Monday, September 22, 2014

Impossible to Review

My goal in reviewing a book is to give readers the information they need to decide whether or not they want to read the book, which means I describe the dominant characteristics of the book, while assessing its execution with my, subjective obviously, opinion of quality. Sometimes that also involves placing the book in its historic or literary context, sometimes that means offering some interpretations of the work, and sometimes that means describing more general aspects of literature. My hope, is that I have written enough decision making resources into the review that a reader can decide they really want to read a book I have described as a book I don't think anyone should read. As much as I think Michiko Kakutani generally has regressive taste in books, I always know exactly what my relationship to a book she's reviewed is likely to be.

But not all books have the same “reviewability.” Here are three categories of books that are damn near impossible to review.

Abominations of the Written Word
My actual tongue burst into flames reading those words.
No matter how bad a book is, it is still an act of human creation and, thus, still deserves to be treated with a level of respect. But how do you communicate that respect while also describing a reading experience where you wanted to pull out your eyes with sauce sodden sporks and roll them back and forth between your hands while sitting on the floor waiting for the searing pain in your brain to leech out your newly opened face hatches? (I might be reading a little too much Terrible Minds, and you should too.) As a reviewer, you have to be honest when you don't like a book, because that allows you to be honest when you like a book, and as a writer, you have to use the most compelling language you can come up with, but you are also a human being discussing something very important to another human being.

Part of solving this problem is to give those books the same attention you give to books you like, which is why you almost never seen a bad review on my blog. If reading a book makes me want to peel the first few layers of skin off my fingertips with a vegetable peeler and cartwheel dots of blood down the middle of the street, I'm going to stop reading it. And if I stop reading it, I won't be able to write with that respect. If I've committed to reviewing a book for someone else, I'll pick up my eyes, get through, and do my best to be truthful and respectful at the time. I've had editors decide that I did not strike that right balance and chose not to run those reviews, which is what an editor is supposed to do. The reviews have also been run without additional comment. Sure, at the end of writing those reviews, there is a sense of having scaled a mountain that was also kicking you in the junk while you climbed, but there is also a sense of wishing to have spent your time not getting kicked in the junk.

Towering Achievements of Literature
My brain has been shredded by this book's razor-sharp awesome.
But, in many ways, books I absolutely love are just as difficult to review. Just as it is hard to respect while hating, it is hard to love without gushing. There is a point where the language kind of tips, and you risk readers shifting from “This sounds great” to “Nothing could be this good.” There is a kind of praise that sounds inherently disingenuous or, perhaps, even delusional. You can gush about a book to your friends and because they know you, they can calibrate that gushing to their own tastes, but the person on the other side of the internet won't have the luxury of that calibration. There is always the chance that the readers don't see a seasoned professional offering a prudent but positive opinion on a work of literature, but a crazy guy air drying his crazy pants on the crazy internet.

What distinguishes this challenge from writing about weeping pustules of “language” is that I want to write about these books, I want to celebrate them, I want to make other people read them. It is a beautiful enthusiasm but sometimes it means what is supposed to be a review becomes publicity.

Twice, recently, I've started to review a book only to get to the other side of a first draft and realize there would be no way I could mangle my personal reading experience into a review and wrote essays instead. One of them was this essay on Karl Ove Knaussgaard's absolutely brilliant but at times Revelations-level infuriating My Struggle Volume 2: Man in Love, and the other an essay on White Girls by Hilton Als. But that only works when I have the luxury to not turn in a review. When I've committed to a review I try my best to be overt as to who I am as a reader so readers understand how such a powerful connection was made and to, at least, mention aspects of the book other readers might have a different reaction to.

Is there a more horrible and yet more expressive word in our modern lexicon? (I'm sure there's someone cranking out a self-help book about removing “meh” from your life.) There's nothing wrong with the book, per se, I mean, it's fine, it's just, well...there isn't a lot you can say about a book that is “meh.” So, maybe you summarize the plot or the themes, maybe suggest some other works this one might resemble, and then, well, you tell the world the book is “meh.”

In some ways this is analogous to the respect problem of the books that set my spleen on fire with their incendiary awful. Does a 300 word review really demonstrate respect for an act of human creation? Does it show that I have done my due diligence as a reviewer? Does it do anything for the reader of the review? I mean, ultimately, the review should make the reader look away from it, to the book under consideration, but the review is still read and the act of reading it should have value. To often, I feel the review prose at the other end of a meh book tends, itself, to be meh.

