Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A L Kennedy, We Love You

Fiction writer and stand-up comic A L Kennedy's blog posts on the Guardian are always a great read, but this time I found her words even more poignant and hitting-home (is that a phrase?) than usual. She's talking about reviews, apropos her new short story collection, What Becomes, which comes out on Aug 6th and which I am eagerly awaiting! She says:

[B]ook reviews are odd things. They emerge months, if not years after the book is done with, so they're not that much use to the author. If the book's a car crash, it's already happened and we've walked or crawled away long ago. They are usually written (and should really be written) for readers, but may on occasions wander off and end up being about the reviewer's idea of the author, or a literary theory, or even some kind of personal issue the reviewer is working through. (This seems to be quite common in US reviews.) Yes, I personally want feedback on my work, but I get that from my editor and my agent (who used to be an editor) and from readings of work in progress and (extremely) occasionally from people upon whom I inflict sections of whatever heaving mess I'm wrestling with at the time. I get opinions from people I trust whose judgement I know and understand.
I rather like the point she makes at the end, that she doesn't look to reviews to give her feedback on her own books, she has people who do that. She continues...
And just try writing a book of short stories. (I mean that rhetorically – obviously there are very few commercially- or personally-viable reasons for your writing a book of short stories. Unless, of course, you harbour a love of the form, you foolish and adorable moppet.)
(We foolish adorable moppets love you, A L K!)
But if you did try it – and my first ever book was a collection of short stories – imagine how utterly bloody confusing the reviews are bound to be. First opinion – "Story A is rubbish, B is okay, C is middling." But then you read, "Story C is transcendent, A's okay and F should be illegal." And on and on it goes. It's incredibly difficult to review short stories without mentioning individual stories and opinions will differ and multiple reviews will simply confuse the young and tender brain of the scribbler concerned.
Tis all true, and I say this as reviewer and reviewed. This is why reviewing short story collections is completely different skill from reviewing a novel. As editor of the Short Review, I receive a whole range of different types of reviews, but I find the most useful reviews are those that rise above the "I liked this story but this one didn't work" and attempt to capture something book-sized, threads that run through a writer's work that perhaps they are not aware of, or were certainly not aware of when they wrote each individual story, something bigger that informs their writing. I also want to read some of the writing, to hear the voices, the styles, the wordplay across different stories.

But, in the end, what does it all come down to? A L Kennedy sums it up perfectly for us:
.. review quotes are cut out and arranged in ways that will make the paperback jacket read as if the Archangel Gabriel came down to earth and produced the volume in question with his very own heart's blood and anyone who doesn't buy it is not only crazy, but possessed of a leprous soul and likely to bite the heads off kittens. Sadly, every other book jacket will read like that, too – reducing the reader to a guilty, cognitively dissonant mess on the floor of Waterstone's café.
Exactly! What is the message we should take from A L K's blog post, as writers and as readers? Don't trust a single review to tell you everything you need to know about a book, and don't let reviews of your own work make you believe or disbelieve anything about your own writing. Be open, keep writing, and buy A L Kennedy's book. I think she'd agree with me on that.


Anita Miller Garner said...

I agree that writing reviews of collections of stories is more difficult that writing a review of a novel.

Lauri said...

I think reviews are helpful (to readers) only when they tell us a bit about the book. You sometimes get these reviews where the writer only cares about how well read they are and how clever they can be. Useless to readers and, as A.L Kennedy has pointed out, reviews as a whole serve no purpose for writers except to add angst to our already angst-filled lives.

One writer I know wrote on her blog that she uses reviews to help guide her writing, to improve her craft. I thought that was ridiculous.

Tania Hershman said...

Anita, it definitely is, but more rewarding, for me at least. As a short story writer I learn immensely from the close reading required to properly review something.

Lauri - scary! I really really hope she doesn't really do that, aaargh! And yes, I had a review of my book that did seem rather less about my writing than... well, you know.

Tania Hershman said...

PS I really appreciate all the reviews my book gets, though! Must stress that enormously!