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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, August 26, 2012

I read a book recently, or actually, I read the first couple hundred pages of it before giving in to the voice nagging away at the back of my mind saying, “This book is not worth it.” It’s always a difficult decision to stop reading something. This has always been true, but the more involved I got in my own pursuit of the designation “Writer,” the more difficult giving up on a book became. I want to afford every writer the same faith and patience I hope readers will offer when reading my stuff, and I well know that sometimes you have to slog through a work for a bit before it gets good. Still, there are far, far, FAR more worthwhile books than I will have time in my one measly lifetime to read, so there’s a point where I have to realize reading time spent with a bad book is reading time wasted.

But anyway, this book. Here’s the thing about this book: it was lauded all over the place by other writers. The front and back covers of the book were crowded with blurbs praising the book’s wit, plot, and language use. Maybe that’s why I stuck with it for so long. Ultimately, I found pretty much nothing praiseworthy—or even read-worthy—about this book. The author’s attempts at wit fell embarrassingly short, and neither the characters nor the plot engaged me in the least. On top of that, the language was bland and uninspired. If I were Roger Ebert, I might write an entire book about it myself called, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Book.

But I’m not mentioning it to convince you to hate the book too. Like I said, I gave up halfway. Maybe the next two-hundred pages dazzle. I can’t, not having read the entire book, in good conscience write a review of the book here (or even tell you what book it is), but the experience did get me thinking about blurbs, those often overzealous little quotes used to market books.

How much can we trust blurbs?

When I found out my book was going to be published, I found out, also, that it would be up to me to track down a couple of choice blurbs for the back cover. I don’t know that I had ever really thought about it either way before that, but if I had, I probably would have guessed the publisher tracks down impressive blurbers for a new book. Maybe that is what happens at a major press, who knows? But at a small press, it’s the author’s responsibility to convince a couple of fellow authors to read, and write a useful quote about, the book.

I had no idea where to begin, so I read some online articles and blog posts about how to procure blurbs. The gist of my research was that you should compile a list of authors whose work you feel is similar to your own and contact them and just, you know, ask. You should aim high, I read, because nobody really cares about blurbs unless they recognize the author whose stamp of approval is being proffered. So I made a short list and painstakingly crafted letters that felt precariously close to fan mail. I explained to each author why I respected his or her work and why I felt my work had been influenced by that admiration. Then I described my book, noting its award, and offered to send a free copy if they were interested.

I didn’t hear back from a single one.

I’m still a little embarrassed about it.

Later, I received an email from the Editor-in-chief at Autumn House, reminding me they were waiting on these blurbs and telling me, because he knew this was my first book, that usually, you just ask previous professors or well-established friends.

Oh!

I promptly asked my two fiction professors from UAF, whose work, I should point out, I do admire, whose names I’m more than proud to have on my book. Both are strong, honest people, ethical people, and I don’t believe either one of them would have agreed to blurb the book if they didn’t feel the book was any good. I know I can trust every word they said in their blurbs. It’s not that they would want to hurt my feelings, but I know they would be willing to rather than lying about the book.

But I don’t know that the same can be said of every author who has ever blurbed another author’s book. Part of that controversy I talked about last week deals with the issue of dishonestly promoting friends’ books. While I disagree with the idea that people should make public posts about how they dislike their friends’ books, I do agree that you shouldn’t claim to like something you don’t like. I also agree that people are probably doing just that—to be nice to their friends, or to maintain useful connections with the people in their network.

To be honest, this seems almost inevitable, since blurbs, as it turns out, are so often written by people who have some sort of personal connection to the author. If someone you know personally asks you for a blurb, it’s very, very difficult, I’m sure, to tell them you didn’t like their book and that you don’t feel comfortable blurbing it. That’s the right thing to do, of course, but it takes a very strong sort of person to stand up and do it.

Literature is subjective, of course, and it could be that the authors who blurbed the awful book I tried to read saw something in it that I just didn’t see. But I doubt it. It was that kind of bad that I think most discerning readers would recognize, and the truth is, I felt a little duped by all those authors with their shining, enthusiastic blurbs. Would I have bought the book without the blurbs? Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.

But it isn’t really the blurbers’ faults, even if they knowingly lied about the value of the book in their blurbs. The truth is, blurbs are just advertising tools. Just like I don’t believe the narrator in a toothpaste commercial who tells me using X brand of toothpaste will change my life, I shouldn’t put too much stock in blurbs.
 
Unless, of course, the blurb is by Nick Hornby. That guy’s never steered me wrong.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tom McAllister, the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse, blogged this week about the positive vs. negative criticism controversy. To gain a full understanding of the controversy, I recommend you read McAllister’s blog, if you haven’t already, as this is a multifaceted issue and I don’t have the space to really cover it in full detail here. McAllister is very even-handed and fair in his assessment of the issue. In fact, the next day, he posted an addendum to the initial post, clarifying his points and adding further ideas he’d thought about later.

