Critic/Critique v. Reader/Review

~first posted 20 Jan 13

We are readers, and we all have opinions. There are books that we love so much that we must tell everyone about them. I remember loving a book so much I actually watched my wife reading it–I wanted to see her expression as she read. She made me stop after the first thirty seconds. (N.B.: I am not referring to that rather bleak time in our marriage when I had my wife read my first novel.) There are other books that disappoint us or genuinely irritate us as readers. There are those books that earn my ultimate and most cutting criticism: I couldn’t finish it. It is impossible to be a serious reader without having serious opinions about what we read.Minolta DSC

In the world of books, we are taught that not everyone’s opinion is equal. There are professional critics, individuals whose opinions are better than ours. For instance, I enjoy reading the NY Times book section every week. I enjoy it, despite the fact that frequently I don’t really understand what the critic is talking about, often to the point where I can’t even tell if he liked the book he’s reviewing. Always, however, the reviewer has some special knowledge or insight that he brings to bear in evaluating the book, some personal relationship with the material or deeply meaningful literary reference. It’s always something way beyond us ordinary mortals, and I always feel that I’m learning something important. What I don’t learn from these reviews, however, is what I want to read next.

When I buy a book based upon its prominence on the first page of the NYT book section or a particularly glowing review, I’d say I end up being happy with the book about one time in twenty. And that’s when I understood the review and thought the reviewer was a making a good (understandable) case for reading the book. They loved it, I hated it. We just don’t think alike.

Something different happens when a reader reviews a book. When my wife, or one of my children, or a coworker, tells me about a book, they are telling me their opinion of the book as something worth reading for the same reason that I read books: Is it entertaining? This is almost never the criterion that critics use to evaluate the worth of the book, but is the one judgement that is all important. Sometimes another reader will tell me about a book that he thinks is important, or meaningful in some way–but it is always well written and entertaining, or else he wouldn’t have read it and he wouldn’t be recommending that I read it. It is that level of opinion that leads me to my next great book.

Not all reader reviews are equal, of course. Great books get reviews such as the one in my last satirical blog post, which makes good authors crazy. Readers are more inclined to read the one star review than any of the five star reviews, no matter how many more of the five star reviews there may be. Maybe the guy has a really big family or something. (Plural marriages are a known method for writers to get lots of positive reviews. Amazon is currently cracking down severely on this practice.) These reviews are no less meaningful, however. A well written reader review tells us as much about the reviewer as it does the book; if the reviewer sounds like a whack-job, or admits to never having read the book, or admits to being a fan of Fifty Shades, I know that the reviewer and I differ in what we consider good. On the other hand, if I read a review on Goodreads by a fellow reader that has a bookshelf full of books that I like as well, I value that opinion, and I just might buy that book.

It is that level of opinion, the reader review, that will hopefully one day become the new gatekeeper to a book’s success. We are not there yet. Currently, the best and most important new fiction can simply disappear without a sound, because the gatekeeper authorities–the publishing houses, the major professional critics, the big book awards, all the major media outlets that tell us about the next great read–still are told what is worthy by a literary industrial complex which has existed for half a century. Perhaps not for too much longer, however. Keep reading, and tell people what you think.  Write reviews.  It’s the next great thing in publishing.

Why Happy People Make the Best Editors (With Apologies to Erin Morgenstern)

~first posted 3 Mar 13

Now before you start, I’m not talking about nonfiction editors, okay? And not copy editors, either. So don’t send all those nasty emails. (Who am I kidding, right? You and I are the only ones who read this blog. And you never write. Why don’t you write?) When it comes to copy editors, especially, go ahead and hire the skinniest, bony nosed bespectacled one-eyed fella you can find; he’ll do a great job moving those commas inside the quotations, every time. Not like he’s going out clubbing this coming Saturday night, anyway. No, I’m talking about the kind of person that you entrust with your story. When it comes to your real, live story editor, go happy or take that manuscript home. Avoid asceticism; err on the side of jovial gluttony. Ascetics are mean. You want the editor that hands back your manuscript with “Cherry Garcia” stains all over it, saying “That was great, I just made a few suggestions…”Minolta DSC

We all know the drill. Any author who desires “acceptance” must submit to professional editorial oversight. You must! Even if you’re self-published (which we all lovingly refer to now as “indie”). Especially if you’re self-published indie. If you can at least say, with a straight face, “I spent my hard earned money, which I will never in a thousand years recoup from the sale of this dog, to hire a professional editor and I incorporated all her suggestions in this fine, final product. It is the minimal price of admission, though it still just gets you staring at the door, being held back by the big bouncer of anonymity, but you’re so much closer to really getting in (sticking with the clubbing metaphor here). And if you’re lucky enough to actually be under contract, you will submit to editorial oversight/improvement/mercantile optimization/product placement; whatever is asked of you. It’s in the contract, brother. Right there, and there, and again here on page nine hundred twenty-two. So if you have to submit, let it be to a comfortably endowed, built for comfort/not speed, kind of editor. I, for one, quake at sharp tongued criticism of every adjective or descriptive nuance as “not moving the plot forward.” I like the fat, I love the fat. Even when said fat drags the plot a little backwards like a reluctant rump. I write like I cook–with lard, not dried out and burnt to a crisp. I don’t “kill my darlings,” I love my occasional authorial shining nuggets. Everyone says to get rid of the little parts you really love; but I won’t do it. It’s what makes the writing fun. I love the slight poetic excess, the unique turn of phrase, the ironic juxtaposition–even when something much pithier will do. I hate pithy. Except Hemingway. I’m not Hemingway, and, now that I mention it, either is anyone else. And Hemingway was a very sad man.

