Saturday 22 August 2009

A new review for "Ugly Stories." And reviews in general.

Now before I get into the meat of this post let me first explain that I am in no way in the habit of Googling myself. Girls I am stalking maybe, but not myself. However, I've got a lot to do today and needless to say I've been putting it off. When procrastinating at University I learned to juggle. And I drank. Now we have Youtube, Google and various other distractions so I've been using those to delay having to actually do something. Needless to say, having exhausted all the blogs, forums and websites I usually visit, I finally ended up sitting in front of the screen and wondering what else I could do. So I went on to Google and typed in "Ugly Stories for Beautiful People."

Lo and behold on the first page of the search results I came across a review I hadn't seen before. God knows how this guy came across it but he had sat down, read it and (kindly) reviewed it. In fact I may contact him to thank him and find out how he did come across it. I know it's been reviewed widely and the reviews have been almost universally good, but as this has resulted in additional sales of about five copies I can't believe he came across it because of those.


Basically, a pretty good review. The highlights being....

"I’ve never heard of James Burr before, but the blurb on the back of the book certainly sold me on him. Almost all of Burr’s stories seem to involve a pun as a title/punchline, and a strong psychosexual/drug element, and the only person I can think of that comes close to his style of writing is Will Self. [...] The majority of the book is brilliantly written, with the basis for many of the stories involving relationships between wives/husbands, boyfriends/girlfriends, people/drugs, that range from the perverse (BOBANDJANE) to the bittersweet (Ménage Á Beaucoup). My personal favourite is probably ‘Life Is What You Make It’, involving as it does a woman dealing with grief in such a bizarre way that she’s fundamentally altered the structure of reality. [...] It might not be too bold to say the world needs more writers with fresh and weird ideas, and James Burr falls firmly into that camp.""

Well, that certainly seems like another good one for the folder.

However, he also makes some points about the presentation of the book which I found interesting. He starts the review with "First things first: the formatting of this book is absolutely hideous, and the stories are riddled with typos. Plus, there’s a jaggedness to the text on the front and back covers that suggest a poor quality print job. Since Corsega Press, who released this book, don’t seem to exist any more, this isn’t really a surprise" before concluding it with, "He’s still apparently working on a full-length novel, so I hope it gets finished and a publisher with a proper bloody editor takes it on."

Now, I found this interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, some of the formatting (such as the lack of a Contents page) is deliberate. I wanted the reader to start at the beginning and read through to the end, rather than doing what I usually do which is read the shorter stories first, completely out of order. Given the interlinked nature of the book (which the reviewer praises) it's essential that this is the case. Secondly, it's an Indie press book. Admittedly, these days you can do a lot with Photoshop etc, but I'm still astounded at the poor quality covers you find with most Small Press books (even those from the more established Presses which often look like they've been run off on a photocopier) so I personally think the Uglies looks okay. However, it was the point about typos and editing that really interested me. Out of about fifteen or so reviews now, I think only one has mentioned typos, saying there were "a few" of them. This intrigued me at the time as I certainly haven't seen any (and I proofread for a living) but "riddled with typos"? It seems weird that no-one else has mentioned such a glaring problem. (And I'd be more inclined to pay attention to this if the review itself didn't use the word "skewered" when he meant "skewed" or have a glaring grammatical error when saying that one story (which the reviewer singles out as being one that he thought was "excellent") had an ending that was very obvious but which "didn't stop the story from being crap." It seems fairly obvious from the context of the sentence that he actually meant "didn't make the story crap" or "didn't stop the story from being good." Still, we all make mistakes).

He also says that some of the stories are based on (or have titles that are based on) puns or bad jokes and that he didn't care for these. The only ones I can think of that are based on puns are "Byronic Man", "Mutton Pie," "Foetal Attractions" and "Menage a Beaucoup." Now he says he liked "Menage a Beaucoup" so I'm guessing it was these three short-short stories that he didn't care for. Fair enough - everyone has their own tastes and opinions.

But that set me to thinking about reviews in general, and why we place so much emphasis on receiving good ones. After all, why should we? Personally, I can't stand "Eastenders" but 15 million people spend several hours a week watching it. Does that make it good? Or does that make me wrong in my view? Similarly, something like "The Wire" is generally hailed as a masterpiece of TV, yet I know for a fact that my parents would hate it and would rather watch Corrie instead. Who is right? Who is wrong? Aren't all reviews inherently just someone's opinion? So why do we, and the publishing industry as a whole, place so much emphasis on them?

And that's what I've noticed about receiving reviews over the last year or two. While thankfully they have been universally positive, different reviewers seem to pick up on different things. This reviewer didn't like the above three stories, yet "Foetal Attractions" came second in a short story competition, "Mutton Pie" was acclaimed as "a product of craft and skill and not an excuse for a clapped out idea" by the much-missed Zene, and "The Byronic Man" actually inspired some readers of Raw Nerve to write to the editor to tell him how much they liked it.

Similarly, "Blue" has been hailed as "a masterful evocation of place and scene" by Maynard and Sims yet a couple of reviewers have said they thought it overlong and plodding. Some liked "Menage a Beaucoup", others didn't.

Now this may just be the nature of the collection - I deliberately set out to write it in a variety of styles and voices. It may just be the one consistent aspect of the book (i.e. its dark surrealism and "weirdness") that means it's had consistently good reviews despite reviewers liking and disliking completely different stories whlst simultaneously giving completely different reasons for their preferences. Or quite simply, it may just be that we all like different things. I like 20th Century novels but am not a big fan of 19th century ones. My review of "Sense and Sensibility" wouldn't exactly be glowing, yet my review for "Ubik" would be a stream of superlatives. Does this mean Austen is crap and Dick is good? Of course not - we can see that when we are not personally involved. Yet we still care a lot when it is our own work that is being critiqued.

Another interesting thing I've noticed with reviews is how people make comparisons with completely different writers when trying to describe your work. As you know, I am a huge fan of PKD, mainly because our brains seem to work on the same wavelength rather than because of any fondness for simulacra, wub fur and kipple, yet it was around 14 reviews before anyone mentioned him. Similarly, while I find a lot of Will Self's work to be pretentious and self-regarding, I like a lot of his ideas and it seemed pretty obvious to me that if I was to be compared to anyone then it would be Self rather than any horror writer or Bizarro writer (even though for some reason Bizarro, as a genre, is mentioned in almost a third of the reviews). Yet this reviewer is the first to mention him. Then of course, the stories have also been compared to those of Russel Hoban and early Kurt Vonnegut, neither of whom I've actually read (which I know in the case of Vonnegut is a shameful admission to make and in the case of Hoban is something I am remedying at the moment).

So where am I going with this? That we should ignore reviews?

To be honest, I have no idea. Sometimes reviewers do pick up on things that you know, in your heart of hearts to be true. And often they say things that make you scream, "No, you've missed the point!" like the person who thought the porn stars at the end of "Bernie" were ghosts. Yet despite this, a good review does fill you with pride while negative ones (thankfully rare, but after reading the first couple of lines of this one I thought that's what I was going to get) can make your heart sink. I suppose at the end of the day I'm pretty objective when it comes to my work - I'm not one of these people who discounts every negative thing - I only discount those things that I know are wrong (like the aforementioned "Bernie" example, which isn't a ghost story and which the many other people who have read it didn't see as a ghost story, either), so I take reviews as constructive criticism rather than as attacks or praise.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Check out the review for yourself at Quiet, Please!

Of course, despite this lengthy and semi-coherent post, I also know the first thing I will do when "State of the Nation" is published is check the reviews.

Sad, isn't it?