Posted by stevemosby on May 17th, 2013
I thought my worst ever review was lost forever, but, thanks to the wonders of wayback, I found it online last week. A bunch of writers on twitter were comparing war stories, so I went searching for it, then stuck up a link. It got a flurry of sympathetic responses, and I thought I’d post it here too, and say a few things about it.
Housekeeping. Since it’s not properly online anymore, and was pseudonymous in the first place, I’m just going to post the whole thing without feeling too much guilt. But the link to it on wayback is here. And the site that hosted it, Bookmunch, is still going in a new incarnation here.
Right. Buckle yourselves in. Because this is going to get ugly.
“Bitesize: Excrutiating, tedious, clichéd crime debut from Steve Mosby, a name not to watch . . .
Sometimes it is rather difficult to know quite where to start. Sometimes a book is good – so good that the job becomes difficult. How can you explain what makes this particular book different from that particular book? This is good, you say. You will enjoy it. Other times, you may feel a book is alright – this book shows promise. You may not wish others to experience the book, but it may be worth bearing a certain name in mind for the future. Look out for this author next time around. Further down the scale, there may be books that – had they experienced ruthless editing – could have been fit to see the light of day (and again, these writers are possibles, these are writers that the future may yet be kind to – a good example would be Yann Martel, whose first two books were quite, quite horrible). You may read a book and – horrible word this but – “appreciate” what it has to offer – it isn’t for you, but you can see why others would take to it (I tend to throw things like The Lord of the Rings in here – it isn’t for me, but . . . you know?). And then – there are the bad books. There are the books that bore you. The books you do everything to avoid (you wash up, you talk to relatives you don’t even like on the telephone, you watch soaps on TV). The books that cause you physical pain. The books you invariably fling across the room in rage – because who was responsible for this outrage, and who ensured it was made available in print?
These are the books you want to hold up to the light and gut like a fish.
The Third Person by Steve Mosby is such a book.
Jason is looking for Amy, his girlfriend. She disappeared three months ago. There was a letter on the kitchen table – she was going away, to think about things, to work stuff out – but she would be coming back. She said. But she didn’t, and Jason has been busy, trawling through the true detritus of the Internet, following Amy’s electronic footsteps through rape sites and snuff sites and – sick shit, my friends. He has his friend, a techie called Graham, sifting through CCTV footage purloined from various hacked sites and mapping Amy’s final route through the city – which I should add is no actual city but rather a “suggested” city – because The Third Person operates in a kind of murky future world (which feels the need to appropriate Americanisms like “freeway” and “sidewalk”), a world in which the spaces between various high rises have been paved, a world that has seen fit to eclipse Downtown, forcing its emergence as a spooky netherworld of crime and disorder. But I’m getting ahead of myself – prior to Amy’s disappearance, Jason was having himself a wee cyber fling with Claire – a cyber fling that resulted in his leaving Amy for a pivotal day around which much of the novel revolves – who, in turns out, was a prostitute involved with an old gent who was purchasing examples of writing, writing capable of transporting the reader to wherever and whatever the writing recorded (think of it as the writing equivalent of Dreamscape, that Natalie Wood movie in which virtual reality was the equivalent of genuine reality, so you experienced whatever you saw, be it sex or death or – whatever). As Jason searches for Amy, the snuff writing stolen by Claire – and the writer himself – become inextricably wound up in the search and before you know it people are dying left, right and centre and a virus capable of reducing the Internet to a ghost town is on the loose and . . .
Before we start gutting, let’s talk about common principles. The common principles of bad writing, if you will. If you were to sift through the mountains of unpublished writing in search of a home, you would find a number of tropes that have a tendency to repeat: the most common thing is violence against women. Sometimes it’s thuggish and ignorant. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is dressed up as darkness. The modern darkness that obsesses a vast number of misanthropic men in their late twenties. But, for all that, it’s still violence against women written by men with issues. Bad writers also have a tendency to DESCRIBE EVERYTHING, irrespective of whether (a) said detail will advance plot or (b) said detail is in the least bit interesting. Bad writers have a tendency to insert tangential comment – what they think of coffee or pot plants or – whatever; bad writers confuse said tangential comments with “style” – believing wrongly that their thoughts on just about everything are hugely original (this ties in with another common characteristic of bad writing – that wounded superiority that you know has arisen from the fact that the writer in question knows beyond a shadow of a doubt they are a genius but can’t quite work out why other people have failed to cotton onto the fact). Bad writers labour under the misconception that using filmic shorthand (a) makes them appear cool and (b) no doubt eases the work required when their masterpiece is – inevitably – transformed into a blockbuster. Filmic shorthand invariably has filmic characterisation – in other words, characters you’d expect to find played by somebody of the calibre of – ooh I don’t know, Jason Statham. So characters kill without compunction (or worse, if the author has a little intelligence – and you know what they say about a little intelligence – the killer will kill and the reader will then be subjected to a page or so of existential anguish – anguish which is then sloughed away in time for the next killing and the next). You can also expect comebacks more often than not (think of it as the “yippee-kie-ay, motherfucker” factor). Bad writing is too literal. Bad writers spell everything out in block capitals. Conversely, you can also expect bad writing to hop, skip and jump about with nary a thought for logic.