What Is a Book Review?
Perhaps one of the most frustrating and perhaps even destructive aspect of our current literary culture is our lack of distinction between a book review and what gets appended to books by casual readers at Amazon and Goodreads. I'm not disparaging those casual reviews, at all, as they do serve their purpose and a reader who knows how to utilize them can extract a lot of useful information from them. But they are different from what we have traditionally called “book reviews.”

Book reviews are not just an expression of taste or opinion, though they do express taste and opinion, and book reviews are not just an assessment of quality, though they do that as well; book reviews are a cultural conversation between writers and readers, a conversation that has the ability to extend itself beyond the book in question to examine other aspects of being a person. They are a vital part of the give and take that is created by a book being written, and they extend that give and take beyond the individual reader with the individual book, to the entire world of readers.

The short opinions and ratings systems of Amazon and Goodreads are a kind of conversation about books, and, though I, personally, don't get a lot of value or information from that kind of conversation, I'm not upset that other readers do. But those comments do not do what book reviews do. They don't help us become better readers. They don't give us insight into the potential meaning of a book. They don't connect that book to the history and future of books. They don't make us think about the world around us. And they certainly don't slow down our judgment machines showing us the time, complexity, and thought that should go into forming an opinion.

Apologies for getting a little ranty here at the end, but we should have more book reviews and they should be in the mainstream media. The literary internet is amazing and powerful, and passionate, thoughtful, and intelligent readers have done much to fill the void in our culture when newspapers and other mainstream media dropped books coverage. (Quick aside: People read newspapers, readers want to know about books, so obviously, the first thing you cut from your newspaper is your books coverage, because obviously if they're reading a newspaper they don't have any interest in reading about things to read.) But the literary internet cannot replace the casual, tangential, part-of-the-habitat interaction with literature that happens in newspapers and magazines, where people reading for the sports scores are at least shown that books count in our culture.

So even though some books are impossible to review (phew, brought it back around) we still need more book reviews in more places for more people. Unless of course, we don't want to run the risk of having a more thoughtful culture.

Monday, September 15, 2014

An Unsung Hero of Publishing (with Bonus Small Business Idea)

You'll be hearing from me (probably repeatedly) in the next few weeks/months/rest-of-my-sentient life about my novel, An Exaggerated Murder, coming out in March. In general, I'm not a huge fan of publication stories. To me, though there can occasionally be interesting moments, connections, coincidences, and triumphs, the actual logistical path of the book from the writer's head to the reader's mind just isn't important in terms of appreciating and understanding the book. But, I do want to share one tiny little piece of mine, because it highlights an aspect of the publishing world that doesn't get nearly enough attention, given how important it is to both that boring logistical process and to the magic of discovery in bookstores.

Over the years after I became full-time at Porter Square Books, I would bump into the publisher sales reps visiting the buyers on a roughly quarterly basis. A publishing sales rep works for a specific publisher (or group, consortium, conglomerate of publishers) traveling to bookstores of all types and sizes, generally in a specific region, selling that publisher's forthcoming catalog to the bookstores. To do the job well, the rep not only must have expertise on the books they're representing, but also a personal understanding of every single bookstore and bookseller they visit. The job requires not just a rote recitation of publisher copy, but the building of (and then keeping track of) dozens of different relationships. Most of the time, sales reps also act as formal and informal liaisons between booksellers and publishers. Oh, and you've got to keep track of terms, deals, special promotions, events, dinners, galleys, comp copies, expense accounts, etc. To be a successful sales rep means you're part bookseller, part contract manager, part customer service, part publicist, and part account manager. (And it doesn't hurt to be able to figure out a way to lug a hundred pounds of galleys with you every where you go.)
Well, a pile not unlike this.

One day, I arrived in the store and Ron Koltnow, the store's Random House rep, had a pile of galleys for me. We had chatted a couple of times beforehand, enough that he had some sense of my reading taste. The pile was described to me as, “The weird books nobody but Josh would read,” which, I have to say, is an alarmingly accurate description. The pile included, among other things, several books from Melville House, fine purveyor of weird books nobody but Josh would read. My reader relationship, which lead directly to my writer relationship with Melville House, started with a pile of galleys from a sales rep.

One of the ideas that pops up whenever the role of Amazon and traditional publishers is debated that makes me turn my head a little sideways like a dog who's just heard an odd sound, is the argument that independent bookstores are boycotting self-published books. Forget the fact that many independent bookstores do carry self-published books (Porter Square does) and some even facilitate publication of self-published books (The Harvard Bookstore does) or that there is a difference between “boycott” and “deciding not to buy,” it is still something of an odd idea, especially since so many who espouse it also argue that traditional publishing and bookselling is dead and/or really, really dying. If indie bookstores are dying (they're not) why do you want your books in them any way. I mean, I always thought one of the reasons one chose to self-publish is to avoid the logistics, structures, and costs, that go into selling books in a physical bookstore.

