Monday, September 13, 2010

ENDING ANONYMITY and THE LUCK OF THE DRAW

The pre-publication reviews have always been in the vanguard when it comes to providing opportunities for independent publishers and their authors, to succeed. Without Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist it’s highly unlikely that we—and others like us—would have ever been able to survive for three decades. Hundreds of good writers would have remained unpublished and anonymous, and what the public reads would be even more under the control of six major conglomerates, where profitability trumps quality as their primary concerns are publishing books for the widest possible audience.

All the more reason to applaud a new program that Publishers Weekly is starting called PW Select, which opens the door even wider by providing a service that promises to reduce anonymity to self-published authors as well. It will consist of quarterly supplements, starting in December, where, for a modest registration fee, their titles will be listed in a quarterly supplement (with a description of what their book is about), and the promise that at least 25 titles will be given a full review. Also provided is a six month online subscription to PW, which is invaluable to any writer who wants to know more about the business of books. There is little doubt that there are authors who will surely benefit from this coverage opportunity. For more information see the link to announcement made by PW President George Slowik.

Books are ultimately sold by word-of-mouth, and letting the wider reading public know about your book is only the first hurdle. So many factors—beyond talent—play a crucial part in determining success when a book is written. Good pre-publication reviews are essential for building a base of readers. That’s where fate comes into play. Call it the luck of the draw, or accidental. Depending on who is assigned to review any particular book plays a large role that can limit or enhance the possibility for success. Bad reviews nurture anonymity, while a series of good ones can make the author the talk of the town.

The late James Agee wrote that his concept of reviewing is to first understand what the author is trying to say and then judging how well he or she reached that goal (would that every critic could do this). The theater critic John Simon was famous for writing the most acerbic reviews. Critics come in with their own background. Some are published writers, others wannabes. Some are supportive or generally kind, others generally sour. Other threads affecting critical judgment might be related to finding some topics distasteful (such as unconventional love), disliking a particular style of writing, or having some personal enmity for author or publisher. Some reviewers have a literary background, others are more academically inclined. Various critics think that by being more critical they are demonstrating their erudition. As in theater, it’s easier to play tragedy than comedy. So it is with book reviewing: a critic criticizing, will find that job somewhat easier than praising. Still, taste is taste and one needn’t have to justify it. But I do believe that anyone writing a review should take responsibility for it, and that writing anonymously can affect what they say and how they say it. One can take issue with someone who has a byline, but this is impossible if the critic is anonymous.

Newspaper and magazine reviews invariably list the reviewer’s name, as do bloggers. Among the pre-pub reviewers Booklist always gives attribution, but Publishers Weekly and Kirkus do not. What follows are examples of the luck of the draw for four recent novels we published or are about to publish, and why I think every pre-pub review should be attributable to the critic who wrote it.

1. Margaret Hawkins’ second novel, How to Survive a Natural Disaster (pub date late September):
Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, wrote that “Hawkins follows her winning debut, A Year of Cats and Dogs (2009), with an even more arresting work, a droll and unnerving novel of extreme familial dysfunction. Hawkins has created an unusually incisive, rapid-fire, percussively hilarious, caustically dark, and piquantly pleasurable tale of tragic domestic mayhem and incremental redemption.”
Charles Holdefer, writing in the Dactyl Review, said that “Hawkins’ offers a literary novel that is both sophisticated and accessible and, in the end, is probably best described, for lack of a better label, as adult entertainment. She shows that it is time to reclaim the term. How many serious novels are, well, entertaining? How many metafictional games à la Paul Auster or high church cultural memoirs à la Azar Nafisi can a reader be expected to absorb before longing for something else? Hawkins grasps this problem and, without mincing or apology, presses forward. In this respect, it is symptomatic of where contemporary literary fiction will have to go, if it is going to go anywhere.”
Marc Schuster, in Small Press Reviews, calls this novel “nothing short of excellent. A heart-wrenching tale not so much of the things we do for love, but the things we do when love runs dry. One thing that makes it so compelling is that Hawkins allows each of her major characters to shoulder the burden of narration. As a result, readers come at the truth (or “truths”) behind the events depicted from a number of different perspectives. In this respect, it’s reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, though a contemporary setting and more conventional use of language lend themselves to greater emotional resonance in Hawkins’ book. All told, an expertly crafted and emotionally gripping read."
Jim McKeown, writing in Rabbitreader.blogspot.com, and also broadcasting on Baylor University’s NPR station KWBU-FM http://www.kwbu.org/index.php?id=66532 said that “This novel has an ensemble cast of quirky and wonderfully interesting characters. including animals, with secrets of their own. It is exactly the kind of novel I love reading. All the people that inhabit this first-rate story have a solid, realistic quality about them – some are better humans than others – but they all ring true as clear as a digital recording. Move Hawkins to the top of your reading and collection lists. 5 stars”
PW’s anonymous reviewer calls this “An unfortunate choice in structure makes this a slog to read: Hawkins dawdles her way through a narrative that is essentially a round-robin of backstory before arriving, very late in the game, at a plot development. Languid storytelling and uninspired plotting undermine what could be an enticing family drama.”

