Yesterday I read a friend’s Amazon reviews, and was glad I was barefoot: otherwise I’d be out of a laptop. He’s a brilliant writer and a challenging one. His books are a blast. They’re also quirky and dark. Predictably his reviews are all over the place. But the one that set me off did so because it so perfectly captured a disconnect that is hurting just about everyone who reads, writes or has any other passionate relationship with books.
The review was pure vinegar. It whined about cover art and about the table of contents. It carped at publishers for “extortion”—I imagine someone’s dog was kidnapped, not to be returned without 100 proofs-of-purchase. But the reviewer saved his real venom for the author himself. He was getting faster at his trade, but was still “nowhere near” fast enough at providing sequels. At the same time his book was “rushed” and “insufficiently edited.”
Given that the reviewer himself had several hundred (insufficiently edited) Amazon-review notches to his belt, you might assume he preferred quantity to quality. But you’d be wrong. I explored his dungeon of disappointments. One review after another lamented shoddy editing, unresolved plot details and other artifacts of haste. And every sequel arrived too slowly. The reviewer was a tragic victim of unscrupulous hacks and the industry that made them rich. He deserved better, and he deserved it RIGHT NOW.
If this Power Sniveler ™ stood alone in his crankiness I would have nothing to say. Unfortunately he’s only an extreme example of a common malady. The glut of “free” content (in truth no more free than clean air and water, but that’s another rant) encourages us all to act like fiends. We want novels our way. That is, we want them brilliant and beautifully written and polished and instantly completed and cheap—or free, to judge by the proliferation of steal-this-book clubs. We want novels to flow like tweets and read like Cervantes. We want old Scotch whiskey at Budweiser speeds, and at the turn of a tap. We will never get it, however, and we need to stop pretending that we should.
I have scores of writer friends: published and unpublished, genre and mainstream. A few are somewhat rich, and of those, a very few are so because of their writing. Like two. Most are quite the opposite: they are financially desperate, and work like sled dogs. Except of course that writers work alone, hauling their massive sleds with everything they’ve got, paws bleeding, eyes on some blizzard-shrouded horizon they may never reach.
There’s no one standing on the sled with a whip, of course. Nobody forces us to be storytellers, after all, like the gaming-slaves in Chinese prisons. Many of my friends (even those less favored by the fickle god of sales) consider themselves fortunate to be writing at all. I certainly do. There’s a joy in this work that I’ve never found elsewhere: a joy that led me to write invisibly for two decades before my first publishing success.
Indeed it’s that very joy—and my belief that good things need not be produced like bad beer—that occasionally nudge me to speak up. Writing is not doomed. The house we’ve built is not rotten; it’s a good house, actually. But the furnace roaring day and night in the basement, pumping hot air into every room, irritating and distracting us from what we love: that should scare us. I’d encourage everyone to resist the logic of the machine.
Right, back to Book IV with me. I’ve got a deadline after all.