“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…” Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)
You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average. Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer. Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember. I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.
These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question: Why did I love – or hate – this book? But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.
Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing. Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript. He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest. There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.
I had an experience with this recently. I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author. There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter: “First, I did this, then that. Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.” You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”
I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages. I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review. I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style. C-.” Oh, well.
But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer. After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work. This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member. Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice. Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?” If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.
It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story. C-level books are not good enough. If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.
Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed! And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.
One in a continuing series. Pictured: Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).