2. Georgeann Packard’s Fall Asleep Forgetting (pub date late August):
Joan Baum’s review on National Public Radio, Connecticut, set for November 18 (often rebroadcast on Morning Edition and All Things Considered), said that this “new novel about lesbian desire takes on an unusual resonance, since the story takes place in a trailer park, not your typical setting for a story suffused with poetry that’s about the need and nature of affection and love. Packard’s spare and lyrical narrative may not gain a wide readership because of its odd characters, including a Biblical spouting 9-year old named Six and a transvestite. And because of the novel’s shifting perspective and mix of styles. But for these very same reasons, it should attract readers interested in original and passionate fiction.
Sam Millar, writing in the New York Journal of Books: “Georgeann Packard’s extraordinary debut is filled with such an array of original and motley crew of characters, we become almost spoiled for choice as we turn each delicious page of erotic food and heady sex. A master class in sparse, clear prose, this is a compelling and mesmerizing read, infused with an elegiac ambience. It will make you laugh and cry in equal measures. You’ll not fall asleep forgetting this book.”
Amy Steele, writing in Entertainment Realm.com: “Forget reading some mindless chick lit novel; take this one to the beach instead. Fall Asleep Forgetting is full of lust, heated sexual encounters and intense emotions that stem from fresh and recharged connections.”
Sheila Deeth, writing in Gather.com, called this “an absorbing novel and one I’ll find hard to forget. The loose-knit community of Cherry Grove trailer park, an odd group of misfits living on Long Island’s eastern tip, has welcomed me in. And everyone I’ve met has played their part.”
The anonymous PW reviewer concluded that this novel was “Slow moving and repetitive, especially in the sexual encounters and the story, while good in theory, needs more developed characters to create any prolonged interest.”

