etc etc.

There's an interesting blog post on the subject of bad reviews, or good reviews with a "but" in them, from a writer's point of view by Matt Beynon Rees here: http://www.themanoftwistsandturns.com/2010/03/07/literary-reviews-if-you-can%E2%80%99t-say-something-nice%E2%80%A6/

On the other hand if we all reviewed the dross and gave it a good kicking perhaps publishers would stop printing it!

Cornflower

Thankyou for that link, Catherine. I do identify with your 'proverbial' feelings - I haven't yet worked out what to do for the best when I encounter a 'bad' book.

Cornflower

Mostly, but not exclusively, Nicola!

Dark Puss

I am not a writer either (other than my PhD thesis and a large number of scientific papers) and I have huge admiration for anyone that attempts a book in any subject, literary or technical (I have one 90% completed book abandoned in my cupboard). I am not suggesting for a moment anything other than a critical review of books, not being nice, not being nasty but within one's own limitations saying what worked, what was clever but unconvincing and what might in your honest opinion be improved. When I review papers, or PhD theses, or grant applications I do not in many cases kid myself that I could do any better, or indeed as well, but that should not and does not make me blind to what is excellent (I'll state it clearly) and what I think can be improved. When I write papers, and grant applications they are most certainly my "baby" too! I'm not some bloodless cyborg with no feelings, but I do have difficulty understanding the "only say something nice" school of novel reviewing.

Ros

I think I must have missed this post while I was on an internet-fast during Lent. The discussion is fascinating, especially the contributions from authors. I understand that it is terrifying for an author to have their work publically dissected and critiqued and I have every sympathy for that. I can quite see why Cornflower and other reviewers are reluctant to stamp all over someone's baby in a bad review.

But I must admit that I have more sympathy in this situation for the reader. If a book is poorly written, I don't want to buy it. If poorly-written books did not sell, editors would not buy them and authors would not be able to get away with poor craftsmanship (yes, I am an idealist!). Reviews are not, in my opinion, the same as recommendations. I do quite often buy books on the basis of reviews and I feel cheated if the book turns out to have massive flaws that were not mentioned in the review. It's fine if the reviewer feels that the positives outweigh the flaws and says so, but simply to ignore the flaws isn't helpful to me at all.

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