Monday, August 29, 2011

Post #200: A Late Summer Edition of Literary Links

A busy week at work last week led to me stockpiling several literary articles to read when I had time. With such a wealth of literary miscellania saved up, I figured I'd spend a post resurrecting a past monthly New Dork Review feature: The Compendium of Literary Links.

Also, since this is the 200th New Dork Review post (that means it's my 100-week anniversary), check out my top 5 five favorite discussion-inducing posts below. After all, the discussions and comments are still the reason this blog is fun. Cheers!

But first, here's a late-summer, spaghetti-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks edition of literary links: 

1. Interview with Paul Murray — I knew nothing about this fella before reading Skippy Dies, but it's clear from reading this interview that a lot of his personality came out in that brilliant novel.

2. Book Review Cliches I'd Like To See — This is a great take on how, when reviewing books, we can sometimes write ourselves into inescapable patterns. But more importantly, it's good advice on how to emerge from those patterns.

3. Top 100 Most Sought-After Out-of-Print Books — Pretty, pretty interesting. Madonna's #1. You pervs! 

4. Interview with Ann Patchett — I haven't yet read her new novel State of Wonder, but people keep raving about it. And I love how the interview starts by discussing Patchett's penchant for creating setting. A good setting can make a book almost as much as a plot or characters, right?

5. The Decemberists' Calamity Song video — This could not be more awesome; it recreates the game Eschaton from Infinite Jest. I've probably watched this about two dozen times in the last week.

6. Reading: Free entertainment, for life — Great op/ed on CNN. Even if you did nothing else for the rest of your life but read, and even if another book was never published, you'd still have plenty of material.

7. Back From the Dead: The State of Book Reviewing — This long piece in Poets & Writers does a brilliant job of describing the changing landscape of book reviewing.

Top 5 Discussion-Inducing New Dork Review Posts
5. Top Five Sins of the Book Reviewer — This post holds the New Dork record for most comments — 52. I loved hearing that most people agreed about most of these, or disagreed just in shades of degree. 

4. My Top Five Literary Nemeses – This was probably the most fun post to write, and the comments were great! We effectively panned all the posers in the literary world!

3. The Play's The Thing: A Look At Literary Gimmicks — This was one of those posts where readers really came strong with additional recommendations. That's another one of my favorite things about this blog — discovering new reading landscapes.

2. A Reasonably Short, Fairly Impassioned Defense of Reading Fiction — If you've read the blog for any amount of time, you know David Foster Wallace was one of my heroes. So I drew from his influence for this post about why reading fiction is important for the real world. (The title is of the post is his influence as well, of course.)

1. Should Art Be Separated From Artist? — This discussion went on for several weeks with a total of 38 comments. This was the most challenging post to write, and the yielded the most stimulating comments.

As always, thanks for reading. I hope you'll still be here at post #400!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

President Obama, Read Whatever You Want, Regardless of the Author's Gender

Yesterday, published an op/ed written by a short-story author named Robin Black, titled "President Obama: Why don't you read more women?" The piece, as you may surmise from its title, complains that President Obama's reading list is offensively light on female authors. Then, it devolves into one of those now all-too-familiar articles about what dolts we men readers are for not carefully monitoring our male/female author ratio. This piece in particular really got my blood boilin', and so I wanted to spend a post to look at some of Black's arguments, Reading Ape-style.

Right off the bat in this piece, Ms. Black sets a combative tone.
While there's no way to know whether Hillary Clinton would have hung tougher than President Obama with those recalcitrant Republicans, here's a safe bet -- her summer reading list would have included a few more women authors than his.
So, the assumption here is that, because she's a woman, Hillary Clinton would read more women authors. But isn't that the same wrong-headed gender-biased logic Ms. Black is attempting to take Obama to task for? What we get here is your standard-issue double-standard. It's okay if it's a woman reading mostly (or just a "few more"? what's the proper balance?) women writers, but it's not okay when it's a man reading mostly men writers. This is especially troubling given that, later, Black writes:
As I suspect Obama would agree, matters of prejudice are never entirely minor, even when their manifestations may seem relatively benign.
That's true. But Ms. Black started her piece with the same matter of gender prejudice, i.e. that a woman would read more women. That's not minor there either, right? Still, as I'll contend later, none of this really matters all that much.

