Tag Archives: Literary Criticism

Empty Pages

Sometimes, but fortunately not too often, I receive an e-mail from an author or publicist that says, in effect, “Why haven’t you reviewed the book that was sent to you?”   In thinking about this, there are probably a lot more reasons for a book to fall off of the TBR (to be read/reviewed) stack than are readily apparent to the average person.   I’ll go over some of them here.

Please Mr. Postman

Some books get lost in the mail, or mistakes are made in the mail room.   On occasion, I’ve received a book that looks like it shouldn’t have been sent to me but it’s usually from a publisher I know.   That leads me to think that another reviewer has been sent the book that I was interested in.   I’m sure it happens.

Obviously, since the people staffing publishers’ mail rooms are human, mistakes can and do happen.   There was a particular book that I had slotted to read at a specific time and it never arrived.   I brought this to someone’s attention and was told that another copy was going out that evening.   What I wound up receiving was a very nice package with nothing inside of it – no book and no papers.   Good intentions, but no luck.

Oh, and mail is certainly delivered to the wrong place these days.   I now know which of our neighbors receives ESPN Magazine or Sports Illustrated or Power Tools Today based on the mailman dropping them in my box.   It’s not too hard to figure that some of the books intended for me wind up as a free gift enjoyed by a close or distant neighbor.

Time is Tight

When I request a particular book – weeks before a review will appear – I have no way of knowing what other similar books will be released at the same time.   And on this site we deliberately try to review a wide variety of books, not just one of a kind.   So if I request a legal thriller and it shows up when I thought it would, and at a time when I’ve just finished a family novel and a children’s book, I will go ahead and read/review it as earlier planned.   But let’s say that I’ve just read two legal thrillers, and my wife has finished one, when your legal thriller arrives.   It’s going to be put aside because, unfortunately, it arrived at the wrong time.   We don’t want to be known as Legal Thriller Review.   (The same story gets played out for many genres, unfortunately.)

There’s also the fact that books arrive either earlier than expected or later.   Publication dates also change.   I have instances where I’m reading a book for a review to appear shortly, only to find that the publication date has been moved back a few months.   That leads me to close the book.   Contra, I may plan to read a forthcoming, not yet released book by a particular author, only to go to Borders and find out – yes, this did recently happen to me – that it’s been released for sale earlier than expected.   Again, the apple cart gets upset.

I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party

Every now and then, for a sense of variety, I agree to take part in a book blog tour.   What this usually means is that I’m sent a forthcoming book and asked to select a date, within a particular window (usually a period of 2 or 3 weeks), when my review will appear.   I usually try to pick one of the final dates available.   If I start reading the book and love it, and everyone whose review appears prior to mine loves it, everything is fine.   But now and then I’m reading a blog tour book that I just do not like.   If I see that everyone else has written a glowing review and mine is going to be the one extremely negative one, I will tell the publicist that I’m pulling out of the tour.   I will still post my own review but on my own schedule.   I have no need to rile things up on the blook tour party.

I’m Down

As I’ve said before, there are some books that I receive and read but I refrain from writing reviews about them.   Why?   It’s generally not that they are bad, just not unique enough to make for an interesting review.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading one of five new Paul McCartney bios that are out this year.   I finish it and find that it’s full of the same stories told in 10 prior McCartney-related books.   Do I really want to write a rather boring review stating, “This book is a rehash of the same old stories…”?   OK, sometimes I will write that but only if I think I can say it in an interesting way.   Often, though, the same old thing is just not worth writing about.

Joseph Arellano

To be continued…

Pictured:  The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg, which will be released by Crown on Tuesday, November 16, 2010 (and which will be reviewed on this site on that date or earlier).

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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Nobody Told Me

On Book Reviewer-Author Relationships

“Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word.”   John Lennon (“Nobody Told Me”)

Here’s an experience that I’ve had multiple times, four times to be exact.   I’m involved in an e-mail conversation with a writer who is new to me, and communication is taking place naturally.   Then, all of a sudden, comes this message – as if taken from a new author’s handbook, “My publicist/editor/publisher (someone, in other words) has told me that I’m not supposed to become friendly with book reviewers.”   Naturally, my response to this is to type “Why?”

I don’t think I’ve ever received a very specific answer other than the statement that it would make the author-writer appear to be currying favor, or angling for a positive review.   This explanation may well make sense to others, but not to me.   I say this because I’m about to go on to read this author’s book – about which I virtually never have a pre-impression – and write a review of this product; I have no interest in writing about the author’s personality.

