A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.”
Almost without exception, uber-popular novels disappoint me. An American Marriage kicked up so much pre-pub fuss I could see the dust swirling on the horizon as it galloped for town. Each review more laudatory than the last, by the time it hit the shelves I had to wear goggles to keep out the flying debris. When it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, that was the final straw.
Reader, I caved.
And I wasn’t blown away.
I’ve never differed from my favorite critic before. I do mean never. Ron Charles from The Washington Post is my go-to, the reviewer I trust not to kiss author ass when the rest of the world has puckered up. He praised An American Marriage. That is no small thing.
His opinions are the gospel according to St. Ron:
“Compelling . . . spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions. She never ignores their flaws, their perfectly human tendency toward self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, to be just, to somehow behave well despite the contradictory desires of the heart.”
—Ron Charles, Washington Post
There’s a formula to hitting that blockbuster sweet spot, a tipping point at which all the review outlets are throwing out exclamation points and trite phrases like a BOGO sale. An American Marriage hit that mark. That’s why I steered clear as long as I did.
At the outset, I loved the book. Lyrically written and initially gripping, it sucked me right in. I thought to myself, here’s the rare exception to my rule about popular books. Beginning on the Friday of a long weekend I knew had to myself, since The Well-Beloved was otherwise engaged, I saw ahead of me 48 hours of reading bliss that didn’t quite materialize.
If you haven’t read it, the book is about a young couple struggling to hold their marriage together after the husband has been wrongfully jailed for assault. Celestial and Roy are still adjusting to married life when he’s convicted and sentenced to prison. Until his appeals are exhausted, the hope he’ll be freed is enough to maintain the bond. Once that’s lost, a yawning gulf opens, leaving just enough room for Andre, the friend who’s loved Celestial from childhood, to declare himself. The two fall in love.
When new evidence proves Roy’s innocence, he’s set free. Life being life, the struggle to right the balance is fraught. I won’t tell you how it ends, but you can imagine the hellish ride. There are a few well-executed subplots, but I won’t go into those. This isn’t a proper review.
A couple things stand between me and loving this book. First, what Ron Charles praises as “tender patience” was, to me, pacing that slowed to a crawl. Somewhere around halfway I put the book down. Wanting to know how it ended, but not thrilled with the knowledge that meant I’d have to finish reading it, I thought about googling for spoilers. I didn’t, deciding instead to plow through.
It’s just not tight enough. I love taut writing, extremely spare prose, and it’s the writer’s job to keep me gripped. Lyricism has its place, but Jones is an over-writer. She relies far too heavily on similes, and that grates. Her penchant for ending paragraphs with a flowery flourish yanked me out of the tale. This was the second stumbling block.
It was like trying to read attached to a bungee cord.
There’s much to admire in the book. For me, the drawbacks prevented me from falling in love. If there’s an upside, at least my disappointment with popular books remains unsullied.
Still, Ron Charles. Now that hurts. Not loving the book is one thing. The discomfort of disagreeing with The Critic is quite another.
Bluestalking has served as a portfolio of sorts, initially the humble offering stretched out to publicists when begging review copies, before I had actual publishing credentials. I needed proof I had a platform, and readers who dropped by to listen to me yammer about books, so other publishers would give me more books.
Circle of life.
That’s how early bloggers leveraged their experience to branch out and write for other venues. There weren’t that many of us back in 2006, not like today, when countless cool kids are vlogging and podcasting and going all Facebook live. We reviewed the old fashioned way, in actual typewritten prose. And weliked it.
Instagram? YouTube? Try Blogspot and Blogger — Typepad if you could afford the subscription, then WordPress, once you figured out how to migrate your posts and navigate their platform.
At present, the only book-review videocast that’s widely available is the Washington Post’s The Totally Hip Video Book Review featuring Ron Charles. Charles, the regular fiction critic of Post, writes sincere, uninspiring reviews. The success of the videocast is Charles’s ability to laugh at himself. The episodes are, of course, totally unhip but charming nonetheless.
– Sarah Fay, “Could the Internet Save Book Reviews?”,The Atlantic, May 7, 2012
Get off my damn lawn, lousy millennials. You and your fancily composed tableaux of books, coffee with pretty designs carved in the foam – how do you even have the time? We downloaded cover photos from Amazon.
Guess what? We liked that, too
There used to be websites tracking book blogger rankings. If you dropped your guard your nemesis would sideswipe you, sending you skidding into the tires like an even nerdier version of Mario Kart. Amazon was brand new and already becoming a review site superpower, bloggers an extension of their reach. We became the first top Amazon reviewers just by showing up. Try accomplishing that now.