The Third Person ticks all of the boxes outlined above. I am sorely tempted to quote an example (or examples) of each – but (i) I’m spoiled for choice and (ii) I’ve already spent a week of my life reading 264 pages of this bilge and – that’s a week’s reading I’m never getting back. Of course, you can always say that there is much in the way of shite writing that sells by the bucketload – your James Pattersons, your Michael Marshalls. There is also a fair share of extraordinary writing – both in crime from the likes of James Ellroy, Walter Mosley etc, and in that curious hinterland of writing that seeks to wed fantasy and scifi and crime and – stuff, people like Jeff Vandermeer, whose Veniss Underground could offer Mosby stark lessons in doing this kind of thing – but that would rely on Mosby being able to display the kind of talent that The Third Person more than demonstrates him woefully short of. This is the kind of book that forces you to be harsh – somebody wants to sit this guy down and say NEVER WRITE ANYTHING AGAIN. Or – prior to his unleashing anything else on the world – ensure that the book is edited by a marine drill sergeant – the guy from Full Metal Jacket should do the trick.
Let’s just all save ourselves a lot of time and effort and never speak of this again.
Any Cop?: Didn’t I just say: we’re not to speak of this again!!”
Okay. First things first. A few people on twitter suggested I might have been upset when I read this. Even if it hadn’t been one of the first reviews I ever received (and it was), I can understand that viewpoint. It’s a brutal review. I’ve read more brutal reviews, I think, but not many. It’s up there in the top ten.
So, how did it feel? I don’t really remember, to be honest. I know I can’t have been that distraught about it, simply because, if I had been, I’m sure I would remember. I think my reaction then was more or less the same as it is while reading it now (with the caveat that, right now, it doesn’t feel like my fledgling career is going to be destroyed by it). The level of vitriol – about a book, let’s not forget – is surprising, but within a few sentences of that plummeting feeling, all that’s really left to do is strap yourself in and see how far down the thing goes. And a part of me enjoys reading a good evisceration, so I can’t really complain when the knives get turned on me.
Is the criticism valid? Well, that’s not for me to say. I’m sure the reviewer genuinely did have those feelings about the book, so on that level, her criticisms can only ever be considered legitimate. It’s a curious book. I have a great deal of affection for it, as not only is it my first published novel, but the last I wrote – as it were – purely for myself, and the best I could do at the time. If I was writing it now, it would certainly be very different; I see flaws throughout. And I always worry a little when people who have liked my later writing say they’ve picked it up as a result, because it is very, very far removed from what I do now.
At the same time, I don’t think Hatchick (the reviewer) really got what I was trying to do with it, or even what the book was supposed to be about. That is also my fault, of course – but a different kind of fault to the ones she picks out in the review. Despite what she says, I think, if anything, I didn’t spell certain things out enough.
“Excrutiating” should be “excruciating”. Holding a fish up to the light to gut is a mixed – and potentially very messy – metaphor. Etc. You see. Nobody’s perfect.
One thing I do remember is writing to the editor to complain about the review. Not because it was negative – I made it clear that was totally fine – but about the one line concerning misanthropic men in their late twenties. I thought that was needlessly personal and, given the subject matter of the book, both presumptuous and more than a little offensive. I received a reply from the editor that he would not consider removing that sentence, but would allow me right of reply below the review. He also cautioned me that it seldom looked good for the author to do so. Well, no, it doesn’t, and since that wasn’t what I was asking for anyway, I didn’t do so. At the time, that particular line pissed me off far more than the overall tone; reading it now, it still grates. But the world turns. These days, I wouldn’t bother sending that email.
I think, all in all, it was good I got this review so early on. Reviews can be harsh (and I’ve certainly had some bad ones since), but really, if you get something like this when you’re starting out, at least you know it’s unlikely to get much worse. In much the same way, my first panel experience was an utter disaster; the second panel I was on, I could hardly have cared less. It was freeing. And in terms of this review, ten years later, I’m still going. I didn’t stop writing. When you put books out there, the chances are you’re going to take a hit. And when I see new reviews these days, whatever the content, there’s some consolation in knowing that I’m likely to have been hit with a hell of a lot worse.