Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Elementary

with 5 comments

My review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton is up now at Strange Horizons.

Perhaps Drakenfeld is meant to be a dullard; perhaps, along with the hackneyed prose that abounds, this what the audience for Samson and all those other authors with gold embossed names crave. I just can’t see how a protagonist this uninteresting is going to sustain a series of detective novels though.

The backstory is that about four years ago, I started hearing interesting things about a writer called Mark Newton. He’d already published a short novel for a small press but his full debut, Nights Of Villjamur, was coming out shortly for PanMacmillan so I asked him for a copy so I could review it for Strange Horizons. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was very good. Firstly, the book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be whilst simultaneously trying to be too many different things. (If you will allow me some speculation, I think that Newton’s split career as bookseller, publisher and author played a role here and that some triangulation and second-guessing occurred that was ultimately unhelpful to writing the novel.) Secondly – and at a fundamental level – it wasn’t very well written.

Now, you may assume that nothing gives me more pleasure than to write a negative review of a debut novel in a field I love by a person I am well disposed to. Certainly, that was the assumption of several of the people who left comments underneath my review. It didn’t and I resolved to make sure I read Newton again in the future, although I thought it would probably be best to skip the rest of Legends Of The Red Sun series. So when his new book came through the post, it went straight to the top of the pile. As the quote above suggests, I wasn’t able to write the review I had hoped to write this time either.

Drakenfeld has definitely solved one of the problems I identified: Newton has a very clear idea of the story he wants to tell and is equally focused in delivering it. This clarity is a welcome change to the mess of Villjamur but seems to come hand-in-hand with a suggestion that the ambition he signaled but didn’t deliver on early in his career has now been completely abandoned (the triangulation has succeeded, if you will). The bigger problem, however, is that the novel still isn’t very well written.

As it happens, a couple of weeks after I wrote my review, I bumped into Newton in a pub basement in Brighton. We had a chat and he predictably was a lovely bloke. So why am I publishing something that damns his work and threatens his livelihood? Surely, if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? The answer is that the author and the work are two separate things and the only way to be a book reviewer is to successfully compartmentalise them. I can like Newton as a person and dislike his work and there needn’t – shouldn’t – be any connection between the two. Much online book blogging has been rendered pointless by the failure to grasp this distinction.

Of course, human nature is messier than that; intellect and emotion can’t be so easily divided. Creating art is a hugely personal endeavour and what is being criticised is the product of blood, sweat and tears so it is natural to feel wounded. On the other side of the fence, the whole reason I am writing this is because of a residual sense of sheepish hypocrisy. But the concept of manners simply doesn’t apply here and it is dangerous to import it from social situations. It goes without saying that I think negative reviews have value (to inform and entertain potential readers and to contribute to a wider discourse). It should also go without saying that criticising a professional writer’s published art is entirely different to telling someone that their shoes are ugly or the dinner they’ve just cooked you tasted of ass. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and negative reviews are often seen as direct attacks on the author – and, increasingly, their fans – unless they are couched in the politest and most equivocal terms.

My review is not polite and it is not equivocal; it baldly states that Drakenfeld is a bad book and it does so in pretty scathing fashion. This tone is not thoughtless rudeness, it is an integral part of writing a review that has value beyond merely telling a prospective customer whether they should spend their money on it. It is a public, performative piece of criticism to partner a public, performative piece of art.

Anyway, the next round is on me, Mark.

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Written by Martin

8 January 2014 at 10:06

5 Responses

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  1. “Much online book blogging has been rendered pointless by the failure to grasp this distinction.”

    YES

    Jared

    8 January 2014 at 12:23

  2. Don’t worry. It’s not like I have expensive tastes in alcohol or anything…

    Mark

    8 January 2014 at 12:28

  3. […] Martin Lewis, Elementary: […]

  4. Thanks for writing this. I confess I’ve been struggling with all this lately; the debate(s) surrounding negative reviews and perceived ‘bullying’ of authors (most notably among the responses to Renay’s first column at SH), has left me feeling increasingly inhibited about doing any reviewing, whether positive or negative. The space to be simply a reader, online – not an author or a publisher, not a wannabe author or publisher, not a witting or unwitting unpaid publicist – feels like it’s diminishing.

    I think the final straw for me was when a random chap I’d never met emailed me out of the blue a few months back, saying that X had given him my email address and what I would like to do to help him promote his forthcoming debut novel? FFS, THAT IS NOT WHY I DO THIS. If I enjoy a book, I say so, and explain why; if I don’t, I say so, and explain why. I’m not doing a favour to an author when I recommend their book to others, I’m doing it because I think those others will also enjoy reading it; nor am I attacking an author when I warn others off their book – I’m sharing my honest opinion because I love reading and I love talking about books. I’m not ‘promoting’ anyone. Especially not someone whose book I’ve never read!

    Seriously. I mean, it’s even been putting me off *reading* sf/f for the past few months, never mind blogging. For the first time in my life, I’ve actively been avoiding reading (or reading non-fiction instead).

    I love writing about what I’ve read, and I want to start doing it again. Maybe I’ll have a go in the spring. In the mean time, would you mind if I posted the Ahmed/Wilson review I wrote for Vector to EA?

    Nic

    13 January 2014 at 13:08

  5. It is immensely dispiriting. My worry, as per my most recent post, is that it is a cultural shift that is spreading more widely.

    would you mind if I posted the Ahmed/Wilson review I wrote for Vector to EA?

    Please do!

    Martin

    13 January 2014 at 18:35


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