I also doubt that there’s much connection between how much I know and like the author as a person and my review, or reviews written by other reviewers.   Let me provide an example.   One author is someone I’ve known for decades.   He is a friend and yet when I wrote my review of one of his novels I think I wrote about its positives and negatives in the same way I would have with anyone else, known or unknown to me.   So my friendship with this good gentleman did not result in my insisting that everyone go out and purchase his book!   Even more curious, my wife read a different novel from this author.   She has never met him, e-mailed him or spoken with him.   Her review of his more recent novel was effusive and glowing, thus showing the lack of a direct connection between friendship and an honest review.

There’s also the fact that I know authors who have written both very, very good and average books.   If I read the very, very good book first and the average one later, I never decide that I’ve had it with this writer.   No, I think, “He/she has it in him/her to write an outstanding book, so he/she will probably do so the next time around.”   Maybe this is just me, but I disconnect the product from the person, and I keep hope alive for the next time around.

I pray this is the same with my reviews and my readers.   If I write several good reviews and then one that you find is sloppy, I hope you won’t say, “I will never read another one of his reviews again!”   Hey, we all have off days, weeks, months, and/or years – sometimes lifetimes.   But as I have stated in Our Fairness Policy, if I write a review you disagree with, feel free to write your own review (of about the same length) with a different perspective.   I will post it.

A few readers have taken me up on this offer, and I have very much enjoyed – literally enjoyed – reading their views.   Why?   Because I don’t think they’re judging me, they’re simply offering more information.   And this is why I’ve posted multiple reviews of some books.   Information is good, not just for readers but also for the authors who happened to have written the books in question.   If some information is good, more information – more perspectives – should be better for their own writing futures.   (If I write that I loved the first half of a novel but not the second half, and you feel the opposite and we both explain our views in writing, does this not help the author  to identify his/her strengths and weaknesses?   I think so, I honestly do.)

I was taught, as a one-time debater and as a law student, that all information has value.   Sure, some pieces of information and some perspectives may have more intrinsic value than other pieces and perspectives, but how do we know that without testing them in the real world?   This is what I hope we’re doing with books and book reviews…  Reading them, making some honest assumptions or conclusions about their values, and asking others to do the same.   In this way, I think we writers and reviewers are assisting each other.

We’re helping each other through open and honest dialogue while avoiding unnecessary division and rancor.   As I’ve written before, the book review/opinion process should not be a debate; there’s no true right or wrong.   There are no definitive reviews, at least in my opinion.   If I looked up all of the reviews on the internet of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, could I find one of each that I would point to and say, “That’s the one!   No one should ever dare write another word because that was a perfect review of a near-perfect book!”   I hardly think so.

Our dialogue should continue to be open and honest and friendly.   And perhaps one day authors and reviewers will live in harmony…  Until then, write on my friend.   Let’s talk a few months after the book comes out and reviews are over and done.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt, which will be released on January 2, 2011 by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

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Sequels and Prequels

“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.”   Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books

One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases.   Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer.   Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.

The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with.   One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it.   Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD.   Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO).   Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.”   But what happens when Triple Whammy is released?   PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists.   (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)

An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character.   One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky.   Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels.   (Was V. I. getting soft?)   Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books.   Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!

So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character.   He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives.   Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?

There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough.   What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income?   What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles?   This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point.   That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.

The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating.   The key word, though, is skill.

Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel.   This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character.   In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…

Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones.   When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties.   If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural.   But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow.   The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this?   I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”

Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different.   Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version.   But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”

The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character.   But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love.   These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough.   One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon.   It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one!   But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks!   Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now.   Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”

A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant.   Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome!   Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   This article is one in a continuing series.

Pictured:   Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.

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Average is Not Good Enough

“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…”   Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)

You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average.   Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer.   Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember.   I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.

These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question:  Why did I love – or hate – this book?   But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet  – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.

Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing.   Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript.   He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest.   There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.

I had an experience with this recently.   I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author.   There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter:  “First, I did this, then that.   Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.”   You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”

I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages.   I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review.   I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style.   C-.”   Oh, well.

But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer.   After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work.   This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member.   Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice.   Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?”   If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.

It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story.   C-level books are not good enough.   If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.

Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed!   And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.

One in a continuing series.   Pictured:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).

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