Okay, let's take a breath, and laugh through an easy-to-spot hyperbole.
Now the fact that the president of the United States apparently doesn't read women writers is not the greatest crisis facing the arts, much less the nation -- but it's upsetting nevertheless. 
Ms. Black points out that Obama has read very few (maybe as low as 30 percent this year, and 4 percent overall) women authors. That means he actually does read women writers. Sloppy writing.

Now, let's get down to the heart of the matter. Here's what seems to be Ms. Black's central thesis for why men don't read women writers as much as they apparently should. 
It is a well-known fact among those of us to whom this matters that while women read books written by men, men do not tend to reciprocate. The reasons for this imbalance are the subject of much speculation and little conclusion, but, simple as this may sound, it looks an awful lot to me like we think they are more interesting than they think we may turn out to be.
First of all, that first sentence is FAR from a fact. Case in point: me. I reciprocate. I read lots of women novelists, and actually, so do 99.9 percent of the male readers I know. But, secondly, Black's point seems to be that men don't read women because we find women boring. (Indeed, the subtitle of the article she links to as "proof" is: "Women are underrepresented in literary publishing because men aren't interested in what they have to say.") That subtitle specifically and Ms. Black's central thesis in general are what almost shot me through the roof. This paragraph was the moment in the article when it began to feel less like a sophisticated discussion of reading preferences and more like an attack on male readers as knuckle-dragging neanderthals who have to be coaxed into listening to their women.

Look, here's the rub: We read for fun, not to be fair. Regardless of the gender of the author, we read for enjoyment, not to make other people happy. Those are true whether you're the leader of the free world or the purveyor of a lightly trafficked literary book blog. If some (but not all) male readers wind up reading more men writers than women, it's probably for the same reason that some (but not all) women readers read more women writers than men. Maybe we can convince Malcolm Gladwell to write an article explaining that reason in more detail. But for now, I know this for sure: The reason is definitely not that a reader stands in a bookstore, prepares for a book purchase, but then makes one last check of the gender of the author to make sure it's the "right" one.


The Franzen/Weiner/Picoult stuff in the last half of the piece is a nice walk down last summer's memory lane, but that dead horse has been sufficiently beaten. I don't think, though, that most people saw Weiner as attacking Franzen. People were more perplexed that she seemed to consider herself in the same category of writer as Franzen. And that's preposterous, in my view — like Adam Sandler getting on Jack Nicholson's case.

Lastly, I couldn't agree more with this: 
Women authors write kick-ass books.
Of course they do. (Though, I'd disagree with her that The Year We Left Home is an example of that.) My favorite novel of the year is written by a woman (Ida Hattemer-Higgins' The History of History). But I think it's silly to suggest we all must be equal opportunity readers. So let's all be cool, and read and let read.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Year We Left Home: Not Quite Franzen

A few weeks ago, The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, appeared on Entertainment Weekly's back-page Bullseye feature. It suggested that if you "love" Jonathan Franzen, check out this book. It's kind of rare that a not-big-name novel shows up in Bullseye. And I do love Jonathan Franzen.

So, I thought, let's do this! I'd never heard of Thompson, but luckily, I had a copy of the novel on hand — I'd won it several months ago in a Friday Reads giveaway. So I dug it up from where it'd been buried at the bottom of a pile of non-priority novels, and dug in. Especially after reading Murakami, I needed something more realistic, relatively straightforward and not long. The Year We Left Home fit the bill. 

I'm telling you all this because, at least to me, the story of how I came to read the novel is actually more interesting than the novel itself. Beginning in 1973 with the marriage of the eldest daughter, the story traverses 30 years in the lives of the members of a small-town Iowa family. We get short 20-page or so vignettes advancing the stories of each of the four siblings (as well as a crazy cousin named Chip) a few years at a time, chronicling their successes and failures, tragedies and victories.

