I’m Just Curious, Part I
Before I wrote reviews on a consistent basis, I was a newspaper reporter. The one cool part about that job was that it gave me permission to ask questions, to be curious. It’s a trait that I incorporate into any writing I do.
This includes BiblioBuffet. So, every once in a while, I plan to find answers to book-related issues that have always bothered me. I hope this will shed some light and humor into the world of writers, which will help readers everywhere.
The inaugural edition of “I’m Just Curious” tackles three topics.
1.) One annoying trait I’ve noticed in some sports biographies is that the author’s love or admiration for their subject turns the book into a bound collection of press releases. I hate that. But two authors turned their affection into enjoyable, well-researched fare: Jeff Pearlman, author of The Bad Guys Won! (about the 1986 New York Mets, his beloved boyhood team) and Peter Richmond of Badasses (about the 1970s Oakland Raiders, a team he fell in love with as a college student). I wanted to learn how they avoided that trap.
Did Richmond’s strong feelings for the Raiders affect his reporting? The author’s thoughtful response to this question—and others—was worth the weeklong wait.
“Yes, most definitely. I wanted to do the team proud, because I always thought they’d gotten short shrift in history, and so I surrendered my objectivity early on. This was not without some inner struggle. But I decided that writing a book that was critical of their delightfully wayward ways would have kind of been like turning a book about the making of a Marx Brothers movie into a drama. I probably did go too lightly, in retrospect, on some of their off-field behavior, but I also had my audience in mind: my readers are Raiders fans, and Raiders fans want a celebration of a team I loved, too. Would I have sold more books if I’d detached myself more from my love of the team? Of [coach John] Madden? No. Should I have been harder on [owner] Al Davis? Maybe. But did I write from the heart, so that my book is clearly the work of a fan? Yes.
“Badasses isn’t a dissection of the battle of Waterloo, or a profile of a world-changing individual. It did not call for investigative reportorial skills. It called for the reporting and assembling of anecdotes, anchored by a point of view that made the anecdotes relevant and entertaining. In the end, as one perceptive critic put it, the book is more oral history than history. And had I been more objective, I would have gotten access to fewer of those tales. Am I glad that some of the Raiders of the time have told me I nailed it? Very much.
“One other thing to remember: if you make your living solely from writing, as I do, you know that writing is like being a bricklayer for many different architects. You write the words—and report them—according to what’s called for, in order to sell books, in order to pay the mortgage.”
Pearlman, who returned my e-mail the same day, had no problem writing about the team he once adored.
“I actually didn’t find it hard, because I was raised to not be swayed by love or admiration. I think that comes with a newspaper background, which I have. When I was researching the ‘86 Mets for the book, I never, ever thought to myself, “Wow, I’m talking to ...” Never. Just didn’t allow myself to be placed in such a mindset. I separated myself. I wasn’t a fan writing a book about a team I once loved. I was a writer writing a book about a team lots of people loved.”
2.) How hard is it to get blurbs? Two authors offered their perspectives: Randy Roberts, author of the excellent biography, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, and Will Leitch, author of the superb memoir, Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball, which takes place during a 2008 Cubs-Cardinals game.
I contacted Roberts first. Keep in mind that Yale University Press published Joe Louis: Hard Times Man.
“I suspect that if you talked to different people about getting blurbs you would get as many different answers. Generally it is something that you work on with your editor. You make a list and then start contacting people. I look for two qualities—name recognition and knowledge of the subject. Sometimes it is someone I know; mostly it is someone I only know through reputation. My guess is that with very big books it is all done in-house by the editors.”
Well, whaddya know . . . Hyperion published Leitch’s book. It should be noted that Leitch, who has written for Esquire, GQ, and New York magazine (where he’s a contributing editor and columnist), is a big name in sportswriting circles. He founded Deadspin.com, the massively popular sports blog that features some of the best sportswriting anywhere. He’s a go-to guy for blurbs, so he must have no problem getting them.
“It is the worst thing in the world,” Leitch said via e-mail. “It is so much worse than actually writing a book. I send out blind, apologetic e-mails. I love that blurbs exist when I’m asked to do one, but when I have to ask, I think they should be banished.”
He has no problem writing them.
“Oh, I love it. I find it the best part of being an author. Being asked, being able to read smart books for free, being flattered . . . it’s the easiest thing in the world. I cannot fathom why anyone would ever complain about it. And I read every book I blurb too. It’s amazing how few people do that.”
Pearlman used to be one of those people.
“I won’t name the author, but several years ago I wrote a blurb for someone I knew without having read much of the book. It was lazy and dishonest, and I’ve never done it since. No. 1 reason why: Because after the book came out, with my name endorsing it on the back cover, a friend said, ‘How could you like that book? It was so sexist and demeaning.’ I was crushed. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Don’t blurb what you don’t read.
But that still doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable endeavor for Pearlman.
“Well, it’s not hard if I love the book. But, if we’re being honest, a lot of times I don’t love the books. I might like them or dig the subject. But, really, how many books do we actually love? Like, love-love? If I read a hundred, I probably love, oh, ten. So, in the cases where it’s not love, I try to focus on the positives. Great reporting. Vivid details. Never-been-heard stories. And I’m sure people have done that for my books, too.
How easy is that job? And depressing? All an editor has to do is sit back, savor the writing, and wonder if his time would be better served by folding sweaters at The Gap. That’s not how it works. Glenn Stout, the longtime series editor at BASW who also writes the anthology’s foreword every year, was happy to outline his responsibilities and make me feel like a knob.
“My involvement with the Guest Editor is dependent upon what they want from me,” Stout clarifies. “Some prefer to make their selections privately with little input from me, and others welcome my suggestions and solicit conversations about them. It’s up to them, though, and that’s fine.”
In the CliffsNotes version, I spend most of the year reading several hours a day then a more intense few weeks reading followed by a couple weeks of busy work. That’s about it. “In other anthologies I’ve edited, my role as editor has been more proactive, but then again, I’ve made the final choices in the non-BASW titles,” Stout adds. “But the basic job remains the same—find the best stuff and don’t overthink it.”
I was right about one thing: Stout doesn’t do much editing.
“Except in extraordinary circumstances, none of the selections are edited in any way (and then only in minor ways no one would probably ever notice).”
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.