Tag Archives: 2011

It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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The Grand Illusion

I very much love reading fiction, but there’s just one thing that bothers me when I do.   My mind starts spinning around fictional scenes and I begin wondering how much of what I see is not fictional but true; that is, based on actual events in the author’s life?   So, dear Reader, I think I may have developed a solution to this question of real versus fake via the development of a new ratings system.

Publishers, effective immediately, each novel is to carry a cover sticker that states, “This book is based __% on actual events.”   Yes, every fiction book is to carry an informational sticker that gives the prospective reader a number that represents the average amount of content derived from true happenings.   Or should it be the median?

The beginning of each chapter must also contain a similar statement, “Chapter 4 is based 62% on actual events in the author’s life.”   In addition, at the rear of the novel, a summary must detail which ” fictional” scenes were based on which real events in the life of the writer – let’s call her Suzie Smith.   As an example, “When the protagonist Liz Bordon crashes her Mini Cooper into the Goodwill drop-off box on her way home from a college party in 2011, this scene was based on the time that Ms. Smith crashed her Toyota Tercel into a U.S. postal service box on her way home from a fraternity-sorority mixer in Berkeley in 1987.”   See, in this way, we will be able to determine exactly how original and creative each author is, and we’ll also see how often they’re just writing down things that happened to them decades earlier.

This relates to the matter of why most successful novelists are past their twenties and early thirties…  Because one needs to live at least 35 or so years before one has enough big and interesting experiences in life to turn them into alleged fictional events.   If you think about this, it’s totally logical.   How would one be expected to make up things about situations one knows nothing about?   It would be like asking a middle school drop-out to write about life in graduate school at Harvard.   You’re not very likely to get a novel out of that.   But ask a Yale graduate school drop-out to write about graduate school life at Harvard and you might well have something.   (Note: A new federal law prohibits individuals from making up scenes about life at a rival’s campus.   If you went to Stanford, you cannot legally write fiction about being a Cal student.   Writers, this is a matter to talk to your legal counsel about.   Better safe than sorry.)

This is not something that I’ve studied scientifically, but my guess is that the range of fictional content in a novel is likely to be in the range of no more than 20 to 35 percent.   If this is true, then there’s bound to be a demand for additional consumer protection.   Federal regulations will surely come into play requiring a minimum of 51 percent fictional content in order for a story to be classified as fiction.   Anything less, and the book must be labeled as a pseudo-fictional work (Caution: This book is substantively based on things that happened in the writer’s life when he/she wore a younger person’s clothes.   You’re not getting much fiction for your money if you buy this one.)

See how helpful this will be?   And, yes, I can see what it’s going to mean in the long run…  Many of today’s novelists will be converted into new-born memoir writers, telling us about their past lives without covering them in the guise of fictional events.   The truth shall set them free!

If you think I have some good ideas here, then write your congressperson or U.S. senator today and urge them to adopt these essential reader protections.   Or better yet join my public interest group, the Association to Properly Brand So-Called Fictional Works.   Once my crusade has proven to be successful, I may write a novel about it.   Oh, make that a memoir.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured: The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister which was not based on actual events (read the synopsis and you’ll understand why).   BTW, this is not intended to be a serious essay – it’s a joke, folks.  Thank you.

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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The L.A. Times Book Festival Goes Trojan

L. A. Times Festival of Books Comes to USC

The Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California today announced that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one of the Southland’s most cherished and engaging weekend celebrations, will kick off its 16th storied year in a new home at USC’s University Park campus from April 30 to May 1, 2011.

Angelenos of all ages interested in famous authors, celebrity appearances, speaker panels, superstar chefs and local musicians will have something extra special to look forward to as the celebration debuts downtown.

“After 15 years on the Westside, we are very excited to move the Festival of Books to its beautiful new home and have the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with USC to ensure we grow bigger and better in the future,” said Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.   “Attendees and exhibitors can expect more to see, do and experience in addition to great access and a refreshing change of scenery.”

USC President C. L. Max Nikias said, “We are thrilled that the festival has a new home here.   The Festival of Books is known for sparking just the kind of intellectual curiosity and energy that are at the heart of USC’s mission.   The festival is a great fit for our world-class faculty authors and writing programs, as well as for our literacy work in the community.   USC and the Los Angeles Times are two of the oldest institutions in Los Angeles, and it’s fitting that we would be joining together for this event that is so important to the intellectual life of Southern California.”

The move allows for increased attendance due to USC’s central location, proximity to public transportation, abundant parking and newly enhanced campus facilities.  The Times and the university will work together to best utilize the University Park campus to expand programming, provide exhibitors and sponsors with the benefit of more  useable space and other concession opportunities.   The Festival of Books previously was held on UCLA’s campus in Westwood.   (Noted the L.A. Times: “UCLA is a bigger campus, but USC spokesman James Grant said his university had plenty of room for the festival’s many outdoor activities and indoor seminars and lectures.”)

Last year, more than 140,000 people enjoyed the nation’s largest public literary festival, where more than 400 authors blended with hundreds of exhibitors representing booksellers, publishers, literacy and cultural organizations.   Poetry, mystery, politics, young adult, comic book, graphic novel and manga all flavor the festival’s author readings, book signings, intimate Q&A’s, comedy, children’s activities and more.   The event, which is free to the public, delivers a celebration of all the written word inspires.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was created in 1996 to promote literacy, celebrate the written word and bring together those who create books with the people who love to read them.

Source: USC News, September 22, 2010 (Used by permission).   Information on the L. A. Times Festival of Books will be available at: http://latimesfestivalofbooks.com .   Pictured above: USC President C. L. Max Nikias and L.A. Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.

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