3. Conor Bowman’s first novel, The Last Estate (pub date late August):
The Kirkus review: “Christian Aragon, the narrator, is about to graduate from high school. It’s only two years since the end of the Great War, in which his older brother Eugene was killed. Their bullying, egotistical father had expected Eugene to succeed him as a wine-maker. Now that duty falls to Christian, but he’s resisting; he intends to make his own way in life. School is more inviting, for Christian has fallen in love with his beautiful 24-year-old geography teacher Vivienne Pleyden, who lives alone since her brutally abusive husband disappeared, to dodge the draft. Christian’s love for her is innocent, passionate and unconditional. Vivienne reciprocates it, as he discovers on an officially sanctioned school trip to Avignon where he loses his virginity to her in the confessional box of a church. There’s a murder, a crime of passion, followed by a courtroom drama and its lengthy aftermath. Bowman is a robust storyteller, and he keeps us hooked.”
Karl Wolff in The Driftless Area Review calls this “A rare miniature treat, little over 160 pages, contains multitudes. It focuses on the story of Christian Aragon, the last surviving son of a Provençal vintner. The hot summer has Christian conflicted by the opposing forces of lust and virtue, the former represented by his young geography teacher and the latter by the cantankerous Jesuit priest, Father Leterrier, who tortures his students with interminable lectures about Holy Purity while Christian yearns to escape the confines of his abusive father and inheriting the winery, which he sees as a curse.
Sheila Deeth’s comments in Gather.com: “Written by an Irishman, set in the wine-country of 1920s France, The Last Estate combines the darkness and depth of Irish story-telling with the beauty of a French village, and the cruel history of the First World War. The story is beautifully crafted. It starts with a cut that slices a young boy’s face; one moment, one blade to change everything. Cut again by fate and his father’s scorn, Christian seeks an unlikely healing. Love blossoms unsanctioned, cutting its own sweet way through boundaries, and a delightful love story unfolds.”
Betsey Van Horn on MostlyFiction Book Reviews: “This is a short but pungent tale about crime, betrayal, passion, love, and a scar–both real and psychic. The narrative is told in a solemn style that fits the times and setting. There is a mournful rim, but the tone is blended with the compelling and muscular verve of the protagonist. The final scene is foreshadowed with a hint of danger and a tortured suspense, and the ending is satisfying and messy, but strangely immaculate. Conor Bowman is an Irish author who spent many summers in France. Like George Moore (1852-1933), he is a largely naturalistic writer that was obviously influenced by the French realist writers, like Émile Zola (1840-1902). However, there is a healthy dose of Romanticism in this tale that offsets the harsh darkness and pervasive pessimism of the former writers. This is his first novel published in the United States. I look forward to his next novel, The Redemption of George Baxter Henry.
And the anonymous PW review: “This trite romance never finds its footing. Scenes of passion that read like schoolboy fantasy. Each obstacle heaped on the lovers' struggle only makes their already thinly conceived connection less credible.”

4. Liza Campbell’s The Dissemblers (pub date November):
Patty Wetli, in Booklist, writes that “In her sure-handed, compact debut, Campbell offers a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Ivy Wilkes, born the same day that Georgia O’Keefe died, harbors the notion that she’s destined for greatness. Barely out of art school, Ivy traces O’Keeffe’s footsteps to Santa Fe, New Mexico (Campbell has a talent for setting and makes excellent use of her landscape), where she waits for inspiration and fame to strike. When neither occurs, she takes to copying O’Keeffe’s canvases, initially as a painting exercise and eventually as forgeries. Here’s where the reader might expect Campbell’s narrative to turn toward a crime thriller or artworld satire, but she opts instead for a subtle yet engaging study of her characters’ contradictions and the corrosive effect that discontentment has on their lives.”
These comments from Kirkus: “A brief, intensely introspective debut. An affecting novel about art and the ways it does and doesn't reflect life.”
Catherine Brady, recipient of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction writes that “With a painterly eye, Campbell tells a coming-of-age story that illuminates the ills of our cultural moment, in which it's so difficult to distinguish the genuine from the fake. She's also an astute and lyrical observer of the exacting demands of art, so that we see how easily a transforming impulse can become corrupted by the hunger for recognition.”
Marc Schuster in Small Press Reviews, again: “Campbell’s prose shines throughout. Whether describing the sweeping vistas of New Mexico or the longing of the human heart, she paints with words what pigments and brushstrokes might not so readily capture.”
And the final anonymous PW review: “Campbell's characters have brief moments of sparkling humanity, but too much of the story is given over to navel-gazing and overphilosophizing.”

As said, these reviews are good examples of the luck (or lack of it) of the draw and no criticism of Publishers Weekly is intended. Staffed by people who appreciate quality fiction and non-fiction, without their dedication to inform the reading world about forthcoming books, without distinguishing between those coming from large publishers and those from small presses like ours, I’d have been plying another trade years and years ago.

I welcome your comments.