Yes, it rings very true; it is some the more authentic fiction I've read — as someone who grew up in a small Midwestern town, I can say that definitively. But it sure isn't very interesting. My favorite mini-story was one that takes place in Chicago, and I only liked that one because of the "recognizable places / street names" effect.

Overall, I kept wondering if the story of this family is a story that really needed to be told. It's just so mundane. For example, one of the first stories is about one of the siblings and her mother going to visit their sick aunt. And that's it. They visit her. And they're sad she's dying. And then we jump ahead a couple years, and she's already died. In fact, in the rare cases that something interesting happens, it always happens either off-page or at the very end of one of the vignettes, and we wouldn't learn the true effect of that interesting or important event until several years later, and then from the perspective of one of the other siblings. Strange storytelling choice, that. The effect is that it pretty much removes any of the drama from the novel. 

So, I wasn't a fan. But if you're looking for an ultra-realistic Midwestern family saga, you may enjoy this. Also, if you like depressing fiction, man, this is right in your sweet spot. A little 'net research has revealed that Jean Thompson is better known for her short stories, including her National Book Award finalist collection Who Do You Love: Stories. Her short-fiction prowess is pretty clear from the style and structure of this novel, so I'd also suggest checking out any of her volumes of short stories.  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kafka On The Shore: "The World is a Metaphor"

There's a common joke about literary over-analysis (specifically in regards to teaching literature) involving blue curtains. Why did the author make the curtains blue? What does the curtains' blueness symbolize? Most times, the answers are pretty simple, the author would say: The reason the curtains are blue is because they are f$#%ing blue.

In Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, however, the curtains are not just f#@$ing blue. Indeed, every detail of this ethereal, intricate novel means something, is connected to something, is a symbol or metaphor for something, or is a key to puzzling out some of the novel's central riddles. And guess what? It's up to you to figure out what it all means. There are no easy answers.

That may sound daunting, but don't worry. The novel's far from impenetrable. And it's actually a lot of fun to try to figure it all out. But even if that sort of literary sleuthing isn't your thing, the story itself at the surface level is pretty entertaining as well.

There are actually two alternating threads of story, and they both hum along pretty quickly. Kafka Tamura, 15, runs away from his Tokyo home and takes up residence in a room in a small library (a metaphor for memory?) in a seaside town. Nakata is a strange old man who had been the victim of an mysterious accident in his youth that has left him mentally incapacitated, except for his unique abilities to talk to cats and make it rain fish and leeches. He undertakes a mission beyond his understanding with the aid of a young man named Hoshino, who is looking for meaning in his own life. There's a bit more to it that, but that should be enough to give you a flavor for the plot that provides the framework for Murakami's metaphysical playground.

As the stories converge (or don't?), the reader is left to tangle with notions of metaphor, consciousness, personal identity, fate and love. It's heady stuff, sure, but again, not completely beyond the realm of comprehension. Murakami is infinitely quotable (see quotes below) and a lot of the fun of the novel is to turn these over and over in your head to figure out meaning both on their own and also how they relate to the rest of the story.

Along the way, Kafka and his buddy Oshima (the receptionist at the library), use music, literature and historical figures (like Adolf Eichmann and Beethoven) to try to understand Kakfa's situation. I loved that as a sort of reverse meta-fictional storytelling strategy — instead of a story that is "self-aware," this story uses fiction and "characters" from history to help the reader burrow deeper into its own fictional world. I know that's not unique to Murakami, but especially in a high-concept novel like this that can easily set readers adrift, Murakami does his readers a great favor by mooring us in real-world fiction and history. Does that make sense?

Anyway, I loved it. Yes, Kafka On The Shore is a novel that requires (gasp!) a re-read to fully grasp. But a once-through is enough to get you hooked; that is, to spend hours combing message boards and other websites to search for meaning. There are definitely some right answers, but there's also much open to discussion. At least I hope that's the case, because I certainly don't know what all the right answers are.

Do you?