There is a long and detailed post about why you don't see many self-published books in indie bookstores (a post that would also help explain why your particular indie bookstore might not have much manga, romance, sci fi, fantasy, or whatever genre as the reasons are very similar) and though, I'm generally a fan of long detailed posts about the book industry, I'm going to stick to one main point here. There aren't many self-published books in independent bookstores because self-published books don't have sales reps.

No bookstore buyer can read every book a publisher publishes, so they rely on sales reps to sort through the catalogs and buy the right books for the store. For a self-published writer, unless there is something immediately compelling, like you are a local author or something, the book buyer would have to read your book first to know if it would be a good fit, and no book buyer in the world, no matter how committed he or she might be to self-publishing can read every self-published book they might stock. In terms of return on investment, (bookstores are businesses by the way) it is almost never going to make sense for a bookstore to put in the required effort to sustainably stock a large number of self-published authors (or romance or manga or whatever if the store doesn't have a buyer who knows these genres.) This has nothing to do with perceived quality either. Buying for a bookstore isn't an act of sorting good books from bad books, but from selecting which of the shmillions of good books fit with the store. And that's what sales reps do; help sort the good from the good that's right for the store.

Whenever someone critiques publishing for its inefficiency, that is really code for saying “someone should lose their job because their job does not produce as much as it costs.” “Become more efficient,” is really just a slightly cowardly way of saying, “You should fire someone.” In terms of the specific critiques of traditional publishing, sales reps would be exactly the kind of position someone might think is inefficient. I mean, how much cost do the salaries, benefits, travel expenses, and more add to that bottom line that makes books so priced-well-below-what-they-would-be-if-price-kept-up-with-inflation-but-hey-30-bucks-or-18-or-whatever-is-still-kind-of-a-lot. Those critics forget that traditional publishing, in its modern incarnation, has been evolving for about a hundred years or so, and the evolution of a business model always involves new attempts (if not successes) towards efficiency. Sales reps, if not obviously, are vital to the efficiency of a publishers, because they not only create sales, by convincing stores to buy what they might not have, they also prevent returns by advising what books a store should NOT buy. Sales reps also save book buyers time, as rather than researching every single aspect of every single catalog, they can lean on the advice of sales reps to make some (if not many) of their decisions.

So here's the bonus small business idea promised in the title: self-published sales rep. For a fee (flat, percentage of sales, commission structure of some kind) you would essentially create a catalog and represent some reasonable number of self-published books/authors to book stores. You would have to curate your list, obviously, and essentially represent it in the exact same way that Ron represents Random House, knowing, not only your catalog, but getting to know the bookstores you meet so as to be able to sustainable guide them through it. You would also have to work out ordering/returning logistics and terms in a way that makes it easy for bookstores and authors to exchanges books and payment. I honestly don't know if the sales generated from this, either directly at the stores or through the exposure bookstores provide, would justify the cost to the authors or sustain the business and given the amount of predation there is of self-published authors, as an author, I would approach any business offering such a service with extreme caution, but the potential is there.

There are a lot of opinions about traditional publishing and a lot of critique, much of which is valid. But those most vociferous in their condemnation of the publishing structures that include the cost of sending Ron Koltnow around New England, tend to forget or ignore for the sake of their argument, a very important point about every permutation of the books industry, from the big five executive to the self-publisher of avant garde poetry. Love. Traditional publishing, flawed as all human enterprises are, is really a whole bunch of people who love books, trying to make their way in the world through books. Some of us by writing them, some of us by bringing them from the writer's head to the reading public, and some of us by selling the books to readers. They love different kinds of books and they love books for different reasons, but it all comes back to the love of books.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Hoopla

The real reason we gathered on this day.
It might be a stretch to say we had a wedding so we could have a hoopla, but not much of one. We had lawn games, an open bar with some of our favorite beer, and a pig roast for dinner. (OK, it wouldn't be much of a stretch either to say we had a wedding so we could have a pig roast.) Since it was something of a whirlwind of pictures, friends, family, beer, and food, I don't really remember enough of the events to relate them in a blog post. Instead, I'll share some of the amazing toasts that were given and a bunch of pictures, and invite all of you to share any stories you might have in the comments.


Hello everyone!  I’m Michelle, one of the bridesmaids.  I would like to thank everyone for being here today…  Josh and Carissa’s wedding day has been wonderful thus far and I’m so happy we are all here to share it with them.

