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Pickle Me This

February 8, 2011

Dear Author, I don't want you to visit my book club

I don’t want an author to visit my book club. Perhaps because my book club is more vicious than most, but I still can’t imagine a book club in which conversation could flow easily in an author’s presence. Because how do you talk about the parts of the books that suck? How can the group vehemently disagree on the book’s quality if naysayers are too polite to speak up? How can you speculate as to the author’s intentions, and where they went wrong? How can the book be viciously attacked, therefore provoking the book’s most passionate defenders to step up? And what if the author ate all the guacamole?

I understand why authors do attend book clubs, and why book clubs want them to do so– the arrangement is mutually beneficial. Authors get book sales and club members get filler, which it seems book clubs are ever after anyway. Though I do wish that book club members would have a little more confidence in their own skills as readers so that meetings did not have to contain merely filler. That they could think up their own discussion questions, for example (and in my club, these are mainly along the lines of, “All right, what’s up with this bit I couldn’t understand?”) Let their own conversation sustain the meeting, and if author visits are desired, have them at a supplementary meeting– certainly these visits would only enhance subsequent discussion. But the discussion will suffer if the author is sitting there for it.

I raise this matter in regard to Canada Reads, and Charlotte Ashley noted the same thing in her summation yesterday. That for the first time, authors have been sitting in on the entire Canada Reads process, and I don’t think it’s done the program any good. I liked the initial plan of having readers champion their favourite books for an “essential books of the decade” list, but things went askew when actual authors got in on the action. And authors got so in on the action, that their personalities became inseparable from the books in question. Relationships through social media developed so that it was impossible for many to read these books without a conflict of interest. The books themselves ceased to be the point at all.

As I wrote in October, “If your book really was one of the essential books of the past decade, couldn’t you rely on your passionate readers to promote it? And if you don’t have those passionate readers, then, um, maybe your book wasn’t one of the essential books of the past decade?” As Charlotte Ashley wrote yesterday, “if there was an elephant in the room [in yesterday’s “debates”, surely it was the CBC’s repeated insistence that this competition was about finding the “most essential” book of the last decade whilst gesturing at a stack of books nobody has ever heard of.”

Unless is the one book here that has any chance of essential-ness. I haven’t read The Best Laid Plans, but Charlotte didn’t have much to say about it, and she’s a pretty smart reader. I read Essex County Book 1, and it was interesting– I’d suggest it had more ambiguity than any of the other Canada Reads books, save for Unless, but still, not quite an essential pick. The Bone Cage was a good first novel, but one with many problems. Like The Birth House, it’s a book whose problems I wouldn’t take great care to deliberate on, except that now someone is going around claiming it’s the essential Canadian book of the decade and it absolutely isn’t. The whole thing is kind of ridiculous.

What’s more ridiculous though is that no one having this conversation. I’ve refrained from saying anything until now, because I don’t like to talk shit about books, but we’re all being far too polite now, and I fear that authors attending our book club is most of the reason why. It’s why book bloggers are celebrating these books without question, not a word of criticism, though there is plenty to criticize, but how can we  criticize when the author is our friend on Facebook, and our favourite Twitter pal?

I believe passionately in the role of book bloggers in contributing to literary conversation, that (to paraphrase V. Woolf) ““The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work.” Of course, I’ve always appreciated connecting with authors through blogging, the writer googling themselves at midnight on a Friday night and sending an email of thanks for my review– I love that. But when the author shows up on my doorstep wrapped up on a ribbon, bearing their book on a silver platter along with a cupcake, well then, it’s not about the book anymore.

I fear that the infusion of authorial presence in the online world is compromising what bloggers have to say, and readers and writers have a lot to lose by that.

15 thoughts on “Dear Author, I don't want you to visit my book club”

  1. Beth-Anne says:

    I completely agree with you that having an author present changes the dynamic of the discussion. I was so worried before reading Far To Go that I would not like it or worse, think it was “meh”, because Alison Pick was going to be at the discussion. Lucky for me, I had nothing to worry about.

  2. I agree emphatically.

    Attending a book club meeting, unless the author is part of that club makes it personal. And reviews and opinions of said work are not.

    It is definitely changing the dynamic of bloggers and reviewers. There are so many authors who are quick to shoot off at the mouth if someone dares to dislike their book that some bloggers and reviewers are hesitant to post their opinions. They’d rather say nothing than deal with Psycho McStalkerson and her pack of rabid harpies.

    And it *is* definitely a loss to readers and writers.

    Writing is a craft and we can’t grow or hone that talent without crit and honest input.

  3. And incidentally, when my book comes out, if I’m your Tweetheart, or your FB friend, feel free to tell me. Slap it and call it Sally. *Especially* if you’re my friend.

    Writing is a business. Books are a product. If you don’t like what I’ve supplied, tell me.

  4. Sharon Taylor says:

    I once made a comment about a book in an online discussion, and was horrified when the author defended herself. If I had realized she was on the discussion group (and perhaps I should have, but it was a group about a different author’s works), I would have couched my comments very differently. Actually, I would have made no comments at all.

  5. patricia says:

    ‘Psycho McStalkerson and her pack of rabid harpies’. Oh, I do like that.

    Excellent post, Kerry – I wholeheartedly agree. I understand that feeling of intimidation, having once had the experience of being attacked online by an author’s ‘pack of rabid harpies’ after writing an overly critical review of the author’s book. I eventually had to remove that blog post, it was getting so silly.

  6. Melwyk says:

    You’ve been able to put words to an uneasy feeling I was suffering under. Really, I don’t want to say much about a book’s flaws when I know an author is going to be reading my review; and even less when I know that author is keen to respond and point out what I’ve missed and why the book is actually wonderful. It’s hard to regain that critical distance once it’s been minimized, though.

