This week I have been thinking about how I read and write reviews and, in particular, a very special competition. The latter invites you to try something similar but a bit more substantial for my dear P G Wodehouse. See below for details.
Now, there are many ways of appreciating a novel.
You can study it, dream about it, carry on the characters in your own story (or several) and talk about it until your friends beg you to stop.
To share your enthusiasm with the whole world, all you have to do is write a review and post it on a bookseller’s website. Writers, desperate to let readers know that their work exists, are pathetically grateful for these reviews. I know. I am one of them.
In the torrent of electronic messages that surge over you every morning, received wisdom is that you need to see the name of something at least seven times before it sticks.
So numbers of reviewers matter. Seven appearances before your snapping synapses are supposed to make you curious enough to go and look at the title on a website. And then you can actually read what readers thought about it.
What is An Amazon Review?
The most frequented of these websites is, of course, Amazon. The General Purveyor of Online Books, Gadgets and Comestibles has started to invite me to write reviews all the time. Only a couple of days ago I received an email headed “Ever wonder if your reviews are getting noticed?”
This particular message lists the last three novels I have bought. (Well, actually, it calls them “products”. ) And invites me to choose how many stars out of five I would give each book and suggest I review them. It adds, rather to my surprise, “videos are especially helpful.”
Video review of a book? Really? I haven’t seen one of those yet. But no doubt someone with the technical expertise, maybe a home studio or two, and an ego the size of a house, will actually video themselves talking about their reading matter of choice and why they did or didn’t like the result. Not sure I’d watch it, though.
Fortunately, a number of gentle readers will review books on Amazon out of the goodness of their hearts. The best of them give a tantalizing glimpse of what it is that particularly struck the reader as memorable. Then I can make up my mind if the iconic character or scene under reference takes my fancy.
(Just a hint here, for anyone who wants me to read a particular book: “psychological thriller” is my instant turn off. I’ve read several and they all gave me nightmares.)
When a Review Becomes a Complaint
I have seen a novel splatted by a grumpy review for a) ugly cover b) late delivery c) not being set in North America.
Or, in another case, a disappointed reader complained that a murder mystery wasn’t funny enough. I found that a recommendation, to be honest.
Mind you, bookseller friend of mine told me that a woman brought back a copy of The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. One of his colleagues had recommend it. It had won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction that year. It sounds a gripping story, about a woman who goes into the Vietnam War as a photo journalist. While there, apart from her experience of the country, the people and the war, she has significant relationships with a married alcoholic who mentors her, and his Vietnamese sidekick with a tragic past.
The customer’s complaint? The book didn’t have any recipes. The title was misleading.
Reader Reviews, Author Appreciation Days And More
Some of the best reviews on Amazon, Waterstones, Kobi and elsewhere originate with dedicated book bloggers like Being Anne and her peers, who read lots and are genuine enthusiasts. Reader reviewers often specialise in one or two favourite genres, and offer insights based on knowledge and experience.
And then sometimes you find inspired comments from someone who has just fallen in love with a book and longs to share it. For instance, “Honestly I have no idea if this review is even going to be coherent, because if I could give this book all the stars in the sky I would.”
This is actually for one of my own much loved discoveries, The Goblin Emperor by Kathleen Addison. I’m pretty sure that’s the review that convinced me to try it. So many thanks to Jess Gofton whoever they may be.
I’ve written a fair few in my time, too but only for books I’ve really loved. I find them much too difficult to write for anything less than totally passionate absorption. No matter how hard Amazon begs.
Most reviews on bookseller’s websites are only a couple of paragraphs of personal response. But some, like the one I’ve just quoted are much fuller. And then there are the really meaty reviews of books on bookish websites. A new favourite is this review at a gallimaufry website of Katherine Langrish’s book on the C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
Lewis is one of those beloved writers like Tolkien, Daphne du Maurier and P G Wodehouse who attract devotees and scholars to days and even whole weekends of study.
A couple of years ago I went to one on Diana Wynne Jones, whose work I have loved for more than 30 years. It was a revelation – and not just to be with kindred spirits. There were at least three papers which sent me back to re-reading my favourites. And one that made me look again at a book of hers that had never grabbed me before. Fabulous stuff.
Which brings me finally to that competition. The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) has just launched a new international essay competition. International. Mark that. The originator of the fabulous Russian author Vladimir Brusilloff thoroughly deserves an International Essay if anyone does.
Brusilloff appears in a collection called The Clicking of Cuthbert in which most of the stories are about golf. In the course of a somewhat stilted conversation with Cuthbert, the author delivers himself of what might well be called the ultimate self-penned review:
“No novelists any good except me. Sovietski — yah! Nastikoff — bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P G Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me.”
So this competition invites you to write an essay about why Wodehouse is so extremely not good, but not bad. There are two prizes for an essay on his work; nothing biographical need apply. The under19s are asked for a essay of not more than 1,500 words to compete for £250. Those of maturer years have a minimum and maximum wordage to contend with (4,000-5,000) but their prize is £1,000.
Full details and how to apply are on the Society’s website. The closing date is 12 noon BST on Wednesday 1st September. So you’ve just about got time to re-read your real favourites and jump to it!