All My Friends are Writers
That’s a provocative title, no? I recently read a ten-item list by the late William Safire of somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice to op-ed columnists, one of which included the idea that one should return to the original idea at the end of the piece, thereby creating a full-circle effect that serves to make the columnist seem smart and satisfies the reader. So I’ll be sure to try to do that later on. I hope you’ll still be around for it.
About six years ago, when I first became active in the online reading and writing community, I made the acquaintance of a writer who also reviewed books for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. She told me that she had to sign some sort of form stating that she would never review books written by anyone she knew personally. Rats, I thought at the time. There goes another opportunity for me-me-me down the drain-drain-drain. And here I’d thought making her acquaintance would be some sort of advantage.
Still, when I gave the matter more thought, I did see the wisdom of it. If reviewers could review books written by people they knew personally, wouldn’t they elect to review books written by their friends and wouldn’t those reviews be favorable? Or, to put a more evil spin on it, wouldn’t reviewers elect to review books by people they knew personally and disliked, trashing those books?
Still again, I accepted this as being a wise way for the literary world to turn and I immediately resolved henceforth to make no more acquaintances with reviewers. Why, after all, should I ruin my own chances at being reviewed?
It’s funny, how you can go along and go along, accepting what you think is the status quo, and then one day you open your eyes a bit, start looking around and suddenly you realize: Why, the world doesn’t work that way at all!
The New York Times, which, for the sake of this discussion, we will declare the most venerated newspaper in the United States—how does that august publication handle reviews? I’ll tell you one thing: If you’re a writer for the New York Times, your chance at being reviewed by them seems to hover somewhere around, oh, say, one-hundred percent. Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman—they all write books and all of their books get reviewed by the newspaper that is their primary employer. Even Sam Tanenhaus, editor of both the New York Times Book Review and the Week in Review, writes books that get reviewed by his own paper. Is this nepotism? Or is it fair?
Well, I suppose the answer to that depends on how cynical or open-minded you’re feeling on any given day.
A few hundred thousand new books are published in the U.S. each year. We won’t even talk about how many are published throughout the world (although the Times does review books from outside the U.S. as well) because such a number would be too mind-boggling, at least for me. And of those few hundred thousand published in the U.S., how many are reviewed in the Times? Let’s see, one a day in the daily edition, and now that the NYTBR has shrunk to approximately 24-32 pages . . . what . . . maybe another fifty a week? So about 3,000 books a year? Oh, let’s be generous, since there’s the longer summer and Christmas issues, let’s say 5,000 books a year get reviewed. So maybe two percent of published books get reviewed. Most writers would kill to get noticed by the Times, and yet their chances of being so are reduced by the fact that the Times’ own writers take up so much space—what nepotism!
And yet, and yet, it is fair. Someone writing for the Times—they’ve reached what many consider to be the pinnacle of journalistic achievement. Why shouldn’t they get reviewed by the Times? Aren’t their books worthy of note? Should they be punished for their journalistic success by not getting reviewed? And is it surprising that, even when there are minor cavils, these reviews are overwhelmingly positive? After all, these people write for the Times!
And now, from the exalted subject of the New York Times, we bring the circle more fully around to the somewhat less exalted subject of me.
A half-dozen years ago, I could write reviews of books or cover the book industry and rarely ever have cause to mention anyone I knew, however slightly. I might have known some local writers, I might have had correspondence with some others and met a few more at conferences still, but it would be a relatively small group. The Internet has changed all that. Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo Groups, writer forums—it’s no exaggeration to say that I now know literally hundreds, if not thousands, of other writers.
And I do review books and write about the industry. So what’s a girl supposed to do? Do I not write about people I know when some days it feels as though I know almost everybody?
(OK, I don’t know Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, I don’t know Richard Powers or Jane Smiley. But, you know, as soon as they friend me on Twitter . . . )
Easy answer: Of course I write about people I know. But I don’t write about everyone I know. What does this mean, in practical terms? It means that a percentage of books I read are by people I know. It means that I am predisposed to like those books, because I like the people who wrote them, but there is by no means any guarantee. If you’re my friend, I may love you no matter what, but I can still tell if those pants make you look fat. And so it is with books. You may be my friend, but I can still tell if your book sucks. I just won’t write about it.
I only review books that I absolutely love (although if an essay is a roundup on a subject, I may include other books for sake of discussion). This is a decision based on the issues of time and temperament. As noted in previous BiblioBuffet essays, I read a lot. So if I read 5-7 books a week, and I’m only going to review one, it’s going to be the one I enjoyed the most. There simply isn’t the time for me to write about everything I read, and I don’t have the temperament for writing about books I don’t like. When I was a professional reviewer for Publishers Weekly, it was my job to pan a bad book if the book deserved it. But I don’t need to do that now, particularly since age has taught me that there’s nothing more subjective than a bad opinion of a book.
So what can you expect from me? If I say I love a book, that is my honest opinion, no matter who wrote it. Each year, on December 31, I go through my journal of books read that year and select my very favorites by category. The final list may include some writers I know but by no means includes all writers I know. Such a list would be longer than the number of books total that even I could read in a year!
I guess, then, my policy doesn’t put me in line with the Boston Globe or the Washington Post but it does put me in line with the New York Times in that knowing me should not be a punishment. Well, knowing me may be a punishment, but you shouldn’t be further penalized by not getting your book talked about if it’s a good one.
And now we come entirely full circle. All my friends are writers—or close enough—and I will write about the best of those writers’ works. I hope you won’t hold it against me. Or them.
Win a free set of Lauren’s Sisters 8 series! We will be giving away a copy of her current four books in the Sisters 8 series (Annie’s Adventures; Durinda’s Dangers; Georgia’s Greatness; Jackie’s Jokes) to this week’s lucky winner. These books are appropriate for readers aged 6-10. To enter, send us an e-mail with your name. That’s it. For this drawing, all names received on or before Friday, October 30 will be entered, and the winner’s name will be drawn that evening. We will notify the winner over the weekend. Only one entry per person, please. There is no obligation, and your name and address will not be saved by BiblioBuffet or used for any purpose other than mailing the books.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold 20 books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Angel’s Choice for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first four of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. Her newest book is the YA novel Crazy Beautiful. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren's life and work at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.