Try it, punk.
the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.
Upstarts like me were yelled at by literary critics of stature, academics bloviating about the ways we were ruining everything, taking their jobs by undercutting them. We weren’t specialized, had no idea what we were talking about. We werenot professionals.
It’s funny to me now just how much that pissed me off at the time. Sitting in my living room in 2019, I’m frankly flattered they even noticed. It’s like getting a no thanks note from The New York Times. Usually they just ignore you; embrace the rejection.
John Sutherland lead the crusade, positively apoplectic the great unwashed civilian book reviewers put ourselves out there — worse, that readers were responding. After one particularly insulting article I sniped back at him, though I wasn’t his primary target. On behalf of those without specific educational credentials, I felt personally affronted by his elitism. The purpose of reviews is to sell books, I told him. If you don’t sell the books, no one reads them. If no one reads them, his job was rendered moot.
As for reviewers on Amazon, why did you need a doctorate to have an opinion? He engaged me briefly, then crawled back inside his ivory tower.
It was awesome.
Nothing stands still on the web. There is emerging, on Amazon, a corps of regular ‘reviewers’, so called, trusted to kick up dust and move books. Dinahbitching is becoming institutionalised.
Why do the web-reviewers allow themselves to be recruited as unpaid hacks? Partly for freebies. But more because they enjoy shooting off their mouths. And they enjoy the power.
“THE POWER!” We were mad with it: a vast conspiracy, one small step below the moon landing.
Knowing how it panned out, I can look back with a lot more empathy. His huffing and puffing appeared reactionary, half annoying and half amusing, but turns out the dude wasn’t wearing an aluminum foil hat. His fears were not misplaced.
Overall, the market for writing about books and literature has atrophied almost to distinction, comparatively speaking. Most national papers have cut books sections, those that remain no longer plump and healthy. A large percentage of literary journals have either gone belly up or migrated exclusively online, printing costs skyrocketing past the point of affordability.
It pains me to admit John Sutherland had a point.
Writing in the literary field is not a viable career path; it’s been decimated. If you’re still undeterred, you better be prepared to violently elbow other writers in the ribs and push some prams in front of speeding busses. Respect to the strugglers, but this is why I’m not quitting my day job.
Fair warning: I’d still keep an eye on that pram, not gonna lie.
The internet opened up writing and reviewing to the masses, and when publishing professionals saw that they swooped in. Given a choice between paying an exorbitant wage to an established writer or giving away a few books to popular blogger/reviewers, which do you suppose a financially-strapped publisher would choose?
Word of mouth isn’t so easily separable from book reviews. What is a good review from Michiko Kakutani but a recommendation directly from a reader to hundreds of thousands of her closest non-friends? As with word of mouth, it’s tough to measure the impact of a glowing review on sales numbers. Still, one study showed that reviews do influence libraries’ purchasing choices. Another suggested that New York Times reviews swayed sales. In 2010, GoodReads pulled charts showing massive spikes in certain books’ activity after the books were reviewed or recommended on major platforms.
Once through the door, a lot of talented people took advantage of the opportunity and carried it further. That’s called opportunity, and it’s no bad thing.
Are book bloggers responsible for the partial collapse of formal criticism? I still say no: the two markets are very distinct. Everything we’re seeing was inevitable following the explosion of the internet. It would have happened without us.
The arts aren’t immune to rules of supply and demand. When the walls came down, canny writers with drive were able to break into the old boys’ club, throwing their legs over a few wingbacks and grabbing handfuls of Cubans. But maybe this lot of mostly old, white men had grown too complacent. Maybe writing about literature needed an injection of fresh blood.
Shaking things up every few hundred years is no bad thing. A little scary, granted, but necessary for growth.
Blogging opened a lot of doors I’d never have found on my own. I’m still not published in Harper’s, but it’s paid off far beyond the time I’ve invested. There’s more I could be doing, but work-life-avocation balance is a consideration. And I’m not quite dead yet. I nominate myself as one of the top thousand-ish writers to watch under 60.
I appreciate the opportunity afforded to writers by the grace of the internet. It’s not all good or fair, but was it before? It’s a damn sight more accessible, this I know. It’s also dynamic, still in transition. When I revisit this in another 15 years, who knows?
The exciting part is it’s completely unpredictable; it will never, ever grow stale. As long as there are markets I can barge into, and ribs to elbow, I’m happy taking the good right along with the bad.