Can’t Buy A Thrill: The Book Reviewer’s Slump – An article for Turn The Page, an occasional column about book reviewing.
1. Happy and Hungover
Book reviewers are often faced with an embarrassment of riches. They may receive hundreds of books in a short period of time, either directly from publishers or indirectly via book review publications. This may translate into becoming less excited over the less publicized new releases. I’m reminded of when I managed a college radio station’s music library… The record companies sent us records every day, usually multiple copies of each release. The longer this went on, the more we felt the temptation for the DJs to spend their time listening to the big, mega-releases like the latest from the Rolling Stones or Steve Winwood. It was hard to pull away to listen to a new album recorded by a promising, virtually unknown and self-proclaimed bar band from San Jose. (They went on to become wildly successful as The Doobie Brothers.)
It can be like that for the book reviewer. At first, he or she will jump at reading and reviewing anything that’s sent. Then the reviewer will find that he becomes pickier as time goes by. It may be especially hard to read a debut novel by an unknown author when so many releases by major authors – from the major publishers – are whispering, “Read me!” in his ear. This is but one of the issues that will arise.
Another issue occurs after reading an almost perfect book. I had this experience recently after finishing the novel You Came Back by Christopher Coake. I went to my stack of “to be read” books and, no matter how hard I tried to read each of them, they simply felt flat by comparison. Moreover, I felt as if I could see the stitches in the tales when comparing them in my mind to Coake’s virtually seamless story telling. I finally came to realize that Coake’s book – labeled a ghost story – is about what sudden loss does to human beings. I then searched for a book with a somewhat similar theme and found it in the novel Gone by Cathi Hanauer, a story about a writer-mother-housewife whose husband leaves with the young, sexy babysitter and doesn’t return. Gone and You Came Back are nearly mirror images of each other. In music, it was like when the Beatles released Let It Be and the Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed.
After reading these two somewhat similar tales, I felt free to experiment with something completely different, which turned out to be an historical novel; fiction based upon a little bit of fact. But sometimes shaking the grip a great book has on you – a type of literary hangover – takes days to be loosened. For the book reviewer, this may mean not following through on a commitment that was made earlier; or delaying meeting the commitment. But that’s the way life is. As John Lennon was to so wisely state, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
2. Comparing A to B
Above, I’ve compared two novels to each other, and this leads me to wondering whether a publishing house or publicist should do the same. It seems like a potentially risky business. If the book jacket promises that, “Anyone who loved Milo’s Story will adore spending time with Fluffy’s Tail!” there’s the risk of making the reader who truly loved the former, but doesn’t like the latter – such as a dog lover who can’t abide cats – extremely angry. I think these types of comparisons have more of a downside than an upside.
A better strategy, in my view, and one that draws me in, is to post a blurb by a respected author who writes in the same genre as the new, relatively unknown author. I may be quite unsure that I want to spend time reading a book by Bill Unknown, but if there’s a front jacket blurb by David Major (you know, the one whose book was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway) stating, “Bill’s a truly great find! Trust me, you must read this!” I’m likely to take the chance. That’s because David Major has little to gain and a lot to lose by letting his name be used in a less than forthright way. Let’s just hope that I haven’t received the galley of Unknown’s forthcoming book right after I’ve finished reading You Came Back.