I agree with McAllister and am impressed with his objectivity. Still, I disagree with the conclusion that we should all of us, every one, be posting negative reviews for the sake of honesty. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m constructing a straw man here, but after reading McAllister’s blog, I believe he’s suggesting just that: that withholding comment is no different from lying. If you are not a book reviewer or critic, in my opinion there is no appropriate alternative to posting only positive comments about other writers’ work.

The problem arises from equating the work of book reviewers and critics to online posts writers make about other writers. The two are not the same. Book reviewers and critics are being tasked to give their evaluation of a book, regardless of whether they like it or not. People posting to social media sites are choosing to post about a book—nobody asked for their opinion, and, probably, nobody cares except the writer, if he or she sees the post, and possibly a small number of friends who value the poster’s judgment and taste.

Here’s what I think:
 
It’s important to distinguish between critics/book reviewers and people who are just posting on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. about their friends’ books (or just books they’ve read). I agree that book reviewers and critics should be willing to post negative reviews. If you’ve been assigned (or if you’ve volunteered) to review a specific book and it turns out you freakin’ hate it, it would be totally unethical to post a positive review of that book. It’s less obviously unethical to just not write the review at all, but personally, I agree with McAllister that negative reviews can be as useful as positive ones, and that professional reviewers should probably post both positive and negative reviews.

People who are just posting in the social media about books they’ve read, though—that’s completely different. Yes, everyone should still be honest. If a friend of yours writes a book and you hate it, you shouldn’t lie and post about how much you loved it on Facebook. I don’t agree, though, that you should post negative comments about the book. If a friend of mine reads Peter Never Came and hates it, fine; we can still be friends—but if he or she plasters the web with negative comments about my book for no reason, we’re through. Does that make me an asshole, as McAllister says? I don’t think so. I think it makes me human. I don’t feel compelled to ridicule my friends when they write things I don’t engage with, and I expect the same courtesy in return.

Does that mean that we end up with only gushing reviews on Facebook and Twitter, people posting about other people’s “brilliant” books? Yes, I guess it does. And I guess I’m okay with that, because as long as those people are being honest (again, I DO agree that it’s unethical to say you love something if you don’t), we can trust these positive reviews, even if the people posting them are personal friends of the authors.

Now, that doesn’t mean I think we should refrain from offering our honest feedback if a friend asks for it. If I ask someone for their opinion of something I wrote, I expect the truth. Likewise, if someone tells me they loved something I wrote, it does me NO GOOD if it turns out to have been a lie. I won’t learn anything, have a chance to improve, if everybody just claims everything I write is perfect as is.

But keep in mind we’re talking here about already published work. It’s too late, now, to do further revision, and the fact that it’s been published indicates that some editor somewhere likes it. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect; that doesn’t mean the writer can’t still gain something from criticism. But it’s the place of the book reviewer and critic to help the writer from there. If the writer asks for your help, then it’s your place too, but otherwise, let’s be honest, only a true asshole feels it’s his or her place to point out other people’s foibles.

Again, book reviewers and actual critics should feel free to tear any published piece apart—that’s their job—but a friend? No. If you read the published work of a friend and you don’t like it, I think you should follow your mama’s advice from grade school and keep your mouth shut unless otherwise requested.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

About a year ago, I made the incredibly difficult decision to stop messing around with the novel I wrote as my MFA thesis and move on, at last. This came after years of writing and rewriting and submitting what I eventually admitted was a doomed manuscript—and the admission hurt. A lot.

My process for submitting the book had gone like this: I started by querying agents. I sent the first query on August 27th, 2009, almost three years ago. I was mired in an agent hunt for a little over a year and a half, and during that time I queried exactly 61 agents. I received five manuscript requests and a handful of encouraging personal responses from agents whose submission process allows for the unsolicited submission of a partial manuscript. Of course, I mostly received form rejections, and sometimes, no response at all, but the personal responses I received were encouraging. I was told by several agents that the writing was really good, and some even said the story was compelling—they just didn’t fall in love with it.

By the end of my agent hunt, I had rewritten the manuscript several more times and had moved on to Plan B: entering the manuscript into contests. Money being tight, I entered the manuscript into only four contests before chucking the plan. I didn’t receive so much as an honorable mention in any of those contests, and having recently been through the contest process with Peter Never Came (the first contest I entered Peter Never Came into I won a semi-finalist slot; the third contest I entered I won first prize), I was pretty quickly disheartened and decided not to waste my money.

I had just begun to move on to Plan C, adding my manuscript to the ever growing slush piles of small presses, when I gave up. When I finally decided to move the manuscript to the “Failed Attempts” folder on my computer, I had submitted to only a handful of small presses—just the “big” small presses, if that oxy-moron doesn’t make your head want to explode. You know the ones I mean: the small presses who can afford the giant, luxurious, multi-table booths at AWP each year.

