the book critic I am not

the book critic I am not

if there is an art of critiquing the writing of others, it is a talent/skill/ability I fear I do not possess.  I am a terrible critic.  I like what I like, obscure and sometimes irrelevant segments of a work often make me deliriously happy, I react subjectively to the entire experience of reading a work, and I am not skilled in justifying my reactions.  I like books or I love them or I consider the experience of reading them good training, and I cannot always explain exactly why.

the other day I read a review of cheryl strayed’s wild.  it was detailed, provided examples to explain the author’s critique, and was in itself a work of art.  I read it, silently agreeing and cheering the reviewer on, yes, yes, I agree, you’ve got it!    he was able to put into words what I experienced while reading the book;  he helped me understand my reaction to the book.  he read the book, reacted to it, and put great thought into explaining his reactions. wow; I was impressed.  I—on the other hand—read, feel, experience, and don’t really want to have to work that hard to explain my feelings.

a friend gave me two cormac mccarthy books to read a while back, the road, and the crossing.  I read the road (I know, many years after the rest of the world did), and am now making my way through the crossing.  while the setting and story of the road weren’t easy to love, I was from the very beginning awed by mccarthy’s storytelling skill.  I moved quickly into his style, his way of describing sights cleanly and artistically, of explaining experiences in such detail that the reader falls into the scene with the characters.  I read the book both to learn the story and to be immersed in the style, mccarthy’s incredible talent leaping from pages and swallowing me.

reading the crossing feels somewhat the same, though it’s settings are rounder, richer, more varied, less–usually–bleak.  mccarthy has more to say in this book than in the road because the world is more full.  but his style, his talent, his view, are what remain consistent and are obviously a gift he was given at birth, one he has honed and perfected.  no one will write as he does for no one sees and experiences as he does.  I picture mccarthy at his writing table, paper and pen (or laptop or keyboard) at hand, and I know his mind swims in a river most of us only hope to one day dip our body parts in.  I see him lost in other worlds, visiting ours only to write down the words, draw us pictures, spin us into lands and stories we would never by ourselves find.

and that is the kind of thing I have to say about books I read.  I don’t want to speak critically of word usage, semantics, grammar, metaphor, symbolism, themes, setting, plot, characters . . . I want to tell you how I felt.  what I experienced.  how I got lost or how I didn’t truly care.  how I fell into scenes with characters or how I was left alone on my couch as the characters woodenly went through the motions.  I’m not willing to work hard to critique what I read because I have so many, many more books in my stack that I still need to experience . . . my time is precious, and I’m happy to stop with just feeling what I feel, acknowledging it, and moving on.

so I’ll leave the book critiquing to the book critics.  I’ll keep on writing my meagre reviews that say I loved it, I got lost in it, the characters still live within me, I learned a million and one things, I want this book to be part of my collection forever and ever . . . and leave it at that.

because a book critic I am not.





last may I began a project, a book about wolves.  since that time I’ve traveled to montana, yellowstone, wyoming, idaho, montana again, yellowstone again.  I’ve read a towering stack of books, and perused articles and op eds galore.  I’ve interviewed dozens of people, from hunters to ranchers to conservationists, attorneys, retired schoolteachers, biologists.  I’ve written, I’ve listened, I’ve reflected, I’ve written more.  and more, and more, shaping and crafting it into something worth reading.

and yesterday, I took my manuscript–after giving it a thorough polishing–and put it down for a nap.  it’s going to rest, now, for a few weeks.  I’m going to leave it alone, no checking to see if its breathing, for I’m going to trust that it’ll be just fine without me.

a small period of dormancy is good for both of us.  I’m going to focus on other projects, other areas in my life that might need a little attention, and I’m purposefully not going to think about wolves.  I’m going to tidy up my living spaces, maybe go for a walk.  catch up on all those things I’ve let slip to the bottom of the pile.  maybe sing a little bit.  sweep out a few corners.  think about the cover of the published book, envision it on people’s tables and nightstands, in their hands, in their minds.

