Friday, December 31, 2010

Lessons from Libaria for Writers

In 2004, I was the last ditch hiree by the last-resort Principal of a middle school here in Denver, Colorado. I, however naively, was thrilled with the job and jumped in wholeheartedly to the position. Soon thereafter I attended a meeting where a plea was made for reviewers "We need YOU!" The chairperson squawked into the squawky school microphone. An idea had begun forming in my mind, and as the meeting droned on I mulled the pros and cons. As we finished up, I approached the head of the department and asked her for special dispensation so that I (not a teaching librarian) could join THE REVIEW COMMITTEE. She agreed and the rest was, if not history, then at least in the past. SO... I was a paraprofessional librarian who purchased books on a very limited budget (at least most years) for kids who desperately needed good books (most of the kids in my school were very low readers) to read and I reviewed new books that were being published by mainstream publishers... 

I learned a few things. (which is why I joined the Review Committee in the first place. I wanted to review so that I could be a better writer-- it seemed logical that in reviewing other people's books that I would learn a few things about writing. But another bonus: I got free books for my library!)

The first thing I learned is that there are lot of books that are published that are not good. Each month we would gather together and choose from piles and piles of books that publishers would send out and I was astounded at how many of the books we received that were just terrible. As a librarian this was bad news. I had a limited budget. I could not afford to spend money on bad books. I had to learn how to find the books that were worth buying. As an author, I was discouraged to see so many poorly written books sitting on shelves. It seemed to me that this meant that publishers were spending money on books that would not sell... 
My responsibility as a reviewer then led me to a conclusion: Although I hated to tell people that the books they had written were not very good, nevertheless, my colleagues were also working with limited budgets. My reviews were one of the tools they would use to decide how they would purchase materials (but let's be real here I am not god-- my reviews were only one of the tools they might use-- most librarians look at more than one review and even then may bypass reviews if they need a book of a certain genre or topic) . SO It seemed to me, that candid honesty was necessary. If a book was bad, I had to write a bad review. 

I generally read middle school books as those were the audience I was purchasing for but I also read for high school and elementary age children as it became overwhelming to have too many novels to read each month. I found some wonderful books that I read with gusto and recommended to teachers in my building who then passed them on to their students- books I have since seen on the tables of Barnes and Noble. (I like to think it was a slow word of mouth growth that put them there. Barnes and Noble was definitely not promoting The Girl who Could Fly when it was first published!) 

The second thing I learned was that authors did not like getting bad reviews. Not that I blamed them (nor do I still). I have had the bad experience of having manuscripts rejected... it's no fun! And it is less fun to have someone say that you have too many characters and your plot line is disjointed, etc. One writer bullied the reviewer into changing her review and another was extremely cocky and annoying, also pushing for a good review. Lessons were not learned by either writer which is too bad. They were both self-published and I would imagine they will remain that way. As writers we put ourselves out there and reviews are part of the gig. It's part of life. When I was a singer and butchered a song, you could see it written all over the audience's faces (if they were even bothering to look at you). My darling Mo is my harshest critic-- which can be difficult sometimes-- but I have become a better writer as result of his criticism. And even when his criticism is wrong (in other words he isn't seeing what I am getting at at all) it is because my description is poorly done or my dialogue is confusing, etc. so he's still right. Critique is a time for learning. There is a time for cheerleading and supporting... but there is also a time to give real advice, real appraisal. And it's important- maybe more important than the strokes. 

I am reading Hemingway's biography. His editor and closest friend, Max Perkins was the one person who would tell him that what he had written was not his best work. He would encourage him to go back and edit out parts that should be cut or "go back to the drawing board" on others. When he passed away, Hemingway wrote,"Max was a great, great editor and a wise and loyal friend." Hemingway's final works of fiction that were published a few years after Perkins death were notable because only in sections is the writer's touch still evident- his biographer speculates that if his editor and friend had been around he may have been able to distill the best parts of Across the River and drop the worst... 
Even great writers need people to tell them when they have lost their way.          


  1. I love this perspective. I've noticed also how many bad books are out there, and wonder why. I have to keep reminding myself that this is a business, and publishers will publish what they believe they can sell, and quality of writing is only one component in that equation.

    When you talk about author's reactions to reviews, though, it made me wonder just how wide-reaching your reviews were? I envisaged something written for internal use only to help advise the library on what to buy, but this sounds like your reviews reached a wider audience than that.

  2. When I first started most of our reviews were posted internally for only librarians to access but later the database had a public interface and the reviews were attached so anyone anywhere could get onto DPS's website to view the books and reviews. The self-published authors were more involved in the process as they personally requested the reviews as opposed to the publishers who just sent us boxes of books to review. DPS is a big school district so the authors who got upset about poor reviews saw dollar signs. They wanted the money that a big district purchasing their book could offer. One author who was local in particular-- it's not just about a library buying one or two copies of a book. Language Arts departments might also buy books based on our recommendations-- classroom sets.

    I didn't mention it in my post but I saw the same thing at BnN-- poorly written books cranked out because of name recognition (don't have to do any advertising). In kids books, what I often saw were books that were written to fill a niche. The publisher wanted high interest, low reader novels for middle schools so they would commission (I guess) someone to write it. The book would have a terrible story line, terrible pictures, and yet would sell because when you punched in the age requirements you needed in your library with a reading level it was one of 50 books that filled the bill. OR, we want history books that are fun at a certain reading level and they have a certain form-- each books is almost just like the other you just change the info to fit the new circumstances like "You wouldn't want to be a Roman Gladiator" That series looks great until you've read one too many of them... (and one too many is 3). LOL


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