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The theme this time around was publishing, so we decided to include reviews of self-published books by local writers. I assigned a bunch and set a deadline. Now here's the strange thing: over the following couple weeks, staffers who'd agreed to review a book kept showing up at my office door to express their anguish (anguish!) over what I'd given them to read. A few brought the book with them so they could give me a verbatim catalog of horrible grammar, laughable typos, stupid verbal tics, egregious inconsistencies, and ridiculous turns of phrase. Others came empty-handed, evidently so that they could massage their aching temples as they demanded to know what they were supposed to do with crap like this. There were multiple e-mail exchanges on the subject. "Are we still to review books if we greatly dislike them?" asked one staffer with a sweet diffidence. "I will, but I feel a little bad about bagging on a guy who put all this effort into self-publishing his novel."
This wasn't a matter of a stinker or two. It was pretty much the whole bunch. The feculency factor was so pervasive that we had to strategize over what to do about it.
My position was basically the same one Hyman Roth advises Michael Corleone to take in The Godfather, Part II, when certain people turn up dead: "This is the business we've chosen." If the books are bad, they're bad, and we say so. "Man up," I told the diffident staffer. "Like you say, the guy worked hard to put his book out there, and it would be less than respectful to be anything but honest. . . . Just tell the truth as you see it." For good measure, I attached a video of Nick Lowe playing "Cruel to Be Kind."
A little later I happened across an old Reader theater review written by Terry Curtis Fox maybe 35 years ago, in which he offers five reasons for not giving a certain play the "kind of review it deserves" and then six for giving it "just what it deserves." Fox ends by saying, "A good review for a bad production does nobody any good. These kids will get over it and maybe one day will do something worth while [sic]." I sent that to the Diffident One, too, who seemed convinced for about five minutes but ultimately, self-admittedly "wussed" on going negative.
In the end, unrelated circumstances solved the issue for us and the baby-kitten-killing reviews didn't make it into print—though a few appeared on the Bleader this week, including my vicious and uncomprehending attack on Dwight Okita's sci-fi romance novel The Prospect of My Arrival.
It surprised me to see some of my colleagues fretting so much over the matter. These are hard-nosed newspaper people who never hesitate to speak truth to power. But I suppose that's just it: they don't believe the authors of these awful little books have any power. In fact, they've got a lot more now than they ever did, which is why we went to the trouble of reviewing their work in the first place. As you're no doubt sick of hearing, the old literary filters are gone; the Internet has made it possible for anybody—no, everybody—with an 80,000-word dream to bypass all those naysaying publishers and editors and get it to the public on Amazon. They don't need no stinkin' Maxwell Perkinses, Gordon Lishes, or Ezra Pounds telling them what to do. They can put their baby out there in its pristine state, just exactly as they wrote it.
And here's the result. Not a single one of the language-loving, literature-devouring Reader folks who got a self-published book from me could review it positively. Not a single one. Indeed, some of them were so dumbfounded by what they were reading that they asked to be excused from fulfilling the assignment. Or excused themselves. That's unprecedented.
Years ago I had a job leading poetry workshops at CHA residences and schools throughout Chicago. Our mantra then was, "Everyone can write." And it's true. Everyone can have that pleasure. Doesn't mean everyone's a pro.