this period of enforced hibernation is a trick used by many writers, a way to view something with fresh eyes.  it’s crucial to be able to step away from your work, to be able to see it from a witnessing viewpoint.  to read it as if you were someone else.  and this is impossible to do when you’re engrossed in the writing, the creation of it.  some parts of my manuscript I wrote 6, maybe 7 months ago, and during my most recent full-manuscript assessment and edit, I had no memory of writing them.  some parts I’d written just 2 or 3 months back, and I read them as if for the first time.  I know when I pick the manuscript back up a few weeks from now I won’t have forgotten it all, but hopefully the time away will have dulled my memory enough to let it speak to me in a different way.  perhaps parts will be less clear, perhaps new ideas will jump out at me, different ways to organize, to express thoughts, to make the story better hold together, intrigue, delight.

when I return to the manuscript a few weeks from now, I will read it from end to end, I will try to forget that I wrote any of it, I will let it speak to me.  and hopefully it will howl.


here’s my baby: be gentle

today I handed over a piece of my new project to my publisher.  if you’re any kind of a creator you can relate to the feelings involved, which are similar to those of a parent whose newborn child is on display.

possibly worse than being the parent is to be the viewer:  dare we speak our truth?  um, gee, that face is red and squishy, and the cheeks are out of proportion, and all those wrinkles around the eyes aren’t very attractive . . . the hair’s a mess, and yikes, look at her scrunch up her face and turn bright red and oh God, here comes a wail . . .    no, we try to find the positive and focus on that.  we put ourselves in the mind and heart of the parent and say, she’s beautiful.

as I handed these 4400 words over this morning, I told my publisher I’d already imagined a slew of responses he might have, considered what those might do to me and my project, and decided that I was going to keep moving forward anyway . . . so I handed the papers over.

and now I feel like I loaned him my baby.  he might come back with responses meant to mollify me, stroke me, encourage me.  he may say things that make me want to grab my baby back and never give it to him again.  he might be honest, and I may or may not like what he has to say.  it doesn’t really matter:  I will keep writing what I need to write.

I hope he likes it, of course.  I hope he thinks it’s fantastic.  but I also know that whatever he says I will hear through a parent’s (and a creator’s) self-protective, love-filled bubble.  I will listen, take in as much as I can, keep on writing, and subtly adjust as time goes on and the words flow through.

today I handed part of my baby to a relative stranger, and I’m waiting for him to tell me what he thinks of it.

I’m not holding my breath, but I am, however, gently holding my heart.

the emperor’s new blurbs

a  while back I was browsing the new york times book review when my eyes landed on an advertisement for a non-fiction book that I’d recently read.  the book had been given to me by a friend–who had read it and loved it–and was about people living in a country half a world away, most of them in abject poverty.  (let me be clear:  the following comments have little to do with the book or its author, as the book is well-written and engaging and the author is evidently talented and committed to her work.)

splashed across the advertisement were blurbs recommending the book, everything from “must read,” “as vivid as fiction,” “exquisite in every detail,” “an astonishing book,” to “comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted,” “a jaw-dropping achievement, an instant classic of narrative nonfiction,” “riveting,” and “a mind-blowing read.”

I repeat:  this is a good book.  however, my jaw did not drop while reading it, nor was my mind blown.  and not once did I think (nor do I still) about comparing her writing to that of Charles Dickens.  I wasn’t even riveted.

blurbs have become the thing to do.  the publishing world has decided that these one- to fifty-word statements from reviewers, celebrities, people-in-the-know, and other authors are the way to sell a book.  some books’ front pages are filled with them, and most back covers are adorned with them.  it seems you can’t buy a book that hasn’t been read, loved, and blurbed about by somebody who’s somebody.

I find it tiresome.  I find it doesn’t matter if a book receives a good review (and even in an overall negative review there are often a few good words that can be culled into a positive blurb), or is on the bestseller list, or is praised by another author.  I may or may not like it, and it may or may not be well-written, have a compelling story line,  or be witty and informative.  it doesn’t matter to me at all what those blurbs say, because  I know it’s all a game.  and it seems to be the predominant game in today’s publishing world.   I feel patronized:  do publishers really think we can’t see through their ploy?  don’t they understand that the blurb business has become bloated to the point where we readers can no longer trust a word of it?  every book I pick up has been blurbed and praised, and much of what gets passed along is meaningless.  “stellar,” “exquisite, clever, and tenderly recounted,” “extraordinary.”  let me read the first chapter and then I’ll decide.  for myself.