Quote Well:
"Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe."
"Reality's just the accumulation of ominous prophecies come to life."
"Actually getting closer to a metaphorical truth? Or metaphorically getting closer to an actual truth? Or maybe they supplement each other?"
"A reciprocal metaphor. Things outside you are projections of what's inside you, and what's inside you is a projection of what's outside."
"For every theory, there has to be counterevidence — otherwise science wouldn't advance."  But, later, Crow says, "A theory that still doesn't have any good counterevidence is one worth pursuing."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Unrelated Thoughts About Reading Haruki Murakami

The more I read this Haruki Murakami fella, it's easier to understand why his fans are as loyal and passionate as they are. He's pretty freakin' good. As of this writing, I've finished 1.87 of his novels (all of Norwegian Wood, and most of Kafka on the Shore), which admittedly, is a small sample size of his work. But I've got a few more in the queue before his magnum opus 1Q84 comes out Oct. 25.

And so reading two of his novels in a month has made me think some thoughts. Profound, eh? So here are some unrelated (and rather unacademic) thoughts about reading Murakami, from a new member of his legion of fiercely loyal fans.

— Murakami is a clear influence on Ida Hattemer-Higgins, who penned my favorite novel of the year, The History of History. (my review) Unfortunately, I didn't realize that when I read The History of History this spring, because I hadn't yet read anything by Murakami. Had I known that then, I'd be much deeper into Murakami's catalog by now.

— As further evidence that Amazon is trying to systematically destroy the world, it has Kafka On The Shore labeled as "Reading Level: Young Adult." Nice one, jerks. What's next? Twilight is a "Modern Classic"?

— Have you seen that blurb and book review cliché "effortless prose?" What the hell does it mean? Presumably it attempts to convey the idea that the prose appears to have required little effort to write because it flows so smoothly. Of course, that idea's absurd. Even though it's hyperbolic, we know the writing required tons of effort. For Murakami's fiction, however, that cliché just feels apt. It just does. To read Murakami is to devour 100 pages without any notion of time passing. I'm not a particularly speedy reader, but I've read 404 pages of Kafka On The Shore in five days. That pace is a new record for me. How much of the credit for how smooth Murakami reads in English goes to the translator, I have no idea. But someone did something really well to make reading "difficult" fiction so easy.

— Anybody else planning to re-read 1984 in anticipation of 1Q84?  Yeah, me too.

— John Updike wrote in the NY Times that Kafka On The Shore is a "real page-turner." He also called it an "insistently metaphysical mind-bender." Those two descriptions next to each other make as little sense to me as the term "effortless prose" used to. But Updike is right. The novel's both. Murakami's all about blowing up traditional notions of fiction, it seems.

— Both titles of the novels I've read of his are actually song titles. Norwegian Wood is a Beatles song, and the plot draws from the first few lines. Kafka On The Shore is a fictional song, the lyrics for which roughly form the "rules" of the novel. As someone who obsessively reads the lyrics of songs I like, I love this story-telling/titling strategy!  

— Here's a simple syllogism:
Haruki Murakami likes music.
Because I like music, I like novelists who like music.
Therefore, I like Haruki Murakami.

— Here's another one:
Haruki Murakami seems to like baseball.
Because I like baseball, I like novelists who like baseball.
Therefore, I like Haruki Murakami.

— Next up on my Summer of Murakami list is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and then Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World...and then 1Q84, which is about a thousand pages. Yes!

Do you think thoughts about reading Haruki Murakami? Let me hear 'em. Please comment below!

(Also, though I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to do this yet, look for some somewhat coherent thoughts about Kafka On The Shore on Thursday.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Dude's Guide to The Help, or Five Reasons Dudes Should Read The Help

Yep, I'm a dude and I read The Help. Can you believe it?

If you can, I hope you'll also believe I didn't read it only to curry favor with this blog's female readers. Nor did I read it only so I could write a gushing, positive review and bump up my traffic numbers. And I definitely didn't read it in order to time this post for the week the movie opens as a cheap stunt to attract new readers.

