book reviews Creative writing

Secrets of the Book Corner

Most book reviewers do it to share their opinions. As a writer, I want to discover what I think about the craft so that I can improve. That’s where the Book Corner comes in.

Book reviewers usually cover new releases and classics (because the algorithms love a classic). My selections are governed by the whims of the Book Corner, which is selected by my peers in a regular writing group.

The Book Corner

The Book Corner began as a response to the reading list for the Creative Writing MA that I completed in 2021. The class had a mixed response to the ten novels we read across a year. After graduating, we thought it would be fun to keep on reading together as well as writing.

Once a month, we take a break from the Poo Vortex of critiquing our own work, enter the Book Corner and criticise published works. The goal is explore them as examples of writing for our own work, and discover how we react to them.

The first season of Book Corner was an alternative reading list of contemporary novels for an MA group. The second drew on our TBR lists. Someday, I should get around to reviewing at least a few of them.

Titles included Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name Of The Wind, two Iain (M) Banks novels (The Business and Surface Detail), VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, The World According To Garp by John Irving, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned, Himself by Jess Kidd, and A History Of The World In 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes.

The pen lies on a blank sheet of notebook. Nearby open books and notebooks. Study, scientific work, abstract, study of literature. Background with books, notebooks and pen.

From reader to reviewer

The third season of the Book Corner covered recent winners of literary awards for genre fiction. The selection ranged from history to horror, and coincided with the launch of my website. Ever-hungry for content I caught up, with a post on the quirks of award-winning genre fiction. As I wrote, I began to sniff out something about the qualities I value in creative writing.

The fourth season embraced a nebulous concept of novels that we wanted to re-read with the group. The list covered, covering almost a century of writing from John Steinbeck through Kurt Vonnegut to Naomi Alderman. I graduated from a single post to three roundups, and with season five I’ve taken on a post for every novel.

The latest season compares novels with their film adaptations. So far, it’s included Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Over four seasons, I’ve enjoyed most of the novels my fellow writers have selected and I’ve been delighted by several. A few have left me unexpectedly disappointed, underwhelmed or nonplussed. One made me so angry that I’m still unsettled at my response. As I’ve reviewed them in increasing detail, I’ve also had to think about the qualities which I value as a reader and a writer.

Reading as a writer*

One of the opening gambits of my MA at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, was teaching us to read as writers. When you come to a novel as a reader, you’re usually reading for pleasure. Your only hope is that you’ll enjoy the novel.

Every reader rates a novel by placing different weights on the scales of their tastes. Literary readers value language, technique, character and theme above story, world and ideas. Fantasy and science fiction readers tend to weight their preferences in the opposite direction.

Fans of romance, western, thriller and horror are drawn to the formal structure inherent in their genres. Characters matter, but they value the story most on its ability to deliver the beats they expect. Historical fiction readers tend towards literary ideals, but their favourites must also deliver an authentic slice of their period setting.

Not every reader is a genre purist, and some people value writing that reaches creatively across genres. Literary readers tend to think of themselves as above genre.

Reading as a writer is sometimes reduced to examining language in forensic detail. This is absolutely useful to uncover how different genres use language. It’s also a useful for tool for separating the readerly notion of taste from a broader question of quality. However, it’s as important to focus on the big picture as it is to examine the contributions of the copy-editor and proof reader.

Taste, quality and success

For me, reading as a writer looks at how an author employs the different elements of our authorial toolkit. I try to see how well they deliver on the values of the genre.

Everyone will have a different description of what success looks like. I’m a fan of John Gardner’s notion that a storyteller must deliver the experience of a continuous waking dream. Anything which interrupts that dream signifies a failure, although there are exceptions.

I look foward to writing that is so profound that I have to stop and think about it. Great books can use language so challenging that you need a couple of read-throughs. The writer’s aim is not to wake the reader from their immersion in the experience. If they want to throw your book across the room, you’ve definitely failed.

You can analyse an author’s techniques at microscopic, macroscopic and meta levels.

The microscopic level covers language, style, metre and dialogue. I look specifically at opening lines, the voices of the narrator and their characters, and the eternally-debated balance of “show vs tell”. The macroscopic level concerns structure and rhythm. I’m interested in how they function on the level of the chapter and the entire novel, if they conform to or subvert formulas like the Hero’s Journey, and the depth of characterisation. Last but far from least, on the meta level, theme emerges and elements like symbols motifs become significant.

Most writers also agree that there some fundamentals that reach across genres. These include consistency of style, the voice of the author, and delivering the promise of the premise (even literary fiction has to do this).

The mundane and the fantastic

As a writer, I’ve begun to see literature, readers and writers falling into two camps: the mundane and the fantastic. (I could write a whole post on this and I’m not even sure it’s an original notion.)

They’re not discrete categories, but literary success and failure often result from writers straying too far from home. Often, mundane readers are uncomfortable with the fantastic and fantastic readers are underwhelmed by the mundane. Writers, too.

Mundane isn’t an insult. It describes a world of everyday concerns, where characters and events are things that you could confidently encounter at your front door, in the news or the pages of a history book.

Mundanity is constructed of things which neither the reader nor the writer needs a great deal of imagination to conjure. Crucially, both sides of the experience are comfortable in that space. Works of crime, westerns, romance, historical and literary fiction are typically mundane.

The fantastic: commit or fail

The fantastic requires a writer to imagine something which is not in the everyday world. In the fantastic mode, both readers and writers enjoy exercising their imaginations. The fantastic element might be very small, but chaos theory teaches us that even small changes can have dramatic effects.

Ghost stories typically introduce the fantastic into a mundane setting with terrifying impact. Magical realism is a precise, subtle application of the fantastic to mundane settings. Science fiction and fantasy can operate within the mundane, or eschew it for entirely imagined worlds.

Whatever the degree, a fantastic writer must be willing and able to execute those changes for their entire world. Literary failure results when writers of the mundane take a fantastic premise on which they are unwilling or unable to commit.

There’s nothing wrong with using the fantastic as a device of the mundane, revealed as trickery, imagination, mental illness or hallucination (even if it’s sometimes a cliché). However, if a writer decides that the world has been fundamentally changed by their premise, refusing to explore those changes and how they affect your characters represents a gross failure of storytelling art.

The Book Corner continues

And if fiction is anything, it is the art of telling stories, mundane or fantastic. As a reader and a writer, I simply find the fantastic more satisfying.

Mundane fiction sometimes feels like it engages only half of my mind because my imagination is ticking over. I won’t deny that historical fiction or an unsolved mystery can be as transporting as any space opera. Original and engaging characters can exist in any setting, and the most successful mundane literature exceeds its quotidian trappings to become fantastic.

The final works of the book vs film season will be The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones. I’m hoping for fantastic results.

* Reading As A Writer is, ironically, the title of a book on the topic which I found neither helpful nor entertaining.

Cover image: NASA
Books image: Svetlana Buzmakova/Shutterstock

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