July 10, 2009 at 10:02 am | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

This week Trish and I were talking about our current reads.  I mentioned that I was reading The Story Sisters, and was surprised when she made a face.  She asked if I had heard about Alice Hoffman’s Twitter fiasco.  I hadn’t – I’m rarely in the loop about literary news for some reason.  The rest of you probably know that Hoffman reacted badly to what she perceived as a negative review.  For this reason, Trish would never read the book.

I finished it and was really impressed with it.  It did leave me thinking, though, about the curious relations between books, authors, publishers, reviewers, and readers.  Would there be a situation in which I refused to read a particular book for some reason?

The sad truth is, I realized I had a deep-seated belief that most authors are drawn to their craft largely due to a lack of normal social skills.  Someone who has always fit in easily might be less likely to stand to the side as a storyteller.  I could be wrong.  But if we aren’t surprised when actors, musicians, politicians, athletes or wealthy financiers do stupid things like slap cops, overdose on drugs, flee the scene of a hit and run, embezzle money, hire prostitutes, shrug off murder charges, etc etc, why should we be surprised when an author throws an immature tantrum?  We certainly don’t endorse misbehavior – that’s why we have laws and rules of etiquette – but we’re also quite familiar with it throughout the public sphere.

Negative reviews definitely seem to bring out the worst in authors, though.  Perhaps actors and musicians also throw tantrums when they see negative reviews of their work and I’m just insulated from this.  Regardless, we’ve all seen some incredibly ungracious receptions of what is meant as honest (and usually deserved) criticism.  Books are a consumer product, unfortunately, just like a pair of socks or a new flavor of chewing gum, and sometimes they’re just not going to find a welcoming audience.

In this particular case, I had mixed feelings.  I tend to agree with Hoffman that it’s not cool to reveal the plot in a review.  In fact, I won’t read a review of a book that I haven’t yet read if it mentions any plot points at all.  I want to know the theme, perhaps the setting, and how the book compares to other works like it.  I definitely do not want to know whether any of the characters die or what major issues they confront during the story.  If it isn’t revealed in the first half of the first sentence, don’t ruin it for me!  From a broader perspective, I do think it’s possible for a critic to abuse the role, and there should be a certain measure of accountability.

This, of course, does not excuse publishing another person’s private phone number.  I can’t imagine any situation in which that would be appropriate.  It’s triply bad when the victim is of mature years.  Authors, do not ask your readers to harass an elderly lady, for pity’s sake.

On another tangent, I think people over the age of, say, roughly, 35 really suffer from a comparative lack of familiarity with newer technology, particularly in the case of social networking.  It’s very new to them.  I deal with this at work on a routine basis, and at home, as when my dad friended me on MySpace and I saw the word ‘flirty’ in his profile.  (He’s still married to my mom).  Hoffman went off on Twitter.  Did she truly realize, the way a 15-year-old instinctively would, what it means to post stuff there?  It’s no excuse, but it’s certainly a nota bene:  Don’t type angry!

On to the question of whether my reading might be affected by something I know about the author.  I’ve read books by alcoholics, addicts, felons, philanderers, plagiarizers, and outright fakers.  I’ve read books by people whose politics make me break out in hives.  I read to find out what something is about, so if you see me sitting in the airport reading Ann Coulter, please don’t make any assumptions.  I just want to find out what all the fuss is about.  I’ve read everything by both Stephen King and Anne Tyler, two authors who most likely wouldn’t have much to say to one another, and as much as I would like to be a personal friend to either or both, I know they both value their privacy.  All I want out of a book is quality.  If producing a literary work of great depth and sensitivity reduces its author to a life of loneliness and inner pain, I bow to that.

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