Actually, in all seriousness, the reason I read it is simple curiosity. No literary novel in the last several years has garnered the attention and readership The Help has. If there's such thing as a modern classic, it's it. So, to consider myself a well-rounded biblio-nerd, I read.

Even before I read, it was easy to tell why the large majority of The Help's readers are female: It's a story about women written by a woman. And just look at the cover — the washed-out burnt sienna/yellow color and the precious little birds surely are intended to appeal to women more than men, right? Those are probably enough to ensure most men will only give it a cursory glance. But I'm here to tell you, I liked it, and if you're a beer-swilling, fantasy football-playing dude like I am, you may like it too.

Here are five reasons why: 

5. Everyone likes a good literary revenge — It's not quite on the Monte Cristo scale here, but the cornerstone of this story is a good heaping helping of revenge. For those fellas not familiar, here's the dime tour of the plot of The Help: Two black maids named Aibileen and Minny in early 1960s, early Civil Rights-era Jackson, Mississippi, band together with a young white woman named Skeeter to write a book about their experiences as maids. Despite the risks to themselves and their families, the main reasons the maids agree to tell their stories is that they're angry about the blatant racism and indignity they're forced to endure, and the violence perpetrated upon others in their community (Medgar Evers has just been assassinated). They want people to know their society is broken. And so telling their stories is their form of civil disobedience, and their way to get back at the people who have treated them poorly. I love the idea of using a story as revenge, and if you're a dude, you should too.

4. Almost all the male characters are totally unlikable — Does that sound like a counter-intuitive reason for why dudes should read The Help? Granted, but here's the deal: With only two exceptions (Johnny and maybe Skeeter's father), all these male buffoons are pretty much models for what you don't want to be as a dude: at best condescending and racist and at worst a drunken wife-beater. So, as you're reading, in some weird way, you get a nice sense of "despite all my own short-comings, at least I'm not like these idiots." You feel positively enlightened. And that should always be an effect of a good book — in some small way, it makes you feel good.

3. Understanding the evil and ignorance of racism is important — As I read, I kept thinking, "this isn't an historical novel, it's a novel set in history." Yes, that's parsing hairs, but I tend to think of a historical novel more as a 30,000-foot-view of historical events. And in this novel, you're in the shit with these characters. In this case, that includes a deep, ugly, pervasive racism. James A. Michener once wrote, "Knowledge of the past gives men courage to face the future." But knowledge of the past also gives us courage to change the future. An ideal future is one without racism. And hoping for and working towards that should be the goal, no matter your race or gender. This novel helps you understand how disgusting racism is.

2. Emma Stone is adorable — I started reading the novel knowing Emma Stone had been cast as Skeeter, so she was my vision of that character all through the novel. Perhaps a tad shallow, I'll give you, but let me explain a little more. As this week's Entertainment Weekly article about the The Help movie says, Stone's "energy, her approachable beauty, her playful sexiness, and her specialty: a skeptical smile" make her "catnip to both male and female audiences." Yep, I dig Emma, and I think most dudes do, too. And so I conflated her with Skeeter, however fallacious that might be. Therefore, Skeeter is awesome. Yes, she's awesome on her own, but for dudes reading The Help, I'd suggest that "mistaking" Stone for Skeeter is a good way to get yourself interested in that character. It makes for good readin'. 

1. Good literature should be gender neutral — I know, that's a bit idealistic — and maybe even a bit contradictory, since I already told you The Help is a feminine novel (I don't mean that in a derogatory way). But for novels that, by any objective measure, are pretty freakin' good, I really think both males and females can find something to like. I took a chance on The Help, knowing full well it wasn't my usual cup'o'tea. But I read with the notion that if such a novel is universally adored, there had to be something there for me, too. And that's really the point of the post, to show dudes not to be afraid of this book. I could spend another 2,000 words enumerating the reasons why The Help is good, but just take my word for it, it is. Just ask your sister, wife, mother or any other female friends, and there's approximately a 100 percent chance several of them have read it and loved it. They can tell you why it's good. I just wanted to try to convince you to ask the question in the first place. Did it work?

