When I was a considerably younger man than I am now, I published--with a respectable New York publisher--the second of what I then hoped might become a series of whodunits set in the familiar context of the contemporary art world. The first had been reasonably well received, and republished in paperback. The second, I hoped, might open the door for further success and a modestly lucrative second--no, wait, third--career after my years as a teacher and then academic administrator. Imagine, then, my distress upon opening the Los Angeles Times Sunday book section to read a review more devastating than any--it seemed to me--than I had ever read. Among the many derogatory comments was this one--and I think that, twenty-five years later, I quote it word for word: "Clothier's prose style," the reviewer wrote, "is atrocious."
Ouch! That hurt. I have always taken pride in my prose style, and to have it thus impugned was a stinging blow to my ego. I was not only deeply hurt by the review, I was angered, And I was embarrassed. This was, after all, my home town newspaper. The review was placed prominently in the Sunday book section. None of my friends, none of my professional associates could miss it. But more hurtful still, around that time, was the loss of an old friend from my graduate school days, a poet and experimental fiction writer, who wrote to me at length scolding me, in effect, for having succumbed to the market place and written such a bunch of trash. His high-mindedness aside, his barbs hit home. I no longer remember whether it was he or I who stopped communicating at the time, but we have never exchanged a single word since then.
These memories arose in the context of of a reader's recent comment which took me (gently enough!) to task for having written a "harsh (and a bit snobbish!") critique of a book written by a person she regarded with obvious gratitude and affection. What I wrote was not intended as a "critique", nor did I intend to identify either the book or its author; my piece was about choosing NOT to write a review. It was unfortunate that this one reader happened to be able to put two and two together. But I have been thinking since then about what she had to say and, without wishing to defend myself--I did hear her, and do thank her for her comment--found myself delving a bit deeper into this conundrum.
Back when I published that whodunnit, the only alternative to the commercial publisher was what was referred to disparagingly as the "vanity press"--in other words, self-publication. Twenty-five years later, with the conventional publishing business ever more commercial and catering more to celebrity and the sure financial bet than to depth of thought and quality of writing--and of course with the advent of online publication and readership--that distinction has been superannuated. Literally anyone can, and does, write a book and put it out into the world at very small financial risk. I have done it myself. My most recent publication, Slow Looking, was published through CreateSpace and is marketed through Amazon.com. the choice saved me the infinitely frustrating, time-consuming--and perhaps fruitless--business of finding an agent, an editor, a publisher and getting an actual book out to the public.
The price you pay for choosing this route is that your product is extremely difficult to bring to the attention of anyone but a few friends, and virtually impossible to get on bookstore shelves. So we authors are constrained to fend for ourselves in this vast and ever-expanding ocean of publications. And that includes sending out review copies. I'm doing this myself. I'll send one to anyone with a blog who might devote a few words--complimentary or otherwise--and send them out into the world, so that another handful of people know about my book.
But in doing so, we'd better be prepared to take our lumps. As noted above, I've taken my share. There have been many others, believe me. And we had better be sure to be ready to take responsibility for what we write, and that what we put out into the world is the best we're capable of. If we wish so fervently to share them, we owe it to our ideas and our beliefs to be sure we don't betray or somehow cheapen them with shoddy writing--or editing. And we owe it to our hoped-for readers to respect the minds they bring to bear on what we have to say. Self-publication makes it too easy to go easy on ourselves, to write in haste and without the self-critical awareness that's needed, in my view, if we're to communicate clearly and effectively with others. It is the quality of thought and writing that makes reading such a pleasurable opportunity to learn and grow.
I welcome that people want to send me books to write about. I'm honored, a little flattered, that they do so. I don't pretend to be a critic or reviewer, but I do like to read, and when I read I like to feel that I have learned something of value. It's what I've learned that I try to write about. But I do need to be trusted to be honest and authentic. And I have no wish to be "harsh." I take seriously the Buddha's injunction to be kind and respectful, to exercise "right speech." As I understand it, though, that does not mean suspending skillfully expressed judgment. But it is perhaps sometimes better to withhold it.