Posted by: Linda Proud | February 4, 2008

The mystery of the Labyrinth

I woke up this morning, knowing what I was going to write here, but also determined not to name names. I don’t like negative reviews and didn’t want to get into that. However, I thought I’d just check on Amazon to see what anyone else thought of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, which I’ve spent the last three days reading while I waited for Norovirus to do its worst and leave. I was so shocked, so relieved, I nearly wept. Listen, this book has had reviews to die for and has sold in huge quantities. I do recommend that anyone interested in the commercial fiction debate should read the reviews for Labyrinth on Amazon.co.uk. They make fascinating reading, and leave you in no doubt that the great British reading public is not stupid (except that we haven’t learnt to recognise buddy reviews in the media for what they are). Review after review carries a grudging one star (you are not allowed to leave the star field empty)and each is enlightening in its criticism. So, what went wrong with this book? If it had come to me in mss, I would have said the following:

“It is obviously well-researched and lovingly done, but it is far too long. In fact, it is interminable and I was nearly in tears by the end, longing for it to finish. Because, you see, the ending was so entirely predictable. At least a third of this book could disappear without any loss. As for the characters, there are far too many of them, and almost all are wooden stereotypes. There is no depth of characterisation. You quite cheekily say in your blurb (yes, I know who writes the blurb) that it’s an adventure story featuring two women who don’t stand around waiting to be rescued. Oh yeah? Whatever you tell me about the character of Alice, I got the impression of someone standing wide-eyed and saying, ‘Ummmm’ while things happend to her. In your own notes on your own book at the back (how precious can you get?) you have a section called ‘characterisation’ which I read with interest, only to find myself being asked if I had guessed which one in the medieval sections echoed which ones in present day. Well, no, I hadn’t. Too busy looking for something about them to be interested in. I strongly suggest you take a course in writing, for you obviously have some talent, and before sending it out again, make sure you get it edited.”

Naturally, I would have then edited out the cruelty and fashioned a much kinder response. But she would have risen up in righteous anger to point out that she has a degree in English from Oxford, has worked as an editor for top publishers, teaches Creative Writing at the University of Sussex and is a founder of the Orange Prize. At which point I would have fainted clean away, unable to comprehend such a mystery as this.

One lesson I’ve learnt from this exercise is to check Amazon reviews before buying anything again. What does it teach us about getting published? The lesson here is as inescapable as it is obvious: it’s not who you are but who you know that counts. Now isn’t that sad?

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