It’s so easy being a reader. You just read. Of course, if you have the energy, you can do a bit of thinking too, have a bash at guessing the denouement, working out ‘who dunnit’, or appreciating the writer’s subtle humour.
But what about literary critics, you may ask. Surely they do more than that? And yes, of course they do. Critics and reviewers not only read, they assess, analyse, compare and ultimately judge. Their challenge is in understanding that different readers have different tastes. There is no point judging a Harlequin romance, for example, by the standard of the Man Booker Prize. Likewise most romance lovers would take a pretty dim view if they bought what they thought was going to be bodice-ripping tear-jerker and found they were reading Wolf Hall.
The best critics know that it is not about value judgements, it’s about readers. If the target readership of a particular genre is satisfied, then, whatever the reviewer might privately think of the content, style or choice of language, the book must be considered a success.
But even standing back, trying to be impartial and writing a useful review is pretty easy work compared with writing a novel.
A reader only sees what is written on the page. Nobody (except perhaps the writer’s close friends, partner or children) can possibly know what has gone on before those words get there. All the painful decisions the writer has had to make – about concept, theme, structure, character, point of view, setting, period, time scale, humour, length. Let alone which actual words to use.
Even a top notch reviewer can’t know what the writer has been through over the preceding months, possibly years. Most of the writers I know possess some kind of internal demon, a nasty (often nocturnal) character who delights in questioning those stylistic and structural decisions, and who enjoys nothing more than pointing out the flaws in yesterday’s plot twist, or casting doubt over tomorrow’s planned character development.
So why do we put ourselves through it? Fame? Fortune? Possibly. For me, the pain and the struggle and the constant niggle of worry is mostly outweighed by the pleasure that comes from exactly the same thing that a good reviewer will judge – the feeling that I have succeeded in writing what I set out to write, and have therefore satisfied myself, and hopefully my target readers.
Yes, I love getting emails, Tweets and Facebook messages from my fans. Who wouldn’t? The only slight problem is that as well as letting me know that they have enjoyed my latest novel, they inevitably start pleading for the sequel. And that means more research, more planning, more decisions, and my little brain devil immediately starts rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of another year of sleepless nights.
Helen Carey’s next novel, LONDON CALLING, will be published by Headline Books in February 2016