Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Worst (and best) Book Review I Never Got

I really wish I wouldn’t have deleted the email I received this morning, as I think this post would be so much more amusing for you with the exact quotes contained therein. I will do my best to recreate it for you nonetheless, even in the absence of the direct digital evidence. First, some context.

As many of you know, I recently published my first book, Folds in the Map: Stories of Life’s Unlikely Intersections. Having taken almost seven years to write, it was with no small amount of relief that I finally held my author’s copy in my hands last month and with no small amount of trepidation that I earnestly began submitting it for reviews a couple of weeks ago. As independent authors, this is what we spend an inordinate amount of our time doing – trying to convince critics to read and critique our work with the hope that it will grow beyond our own small circles of friends and supporters. In particular, a bit of advice I heard from several other indie authors was to submit my book to reviewers on Amazon’s Top Customer Reviewers list. After sifting through the profiles of the top 1,000 or so of these, I judiciously selected around 30 who seemed to be the best fits for my topic areas and writing style. I almost immediately received replies from a number of them, most very politely indicating they were swamped with requests and unable to provide a review, but a couple who generously agreed. One of them has now written what I would consider a very fair and detailed review and the other is still in the process of reading. Not a bad start at all.

Then there was the aforementioned email I received this morning. It was a response from a reviewer – let’s just call her Barb to protect her from any future embarrassment – who apparently has quite the pedigree at a large and prestigious university out west. As I said, I really wish I hadn’t deleted the email (angrily, I might add) so I could provide you with Barb’s actual words, but here is a brief three-part synopsis of her message:

  1. Nothing in your email made me want to review your book. I went to Amazon and read the sample chapter and that didn’t make me want to read your book either. I also read the reviews on Amazon and they also didn’t make me want to read your book. In addition, I don’t think the other Top Customer Reviewer who reviewed your book actually liked your book. She was just trying to be nice. Everyone who has reviewed your book positively must be your friends or family members. In conclusion, I don’t want to read your book.
  2. I am 67 years old and have traveled the world having all kinds of worldly experiences. I don’t want to read about your worldly experiences. In fact, nobody wants to read about your worldly experiences. Maybe if I was your aunt or grandmother I would care about your worldly experiences but I’m not so I don’t. Also, I noticed that you write about your anxiety and manic-depressive tendencies. You should really get some clinical help for these things rather than writing about them. No one wants to hear about these things. You shouldn’t be a writer. If you ever were going to be a real writer, maybe you should learn how to write fiction.
  3. P.S. Here’s a list of psychiatric resources that may be of interest to you.

I swear to you, dear readers, I am not making this up. This is pretty darn close to what she actually wrote to me. Number 3 is definitely my favorite. They seemed like pretty good resources! All kidding aside though, it’s not that I have super thin skin or hold some naïve notion that everyone will love the things I write. I think David Mitchell probably said it best in Black Swan Green when he wrote:

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

As independent writers, artists, and musicians we all have to be prepared to deal with criticism, solicited or not. It’s the risk we take when we choose to step beyond the warm, supportive bubbles of our adoring friends and family members and put our work out into the broader world. For us, visibility and vulnerability are inextricably linked. The forces that compel us to create and share our work are the same ones that set us up for public scrutiny. Some would argue that we get exactly what we ask for.

So it’s not the fact that my friend Barb doesn’t want to review my book that bothers me. Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less at this point if she condescended to bestow her vast, worldly wisdom upon me by means of critiquing my humble words. And it isn’t even the mind-boggling, stratospheric level of arrogance required to write such an email that has my blood boiling. It’s the not-so-subtle insinuation that only certain people have the right to make art; that art belongs to some exclusive, privileged class of intellectuals and academicians and not to all of us.

In other words, it’s not that she questioned the content of the book. It’s that she questioned my right to write it in the first place.

Barb, I want to thank you, because I’ve been looking for the words for this next part for quite some time.

I often get asked in interviews if I have any advice for young writers and I normally answer with my usual spiel about finding their own unique voices and not following whatever happens to be popular in the moment. I mean, seriously, the world can only take so many teen vampire novels. But now I think I’ve really got something to say, and it’s all thanks to you, Barb.

