Yesterday I inadvertently created a bit of a firestorm for something I tweeted about book reviews and blanket praise. I feel a bit unsettled about some of the responses and have been told by a few people they are going to blog about it, so I thought I should probably address the teacup-storm too and explain a few things.
Firstly, here is the thing I said that caused most offence:
“There is too much positivity in the book world. Esp in book blogs and on YouTube. Books can’t all be good can they?”
As well as:
“We need a critical culture in books. We need for people to say what they want about a book, for a healthy book culture.”
“Books are ideas. They are debate starters. They are conversation starters. They are meant to spark a range of opinion.”
Some people agreed with this. Some didn’t. Both positions are fine. But then some people got very heated, both publicly and in my DM box.
Now, I just want to clarify a few things:
1. I am not anti blogging or bloggers. This is a blog. I am a blogger.
2. I am not anti positive reviews. Look at the side of this page. I will shout my good reviews from the rooftops. I am a total tart. Good reviews fill me with pride. Positive reader reactions are why I write.
3. I value reviews massively. Too much. I read most of them, even the bad ones (though might be less prone to tweet that one for The Humans that said I had ‘deliberately sold out to become the sci-fi Tony Parsons’). Only this week I nearly wept when one of my favourite writers wrote a lovely, detailed review of a non-fiction book I’ve just written. I had been scared for years of writing it, and that review undid a decade of fear. Never mind sales. That is what a review can really mean.
4. I am self-critical. Every writer has to be. That is what editing is about. I cringe at 60% of what I write. I have been shouting ‘God, I’m shit’ at my Word Doc for the last month. And I would really recommend that you ignore the reviews and don’t buy a book I wrote called The Possession of Mr Cave. Criticism is how you raise your game. A critical culture, when it is devoid of personal grudges and is done from a position of love for an art form, is vital. It raises that culture. It is how, on a grander scale, healthy civilisations work. Debate. Criticism. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Critics are needed. If no-one had said ‘no, you’re doing that wrong’ we’d have been wiped out before the Neanderthals. I never went on a creative writing course, but have learnt a lot about my own writing from constructive critical opinion.
5. I criticise things I love. I don’t criticise Manchester United because I don’t like football. I commented about one aspect of book blog/Youtube culture because I value it. I like to think I engage with online book culture. In fact, the precise prompt for the tweet came after researching lots of YouTube ‘vloggers’ (forgive me for hating that word), because I WANT TO BECOME ONE. I have discovered I am vain enough to want to sit in my bedroom and talk straight to camera about stuff. And so I trawled through a lot of (chiefly American) blogs and became mildly nauseated by the overwhelming level of unthinking positivity. I began to feel how Michael Stipe felt when he wrote Shiny Happy People. But it’s no biggie.
6. That said, I was kind of addressing myself. I mean, I have reviewed books before. I have felt the pressure to say nice things I only half mean. I may be alone in that, or not. I sincerely don’t know. There has to be a balance between a personal kindness to an author and a respect for the medium itself. And let’s face it, if a tweet can be hated by you, so can a book. Books are also made of words and opinions and many of them are – consciously or unconsciously – saying things that demand to be argued with. Let’s not patronise books. They are not an endangered species. They are strong and powerful and will outlive us all.
7. The main argument seemed to be that people who review books for free want to choose books they think they’ll like. Fair enough. (Though surely you can never know what a book is going to be like until you read it, even if it is from an author you like, or why review?) Another argument was that authors can sometimes get nasty with reviewers. This is terrible, but true. There have been cases. Authors who can’t accept criticism of their work are a growing phenomenon. There was a case recently of some self-published nut job whacking a reviewer over the head with a wine bottle. What is happening? I defend anyone’s right to give me a terrible review. Any author should. Books aren’t the end of a conversation. They are the start of one.
8. A couple of bloggers said they won’t review me now. Fine. Although I don’t know how that proves your professionalism, or places the book before the author. I am far too much of a nervous wreck to be a hero but would happily take a metaphorical bullet for the right for people to speak their minds without consequence. Also, if you want to be respected as a reviewer wielding the power available to you if someone says something you don’t like is not the best tactic.
9. I love books. I write screenplays as well, but books beat them hands down. A book is the most beautiful art form there is. So much art starts with words. Books end with them too. They are pure and self-contained and apocalypse-proof. I love writing books and, mainly, reading them. There are 180,000 books published a year in the UK. We need to be discerning now more than ever. We need to know our taste. We need to demand the very best of our writers. We all need to raise our game. I certainly do.
10. Life is short. We are all alive for a blink of an eye. If we agree books are one of those things that help us enjoy and explore and comprehend our existence, then we can be free to disagree on the details. Let’s all be friends.