    So do we stop reading those authors’ books? Stop talking about them? Or simply stop being friendly with authors? All of those choices seem unpleasant to me. How do we do it?

    1. Kerry says:

      My sympathy is with the authors, particularly small press authors whose houses don’t have the resources to push their books hard (and, it’s been pointed out to me, even those who do try to push push find themselves with nowhere to push to as publishing coverage is so limited and not so interested in small presses). But I think these authors need to be careful, because blogs are the one resource open to them, and if bloggers’ voices begin to be diluted and become mere hype machines, then these authors have nothing (and so do we who like reading these blogs).

      The onus is on authors, I think. Literary blogs are a community of readers first. I would encourage authors to keep some distance from online discussion of their books– they’re no meant to reply to print reviews. I’ve always thought an email of thanks for a review is a nice gesture, if a gesture seems necessary. They need to negotiate a professional relationship via social media, which is tricky, but doable. Don’t put bloggers in an awkward position. Understand that your status as author gives you a certain power in the eyes of a blogger, and don’t manipulate that.

      Bloggers can do their part in keeping that relationship professional too. And if it becomes more than a professional relationship, fine, but then you can’t review that author’s book anymore, and if you do review it or publicize it, you should cite your interest. (I also think this in no way diminishes coverage– for example, I look very forward to writing about several upcoming new books written by my friends, but I will take care to make readers aware of this context.)

      Finally, whenever we write our reviews, I think we need to think of our responsibilities as literary bloggers (and in order for literary blogging to mean something, we HAVE to adhere to these). To write honestly and respectfully about the books we review, to give our readers a reviewer they can trust.

      1. Kerry says:

        And I guess I didn’t really answer your question about authors who don’t keep that distance. I, personally, would do my best to ignore them, but it’s hard! Hence my point about authors’ onus.

  7. steph says:

    Excellent post, Kerry, very well articulated. I’ve given this some thought as well, being the “leader” of the store book club, and decided for the same reasons you mention not to have authors attend in any way, either physically or virtually. I find it tough already to get people to open up.

    I’ve also come to the conclusion that if authors want to be that participative, then they have to expect the entire package, the bad with the good. So I’m not going to hold back on a negative review, particularly if I was so ambushed by much hullabaloo promising a fantastic read. If I really hate a book or can’t finish, I won’t bother reviewing, but if I think I can produce a good, fair review I’ll do it, even knowing that the author could read it. So far any criticism I’ve dished out has been met with courteous, even if disappointed, replies, thank goodness!

    As an author, you’re automatically a target for criticism, especially if you’ve made yourself so available. I think one simply needs to accept that fact, and we as bloggers should thus be able to say what we think about a book. It goes the other way, too: as a blogger, knowingly making my stuff public, I open myself up to criticism. If someone dislikes my review or post or disagrees with what I’ve said, so be it, I guess. It’s hard, but if I’m willingly putting myself out there, I should expect it.

  8. I definitely can’t blame the authors too much for over-presence. The pressure from their publishers to be their own publicists must be enormous. Nobody else is putting any time and money into promoting their book, and everywhere I turn I see industry advice pushing authors to make “better use” of social media or else they’ll never sell. And maybe that’d even true – Terry Fallis just about to win the lottery on the strength of his own self promotion.

    Asking them to take a step back is almost just wishful thinking at this stage. The payoff for ubiquity is too great, while the payoff for a more dignified approach is… what? Very little, I’d say.

    I’m tempted to do as Melwyk suggests and just keep quiet about books written by people I feel are being too pushy. They’re probably better off in any case – I find the behavior annoying and it would probably ill-dispose me towards the book. :/

  9. Julie says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue. The glad handing facilitated by social media definitely cast a shadow over the debates this year and left many people questioning, myself included, what it all meant. Expanding, I would say that social media, in general, has painted criticism into a corner. I get Twitter and GoodReads comments from authors, telling me when their next book drops or thanking me for adding their book to my “to-read” list. It’s uncomfortable at best.

    It’s an unfortunate fact that being a writer (or any artist) also requires you to be a promoter of your talent. It’s not pretty but it’s essential. I empathize. But, as a book reviewer and librarian who needs to give patrons, as well as budget strapped purchasing departments, my honest opinion, I too have felt the impulse not to criticize simply because I can’t disassociate my thoughts about the book with the author’s face or hard luck publishing story. It’s hard enough to offer constructive criticism with the fourth wall intact, when I can pretend I’m reading in a vacuum.

    Part of the problem is that there is no rule book. We have to figure this out as we go along. But hopefully if we’re honest, we still have hope of achieving Woolf’s vision (lovely quote, by the way.)

    1. Kerry says:

      Obviously, I don’t work in PR or marketing, and maybe I’m weird, but I really think an author should try to play it cool– the book should be enough to sell itself. I think that authors also can have a significant presence online and in social media (established writers who do this well include Jennifer Weiner and Margaret Atwood), but shouldn’t be participating in online conversations about their work. In fact, I’d keep online engagement with readers to a minimum– another writer who does this interestingly is Sarah Selecky– her twitter feed is great but she keeps a certain distance from the rabble. I want to know what she has to say, but she doesn’t have to be addressing me directly. Also, for a writer to have a significant online presence, they have to be doing something in addition to merely promoting their work, and if that “something” is done well enough, I’ll pay attention and the work gets promoted in the process– I have bought many a book after becoming engaged with a writer’s blog, for example.

      Really appreciating all these comments and ideas, and I’m happy this post has spoken to so many people.

      Also, Julie, I really like your blog!

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