Saturday, October 25, 2014

Considering what readers expect in a book.

One of the most difficult aspects to reviewing books is considering what the author is trying to do, or, more importantly, what the readers will expect from this book.

I just finished Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Before writing the review, I went back to read my review of the first book in her trilogy, Wolf Hall. In that review I stated that I like to test historical fiction by imagining the names of the historical figures being replaced with other names to see if the book works on its own. I'm not sure that's fair. When the subject is someone famous readers bring knowledge to the process and a good writer should consider that knowledge.

It's all right to make things up. Hilary Mantel's books are mostly dialogue. She can't know what was actually said, so the real test is how believable the story is. Some things can't be changed. For example, I read a book once where Napoleon flew to a battle site on the back of a dragon. I can accept that in a fantasy. But if you tell me Napoleon was a tall man without some elaborate explanations, I'm going to stop reading. It's too much a part of what I know about the historical figure.

I think I was wrong in that criticism of Wolf Hall and I think realizing it made my review of Bringing Up the Bodies better.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A hundred years from now

My daughter loves nineteenth century novels and has convinced me to be a fan as well. I like the concept that the thoughts of writers from over a hundred years ago can still be fresh to readers such as me and I wonder if the same thing will happen with any of my work. I've had some stories published in university literary magazines, including one in the same volume as a Grace Paley story, so perhaps copies will be kept in the college library archives. And my current novels are available in Kindle and Nook forms. The internet is a game changer for longevity (just ask any celebrity with pictures he or she doesn't want out there). So writing a novel today definitely has a time capsule aspect to it.
The book I just finished and reviewed is Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I made a few comments on the sexism of the time and on other aspects of Dreiser's thoughts. Of course that makes me wonder what someone would think of White Horse Regressions 100 years after its publication date. Even today, readers have varied impressions of my novels, just as they do with any writer. But there may be additional information available years from now that impacts how people feel about my books. With a little luck I'll be someone they think of as ahead of his time, like Jules Verne, rather than someone, like Theodore Dreiser, whose ideas about women seem dated.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Amy Tan and me

A week ago, I took some time off from the audio fiction I like to listen to and review. Instead I listened to Amy Tan's Opposite of Fate, which she has subtitled A Book of Musings. I like Tan's novels, so I thought I'd enjoy this book and I was right. But instead of a review I decided to respond with a blog posting. This way I can talk a little about my own writing life. In some ways Amy Tan's background is far removed from my own. She grew up in a Chinese American family and lost her father and brother when she was fifteen, both to brain tumors. Her relationship with her mother had its ups and downs, including a time when her mother threatened her with a knife. Yet overall, Amy Tan seemed to love and respect her mother and the elder became the greatest source material for Tan's novels.

I am two years older than Tan. We grew up in the same era, but I was raised by parents born in America who were as much a part of the culture as I am. In addition to being approximately the same age, Tan and I both have stable marriages which have lasted many years. Concerning our writing lives, the greatest difference is that Amy Tan's enormous popularity enables her to write full time, while I have had to make my living as a computer programmer. I also have to spend a good portion of my free time getting the word out about my novels. Tan's books will sell themselves, because of her history of commercial success. The best example of the power of a name came when Robert Galbraith, author of The Cuckoo's Calling revealed that Galbraith is a pen name for J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. The book's sales jumped by 150,000% in one day.

But commercial success isn't all good. I'm sure there's a great deal of pressure on Amy Tan to produce and I imagine she has to be quite strong willed to keep creative control of her work. (She mentioned this relative to the production of the film The Joy Luck Club.) Authors who publish with small presses have more freedom to write what they want to write, which is why the small publishers are such great sources for fresh writing. And, although it is less of an issue for writers than it is for actresses, I'm sure celebrity status can affect their non-writing lives in negative ways. As the clich̩ goes Рbe careful what you wish for.

I liked Opposite of Fate. When I was done reading it, I felt as if Amy Tan was someone I knew and liked. Maybe somebody will feel the same about me as they read my blog posts. If so, thank you for being my friend.