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The Critical Eye

Looking_Back_at_2014

Looking Back at 2014

With the calendar year about to quickly come to an end, I’ve been giving some thought to positives and negatives in the book trade, and personal lessons learned. So here are a few musings.

The All-Too-Common Plot

One thing that has highly surprised me this year is how often I’ve seen novels – virtually all written by women writers, which have been built on the same plot structure. It’s a bit odd to have seen at least tens of books using a very similar story line in 2014. Here’s the story: Judy Johnston has been away from her hometown for years. She is estranged from her family and her old friends, but returns due to the death of a parent, a once-close relative, a one-time good friend and/or classmate or an old flame. While back in her old stomping grounds, she discovers that her family has a deep, dark secret. It’s something major which, when she discovers and releases it – and she, no doubt, will do so – will either fix the family or utterly destroy it.

I have no problem with a writer finding a good story line and using it, even if others have done so. But I have been surprised that publishers don’t exercise more effort to prevent the recycling of an over-used, if fictional, tale.

Facebooking It

It’s clear that more writers, especially debut authors, are participating in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I see author pages on Facebook as being quite helpful. In fact, when I receive a new book from a publisher one of the first things I do is to check to see if the writer is on Facebook. Why? This viewing gives me a quick sense of his or her personality.

They say that first impressions count and one’s Facebook page often makes one seem likeable or not. Arrogance on the part of a writer is probably the biggest negative on social media; Facebook makes it easy to come across as humble and excited. (One of the best things about debut authors is their use of exclamation points on Facebook, which demonstrates their genuine excitement as “newbies” to the publishing world!)

I think it’s hard to “fake it” and appear to be something you’re not on Facebook. You either love working with other others or don’t; you love cats and dogs, or don’t. You either can handle criticism or you can’t. Again, one’s personality shines through for better or worse.

What’s my point here? Simply that I’m more likely to read and review a book by a writer whose personality and experiences I like and identify with. And the more I know about new writers, the more I’m likely to bond with them. (Which translates into my being more likely to read their current and future work.)

Everything Changes

Most of us have had the experience of listening to a record album for the first time after decades and wondering why we liked it in the first place. The reverse also occurs… I was never drawn to the music of David Bowie when it was originally released; however, now I find it fascinating. Why this happens is unclear, but this year I learned that what one thinks of a book can change with the times and circumstances.

As an example, I offer The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I first read the book when it was released and my reaction was, Meh. It had no impact on me, and I decided not to write up a review. Recently, I happened to pick up the book and learned to my surprise that I now found it engaging and extremely well-written. I initially missed the clue that Parkhurst was writing somewhat in the style of Joan Didion – the connection between The White Album by the Beatles (and the book by Didion) and The Nobodies Album title is made clear early on. And then there’s the fact that the story is set in San Francisco – a place I’ve come to better know, and Parkhurst’s scene descriptions are true and realistic.

The Nobodies Album (audio)

And so I went from having no opinion on The Nobodies Album to viewing it as a 4.5 star novel.

Falling Off A Cliff

The final trend that I, and my wife, discovered this year is an unfortunate one. This is when the initially successful author writes a second or third novel and it flows quite well, until… It quickly and abruptly ends! Ends so suddenly that the story seems to have fallen off of a cliff. I suspect that this happens because the publisher wants a follow-up to a successful book and sets a strict timeframe for its delivery. I’d like to optimistically believe that in 2015, publishers will display a bit more patience and allow their writers the time it takes to bring a story to its natural conclusion.

Looking Forward

Let’s hope that in 2015 we see more originality, increased social networking on the part of authors, and novels with well constructed endings. And, as readers, let’s remember that one benefit of owning a book is the chance to re-experience it at our leisure.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the San Francisco Book Review site:

http://sanfranciscobookreview.com/2014/12/looking-back-at-2014/

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A Simple Question

A Simple Question, Not So Easily Answered by Joseph Arellano

One seemingly easy question facing a book reviewer is – When should a book review be published?   Yet the answer varies greatly – and surprisingly – in the publishing industry.   I say surprisingly because I once wrote music reviews for a college newspaper.   At that time, if one asked when a record album review should be published, the answer would be “any time is fine.”   Record companies did not seem to care whether their albums were reviewed prior to release, on the date of release or even days, weeks or months later.   (Today you can find books with recent reviews of record albums that were released decades ago.)

Major publishers have so many different policies on book reviews that it’s a wonder they’ve been able to agree on an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).   One publisher wants no reviews posted prior to the date of release because, in their view, people get angry if they read about a new release and can’t find it at their local Barnes and Noble or favorite independent bookseller.   Another says a review is OK if it is posted one week or less before the release date.   Several publishing houses encourage book reviewers to post their reviews within the first one or two weeks following the book’s release.

If this isn’t confusing enough, a few publishers indicate that they do not embargo reviews.   In other words, if a reviewer has a galley or advance review copy (ARC) of a future release in his/her hands and wants to write about it now, that’s fine.

There’s similar confusion over posting pre-release excerpts; so-called sneak peeks.   Some publishers won’t allow them.   Some will allow them if the reviewer requests permission, and will then respond with specifics as to when the excerpt can be posted online or in print.   Ironically, some of the publishers who do not allow the posting of pre-release excerpts themselves post them on their websites or on online sites which cater to librarians and booksellers!

Confusing, huh?   You bet…

Then we have the policies of book review publications to which reviewers like me submit reviews.   Some want only reviews that they’ve received prior to the book’s release date so that they can post on the date of release.   Some review only new releases (often in hardbound form) but not the subsequent popular re-releases in trade paperback form.   Some, like this publication, review new releases and those re-releases missed the first time around.   It all means that a book reviewer needs something akin to a flow chart to track which policy applies to which publisher, and which policy applies to which publication.   Oh, my!

Why do things have to be so confusing?   I have no idea, except that if a publishing company foots the bill – and assumes all the risks of failure – it is fair to assume that the publisher can call the shots.   However, if I ran a publishing house – let’s call it Brown Cat Books for the purpose of illustration – I would have no problem with reviews of BCB releases running at any time.   Why?   Because from everything I’ve read, publishers must rely on the sale of back catalog books to keep them in business.

Think about high school and college students, and boomers who walk into a Barnes & Noble or community bookstore these days.   How many of them would you guess are buying a book that was released more than a year or two ago?   Perhaps not half of them, but it’s probably a higher number than your first guess.

Despite my view, one source has written that the expiration date for buzz to be generated on a new book is its release date.   In this source’s view, if people are not talking about it – and reading about it – on the first day it is sold, it is not likely to become a best seller; which translates into dead on arrival.   Yes, of course, there are and have been spectacular exceptions to this “rule” – two examples being The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones.   These are popular fiction releases that took months and years to become overnight best sellers.

This reviewer simply wonders sometimes why things are as they are in the publishing trade, but then I can’t complain.   I just need to remember to continuously update my Publishers and Publications Review Policies flow chart.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Written for “The Critical Eye” column.

Pictured:  The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson, which will be released by Shaye Areheart Books on August 3, 2010.

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