Yet more about reviewing

leonardoI’ve written about reviewing before but this one was provoked by two things. First, a review I wrote of a book by my friend and a frequent commenter on the blog, Donnie Ross, and second, some remarks in the latest couple of reviews of my own books.

Donnie’s book is called !Leonardo Mind for Modern TimesIt’s an iBook and unlike any other I’ve reviewed before because it’s one of the new type of what I think of as extended books. In Donnie’s own words, it’s ‘a semi-interactive novel’, which ‘begins with a series of seemingly unconnected short stories, interspersed with other materials such as videos, photographs, audio clips, paintings and drawings’. So reviewing it was tricky for two reasons. First, it’s written by a friend, so is it possible to be completely objective about it? And second, did my lack of familiarity with the form disqualify me from doing it anyway?

Having now finished it and sent it to Booksquawk, I think I can answer both questions. First the one about objectivity. While it’s definitely a fictional narrative, it’s also unashamedly intellectual. I’ve known Donnie for decades and he’s probably the nearest thing to a Renaissance Man that I’ll ever meet. He’s creative in umpteen fields, makes musical instruments such as guitars and violins, plays guitar and piano to outrageously high levels of efficiency, sculpts, paints, and he now writes, too. He’s also a linguist and has read more than I’ll ever have time to. That’s only part of what he does and so, when you’re reading a book which is a form of meditation about creativity, reality, perception and the rest, your approach to it is bound to be different when you know the writer has such a high intellectual and creative pedigree. (The fact that he ascribes many of his ideas and quips to Coco, his chocolate Labrador, suggests that he may also be mad. And once you’ve applauded me for resisting the urge to qualify that noun with the adjective ‘barking’, you can revile me for pointing out the fact.)

As for the second question, while I don’t see myself trying the new form for a while, I do understand how having to shift from a flash fiction narrative to a painting or a piece of sculpture then back again forces you to keep adjusting your perceptions of and responses to both text and images. It does extend the text in ways I wouldn’t have guessed at before.

Next (and this is much easier), there were the recent reviews of two of my own books. Let me add quickly that, in referring to these, neither of which was complimentary, I’m neither complaining about them nor questioning the reviewers’ right not to like what I write. When I quoted a bit of one of them on Facebook which gave it 3 stars because ‘it had some entertainment value and it was inexpensive’, I did so because I thought it was funny. The words were true, the book is entertaining and cheap so that’s a beautiful example of damning with faint praise. But the comments of some friends were obviously intended to cheer me up by saying whoever wrote it was an idiot. I couldn’t agree with them less. He/she had every right to say that and his/her opinion was as valid as theirs.

I make the same judgement about the second negative review (I say ‘negative’ but they were both generous enough to give me 3 stars so I’m maligning them really). It’s fair comment, the reviewer said exactly what she thought about it and why. The only thing that did disappoint me was that she found the book ‘rather sexist’ on the basis of her reactions to the four main female characters. I’m not querying her reading of them. If that’s how she sees them, fine – but to take that extra step and stick on me a label that I despise at least as much as she does is unfortunate. Again, I’m not whingeing, it goes with the territory. If you can’t take criticism, don’t set yourself up for it.

And that reminded me of something I’ve probably quoted before here and elsewhere. My PhD was on the theatre of Victor Hugo. He wrote plays which violently divided audiences in the Romantic era. The most famous of them was called Hernani and night after night during and after its performances there were riots. In fact the whole thing is referred to as ‘The battle of Hernani’. Much later in life he wrote a poem about it. This is my loose translation of that poem:

‘The book is the author, the poem the poet. Our work is so much part of us, we feel it to be so mixed in with our tears, our blood, so constructed from our pain and sorrow, and so deeply embedded in our bones that, when in 1830 actors first performed Hernani, I felt a shiver of violation. Before then my characters had been my dream and my secret. I spoke to them, saw their lips move. I lived face-to-face with them. When the crowd leapt into that world, it was a sort of torment. I stood in the wings and when the curtain went up, before that vast crowd with its burning eyes, I saw my soul lift up its skirts.’

Fortunately, I don’t believe in souls..


  1. I’ve yet to come to terms with the genius that is Donnie Ross: his sheer brilliance in making leaps of the imagination, extending and coalescing realities, and stretching perception to the breaking point and beyond. One of these days I will tackle a review but that will take a bit of introspection and no small amount of bravery.
    As for your other 3-star/damn with faint praise: I had one quite similar to that… “I would read more by this author but I wouldn’t pay much.”
    I really hate lifting my skirts when all they see is cellulite.

    1. I re-read the book to write the review and actually got more out of it – but, again, some of that’s because I know him so well. I’ll leave it to him (but, more probably, Coco) to comment on his ‘genius’. But I love that ‘but I wouldn’t pay much’ comment. They’re so much more truthful (and biting) than high-flown literary criticism.
      And fortunately, being a man, I have no idea what cellulite is.

  2. I know EXACTLY what cellulite is (says Greta, going directly to the nub of what this piece was all about). I wouldn’t lift my skirts for anybody, much. But Hugo is right. You finish your opus dei, and push the little paper boat out into the lake. It’s now no longer yours, and people will make of it what they will. I think I’ve only scored one three star review. But I’ve been awarded several one star reviews, one of which was headlined “a horrible book”. This for a .99, 12k read. Hey ho. Everyone is entitled to a subjective opinion. Coco’s book is, I suspect, very avant garde. I might have to give it a whirl.

    1. Apparently there have benn significant downloads in South America, Greta, so perhaps it’s really suited to the Southern Hemisphere. As for the skirt lifting, fortunately I’m a man and I have no idea what you mean.

  3. Interesting post on all counts, Bill. But should we be objective when reviewing, anyway? As for the form of the book, I find this really interesting. Our world is changing very rapidly – and, I think, in a very exciting way. The new media offer such scope and I’m sure inventive people will soon be exploiting that in ways I will only (if I can master the technology to sneak a peek) be able to look at and marvel.

    As for the reviews of your book, well shall we just say, at least you have some published to be reviewed!

    Skirts and cellulite? Thankfully, I’m a trousers/jeans kind of girl.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. I don’t think this sort of medium is going to replace straight reading but it’s certainly adding a new dimension to it. And I don’t want to mislead people about Donnie’s book – lots of it, especially the flash fiction – is very accessible and very entertaining.

  4. If you were a genius, DrD, you wouldn’t have stepped in that exceptionally intelligent poo I left in a perfectly obvious place this morning.

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