I Don't Envy Diogenes
#1 As a novelist, I write for John Q. Public. While that may sound like a pretentiously Socialist maxim, it's nonetheless true. I do not write to please literary agents, acquisitions editors, publishing executives, distributors or book reviewers and critics. Doing so would be a guaranteed exercise in futility, not to mention laying down a despicably officious and servile foundation for a career in letters. #2, unless they have a personal grudge based on jealousy, irrational hatred, politics or some other disingenuous agenda, the book-buying, book-reviewing public has nothing at stake.
On August 23rd, the near-monolithic Penguin-Random House released Caleb Carr's newest novel, Surrender, New York. And of course, handing out ARC's (Advance Reading Copies) and Kindle freebies to those chosen for the Vine program to select critics and other New York Times bestselling authors is part of the pre-publication process. (Oddly enough, the only blurbs from reviews on the back of SNY are of Carr's previous bestsellers, including The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness and The Legend of Broken.)
These, obviously, usually are the source of the blurbs that appear on the back cover and opening pages for when a title is launched. Not long after I began blogging, I used to get ARC's myself from several major publishers until a decade or so ago. Among the titles sent to me: The late Helen Thomas' Watchdogs of Democracy, a biography of IF Stone and Glenn Greenwald's How Would a Patriot Act?
I don't know how my email address got on the monitors of these publicity outreach people but that's beside the point. It became apparent that when the reviews didn't come from me, the books and offers stopped just as suddenly as they appeared. And this is my central point in this article, one I'll revisit. And my other point is about the pitfalls of writing, and being advised by, professionally-commissioned book reviews.
As intimated above, I'm speaking only of those written by staff or freelance book reviewers and the usual bestselling novelists. I don't include in this jeremiad those execrable Kirkus reviews costing unwary authors $600 and up for a short piece written by an underpaid intern who lifts literally two thirds of the text from the book itself. Besides, paying for a review, then presenting it to the world as proof of your salability is not only the mark of a rank amateur but is also extremely unethical.
I'm talking about guys like Michael Connelly.
On August 15th in the New York Times, the creator of Harry Bosch wrote a review of Carr's Surrender, New York that can be most forgivably described as, well, forgiving. In the first two paragraphs of "Caleb Carr’s New Thriller Takes On Fancy Forensics", the second being tediously teutonic, Connelly snuffles on about the role of forensic science and its evolution in latter day crime detection. Almost as if delaying an onerous task, in these opening 250 words, Connelly doesn't even mention Carr or his new opus until the opening sentence of the third paragraph.
Now, before I proceed I'm going to insert a disclaimer here that I had just yesterday received Carr's book. Ergo, I've obviously not read it nor will I read it until I finish the novel I'm currently reading (The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson). So this is not intended to be read nor written as a critique of the book in question.
As stated, Connelly, true to his ultimate loyalties, is very indulgent and forgiving towards his fellow bestselling novelist and it's easy to think this is where he made his first mistake.
("But, Robert", you're even now asking, "if Connelly read the book and you didn't, you're in no position to be critiquing his critique!" Right you'd be but this is not a critique of Connelly's book review but one of the entire practice.)
Now, as with writers, there are several things publishing houses will never own up to even on pain of death (such as the massive, undeclared kickback scheme designed to safeguard the interests of agents instead of their authors and 90% of their books losing money, anyway, despite this borderline criminal practice). Sending out ARC's to reviewers to get positive blurbs for the dust covers is one of them. Officially, the potential reviewer is under no obligation whatsoever to regurgitate a positive review of a title proffered to them.
Having said that, it also needs to be explicitly stated and understood that both the publisher and reviewer (especially if they're a star author) have something at stake in producing a good review. The publisher, after all, is trying to sell the thing and a bad review will not help to that end. A bad review will simply not appear on the dust jacket or flyleaf unless there's some nugget of applause the publisher can lift out of context. And for the author/reviewer, there's something else at stake-
While they're officially under no pressure to produce a glowing review, people like Michael Connelly know that if they pan the book or fail to write a review, they will lose that free publicity that only comes with literally piggybacking on a new bestseller. To believe otherwise of such cynical motivations would be the height of naïveté. After all, their name is mentioned as well as one or two of their more recent titles. Eventually, as in my case, the offers abruptly stop coming.
It's an ingenious way of getting your brand out there without having to pay publicists. And while these reviews are unpaid (paying reviewers, again, is extremely unethical), reviewing books is also a lucrative sidelight if they can get it printed, say, by the New York Times as Connelly did or some other major outlet. So, technically, they're still getting paid as if they're on staff. It's just not the publisher who's paying them.