To all of you independent writers, musicians, and artists out there. To all of you who put paint to canvas, ink on the pages, and notes in our ears. To all of you who may never make a living doing what you love but will keep doing it anyway. To all of you who stay up all night filling up Moleskines or grinding out club gigs for drinks or saving your shitty tips for one more new brush or one more used lens. To all of you who have inspired and saved me more times than I could ever count. To all of you reading this right now. I want you all to remember something and remember it well:

Whether your art is born of rebellion or heartbreak, whether you’re trying to move the masses or just trying to save your own soul, whether you only have three chords or three words or three colors that you trust and know to be true… remember that art belongs to everyone and you get to make it however the hell you want. Put your heart out there for the world to see and take your lumps along the way. Absorb or deflect the inevitable barbs and criticism with grace and kindness. Keep submitting those review requests and accept the honest feedback you receive.

But never, ever let anyone tell you that you don’t have the right to be an artist.

Upon Watching Frank Turner Sing a Song to a Crowd That Wasn’t Listening

 “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.” – Ezra Pound

1380333_10201929296811177_701782575_nEveryone is here, huddled up under the golden glow of the marquee, taking obligatory selfies with the illuminated words SOLD OUT floating like halos above their heads. There’s no typecasting the crowd tonight – aging punks with their patch-worked proclamations safety pinned to faded hoodies, grunge-era Gen Xers rocking their torn up flannels and baggy jeans, and the ubiquitous hipsters decked out in their thrift store pleather and ironic moustaches. We’re all jumbled up and sharing the same giddy excitement while we wait in the long line for hand stamps and the neon pink wristbands that will get us up to the bar, where the punks will take their whiskey straight and the hipsters will fork over $8 a can for the same terrible piss-tasting Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys we used to steal from our big brothers and drink behind the hockey rink back in high school.

The warm-up acts are solid and do their layman’s work well, playing long just enough to build the anticipation, but not so long to get beer bottles hurled at them. Frank takes the stage at the perfect moment and we roar our approval, pressing forward when he launches into one of the big ones – an anthem like so many of his songs – exhorting us to live these unfettered, openhearted lives. This is what we love about him, that he can make us feel this way, that he can lift us up to a place where we feel like we can do big things and be so much better than we are. He is a master showman, too, breathing new life into tired and well-worn stage antics like: Just yell the name of the city you’re in! Have half the crowd sing one part and the other half sing the other! Talk about the first run down rat hole club you ever played in this city! Somehow he manages to do these things with sincerity and humor. We’re eating it up and singing every word. He has us in the palm of his hand.

We know the set lists and the trajectory by heart. We can feel the cathartic crescendo coming. This is why we came tonight – to hear what comes next.

But the triumphant, crunching power chords and piercing snare drum shots don’t come.

Instead, a droning, dissonant Roland organ fades in like a train approaching from somewhere far away. He closes his eyes and hesitantly begins to sing, his face pained and drawn, his fists clenched and held at his sides. There is no discernable melody or structure, just his groping, uncertain words… as I walked out one morning fair, I found myself drawn thoughtlessly, back to the place we used to live, and you still do, now without me… he is pouring them out like blood from an open wound, like they are the last things he would say with his very last breaths.

But the crowd doesn’t seem to notice.

They don’t recognize this song. It isn’t what they came to hear. They’ve gone back to their loud conversations and moronic hashtags.  They’ve bee-lined for the bathrooms and the bar… I have wandered around this city, like a child lost in the London fog… in this moment he is a broken man singing his heart out to an empty room, but no matter how desperately he sings, they can’t seem to hear him… I’ve had time enough to think upon, the question of what kind of songs you would choose to listen to, now that I am gone… there, in front of a thousand other souls, he appears utterly alone.

Yet as I look across the crowd, I can see amidst the oblivious and distracted masses a small handful of others held in rapt attention, serving silent witness to this public confession… so I sat down in sadness beneath your window, and I played sad songs on the minor keys of a broken piano, a sinner amongst saved men… just in front of me a grizzled, pierced, and heavily inked old punk stands with his arms crossed and his jaw set hard, tears just faintly shimmering at the corners of his eyes.

The song slowly winds its way to a close, barely audible over the maddening, murmuring din. Frank’s not done yet. He’s got two just more lines to sing before he’s finished … but as I stroked those broken keys… you did not join in harmony…

As we spill back out onto the sidewalk I wish, more than anything, that I had the power to identify each of those who had been listening. I want to tell them that I was listening, too. I want us to make a pact that we will watch out for each other from now on because the risks, for us, are so much greater in this life. I want us to promise to stick together because we’re so much more vulnerable to feeling completely alone.

And while we’re at it we should probably send a note to Frank to thank him for the song.

So he knows that someone was listening.