I met Josh and Carissa when we were all in college at Saint Michael’s and even though I am certain I met them individually, I do not actually think I have any memories where they weren’t a couple.  For the whole time I’ve known Josh and Rissa, they have been a team.

It was like Josh and Rissa were the really important corner pieces of a puzzle.  Once they found their way to each other, everything else just fell into place.  And we’re all here today to celebrate that partnership that’s even older than my college degree, which is unfortunately getting up there in age itself.  When I asked them each what they loved about the other, Josh said that he loves how she defines herself.  He said, “Most people draw how they define themselves from all the pre-fab identities of our society.  Rissa defines herself completely on her own terms.”  Which I thought was so lovely… and when I asked Rissa what she loves the most about Josh, she replied with, “He makes me and puts up with my decorating style.”  Which I feel like does a really great job summing up why they are so fantastic together.

So on your wedding day, my friends, I would like to offer up some wishes I have for the two of you as you continue on your life’s journey together.

  1. May you always be adventurous while cooking - but never so much so that you need the fire extinguisher.
  2. May you always have the chance to get outdoors enough to be able to see the stars and then go make smores around the campfire.
  3. May you always be ready for the mosh pit together, but never the ER afterwards.
  4. May your love of literature and learning always be something you share with each other.
  5. May your love of nerdy things never waver - I hope you always have new blogs that are as epic as The Muppets Take Ulysses.
  6. May you always compromise for each other.  Rissa watches hockey because you, Josh, love hockey… She does not love hockey, but is there anyway and that’s beautiful.
  7. May your wanderlust always bring you on fantastic trips* - but always make sure to come home to where your friends and family are… because we all love you.
  8. May you always find room on your bookshelves for just one more book… even though you know you shouldn’t.
  9. May you always take care of each other, like Josh did after Rissa’s surgery - filled with a calming demeanor, thoughtfulness, and the desire to see the other comfortable and happy.
  10. And last but certainly not least, may you someday soon find your dream home - it will probably be 65% kitchen, 30% library, and 5% rest of house.  Or better yet, get a gigantic place with a greenhouse and a barn that you can convert into a brewery!  Just think my, I mean your very own tap room!

I love you both very much and am so happy for you two… If everyone could raise their glasses, to Josh and Carissa.

May you never lie, steal, cheat, or drink.
But if you must lie, lie in each other’s arms.
If you must steal, steal each other’s kisses.
If you must cheat, cheat death.
And if you must drink, drink with us, your friends.


*Okay, so I am the emotional one in our group of friends - Besides Drew, of course - and I promised that I was going to try not to cry, but if I do, here it is…

Andy Frechette: For those of you not familiar with the South Lewiston Little League tee-ball scene, I am Andy Frechette.  Josh and I were tee-ball teammates, playing for Worden Realty, in those beautiful powder blue uniforms.  Didn't really seem like a big deal at the time, but it turns out it would be the first of many meetings. 

In the third grade, my school, Holy Cross, had a pen pal program with McMahon School.  As luck would have it, I was paired with my former teammate.  Now, as some of you might already know, but Josh likes to write things.  (Pause for uproar.)  I am not sure what my classmates were getting for correspondence, but I recall getting some fairly lengthy and involved letters.  All I could really do in return was send back pictures of Shamu that I had drawn. 
At the end of the year, our schools got together so that we could meet our pen pals.  I challenged Josh to a game of basketball.  At the time, I was unaware that no private school kid should ever challenge a public school kid to a game of basketball.  I received the trashing of a lifetime that day.  I also learned that for a boy of his size, Josh was deceptively quick. 
In the seventh grade, Josh and I were in the same home room.  Even though it was 1992, Josh was still sporting a full-on mullet: spiked in the front, long in the back, lines shave into the side.  In spite of this unfortunate choice, Josh and I became fast friends and were pretty much inseparable for the next six years.
Like most young teenagers, Josh and I tried to get into some trouble.  This was impossible, because Mr. and Mrs. Cook always understood.  It really was infuriating at times.  (Yes, in spite of the fact that I am thirty-four years old, they are still Mr. and Mrs. Cook.  Calling them Ray and Beth would be like calling my mom Kathy.)  Aside from their unwillingness to get angry with us, they did a wonderful job raising Josh and, on a great many occasions, raising me as well.  Please raise your glasses to them.
And things continued from then, through food, lawn games, dancing, and beer until a shuttle bus arrived to take us all home.

Yep. First dance. That's how we roll.
Doughnut. Tower. Let me say that again. Doughnut. Tower

Yes. That would be paper flowers and a centerpiece featuring Ulysses.
This is how you Hoopla.
This is also how you Hoopla.
Hoop. La.