This weekend I found myself engrossed in the movie Official Secrets starring Keira Knightley as GCHQ whistle-blower Katherine Gunn. As well as being a shocking insight into the role Britain and the U.S.A. played in engineering a war against Iraq, it reinforced just how cosy a relationship exists at the top tier of British society, and between professions where ‘cosiness’ really shouldn’t be an appropriate word to apply. Politicians are pally with newspaper editors and journalists, and the Director of the CPS was chums with the lawyer defending Katherine Gunn. These incestuous relationships concern me, they invariably lead to a dilution of integrity, and to cover-ups.
But this exists just about everywhere. I haven’t been involved in a profession where networking wasn’t a key factor in progressing. Networking is important to get things done, but when it slips over the border into becoming something else, then I have problems with it.
I’ve just finished reading the book The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. It’s not my sort of book, too cosy, but I can appreciate it’s well-written, engaging, and offers much needed escapism at this time. However, the accolades on the cover from other writers didn’t match the content. It’s a good book but, for several reasons, it’s not a great book. So why have so many renowned authors implied otherwise?
I don’t know the answer for sure, but I have my suspicions. When asked, what else are they going to do? Say they didn’t like it? You’d think that might be the obvious thing to do. It’s what I would have done a couple of years ago, before I wrote a book that wasn’t a travel guidebook, or started writing a work of fiction. Now I don’t have the confidence of someone who has no connection with the book-writing profession. Now I’m painfully aware that if I say I don’t like something, I’m criticising fellow authors and criticism hurts. Now I have a voice shouting in my ear ‘who the hell do you think you are to judge anybody else’s work?’
It’s easier to follow a path of either saying nothing, or to just capitulate and say/write ‘this is brilliant.’
I find the latter difficult. Since branching out in writing terms, I’ve dipped my toes in a few writer groups. Some involve getting on a track of reviewing other’s books. The more you review, the more others review yours – everybody wins. Invariably, most of these reviews are glowing, irrespective of how good a book is. It’s just the way things work. Chumminess leads to obligation, which can mean that books which aren’t very good have five-star review after five-star review. I’m okay at diplomacy, but I’m not so good at saying something is good when I don’t believe it is. So, I’ve generally avoided becoming involved. In practical terms, it’s far more my loss than theirs but, hey ho, that’s just who I am, and I can’t change that: I don’t want to.
The practice, however, rankles the reader in me. It might be the way things work, but it can also be deceptive. How can a potential reader tell which author recommendation is genuine, and which isn’t? It’s impossible to answer that.
But then, how can you tell which Amazon or Goodreads reader reviews to trust, and which are a load of baloney? I’ve realised book reviews are no different from restaurant reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. Some people have similar tastes, many don’t. Some people have something sensible to say, many don’t. The devil is always in the detail, and that’s where you can find clues as to whether a book may be as good as accolades suggest.
How important are author accolades on book covers anyway? I guess that depends on who’s holding a book in their hands, internally debating whether to buy it or not. It occurred to me that, in forty years of buying books, I can’t remember one single time I purchased a book because of an author’s recommendation on its cover. In the case of The Thursday Murder Club, I completely glossed over the three pages of rave reviews. I just thought the book sounded interesting.
Ultimately, the responsibility for choosing the right book for me literally rests in my own hands.