My last post brought such excellent comments that I’m going to revisit it briefly, before moving on. Vanessa raised the question of whether we look at books as readers or writers, when we are asked to review them, and it’s an important, possibly crucial, point. What a reader wants from a book may be very different to what a writer seeks out – and the popularity of sites like Goodreads and Amazon shows that the ‘if you loved that, you’ll also like this’ approach works for most readers.

Writers, on the other hand, are driven to seek out material that exposes them to new techniques, ideas or approaches. They read critically, that is, looking at how things work and where they don’t, and they tend to respond to writing on a craft basis as much as an enjoyment basis.

It’s also very often true that there is snobbery in the writer’s approach to writing. Just as restaurant critics do not review even Pizza Express, let alone KFC, even if more people eat in KFC on a single day than do at The Ivy in an entire year, you don’t get ‘writerly’ reviews of Jonathan Kellerman or Reginald Hill, which is not to say that either of those writers are KFC, because they aren’t, I read them both with great pleasure and recommend them to you!

The point is, we make a judgement about the reviewer, as well as the review: is this person like me (a reader) or like me (a reader and writer)? And we consider the usefulness of the review to us on that basis – writers reviewing writers can get incestuous, and reductionist. We all want readers, and so when we review we should be asking a series of simple questions: was this worth reading – why or why not? was it enjoyable reading – why or why not? That’s what helps both the writer and a potential reader understand how the book works on the most important level – readability. Only then should we move on to the literary questions of voice, themes etc.

And speaking of literary:

Chroma International Queer Writing Competition
An international short story and poetry competition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual writers. Judges: Betsy Warland (poetry), Sarah Waters and Robert Gluck (short story)

Deadline: 1st Sept 2008

Prizes: (in both categories) 1st – £300, 2nd – £150 3rd – £75; publication in Chroma Magazine plus 2 UK winners will appear at proudWORDS Festival, Newcastle. For full details, including the Transfabulous and Velvet Flash Fiction competitions, and rule, visit the Chroma Website


  1. Jim Murdoch
    17th May 2008

    This is why I like Jonathan Ross as a film reviewer. For the first part he’s himself being all Wossy and glib and then, at the end, he slips – not entirely seamlessly I have to say – into serious-film-reviewer mode and gives us a proper summation of the film’s pluses and minuses. I think it’s a reasonable compromise because we want to see someone we can relate to react spontaneously to a piece, we want to see them affected and believe it is genuine; after that we’re more willing to consider the ah-buts of a ‘proper’ review. I have to say I preferred – and trusted the opinion of – his predecessor (Barry Norman) but Ross has grown on me over the years – it takes time to become a benchmark and that’s what the best reviewers are.

  2. Vanessa G
    19th May 2008

    Yup. Agree 100%, Kay. Readability is all. I reviewed correctly, in that case!


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