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Pickle Me This

September 25, 2020

How to Be a Champion, and Not a Sycophant

Some of my most important mentors have been the people who said no to me, the people who couldn’t accommodate my request, who didn’t want to help, who had better things to do than answer my email. From these people, I have learned that I too can set my own boundaries and limits, that none of us are required to be everything to everyone.

And so similarly was I impressed last spring when I approached a fellow author-friend for a blurb for my forthcoming novel, and she responded with a caveat—she would agree to read my book, but not necessarily to endorse it. Because how could she know if she hadn’t read it yet, and as a person who aspires for everything to mean what it means, this was a particularly powerful moment.

This story has a happy ending too, because this person really liked my book. And how much more her endorsement meant to me because it wasn’t granted automatically, because it meant something. But even if she hadn’t endorsed it, I would have admired that too. A sign that honesty and integrity are not as rare as one might think. And yes, my ego would have taken a bit of a bruising, but every public-facing person benefits from such an exercise from time to time.

Last week I wrote about the importance of making space for promoting books and reading, but this doesn’t require one to have to love everything. “The standards we raise and the judgments we pass…” Virginia Woolf refers to in “How Should One Read a Book,” and those standards and judgments are important. Not because they are the law, because they aren’t, and different readers and critics will have different standards and judgments, which is just the way it should be (and this is the great thing about making space—there can be enough of it to go around).

If you are making space and not adhering to your standards and judgments—raving about books you thought were terrible, blurbing books you’ve never read, recommending titles about which your take was mostly “meh,” holding your nose to post about a title your favourite publicist has sent you which is not your cup of tea, writing about a book that was rubbish but the author is super nice—then the space you are creating is not going to be very meaningful. And sometimes these kinds of situations are difficult to avoid, particularly if you are new to a community or less sure of your taste or less confident as a critic. But I would advise you to find yourself in these situations as little as possible to preserve your own literary reputation, your sense of self, and on behalf of the cause of better books, which is a cause we all can believe in.

Here’s how you can do it.

  • If you can’t say no outright to review/blurb requests (it takes courage to be that bold) then you can make excuses. A lack of time is something nobody is going to argue with. Be vague. Don’t reply to emails. They’ll get the point. (There are people who will claim I am being unfair here, and that you owe it to authors to be honest and upfront. I have tried this. It has never gone well, and I will never do it again.)
  • Build your wheelhouse. Most historical fiction, books about young men coming of age, novels with child narrators and fiction about philosophers I’ve never heard of are outside mine, which makes it easy for me to ignore these books without compunction.
  • If that author on Instagram is super nice (even if she is me, although I am not that nice) and her book just didn’t jive with you, you don’t need to post about it. Even if she put it in her mailbox with her own two hands. The favour you did her was trying out the book at all. It’s not your fault if it didn’t work. And perhaps you can write a critical post that highlights the book’s redeeming features, but if none of those features can be found, just let it go.
  • Be as brave as my friend and don’t agree to blurb a book you haven’t read yet. If you do agree to blurb a book that turns out to be terrible, fail to meet the deadline.
  • Understand that a book may not be to your taste, but someone else might enjoy it. And that is terrific. Because you got to be honest with yourself and your audience and the book still got love. There is enough to go around without you bending over backwards.
  • Know that it is not your job to take care of everybody
  • And understand that your word is only ever going to mean anything if you mean the things you say. Your platforms matter. Use them wisely, smartly, and don’t water them down. And yes, we could be all throwing up our hands about declining ways to get the word out about books (and we do! And we are!) but that makes it all the more important to preserve the integrity in the places/platforms that are still available.

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