Just as publishers would like to keep mum or refuse to admit to the uglier realities of the business, writers are also loath to admit certain things (such as who influences them). One of them is the stark reality that writers by and large loath each other. Of course, this isn't an absolute. But for every friendship of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg (friends of Carr's father Lucien), there are perhaps hundreds of Jack Kerouac/Truman Capote antagonistic relationships.
Many of them, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, were manufactured feuds that were created and, in some cases, kept running for years just to stir up publicity to sell books. But today, the antagonism is very real, oftentimes for legitimate or seemingly legitimate reasons ("That isn't writing," Capote once said of Kerouac, "that's typing.") But when swallowing one's pride (and bile or gorge or what have you) means the difference between getting your brand out there or not, even a bestselling novelist always keeping an eye on their latest sales report will dutifully churn out a benevolent review of a writer they may personally and professionally detest.
But there may also be another reason. Personal and literary differences aside, one may also detect or suspect a pernicious strain of elitist protectionism when one author lauds another. There's a successful propaganda campaign I suspect has been put out there by literary agencies and especially publishers that independent writers' productions literally aren't worth the paper they're written on. Some actually believe this and elitist, bestselling authors are certainly no exception. At the end of the day, they will stick together and support each other even if for no other reason than mutually supporting what's come be accurately known as legacy publishing.
And here I turn back to my original point as to why I do not trust nor even read reviews by elitist authors such as Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver (whose overly formulaic books I don't even read any longer), James Patterson and other arrogant bestselling authors who deign to tell us who and what to read. It's as if their success and wealth makes them unimpeachable arbiters of what's worth or not worth reading. Sure, people are more prone to listen to the opinion of Stephen King, another prolific reviewer, than Joe Blow. But, again, at the end of the day, they will default to protecting what they have at stake and their opinion on a title is no better than anyone else's.
And this is why I trust the book-buying public and not the "pros." After Connelly's review came out in the Times, it began getting a sprinkling of mentions in the reviews that trickled in. And what Connelly said seems to be at stark odds with the nearly 50% of Amazon reviewers who'd given it one or two stars. At one point, Connelly diplomatically insists,
It adds up to a languid but intoxicating pace. This is a novel you set time aside for. It is charming and eloquent between the horrors it captures. A mobile home gets a grim 150-word description before we even view the truly horrible contents inside. But that lengthy description ends, like all such accounts in Carr’s capable hands, with words that can’t help propelling the reader to enter: “If ever a place promised not only a crime but a history of singularly grim details, we had reached it.”
Jones and Li go through that door, and the reader is more than willing to follow.No, not necessarily. While I suspect some of the reviewers weren't intellectually qualified to read a book such as Surrender, New York, it struck me that many more intelligent readers didn't get through it for the simple reason that they couldn't. Here's one recent two star review:
This novel appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review with Michael Connelly gushing at the end, "It is hard to resist a character with such eloquent charm and a story with such deep meaning, no matter what its time and place". Okay... last time I rush to Amazon and purchase a book without reading the reviews there. There is nothing I can add to all the others who expressed their disappointment in this novel. I don't mind a long book. I don't mind meandering sentences. But stilted dialogue? Endless soapbox lectures? Oversized exotic pets walked on a leash? I decided I no longer wanted to waste any more time. Wish I could get my money back.And in literally dozens of cases, reviewers complained about the same things in Carr's book: Stilted, unrealistic dialogue; Too wordy; Needs serious professional editing; Editorializing, Too much cursing. None of which being things Connelly singles out for attention.
It would be very easy to shrug off one or two or even three average people on the street when they make the same criticisms. But when dozens see the same weaknesses that a "pro" like Connelly doesn't or won't by design, then it's not a product of mass hallucination.
I won't let these startlingly consistent reviews prejudge this book for me. An erudite and often eloquent writer such as Caleb Carr isn't for everyone. After all, largely on the strength of the Kreizler novels, I spent a pretty penny buying it. But it ought to be mentioned here that Carr's current sales ranking is plunging by the mile seemingly with every minute (a few days before its release, SYN was ranked at #41. It's now at #752 and falling like an anvil. The average rating is also an abysmal 2.9 stars out of five).
Puff pieces like Connelly's may help sell advance copies but at the end of the day, publishers should listen to the book-buying public that entirely determines whether a book succeeds or gets sent to the shredders and pulpers after a few weeks.