Marty

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for tackling this subject. I agree that anonymous reviews open the door for irresponsible - sometimes even mean-spirited - reviewing. Or just moody pot-shot taking. For many years I wrote art reviews every week and my name ran at the bottom of every one. I knew that if people disagreed or if I said something irresponsible or lame I'd hear about it. Having your name attached to a piece of writing makes you think twice about making a casual slam at someone else's expense. (I did once observe that a show of erotic art was "badly hung." But people seemed to agree.)
    Margaret Hawkins

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  2. MARTY, WOW! THAT WAS A MIGHTY THOROUGH REVIEW OF REVIEWERS. ONE OF THE REVIEWERS YOU FLATTERINGLY MENTION TOLD ME THAT SHE NEVER WRITES A BAD REVIEW. UNLESS SHE KNOWS AHEAD OF TIME THAT A BOOK IS GOOD, HOW CAN SHE DO THAT? ISN'T SHE DOING A DISSERVICE TO THE READER? I AGREE ABOUT JANET MASLIN. ONLY WHEN YOU SEE MICHIKO KAKUTANI'S BYLINE DO YOU KNOW THAT THIS MIGHT BE AN IMPORTANT BOOK. YOUR CRITICISM OF THE NYT IS DESERVED. I SORT OF GIVE THEM A PASS BECAUSE I THINK THEY ARE RUNNING SCARED IN THE MIDST OF THE WATERSHED CHANGES TAKING PLACE IN THE NEWSPAPER WORLD AND WILL DO ANYTHING TO PLEASE READERS AND ADVERTISERS. WHETHER THIS IS ADVISABLE IN THE LONG RUN REMAINS TO BE SEEN. AS YOU SAY IT'S THE BEST NEWSPAPER IN THE COUNTRY AND I WINCE WHEN I PICK UP A VERY THIN EDITION WHICH IS HAPPENING MORE AND MORE FREQUENTLY. I SHARE YOUR PROBLEMS WITH THE NYT BOOK REVIEW. SEVERAL WEEKS AGO ITS FRONT PAGE RAVED ABOUT TWO NOVELS BY THE SAME AUTHOR THAT THE REVIEWER CLAIMED TO BE WORKS OF GENIUS. I COULDN'T WAIT TO GET MY HANDS ON THEM. THEY WERE BORING, TURGID, UNINTERESTING. HOW DID THEIR REVIEWER GET AWAY WITH THAT? OF COURSE, I MUST ADMIT THAT PERHAPS I DON'T KNOW GREAT LITERATURE WHEN I READ IT.

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  3. You didn't mention that even with the biggest publisher and lots of reviews and exposure, an author still cannot sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. It's promote, promote, promote all the time. You have to blog, twitter, travel, mingle, teach, reach, and facebook to get your book to sell so you may have the opportunity to do it all over again.

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  4. sounds like let them eat cake. feeding crumbs to the poor. out of the garbage.

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  5. I saw my name listed in your reviews and could hardly believe it. Suddenly I feel like a real book reviewer. And reading the PW reviews, I suddenly feel much less depressed about the one review I had from them when I entered the ABNA contest a little while ago.

    I like your (James Agee) comment about what a reviewer should do. I was scared when I started reviewing, thinking (rightly) I'm not qualified to judge what's good or bad. But working out what the author might have intended and how well it worked as I read is a fun challenge, deepens my reading, and makes it all the more enjoyable. Plus it gives me confidence to try my hand and review.

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  6. Martin, I enjoyed your post. In my opinion, reviewing is an art form just as serious as fiction, play writing, etc. Unfortunately, in our uncritical and anti-intellectual age (Middle America -- the "Real" part much lauded by demagogues), many people hardly read, let alone read "the critics." And the excuse, "Who listens to critics anyway?" can probably account for our slow slide into economic ruin, war crimes, and the election of mediocrities better fit for selling used cars.

    In any case, I just finished "Fall Asleep Forgetting" and loved it. Your comments on how reviews can make or break a book seem apropos, considering FAF is on par, craft-wise, with such pillars of the Western Canon as "Brideshead Revisited." Packard has the makings of the next It Novelist (WG Sebald, Bolano, etc.), except most It Novelists, following a break-out success and some academic muscle behind them, are usually published by one of the six conglomerates. Why tripe-monger Elizabeth Gilbert has her "memoir" turned into a movie and Packard's isn't is another crime against literature.

    One of the things I admire about Permanent Press (I've read 3 books thus far) is the consistently good product quality and your cultivation of individual literary voices. Writers can be artists, instead of "content providers moving units." Granted, publishing is still a business, but your books have the quality of small-scale artisan pieces instead of mass produced "product."

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