Publishing is a small world. Once you’ve been knocking around for a few years, you tend to have at least a passing acquaintance with most of the people in your branch of the business. So what do you do when it comes to reviewing? Should we still review each other’s books?
It’s a decision all reviewers have to make at some stage, and I know more than one writer who has given up reviewing for this reason. Others of us draw the line at different points. My own line is that there are one or two writers I’m very close to – we collaborate, we’re good friends, we crit each other’s work before publicaton – where it would just be wrong for me to review their work; no matter how objective my review was, the perception may be otherwise. But for most, I carry on and review; I work hard to be objective, and if a book deserves criticism then it gets it. Blunt reviews of a weak book from someone you know can be hard for the author to handle, but I think most writers accept and appreciate that approach.
My most recent example is copied below, a review of Andre Jute and Andrew McCoy’s critique of the Stieg Larsson phenomenon. As you can read in the review, I’ve used Jute’s thriller-writing guide in my teaching, and it was useful to me back when I was starting out in writing. I recently stumbled upon the author on an Amazon forum, where we both commented on a thread (I can’t remember what it was); we exchanged emails, and then Andre invited me to write a guest entry about infinity plus ebooks on his blog. All very cozy, but hey, publishing is – generally – an incredibly friendly business. My reviewing Andre’s latest work could easily be seen as a quid pro quo arrangement, but then we’re back to my line-drawing: I’m not going to avoid reviewing (most) books just because I have some kind of acquaintance with the author; and equally, I’m not going to pull punches just because a favour may be owed or because someone has a nice smile or whatever; and another equally, I’m not going to be over-critical because I may disagree with an author’s views on an unrelated topic (as I do on environmental issues with Andre, but that’s another matter entirely).
Jute and McCoy’s book on Larsson is definitely flawed, and the ranting tone of parts can grate, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a no-holds look at publishing in the 21st century. One of the wonders of electronic publishing is that it’s so fast: now in April 2011, this book is as current as it gets, reporting on events and figures from the turn of the year. No 18-month wait for it to appear in print and then be reporting on what, by then, is history.
So here is the review, in full:
My first encounter with Andre Jute’s work was way back in the 1980s when I was working my way towards writing my first novel, when I read his excellent Writing a Thriller. I devoured any writing book I could find at that time and, to be frank, most were regurgitated pap. Jute’s was different. Much like John Braine’s book on novel-writing, Jute took a strongly individual approach, but unlike Braine he was more open to variation: rather than “this is the way to do it and if you don’t like it, stop reading” of Braine, Jute showed alternative approaches, was open to people doing it their way and, above all, applied a sharp intelligence to the whole process of novel-writing.
In The Larsson Scandal, Jute (with collaborator Andrew McCoy) turns that analytical intelligence to the recent phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Larsson Scandal is a work of criticism, but more, it’s a study of how a collision of circumstance can lead to an entertainment industry happening, with books that sell by the million and high-budget movies to follow. While The Larsson Scandal is worth reading for the criticism alone, for me it was the story of the story that made this book required reading for anyone with an interesting in the publishing industry.
It should be acknowledged that criticism, by its nature, focuses on the negative, and at times this book is bitingly critical. Jute and McCoy do state often that they are fans of Larsson’s work, but inevitably they focus on its shortcomings. This shouldn’t be off-putting to admirers of Larsson – far better a healthy debate than yet more hagiography. Indeed, despite the critical tone of this book, an indicator of the authors’ achievement is that, although I haven’t read the Larsson originals, this work leaves me more eager to seek them out, rather than putting me off.
The weakest aspect of this book is its tone, lapsing at times into rant mode, although this should perhaps be regarded more as a rhetorical device. It grates a little that benificiaries of Larsson’s estate, his brother and father, are barely examined other than us having to trust that they are basically decent types, while others in the story get a far closer critical examination. The at times sweeping dismissal of “politically correct ‘literary’ criticism” and references to “the sly Larsson” and similar undermine the argument at times, too: I’d far rather be allowed to reach those conclusions myself than have them repeatedly labelled as such.
Those minor criticisms aside, The Larsson Scandal is a fascinating study of how publishing does and doesn’t work. I use Jute’s Writing a Thriller when I teach university novel-writing classes, and now I’m planning to use The Larsson Scandal alongside that for its insight into the publishing world.