Ladies, any other advice for dudes to get the most out of The Help?  Fellas, have you read it? What'd you think? 

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Blogger/Novelist Relationship, with Alex Kudera (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1 of our discussion, Alex Kudera, author of Fight for Your Long Day, explained his take on blogger book reviews and the nature of the contact he's had with book bloggers. The conversation elicited a lot of great feedback, including a related strain of conversation at The Reading Ape's blog about what a "reader-centered review" really means. 

In today's installment, Kudera discusses the impact book bloggers have on the publishing industry. To me, this is one of the more interesting book blog-related topics. So, thanks again to Kudera for giving us his take. Here's what he had to say:

Greg: How do you think book bloggers have changed the way publishers promote and market novels? Are these changes good things for authors?

Alex: First, yes, absolutely, I do think book bloggers have changed the way publishers promote and market novels.

In fact, as stated, I’m a bit of a book blogger myself, well, truly, more of an “author interviewer” at When Falls The Coliseum, where I’ve spoken with established novelists like Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Dan Fante as well as young upstarts like Lee Konstantinou and Eleanor Henderson. Further, I’m not a “connected” person beyond a few mafia ties from my used-car-selling days, but a contact I have in PR at a major house told me that connecting with book bloggers and other reviewers is her best advice and exactly what she tells all of her authors (and yes, I probably should interrupt this interview to beg her to pick up my next novel, and then pray I can finish writing it).

As far as I can see, the right review at the right book blog can have even more impact than traditional press, and within the world of established media, it can often be better to get one’s review posted online than to have it only appear in a print version of the same publication.

I’m also seeing that tweets about the book, from an enthusiastic blogger, are extremely helpful, sometimes more than the review itself. The total number of book mentions, as long as the majority are positive, might be the most important thing.

So I’m led to wonder if this suggests that books are often an impulse purchase, and ironically, a message of 140 characters or less can drive us to buy a novel of 90,000 words or more? I do know that some of my favorite writers are ones I stumbled upon randomly in bookstores, on days when I walked into the store with no firm intention of buying anything, so perhaps it works this way online as well?

As for whether or not these changes are good for authors, I’m certain that they are good for authors willing to take the time to reach out to bloggers and other readers, but I also like to believe, perhaps too idealistically, that it is still possible for books to disappear from public view, but then to slowly resurface due to their originality, and eventually, like a Melville or Nietzsche, get recognized as an all-time great despite selling very few copies while the author was alive. The documentary The Stone Reader is one of my favorites and connects well to this theme.

If you would like to see Amazon sales for Fight for Your Long Day since December 2010, with paperback and e-book sales separated since February, here are the Novel Rank stats. The spike for my novel in early June was due to two blog mentions at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and so that would be strong evidence that blogs with visibility certainly sell books. These figures do not include sales of all the other “virtual bookstores” selling new and used copies on Amazon’s website, and I do notice that these disappear and reappear, too (a shrinking number of “new” and “used” means sales). I’ve heard that Amazon accounts for 1 in 2 books sold in the United States — yes, a scary thought — but I don’t think we can merely double amazon sales to get total sales for a specific book.

Greg: Do you think breaking down the line between reviewer/blogger and author is inherently a good thing? Why or why not?

Alex: I don’t see it as “inherently a good thing,” but I will say that the line is already broken; maybe it’s a dotted line indicating that passing is allowed? (For me, it has become exciting to see book bloggers become debut novelists.) In fact, novelists who also blog are the norm these days; if I’m not mistaken even big names like Rick Moody are blogging, and I believe that I’ve read it’s required by Moody’s publishing contract.

I see a lot of reciprocity within online writing communities, and there seems to be some sort of “you blog on me, I blog on you” expectation, and I’m very aware of a couple books I owe a read or blog to.  For most of my life, I’ve experienced writing as a solitary act, but in the past year, I’m learning how to be a supportive part of the Indy book community — from active blogger-novelists like Ben Tanzer, Charles Dodd White, Lavinia Ludlow, and Steve Himmer (his Bee Loud Glade is also from Atticus Books).

