Where everybody knows your name
Is it right that I appreciate bad book reviews more than good ones?
By "bad", I mean uncomplimentary assessments, not poorly written texts. Book selectors aren't glass-half-empty folks, but we need to be pragmatists, given that library budgets can't accommodate all forthcoming titles. We value the rare unvarnished indicators of titles less likely to please our readers.
A sample from today's reading raises a bright red flag: "Pretension leaps from the very first page of this trivial, tepid reworking..." The reviewer goes on to explain precisely where the flaws exist, in his/her opinion. I'll check with other sources before deciding; the process works.
Author shorthand is also wonderfully useful for book buyers. Much can be said about style and quality in few words by equating a newer writer's effect to that of a famous author. Hinting that "followers of Tom Clancy may enjoy" or that "fans of Julian Barnes are likely to appreciate" nicely encapsulates tone, pacing, theme, and so forth.
Selectors, readers, and publishers all find this device helpful. For authors, there'd be two rewards: First, finding yourself mentioned along with, say, a bestseller like Nora Roberts or a prizewinner like Jonathan Franzen; secondly, just imagine hearing that a newcomer is being compared to you!
I thought it would be fun to look up archived early reviews for some authors whom we all know. When these household names were initially published or auditioning a new series, in whose literary footsteps did they appear destined to follow?
- John Grisham: His first, A Time to Kill (1989) had a small initial print run, so I searched our Novelist database for his next,The Firm (1991). From Kirkus Reviews: "Grisham does not cut as deep or furnish the occasional shining paragraph that Scott Turow does, but he writes a stripped, cliché-free page that grip and propels."
- Janet Evanovich: Having initially published romances as Steffie Hall, she hit her stride with One for the Money (1994), the first Stephanie Plum title. Not only did the series opener merit status as a New York Times Notable Book, a Booklist review claimed that "...Evanovich's writing is as smooth, clever, and laugh-aloud funny as Robert Parker at his best."
- Leila Meacham: San Antonio resident Meacham made a big splash in 2010 with Roses. Meacham's hefty (and hugely enjoyable) family saga merited no fewer than three name-droppings in the same Publisher's Weekly review. Margaret Mitchell was evoked shortly after this bit: "...may herald the overdue return of those delicious doorstop epics from such writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford and Colleen McCullough."
- Stuart Woods: He'd published a number of successes, including the notable Chiefs (1981) already, so we shouldn't be surprised that a Kirkus reviewer of New York Dead (1991), first in the Stone Barrington series, compared the author to--himself. "Silky-smooth cop thriller", "Woods's best since Under the Lake."
Sure, some very grand awards beckon--Pulitzer, Nobel, American Book Awards, the Orange Prize, Man Booker Prize, etc. But you can't tell me that authors don't aspire to a very practical honor, that of having proven so popular with a bookstore chain or library audience that the institution automatically pre-orders anything you publish.
Congratulations, you're now a Standing Order!