At a talk given at Erdington Library on 1st September Cath Staincliffe was asked a question about her reviewing work and how she feels about reviewing fellow-writers. Her reply confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine.

She said that only ever wrote positive reviews! She did not of, course, mean that she lied or dissembled about her reaction: rather she said that if she disliked a book then she would not review it (Cath Staincliffe reviews for the Tangled Web website). Obviously the result of this is that no negative reviews by her would ever appear.

Now I do not want to appear to be picking on Staincliffe, because in fact I am delighted by her candour. I suspect that this is a common practice among writers, certainly mystery writers. And what it proves to me is that writing and criticism do not and should not mix; and in addition that one should treat the critical writings of mystery writers with some degree of scepticism. In very practical terms it also for me validates the worth, reliability and honesty of web-sites like ReviewingtheEvidence and EuroCrime (see links left) which do not hesitate to carry negative reviews.

The good critic should approach any particular book with no preconceptions and be prepared to write exactly as they find and judge. This does not mean that the critic has no biases or preferences – I have lots – but they should be aware of these, take account of them and record them in their assessment. What however they must not do, at any cost, is distort their reactions in order to produce a favourable review. This does not mean that one should not strive to find something positive in every book (although on, thankfully fairly rare, occasion this is a fruitless quest) but the overall assessment should  never be distorted. And the critic should be pleased to maintain a high standard and have plenty of negative reviews published, because the effect of this is to make one’s commendations of much greater value. Rarity confers value. Where every review is a good one how is it possible to really distinguish one book from another, for any particular review to carry any weight?

It is these last points which to my mind are the most damning. If one is submerged in a flood of positivity (and anyone who reads widely in the mystery field will know very well that such a flood is false: there are a lot of average and some very bad books out there!) then there can be no distinction, no reason to pick one title over another, no discrimination. I realise that the writer’s approach to criticism arises from the best of motives, from feelings of comradeship and fellow-feeling, but in my view this only goes to prove why writing and criticism do not generally go well together. Their aims and functions are different. The art of good criticism is a specialised one (and I am not making any claims for my own neophyte endeavours in the field) and should be left to critics.

The lesson to learn is that writer’s criticism should be treated with a good deal of scepticism. If you want proper objectivity go look at ReviewingtheEvidence or EuroCrime.

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