Monday, December 21, 2009

Talking a Good Game While Losing My Coat

I talk a good game. Ask me about professional book reviewers these days, and I am likely to say, "Oh, what a bunch of whining, egotistical babies, feeling threatened because they are nowhere near as discerning, articulate, thoughtful, and clever (although they try to be. Oh, man, do they try) as the book bloggers I choose to read over most of them." Some might say it's just sour grapes on my part, that I've been pissed off by bad reviews of some of the books I've edited, and although there may be a grain of truth to that, the reality is that the sorts of people who review the sorts of books I edit (librarians and academics, mostly, who do not make their livings reviewing books) are not the same thing as snobby, "oh-so-clever" professional book reviewers, all Dorothy Parker wannabes, who will always want and never be, because they lack her key ingredients: heart and passion.

Besides, more often than not, I have found myself surprised by good reviews of the books I've edited. There have been those manuscripts that I have put into production while holding my nose and praying for copyediting miracles (I'm convinced Jesus must have been an acquisitions editor, not a carpenter, as has been long-believed, since this prayer seems to be granted every time I pray it), because deadlines were looming. I had absolutely no time to go back to the author and get him or her to write to my standards, especially since he or she could not write "My name is Sam" without making it sound like a PhD thesis on the evolution of the name Sam as discovered by ancient scrolls whose discourse bears a striking (albeit, at times, tenuous) resemblance to some ancient etchings in caves, etchings that anthropologists have traced to a little-known culture that might be related to Native Alaskans, those from a particular tribe that immigrated from...(oh, did you fall asleep? I'm sorry). Anyway, somehow, the book manages to be picked up by the only reviewer in the world who finds it fascinating and highly recommends it for all libraries. (Or maybe the copyeditor got rid of all those run-on sentences and managed to persuade the author to add some paragraphs on Sam's sex life. By the time the book is published, I'm too tired to read it through again thoroughly to find out.)

Anyway, maybe sour grapes are my problem. You see, when it comes to professional reviewers, it's not the books I've edited that matter. It's the authors I love who matter. Time-and-again, I've been disappointed to read a bad review of the newest book from Beloved Author. Then, I will read the book myself and wonder what drugs the reviewer was taking the night he wrote about it. In fact, I almost always disagree with the "experts" when it comes to books by my favorite authors.

Let's take a look at some of the contemporary authors I've been reading for years. I started my love affair with John Irving at age fifteen when I read The World According to Garp. That's a great book, but reviewers tend to hold it up as the shining example of John Irving at his best. I, on the other hand, find myself thinking, "Thank God he evolved beyond that book." I'll never forget how the experts disparaged A Prayer for Own Meaney (a book I find far superior to Garp). Yes, it was a weird book (Irving is weird -- not one of his more endearing traits, no, but it's a fact. You need to know that before you decide to write about one of his books and -- cleverly -- note it. It's common knowledge. No review of an Irving book should include the words "weird" or "grotesque" unless they are used to explain Irving to someone who might be a first-time reader). A Prayer for Own Meaney, however, made me laugh out loud far more than any of his other books ever has, and that ought to count for something. Reviewers don't seem to admire much those books that evoke the most emotion: make us cry or laugh out loud, and a book immediately lowers itself in the esteem of so many professional reviewers. What is a book for, though, if not to elicit emotion? Those who can do so (especially make us belly laugh, which is so difficult to do), ought to be commended (I mean, as long as they are not resorting to maudlin or trite techniques).

Speaking of laughing, let's take a look at David Sedaris. Why do all the critics so adore Dress My Family in Corduroy and Denim? Granted, there is no such thing as a bad Sedaris collection. However, when I started reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames, a far superior collection that proves Sedaris is perfecting his craft instead of coasting downhill the way so many 21st-century writers do, to which Dress just can't hold a candle, I was filled with the desire to take When up to the offices of The New York Times and blind Michiko Kakutani with a spotlight shone on its pages (of course, if I blind her, then she will never be able to see how wrong she was to assert that Dress is superior to When).

Half the time, I am convinced that reviewers don't really read the books. How can they? Think how many books they are sent on any given day. Consider deadlines. Consider editors breathing down their necks (only because the marketing and sales folks are breathing down their necks, not because editors, as a rule, tend to be neck-breathing, impatient monsters). Maybe it's unfair to compare them to my book blogging friends, people who are reading books at their leisure. Many book bloggers I've read talk about marking up their books and/or taking notes. They take the time to make connections (sometimes very personal connections that shed fascinating insights on the work). I would far rather read a book blogger's take on a favorite author's newest work than a professional reviewer's take.

But then (and here is where I lose that good game I was talking. I bet the coat off my back in this game, and well, here I am, freezing to death) the "Holiday Books" edition of the The New York Time's Book Review section arrives, as it did the week before last in this house. There I sit, poring over its pages, reliving the year, adding titles to my TBR tome, ignoring the husband whining about how he'd like to have a look. I ask him please to lend me his coat and I'll be done with it in a few hours (or maybe it's days...).


Teresa said...

This just cracked me up. I know that love/hate relationship with critics. I tend to not read them regularly, relying instead on bloggers, but those year-end lists get me every time.

Rebecca H. said...

Well, there are the good critics and reviewers out there, after all. And the lists are fun. Who says you have to be completely consistent anyway?

Stefanie said...

Enjoyed the mini tirade :) I love critics when they tell me a book I think I will like (or one I have loved) is the best ever and when they disagree with me or say something stupid and petty, then I hate them. But I just can't seem to stop reading their reviews and that makes me dislike them even more!

Anonymous said...

I don't know about reviewers, but I do know that most people who interviewed me hadn't read the book and were relieved when I rolled up my sleeves and said no problem, I'll answer the questions you would have asked if you'd read it. On occasion, when someone had read it, and had interesting questions to ask, ones I hadn't considered before, it was a pleasure.

litlove said...

Lilian's story makes me laugh - if rather cynically as I always felt that must be so. I once read a review that slated a book I'd enjoyed and it was riddled with factual errors and misrepresented the novel shamefully. So I now consider that the professional journalists who disagree with me have just not read the book. :)

Pete said...

I think you are the only person I know who would be able to make the origins of names so funny. (And I was actually starting to get a little interested in those scrolls.) I will have to read Sedaris now. And I agree with you on the reviews. Bloggers win.