the book review is still a beautiful (though a subjective and highly personal) thing, especially when the reviewer is more interested in conveying his or her thoughts and reactions than impressing anyone with his or her use of language.  what I find fault with is the current system of dissecting legitimate reviews and soliciting celebrities’ comments simply to plant meaningless “blurbs” on and inside published books.  I am openly stating to the publishing world that the almighty blurb has lost its punch.  the blurb has burgeoned into worthlessness.

last week’s new  york times book review closed with an essay on literary prizes, written by amanda foreman.  in it she states that lists over 6,000 prizes on its web site.  nobels and pulitzers are still undeniably king, but what about those other 5998+?  most of us like to win prizes, to have our work awarded an honor.  recognition is a vital part of creation, as much as we often wish it weren’t.  but like the blurb, the literary prize is slowly losing its meaning as the number given proliferates.  I am not impressed to read that a book received a prize I’ve never heard of, given by an association I’m unfamiliar with;  I’m simply aware that someone (likely an agent or publisher) submitted a manuscript to a committee in hopes of adding credentials to the book’s name.  (I think it quite likely that most prize-winning books have numerous blurbs.)

I like to assess books by what I read between the first word of the prologue and the last of the epilogue, between the first word of chapter one and the final word before the end.  I don’t care too much what anyone else has said about it, or if it has been on the bestseller list, or if it’s won a prize.  the best books can stand in their own, old clothes, all by themselves.  those of us who truly love books and truly love to read can see right through every single blurb and prize to the truth of a manuscript, and like the child in hans christian andersen’s tale, can tell when the “new clothes” are nothing but air.

the sunday new york times

john receives the big, fat new york times, delivered to our doorstep bright and early each sunday.  six or seven weeks ago he handed the book review section to me, suggesting I might want to read a review written by an author whose work I like.  I perused it quickly, then filed the section away to be looked at when I had more time.  and interest.

I am not much of a newspaper reader, nor am I one who enjoys reading reviews.  I’m impatient with (and critical of) most journalists, and often find reviewers to be looking for and concerned about things I don’t usually find myself looking for or concerned about.  so the book review section, folded in half, rested on my desk between folders filled with project information and my weekly calendar, waiting for me, patiently, for weeks.

another sunday rolled around and john handed me the book review section again, here, there might be something in here you find interesting.  I dug into it, and read a review.  then another.  and then I decided to re-read the older section that’d been waiting for me.  I read them both.  and then the next week’s.

one of my first thoughts–this while reading a review of Vampires in the Lemon Grove–was this:  I am not a new york times kind-of writer.  I am not quirky enough, I don’t possess a mfa.  I am not outre, I am not a wunderkind, I don’t live in soho and I haven’t attended the iowa writer’s workshop.  I am just dedicated, committed, determined, and–since I’ve been gathering work for the past 15 years–in possession of a lot of as-yet-to-be-discovered work.  I may never be an author who has a book reviewed in the new york times.

or I might.

I’ve been reading more reviews.  I’ve been gaining a sense of the literary world according to the times.  I’ve been paying attention to more author’s names, and I’ve requested a few books to read (I’ve just begun reading raised from the ground by jose saramago).  I’m working to see where I–my beliefs and sensibilities–fit into the world I seem to want to join and has as of yet not answered my knocks and pleas for admittance.  I don’t know that I fit there, but what I also believe–after reading these review sections–is that no one truly fits there.

last sunday the times was delivered and I asked john for the book review section.  I read this review and skimmed that, and skipped over everything that didn’t call to me.  I find myself in places; I am unequivocally absent in others.  and this I know:  I am my own unique being.  I will never write short stories about female werewolves.  I will not become an essayist, nor a poet.  I can’t ever imagine writing a review of someone else’s written work.  it’s unlikely I’ll ever write a political novel, nor an expose of someone’s life.  or something so controversial or original or heartbreakingly staggering that the entire world stands up and takes notice.  I will write what I have to write, and keep plugging away at it.  the new york times book review may one day notice me, or it may not.  either way, it will be what it decides to be, and I will continue to find within it gems and clay.

this isn’t a review of the review.  it’s simply my reaction to it.  I’m warming to it; I’m hoping it will become a better acquaintance, perhaps even someday a friend.  I respect it; I acknowledge that I don’t have to love it.  it’s a way to learn about the world of writers and written works.  and maybe, along the way, a few more things about myself.