Friday Dec 02

StephanieBrown I once received a negative review of my book and while reading it I could almost hear the reviewer sighing and tsk-tsking her way through the chore of reviewing it. That’s not the worst thing that can happen to a writer—the worst thing is when no one reads it or damns it with faint praise. Negative reviews can be useful correctives to books that have been the recipient of too much praise, but sometimes the blame for a book’s weakness could be shared with editors and publishers who let writers leave their novels bloated and unedited, rush them into print, or launch them with such fulsome fanfare that they can’t help but disappoint readers. Still, I find it hard to be critical of publishing personnel or the writer—the very existence of publishing is precarious in 2012, and old business and promotion models are being revised in order to that they might survive. The difficulty and time involved in getting a book published at all makes the feat of producing and publishing a book with a good press something of a small miracle.
 
Major houses haven’t published poetry titles in over twenty years, save for a few titles put out by Knopf and a couple of  other imprints, whose authors have usually published several books with university or small presses before they can hope to land there. By the time a book is accepted by a press it has probably been submitted for years, and most likely improved by repeated editing and changes of content.. For each book published by a university press, there are hundreds of other writers’ manuscripts vying for publication, and probably ten others that are just as worthy of the one published. It seems like this type of competition for a few spots is becoming true for every other writing genre. I think we will see the emergence of more boutique style publishing companies as time goes on, with fewer large houses who work on the large-advance-then-sell-many-copies-but-risk-huge-losses business model in favor of smaller runs of specialized and subject specific presses, and I think we will see this happen for every genre.
 
At Connotation Press the policy is to publish positive reviews of books. At first I thought this might not be a good policy, but it can be difficult to be generous and reward a book for its merits. I have my own inner Addison DeWitt and find it easy to find fault with most things.  Some of the worst things I’ve read about my books are on review sites like Goodreads, where negative comments veer into ad hominem attack. They usually are cleverly written and funny, and I think back to how cavalierly I could dismiss books and writers when I was younger and had never published a book—it was an intellectual exercise; I never connected it to the real person who might find your clever snark and low ratings to be bothersome, perhaps even professionally harmful. Likewise the reviewer who is making her career publishing a negative review of your book—it also affects the subject’s career adversely to garner a mixed or negative review.
 
As a librarian I am only asked to recommend books that a person might like, and it’s a task in itself to be able to think of books to recommend. It’s easy to know what a person will not like, based on prior reading habits, and there are a lot of books that are bad and shooting-fish-in-a-barrel easy to scorn and dismiss—yet even these have their readers. Recommendation is not the same as fulsome marketing praise.
 
What I liked about reading reviews this year was finding out about writers that I ought to read. The reviewers’ prose was strong enough that I felt persuaded by their praise and recommendations. I would say this was true for just about every review we published, and that speaks to the power of a well-written act of persuasion.
 
My favorite review this year was by Cheryl Tornsey who reviewed Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird, by Katie Fallon (Ruka Press, 2011). As I wrote at the time,
 
Cheryl Torsney writes a beautiful review of Katie Fallon’s Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird, in which she illuminates the many purposes of Fallon’s book: it is a memoir, an ecological call-to-arms, an elegy for a murdered student, and a meditation on grief. In the act of tracing the vanishing songbird, Fallon restores her own spirit. Tornsey’s review also reminds us to take time from our professional reading to read books, such as Cerulean Blues, that will restore and redeem us.

I liked how Tornsey acknowledges that, due to her job, she often has little time to read for pleasure, but finds pleasure again with this unusual book—she finds a deep and lasting and restorative pleasure.  I like to read reviews wherein the reviewer takes the time to acknowledge emotional response to a book, or to note that a book made her re-think previously held ideas or made new connections in her mind. I like how she respects the author and concludes that the author’s quest has left her “battered but strong, like the small bird she studies.” Tornsey’s appreciation of the writer puts her in the category of the mythic “ideal reader” or places her in library science’s Ranganathan laws for books: “every reader his book; every book its reader.” Reviewing as recommending, as persuasion and in-depth appreciation, is a powerful reminder of not only the creative act that is writing, but that also is found from reading, considering, thinking and appreciating.