That was well over a year ago. I still haven’t heard back from all of them, though I’m certainly not holding my breath. But here’s the thing, here’s why I’m dredging this up again: I finally did get a response from one of  them—one of the “big” small presses, one of the biggest, without naming names—and the rejection . . . was incredibly encouraging. They said what a difficult decision it had been and that I should know that they really enjoyed the manuscript. They rejected it, yes, but their rejection left me unsure if I’d been too hasty to abandon the novel I’d worked so hard on.

And here I am again. Wondering. I can’t decide what the better route is: submit the manuscript to “small” small presses or stay the course, figuring whether the novel is publishable or not is beside the point because I need to move on with my life. But you know, even last year when I gave up, I still couldn’t bring myself to move the novel to my “Failed Attempts” file. It’s remained this whole time, unopened, in my “Novels” file. Part of me thinks it’s a waste to have a book that I believe is publishable just sitting there, collecting virtual dust.  But I don’t know, maybe I should leave the file exactly where it is now, in a sort of limbo, not given up on, exactly, but no longer making the rounds, either.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

I want to finally talk about Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, which I read a few weeks ago. This book, remember, was one of three finalists for the fiction Pulitzer this year—one of the few years in Pulitzer history that no fiction prize was awarded. I was particularly interested in reading this one because, while the other two books had surface level or publication related issues that may have prevented them from earning the prize, the only thing standing in the way of this book winning would have been content problems—problems with the book itself.

The short response is I liked the book. My long response, of course, involves a “but”: but I can understand why it didn’t win the Pulitzer.

First, some praise: the story is very compelling; the characters, though quirky to the point of not being believable, are likeable and interesting; and the plot really drives you forward, with some exciting and unexpected turns. I don’t want to give anything away—because I DO strongly recommend you read the book for yourself—but there are some dark and quite painful elements to this book, which is, at its core, the story of how two poor (as in financially) kids from the swamp come to learn what the real world is.

The book is divided into two separate threads: the story of Ava Bigtree, our thirteen-year-old first-person narrator, and that of her seventeen-year-old brother, Kiwi, who runs away to the mainland to get a job in the hopes of sending money home to his family and forestalling the impending foreclosure on their swamp. The book gets off to a plodding start, and my biggest complaint about it is that the first hundred or so pages do little more than establish who these characters are and what their pasts are like. It reminded me of the first hundred or so pages of the much criticized The Girlwith the Dragon Tattoowhich book, for the record, I actually liked. But the first hundred or so pages should have been trimmed. Same here. There’s no reason why these important, establishing details couldn’t have been worked into the story itself, instead of starting with a hundred pages of establishing stuff, then beginning the plot.

I also have problems with the quirkiness of the characters (particularly Ava and Kiwi’s sister, Ossie, who believes she is in contact with the undead). I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and I’ve never met people who are as over-the-top quirky as the characters in some of today’s popular books, movies, and TV shows. I just don’t think that kind of quirkiness is realistic.

And, as many of the reviewers on Amazon mentioned, the writing is very show-offy. Note that show-offy writing is not the same as beautiful writing. Some of the writing is beautiful, but much of it is so overly poetic that I kept being taken out of the story to either A) marvel at what a unique way of saying what she’s trying to say Russell has, or B) read and reread a sentence trying to figure out what the heck it means. Even when it was A, which seems like a good thing, you have to remember I was being pulled out of the story each time. It got tiresome. I couldn’t just get sucked in—isn’t that what we all hope for when we begin reading a novel?

But I want to repeat that I DID like the book. Once the plot really gets going—particularly once Ava’s plot really gets going, which doesn’t happen until around the halfway point of the book—I really cared about what was happening, and I felt moved, saddened, genuinely wounded at certain points in the narrative. I loved the ending, loved the way both Ava and Kiwi (and to a lesser degree, their sister Ossie) have been so irreversibly changed by the events that have taken place. Love the fact that I genuinely believe that Ava, our narrator, has grown up—in a sad, a very sad way—by the end. I also loved some of the imagery, loved the writing itself at points, when it wasn’t too over-the-top, and I do think Russell has a lot of talent; she’s a writer whose name I’ll definitely watch for from this point forward.

But I couldn’t help but compare Swamplandia! to last year’s fiction Pulitzer winner, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I didn’t think A Visit from the Goon Squad was the best book I’d ever read or anything, but it was a good book with a lot of interesting, intricately woven themes. It’s structure was interesting too, and not necessarily in a gimmicky way (like, say, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was good, but the peculiar structure really didn’t add much, so it ended up feeling like a cheap gimmick). Egan is a much better writer than Russell. At least, right now.

Russell, though, is at the very beginning of her career. I agree with Pulitzer fiction judge Michael Cunningham that Swamplandia! is impressive for a first novel, and I have no doubt Russell will just get better and better as she goes along. Russell, by the way, is my age—she’s exactly six months (to the day) younger than me, actually (I looked it up). Her first book came out when she was like 25—the year I entered into my MFA program. She’s already off to a great start in her career, and even if Swamplandia! wasn’t quite good enough to win the Pulitzer, it was a good book, and I won’t be a bit surprised if a Pulitzer is in Russell’s future—just not for this book.