It’s important to remember that there has probably always been intense subjectivity within the writing and publishing process, so the idea that breaking down the barriers between bloggers and “authors” could corrupt a process that was previously an objective one is inaccurate; the idealized world never perfectly was. So to speak.

Indeed, Cyrus Duffleman’s (Eds note: Duffleman is the protagonist of Kudera's novel.) neurotic angst often twists and contorts around the less idealized and intensely subjective world, one full of dehumanizing inequalities and also the possibility that everything can be seen in more than one way. And the readers who “get” it, seem to find his antics and doubts laugh out loud funny and yet also meaningful.

With that in mind, buying the book is always appreciated, but if you’d like to sample my novel without committing to a purchase, three great ways to do so are 1) via interlibrary loan  or 2) by reading free preview pages of the google e-book or 3) by listening to the free first chapter as an audio book coming soon to ears near you.

Well, speaking of ears, I’m afraid that I’ve written a few off, so thanks again, and to everyone, happy reading!

(Again, if you missed it, Part 1 of the interview is here.)

So, what's your take on how bloggers are affecting, positively or negatively, the publishing industry? Are we strictly promotion machines, or are we adding something concrete to the discussion about books? If so, what? Is contact between reviewers/bloggers with authors a good thing or does it break an unwritten ethical rule?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Blogger/Novelist Relationship, with Alex Kudera (Part 1)

Under most circumstances, this could've been a bit awkward. Earlier this week, I reviewed, somewhat tepidly, Alex Kudera's satirical novel, Fight for Your Long Day. A few hours after posting the review, Kudera, the novelist himself, messaged me on GoodReads. "Ah, crap," I thought. "This is gonna lead to some unpleasantness."

I was wrong. Here's the first line of the message: "Thanks so much for reading and sorry it wasn't quite the book for you." Kudera went on to talk about some of the book's more positive reviews and why he thought others may have enjoyed it more than I seemed to. I was kinda shocked — if it were me in his shoes, I would not have been quite so not querulous.

One of the last lines of Kudera's message again thanked me for reading because ".. what you are doing is clearly helping books--if you like them!" That was intriguing to me, as I constantly wonder what authors think of we amateur book bloggers and what (if any) influence we have. Even though I was in no position to petition for a favor, I asked Kudera, a lecturer in the English Department at Clemson University, if he'd be willing to answer a few questions about the blogger/novelist relationship and the degree to which he thinks bloggers are part of the publishing conversation now. He agreed. Here's what he had to say:

(Note: This is Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 is here.)

Greg: What do you, as a published author, expect from a blogger in terms of review rigor? Do you expect "reaction" — with lots of "I thought..." or do you prefer more academic/journalistic style reviews? 

Alex: Hi, Greg, and thanks for having me aboard for this interview. I appreciate your generosity in sharing some time at New Dork although it sounds like my book was not for you. To be honest, when I saw “Dork” in the title, I thought your blog and my book might be a perfect match. Alas, it was not to be.

But back to the question, I’d say that the most important thing is exposure, and that any published author has to be grateful whenever his or her book is mentioned online, in print, on the air, or anywhere else. So, to an extent, as authors, we should be grateful even if the review is indifferent or worse, and we’re not in a position to judge the “rigor” of the review.

At the same time, the most detailed reviews are almost always the best reviews, and we can see on amazon that review readers find these to be the most helpful as well. So perhaps the wide world of readers can help sort out these in-depth reviews from the others?

But because a mediocre review can be a conversation stopper, my personal rule for writing about books and authors is based upon my understanding that it is extremely difficult to write and sell one and that writers have starved and publishers have lost huge amounts of money by making a wide array of literary fiction available to the reading public. For these reasons, I almost invariably post positive notes about books, and so at my blog or GoodReads, there’s a bit of a “if you don’t have anything nice to say..." rule in play. I do realize that one could argue that this jeopardizes the integrity of my blogs and comments.

