Never read a book review. Or a film or theatre review, either. And if you happen on a reviewer in action on the radio, switch off quick.
Why? Because a reviewer is like a nasty uncle who dangles a scrumptious sweet in front of a drooling toddler, then pops it into his own mouth and eats it himself, slowly and indulgently, while the kid groans in despair.
For some reason, even the most eminent reviewers now act like third-formers handing in an English essay with the sole intention of demonstrating they’ve read the book.
I love a good book. I appreciate somebody giving me a recommendation. What I don’t want is somebody telling me so much about the book that I don’t really need to read it. Because let’s face it, no matter how important character development is, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s shaped by the events of the story. “What happens next?” is the irresistible question in all good reads, not just whodunnits. So why would I want to know all that before I turn the first page?
Take a look at this sample review from a national newspaper. I’ve altered the facts and events described in order to hide the identity of the book (you might want to read it yourself) but everything else is verbatim.
Murder in Gloucestershire and massacre in the Middle East come together traumatically in X’s new novel. Currently the proprietor of a newsagent’s shop on the Isle of Man, Bob Simms – tall, narrowly-built, 42 years old – grew up and spent most of his life at Newley Stables in the Cotswolds. Owned by his family for generations, it was devastated by equine disease. Watching his beloved horses culled, Bob’s widower father faced ruin. Desertion by his younger son Mike, who ran away to join a terrorist group as a teenager, added to the pressures that resulted in his death.
Along with an unexpected legacy, the sale of the stables to a property developer freed Bob to marry his long-time girlfriend Josie, also from a horse-breeding background. Together, they left the mainland for the Isle of Man where, in contrast to his deep-rooted way of life, Bob now runs his newsagent’s.
Then, in Spring 2005, a letter from the Foreign Office breaks the news that Mike has been killed in arab territory. His death, reopening old psychic wounds, rips Bob and Josie apart. For, scared of being pulled back into a world they have left behind them, she refuses to accompany Bob on his journey to the mainland to receive his brother’s body, then back to Gloucestershire to bury it amid the Simms graves ….
And so on, and on, and on. The reviewer outlines the plot, describes the characters, supplies their background, dissects their motivations and then tells the story. I want the book itself to do all those things. By telling me everything this reviewer has denied me the pleasure of reading the book, and cost the author a sale.
What he’s done, in effect, is describe the features rather than the benefits. I don’t want to know the who, what and why – I want to know whether they add up to something I’d feel like buying.
People who have a product or service to sell often make the same mistake. They’re so close to their much-loved creation that they think everyone else will feel the same way once they know what’s gone into it.
Unfortunately, consumers don’t share that unconditional love. They’re interested in one thing: “What’s in it for me?” Instead of the nuts and bolts and special glue that go into the make-up, they’re interested in how the product will actually improve their lives.
It can be a hard lesson. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Well, it may have been like that in 19th-century New England but things are different now, Ralph.
Because first you need to tell people about your mousetrap. And if you spend too much time talking about the steel-wound spring and the galvanised bolts, and not enough on the joy of no more noise behind the skirting board at night, your only customers will be the relative few with a special interest in sprung death traps.
As for the book, find it in a bookshop, turn to page 69 and read that page. If it seems OK, buy it. That’s honestly the only way – unless you can find a reviewer who knows the difference between a galvanised bolt and a good night’s sleep.