Monday, October 29, 2012

People Who Don't Like My Book

I love being a writer.  I love for people to read my books and think about them.  I love hearing what they have to say, even if it isn’t always complimentary.  Well, okay, honestly, I’d rather hear compliments.  But good criticism, thoughtfully articulated, is always appreciated.

What I hate, though, are opinions that are colored by bias, poorly backed up, or otherwise incoherent.  And the Barnes & Noble site has posted a couple.

First off, let me say that I’ve received bad reviews as long as I’ve been writing.  My first book (NATALIE SPITZER’S TURTLES, Albert Whitman, 1992) was reviewed by a librarian who objected to the fact that the main character’s best friend was African American.  She took this to mean that I think black people are followers, because the best friend happened to be a follower (who, it should be said, eventually came to a good decision on her own).

As it happened, the decision to make the best friend black was taken by the editors, who commissioned the illustrator.  It was a surprise to me when I received my copies in the mail. And also, since when are all African-American characters in works of fiction supposed to be leaders?  Who ordained that?

But I never said a word, in part because it’s unseemly to seem overly miffed by criticism, and also because back then, to whom was I going to complain?

Of course, that was before blogging, which, conveniently, allows me to bitch if I feel like it.

An unnamed reviewer of PRETTIEST DOLL (Clarion, November 6, 2012), whose review appears on the Barnes & Noble site under the headline “Children’s Literature” says, in part, “I seriously worry, though, about the implications that young teenagers are likely to be perfectly safe and better off if they run away from situations not even close to being as oppressive as they imagine them.

Does Worried Reviewer worry about Claudia and Jamie Kincaid running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the classic FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER?  Does she think Harriet shouldn’t have snuck into other people’s dumbwaiters in HARRIET THE SPY because doing so might give readers bad ideas?

Kids read fiction for the same reason that adults do: to lose themselves in a story.  And the best way I know to allow that to happen is to write about real people: kids who do dumb things, over-controlling mothers who might be crazy but still love their daughters.  If writers aren’t ever supposed to write about children who behave poorly or recklessly or impulsively, then we’re going to end up with books that are more like comic books than literature.  Is that what we really want: a main character who always acts heroically and wisely, a bad guy whose temperament is never leavened with even a kernel of mercy or intelligence or gallantry?

Trust me, Worried Reviewer.  The fact that Liv Tatum runs away from home is not going to cause readers to up and head for the nearest bus terminal.  PRETTIEST DOLL is a book, not an instruction manual.  Kids will get that, even if you don’t.

After reading PRETTIEST DOLL, a self-identified “teen reviewer” says, “…In addition, her language seems simple compared to language in other books in the same age category, but there are profanities throughout the novel.

Does Teen Reviewer know any twelve-year-olds?  Any eight-year-olds?  Does she know what they sound like?  I have raised two kids, and they swore like stevedores from the time they were five years old.  (Actually, my daughter called her beloved brother an “idiot asshole dick” when she was two and a half.)  And that was in my presence.  God knows what they said when I wasn’t around.
They’re now highly functional adults who know how to behave at work and in graduate school.  They’re fine.  A few swear words in a book—I think there are no more than five in PRETTIEST DOLL—are not going to turn innocent children to a life of crime.  But a book written for young people with language that is stilted, inauthentic, and artificially purged of realism will simply never be read.
Suck on that, Teen Reviewer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Twitter and Publicity and Walking the Hills Without a Cane

So I finally broke down and opened a Twitter account.  Just writing this sentence makes me embarrassed.

Publicizing PRETTIEST DOLL is exhausting.  I haven’t had time to write in two weeks, what with trying (in vain) to figure out Twitter and writing to everyone who entered the book giveaway and answering a blogger’s interview questions ( and attempting to arrange a book tour.  Meanwhile, I’ve had a nasty cold, the roof rats are chewing on the shingles at night (blissfully unaware that the roofers are arriving tomorrow, thereby putting a definitive end to their shenanigans), my car needs servicing, and my 92-year-old mother who has dementia is ducking her caregivers and going out for unattended walks without a cane.

I’ve decided to let her do this, because it is, after all, her life.  (And also because she yells at me if I try to interfere in any way.)  It makes me very anxious; I’m always waiting for a phone call from a doctor with dire news.  My mother is unsteady on her feet and broke her pelvis in a fall last March, so she is undoubtedly at risk for grave injury.  But she loves to tell me about her walks when I call.  “I did the whole thing,” she says.  It takes her half an hour and is hilly in places, and I know she is proud of herself.

I think that in telling me she’s done it, the whole experience becomes more real to her.  She can believe with more certainty that it actually happened.

I was raised to think that tooting one’s own horn was boorish and uncouth and just a little bit unattractive.   But I’m trying to think about it in a different light.  Maybe publicity is really more than just a way to tell the world that I’ve done something that makes me proud.  Maybe it’s a way to convince myself that I really sat down and wrote a book.  An actual book.
Because after all these years, sometimes I still don’t quite believe it.