Peter Kemp: reviewing literary fiction

Maur which that would once said term reviewers are really like town criers they kind of claim the bell and draw people's attention to things it's a kind of balancing act activity really you're doing your writing literary criticism which is a sort of semi academic activity but you're doing it under journalistic conditions with everything that that implies and so I think you've got to bear in mind as you are preparing to do your review that you need to offer fact and analysis and get those in balance you need to offer information and some kind of assessment you need to offer lively writing as well because you're doing this for a newspaper and people need to be attracted into the review because of that I would set a lot of store really by an opening sentence which I see is almost like reader bait to pull the reader into the review if you're writing for a new spec or nowadays you will also find that you're not going to have anything like the amount of space you would really like to have so you've again always got to remember the importance of concision and and compression really you can only afford to make a point once and make it as transiently as possible I think the structure of the review is very important to me sometimes you can find when you're starting to do a review that you're sort of going about it the wrong way you might start in the middle of things and you need to backtrack it really if you've only got 750 words or something you can't afford to do that but I would try to keep those things in mind when I was doing the review then I would start writing it I mean I used to always do a handwritten version of a review first of all and revise that and eventually do it on screen no days I suppose I'm more moving to trying to get onto my computer as quickly as possible because it's easier revising on the computer and I think you know you do need to revise a lot when you're writing a review because you really do without wanting to I'm precious about it you really do need to try make every single word can't when you're when you're writing the review you always have to remember that almost everyone who's reading your review won't have read the book that you're talking about so you do need to convey information about the novel but you have to be careful not to convey too much information and you mustn't spoil narrative surprises or anything of that kind and I think also you've got to be careful not to kind of present the information and do a little bit of retelling the narrative not to do it in a way that isn't a different tone from the book really because it's very easy to make it almost any book sound ridiculous if you took your sort of sneery tone or you know we're very selective in what you were doing I think when you review a first novel you you would bear in mind that this is you know early work from a writer I mean the parallel I suppose I would make is that I've often judged the Betty Trask prize which is for a first novel and I am very conscious when I'm reading the books there that you know you sometimes get her very good very striking first novel but by and large you're you're going to get work by people who are finding out about the form that they're writing in that sort of finding their feet they're finding their voice and of course that's very interesting and fascinating so I mean the thing you have to avoid guard against is reviewing a first novel as though it is equivalent to say a seventh or eighth novel by writer who's had a long distinguished kind of career person that for me is one of the really great fiction that he's dead unfortunately John Updike I mean I think John Updike was a really terrific fiction review partly of course because he was a novelist himself I suppose but even more in that he had huge amounts of space to thought for his reviews if it comes to just looking for what I regard as the qualities of a good review about whether it's a fiction or nonfiction and I'm thinking of things like you know concision precision originality and ability to generate excitement a willingness to bravely say something is dreadful even if that's in the face of you know a lot of received opinion and so on and most of all being able to write wiki prose and with very colorful phrases that stick in your mind and often epitomize right Robert III would go for John Kerry who for me as an absolute model exemplary reviewer I mean he is one of the reviewers who Molly's the reviewer who's had the greatest influence on me as a reviewer I'm sure

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