Of course, this attitude is one of the many reasons that you haven’t bought my book. A true story: I almost had a real live, professional agent, almost. Maybe. She is one of the best in the business, and I was in earnest discussion with her about my new book. She was interested. She was impressed that a good friend in the business that she respected had read my manuscript and strongly recommended that she consider taking me on. We enjoyed repartee, verbal and electronic. This until the fateful day when, in the course of discussing the work, I mentioned that it was 185,000 words. Anguished wailing ensued. The budding courtship was pinched off–unless and until I got a professional editor to excise at least 60k of dead stuff. But, I insisted, there is no dead stuff, it’s all great, all vital tissue. It is a great read, don’t you think? I ask her. She really can’t say, since she admits at this point that she hasn’t had the opportunity to read the thing, or even have her unpaid intern read the thing, and now that she realizes how long it is, she’s sending it back, because it’s soooo long. Wait, I protest, how can you say it’s too long if you haven’t even read it? Because, she says, I can’t sell it at that length.

And that, dear reader, is how it works. Almost-agent of mine wasn’t being mean, or unartistic, or unappreciative of my hard work–she was stating a fact of life in the literary industrial complex. Why should she take this on if I’m not willing to do the work to make it into something that she can actually sell for me/us? Answer: She shouldn’t. And she didn’t. I decided that I would prefer the book I love to sell in the dozens (how prophetic of me, eh?) than to retire on the fat movie royalties guaranteed if I’d only just play the game. But wait, you say,  professional editors make books better. Yes and no. Any professional editor with sense would improve my book, but anyone getting paid to cut 30% off is mangling my masterpiece. I won’t have it, not to my child, no way. I love my ‘non plot-driving scenes,’ my lacy descriptive prose, my ‘realistic-to-the-point-of excess-verbosity’ dialogue. I will not have it sliced off down to the sinew, even if done by a master surgeon. No doubt, I would be forced to give up the little literary techniques that I think I invented, that I love to employ. Like, when I use the exact same line of dialogue twice, spoken by different characters but with a completely different meaning, to draw a meaningful connection between remote areas of the book. Who else does that, I ask you? And other, equally cool stuff. It’s why I write stories, not technical manuals about how to tear down and rebuild your Ducati.

A completely speculative example may be illustrative. I loved the book The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. It was, in so many ways, fantastic. I must admit, however, that I read the final act with an aching heart. The depth of feeling in the writing seemed to grow shallower as I fought the crashing waves of the last third to the climatic shore of conclusion. Only my opinion, now, and please keep in mind that I truly love the book as a whole; it is one of my favorite books and I’ve been reading a good deal longer than Morgenstern has been alive, an amazing statistic. But I got the sense, and still have it on rereading, that somebody at Doubleday Publishing, Inc. lured her unsuspecting manuscript into one of their basement ‘repair’ chambers and, with Erin protesting loudly against her contractual restraints, the smoothly running but rather luxurious manuscript was put up on the rack and had a significant amount of ‘excessive oil’ and ‘overstuffed upholstery’ editorially removed. By professionals, of course, who hardly left a mark. But the result in the third and final act was a thinning of the magic that Morgenstern had deeply ladled into the previous two acts. (Note that I am employing ‘magic’ here to represent the magic of Erin’s writing, not her writing about magic, and that ‘thinning’ is here used in an alternate meaning that contrasts to the overweight metaphor that began this blog. Just riffing here, reader.)

I could well be wrong. I have never met Erin Morgenstern, heard her speak, or exchanged even the most cursory of missives. I’m sure she loves her editors and sends them quirky gifts at unexpected moments. It’s entirely possible that she may not have even had the most minute manicure of her glorious opus at their hands. This is complete speculative bullshit on my part, based upon what I think, having read her book and a bit of her other fine writing. She is an undeniable talent and, no doubt, will forever be a literary force to be reckoned with. I think, though, that she might have been editorially sandbagged on her first outing. No doubt, the movie rights will lead to a fantastically rich adaptation that will have painfully little in common with the best parts of her book, but hopefully will net her a huge amount on the back end for life. Congratulations and well deserved. For this next one, though Erin, get yourself a comfortably plump editor. You deserve it.