Accentuate the positive

I’ve recently been visiting sites such as https://bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com/ and http://www.theindieview.com/indie-reviewers/  in search of bloggers who might like to review my novels. In their guidelines for authors, some of them state that they will only post about those books to which they can give a good rating, while others warn that they may include negative reviews as well as positive ones.
I tend to favour the first policy, although I do think that an honest and helpful review usually needs to include a few points of constructive criticism. Reviews which consist of undiluted praise may have been paid for, or written by friends or relatives of the author.
Negative reviews can be devastating for authors, especially sensitive or inexperienced ones, but they are often highly subjective. Even prizewinning best sellers are never universally admired, but receive a handful of damning comments and low ratings. From the reviewer’s angle it can be a waste of time and energy to read through to the end of something boring, distasteful or poorly edited, though there are a few who derive perverse satisfaction from trashing a book. A strongly worded negative review can actually attract readers, whereas if the book was really all that bad it would have been kinder to ignore it and let it lapse into obscurity.
For all these reasons, I prefer not to post ratings of less than 3 stars or reviews which are predominantly negative, even though I do find that negative reviews can be the the easiest sort to write. When I dislike a book I can usually give a specific reason for my opinion. For example, novels containing descriptions of cruelty to animals are my pet hate (no pun intended). I recently gave up on a thriller in which the F-word appeared several times on almost every page. And an autobiography which should have been fascinating was, in my opinion, marred by the self-pitying tone of its author. In contrast, when I do like a book I am often unable to explain exactly why, and find myself reduced to using bland general terms such as “interesting”, “original”, “gripping” or “uplifting”.
For the record, looking back at my list of 5-star ratings on Goodreads, a few of the titles which I have enjoyed reading or re-reading lately have included psychological thrillers (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Children Act by Ian McEwan, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn), biographies (Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary, Bomber Boys by Patrick Bishop, Noel Streatfeild by Angela Bull), and books about holistic healing (You are the Placebo by Joe Dispenza, Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani).

The older writer

Young authors with the potential for a long future career, especially if they are photogenic or have an unusual background, are the ones most likely to find favour with agents and publishers. But many wellknown authors have continued to produce new work of a good standard in old age. I have just finished reading Angela Bull’s excellent biography of Noel Streatfeild (1895 – 1986), who wrote numerous books besides the famous children’s classic Ballet Shoes, and who published her last novel when she was in her mid-eighties. Other English women authors who continued writing in their later years include Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976), Iris Murdoch (1919 – 1999), and P. D. James (1920 – ) who is, I understand, currently working on another book at the age of ninety-four. There are many more examples.

A few successful authors did not seriously begin their writing career until late in life. For example Mary Wesley (1912 – 2002) wrote the first of her seven novels for adults when she was seventy-one. Her books were original, sexy and regarded as slightly shocking and several of them, including The Chamomile Lawn, became best sellers. As the saying goes “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.”

Creative writing is one of those skills which is often well preserved, and may even improve, as age advances but there is a limit. It has to be acknowledged that books written by older people are not always of top quality, and sometimes only accepted for publication on the strength of their authors’ previous reputations. Mary Wesley knew when it was time to stop, and wrote no more novels after she turned eighty-three. Other older authors, in contrast, have continued to publish more books after they are past their peak. Linguistic analysis of the later works of both Agatha Christie and Iris Murdoch reveals signs of cognitive decline: a limited vocabulary, a vagueness of expression, and the tendency to repetition. Does this mean they should have stopped writing? I don’t think so; even if the later books by these remarkable women are not quite so good as the earlier ones, they still display outstanding talent and are valued by many faithful fans.

Older writers do possess certain advantages. They have a wide life experience to draw upon for material. If they are free of work and family responsibilities, they have ample time to write. They are likely to be driven by a genuine love of writing and the wish to create a quality product, rather than by the slim hope of achieving fame and fortune.

I had reached my sixties by the time I began to revisit my childhood passion for writing fiction, and I hope to find enough inspiration to continue for a good few years yet. Having no desire to produce best-selling books, I write mainly for my own satisfaction, however I only consider the activity worthwhile if at least some people read and enjoy my work. My second novella Blue Moon for Bombers: a story of love, war and spirit has just been published; I will post an extract of the text and details of purchasing options on this blog next week.