... I doubt Rose Tremain will drift. I have great faith in her. I reviewed her novel, The Colour, for Radio NZ some years back. Set in NZ, after she'd visited here for three weeks for a writers' festival, the novel is an astonishing read about a couple of early settlers attracted to the gold in the rivers. Much was made by some reviewers of the vole that popped up in the protagonist's garden, but it didn't bother me much (we don't have voles in NZ). What was more important to me, was the magic this visiting author had created on my own turf - the marvellous detail that grounded it, the language that allowed it to fly. Here's one image I cannot forget: the settlers' house on the Canterbury Plains with white cotton sheets hung to create rooms. Billowing cotton rooms. So beautiful but so flimsy, not the stuff of a settled life.
I have developed some of my own rules of reviewing over the years, not least that a reviewer shouldn't approach a book on a personal mission (or a mission from God for that matter) - whether I like it or not is not really the issue. Will readers like it - not all readers (that's impossible) but are there readers who will like this book? Why? And in putting up a hand to review it, is the reviewer likely to be one of those readers? Ideally, yes.
Sometimes on radio, I'll blurt out, 'I loved this book'. But I try not to, I really do.
It's also good practice, I think, to throw in at least one solid quote from the book in any review. This way readers can hear the voice of the writer directly and judge the book for themselves. For radio reviews, I like to try and read aloud an extract, if possible given time constraints. I also believe it's important to research the author and the book - where does it stand in the writer's oeuvre, what is s/he trying to do in this latest outing?
Oh there's more, but it's late, and Melodie's screams are drawing me back to Trespass. One thing occurs to me, though, I realise I am talking here about the reviews and manuscript reports I do for money. My blog reviews are clearly more an act of love with a distant tang of 'personal mission' about them. For a start, I tend only to put up positive reviews on here. Right or wrong? Hmmm, food for thought.
Anyway, here - quoted in the New Yorker - are John Updike's tips on reviewing. It's good to see we are 'on the same page'. Not that it's necessarily the only way to go ... but it seems to me reviewers, in this country anyway, too often swim around in their own fish bowls, catching glimpses of themselves in the glass - and this kind of statement, accept it or reject it, can at least provoke discussion and hopefully improve the job we do.
Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never...try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
[from Updike's “Picked-Up Pieces” 1975)