Thursday, May 13, 2010

Learning from the Past: Weaving a Novel

The following book reviewers from the 19th century provide some interesting literary criticism that can be useful to today's novelists. These reviews have used the analogy of weaving to illustrate where these novelists have erred. (You may click on the news clippings to enlarge for easier viewing.)

Thicker Than Water, James Payn (1883)
"wearisome", "not a personage that remains for five minutes in the memory", "Out of noting a story is made, and the product is nothing", "a plot which has long ago been worn threadbare", "absolute retrogression", "has not even rattle, pertness, flippancy", "It is as commonplace and ordinary, and about as exciting as the literature found on a bill of fare in a well-regulated eating-house."

New York Times, October 8, 1883

"the atmosphere of the book is far from pleasant, and there are pages upon pages of dull, unreadable matter, which, though evidently meant to be humorous, never call up a smile", "wish that the book contained more story and less 'padding'".

Westminster Review, July 1883

Madelon by Eleanor Wilkins (1896) 
Mary Eleanor Wilkins biography

"spent herself in rendering intense emotions and providing occasions for them", "There is so little besides the plot in this latest book of hers that we have refrained from giving its outline", "strength does not lie in bare bones"

New York Times, May 17,1896

Let's discuss some of the problems that the reviewers pointed out.  What could the author have done to strengthen their writing?  
Readers - What do you look for in a well-woven novel?


  1. It's interesting reading reviews from the past. What struck me is that authors have always had to deal with criticism. I also noted that the aspects of a well-written story haven't changed. If description is lacking, characters are underdeveloped, or plot is weak, the story suffers.

  2. OUCH. Like Keli said, authors have always had to deal with negative reviews. I'm amazed that the reading experience is so subjective. Books I dearly love are the same ones my friends stick their tongues out at - and vice versa! Sometimes we agree but most often reading is a really personal thing. Even if the author has gotten the story down right it might not sing for everyone. Thus the wide variety of reviews.

    I love your words - "well-woven novel." For me, a fine novel needs depth, characters I can love, a rich setting, and spiritual truth. There are more things, of course, but those are the ones that really reach me.

    I will say that I think, from a reviewer's perspective, that we can find good things to say about every novel (CBA, anyway), even if it wasn't our favorite read. I am very careful to never criticize another writer's work. Graciousness goes a long way. For every book you don't care for, there are many who do.

    Great post, Carla:)

  3. Keli, book reviews have been published almost as long as the news and magazines have been in print. Its remarkable that the basic story components still haven't changed and people expect quality in every area, not just words to fill the page.

  4. Laura, Ouch is right! And I agree with you that as CBA reviewers it's important to note the good things about a novel and not just pointing out flaws that we may find. Reviews are as subjective as our own reading preferences. I like the way you say that, "it might not sing for everyone".

  5. We can certainly see from these reveiws that readers really have expectations. What I noticed is the desire to see a fresh plot and a vibrant atmosphere which make the novel boring. In the case of Mary Wilkin's Madelon it was apparent that the reader knows she is from New England yet did not use her personal knowledge and experience by bringing that "loveliness" to the page. It is important to live up to the reputation that the author has earned - a note not to become a lazy writer once published.

  6. Carla,
    I've given your blog an award for book reviewing at Dark Glass Ponderings.


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