For Fight for Your Long Day, I like it when reviewers love the book, “get” the humor, and include specific favorite quotations. The more favorable and detailed the review, the more I feel like I’ve connected with that particular writer-blogger.

Greg: What interaction have you had with book bloggers? What has been the nature of this interaction? Contentious? What outcome?

Alex: Most of the book bloggers I connect with are also novelists, and the interactions are largely positive. I suspect this connects to shared experience and understanding. Perhaps surprisingly, we do not always have the same taste in literature.

It seems like authorial suicide to be contentious with anyone, and when I’ve lost my cool, it’s mainly been due to the combined workload and stress of teaching, parenting, writing, and promoting. I try not to get angry, of course, and it has hurt me when I’ve lost my cool in various situations. Teeth Are Not For Biting is one of my daughter’s favorites, and its lessons can be applied to the adult world, too (let’s leave the saying, “always treat children like adults, and adults like children” for another interview). I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and in commission-based sales before that, so I’ve grown accustomed to being on the front lines of a service economy, interacting with lots of people every day.

I guess, whenever a writer is frustrated by the process, my best advice is to try to remember that the potential blogger, reviewer, or bookstore manager could also be an extremely stressed-out, overworked person trying to endure life in a backbreaking world, and that taste in literature can be very personal.

And also, just to breathe, and take a break from book promotion — let it rest for a couple days and then find other readers to connect with. There are hundreds of different ways to find readers and promote books although it can still seem difficult to sell them.

So, what do you think? Do you agree that authors aren't in a position to (or just shouldn't) judge the rigor of a review? As a blogger, do you abide by the "if you don't have anything nice to say..." rule? What rules in regards to the relationship to authors (if any) do you think bloggers should follow to be responsible, ethical, and informative?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fight For Your Long Day: Adjunct Hell

Cyrus Duffleman has committed all seven deadly sins of literary blockage: "daily drudgery, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, lack of talent and determination, and above all, laziness." These have "stole away any chance he had of concentrating for long enough to produce anything even loosely resembling a work of art."

We, the readers of Alex Kudera's novel Fight for Your Long Day, learn this about the Duffler (as Kudera is fond of calling his antiprotagonist) on pg. 14. And so we know right off the bat what we're stuck with for the next 250 pages. Forty-year-old Duffy is fat, lazy and horny, and that's how he must go through life. The novel chronicles his long day —  a Thursday in the spring of 2004 where he teaches three writing and English classes at three different Philadelphia universities, sleep-tutors through a tutoring session at a fourth, and completes a shift as a security guard.

But as hard as he seems to work, Duffy can barely make ends meet — pulling in a measly two grand per class for adjunct teaching gigs. And he's pissed about it. It's not fair. It wasn't supposed to be this way. 

I took a chance on this indie novel because it's purported to be a cross between a rollicking campus comedy reminiscent of Richard Russo's Straight Man which I loved, and A Confederacy of Dunces, with it's mad-at-the-world-and-misunderstood character, Ignatius Reilly. I love Ignatius Reilly — he's one of the best characters in modern literature. Sadly, Fight For Your Long Day is but a shadow of either novel.

It's supposed to be a comic novel, but it's overstuffed with Duffy's political musings (he's a bleeding-heart liberal) and his serious existential crises (has he ever really helped any student?) that there are few laughs to be had. And since you can't laugh at this character, all that's left is to feel sorry for him (his work is unrewarding, he can't get laid, he's just pathetic), and that doesn't exactly make this an enjoyable read.

I won't dismiss it out of hand. If you're a liberal English professor who's worked on an adjunct basis, you might like this novel (most of the positive blurbs seem to be from other adjuncts who can totally sympathize with the Duffler). It also won an Independent Publishers Book Awards gold medal for the Mid-Atlantic region earlier this year, so obviously, someone appreciated it much more than I did. And while laughs are far between, there are a few — the seven deadly sins of literary blockage, i.e., is pretty funny. And some of the rants against President "Fern," even if you don't agree with the politics, are generally amusing, as well. 2.5 out of 5 stars.