Is “What Belongs To You” Truly An Instant Classic?

Back when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers I used to feel that my colleagues sometimes had a pack mentality. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo across the nation. The raves were sometimes so over-the-top they often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really stupendous? When I’d go on a tour for one of my own books, people at all sorts of venues would take me aside and confess that they didn’t like this latest literary sensation, and seemed embarrassed to admit it.

Last year, the panegyrics about Iowa MFA graduate Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You  put me off, especially one by James Wood in The New Yorker, since he’s not a critic whose opinion I rely on. But when a student recently told me he was reading the book, I decided to check it out.

The narrator’s a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a hustler he meets in a public toilet. One British reviewer said the novel made her tremble; another hailed it as “incandescent”; a New York Times reviewer hailed the novel as an “instant classic.” Many reviewers have marveled at the prose, but I found too much of it dull and straining for effect. Using initials for characters’ names also seemed like a gimmick to make the book feel edgy.

But the major problem I had was with the hustler who’s a dull, obnoxious, demanding, dishonest grifter. We’re supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features are a chipped tooth and a big penis. The sex scenes are very bland, which is problematic since the narrator’s obsession is what drives the plot forward, or at least nudges it. The novel’s framing sections are just way too languid. The middle section works best because the prose is more direct and compelling, less writerly, as we experience the narrator’s terrible nightmare of shame growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book, and my iPad screen didn’t get brighter on its own, but I felt the author was more deeply engaged. He spoils it, though, when he has the narrator find a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of the section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Did we really need a heavy-handed reminder that the narrator was trapped in Sofia and living on emotional crumbs? This was like one of those melodramatic songs at the end of a movie whose lyrics explain what you just saw–in case you weren’t paying attention for the previous two hours.  I almost stopped reading at that point because it struck me as the sign of a writer who didn’t have faith in his readers’ intelligence.  Or in his own talent.  I kept going though the novel never really recovered from that low point.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in many genres, from memoir to mystery. His most recent book explores police over-reaction: Assault With a Deadly Lie, which was a Midwest Book Award finalist.

When Book Reviews Go Wrong

Years ago I was reading Publishers Weekly and a reviewer compared a new memoir to The Great Gatsby for its beautiful prose.

Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and I’ve read it many times, so I was puzzled when I read the lines the reviewer quoted as “proof.”  I don’t remember the book now, but I do remember I kept re-reading the excerpt, trying to figure out what I was missing.

By bringing up Fitzgerald, the reviewer set a very high standard, and I suspect I wasn’t the only reader who read the passage he picked and thought, “Seriously?”

I had a somewhat similar experience recently reading a review in The New Yorker of a novel called Black Deutschland.  The title grabbed me, and the setting, because it takes place partly in Berlin, a city I’ve visited a few times and want to revisit soon.  But as I read more of the glowing review, I felt less and less interested, which couldn’t have been the reviewer’s intent.

James Woods wrote that “The Berlin part of [the main character’s] story can seem shapeless, even incoherent in places, though it is never without charm. Sometimes one has the sense….of a stream of consciousness without a stream. Or perhaps it is a consciousness that is missing: [he] can seem an amorphous witness, never quite present in his own sentences.”

Really–this is a novel worth spending time with?

puzzled-lookBut the review was short, and there was the siren call of Berlin, however shapeless and incoherent that was.  So I kept reading, and Woods brought out the heavy guns: quotations from the book. They did the exact opposite of sealing the deal for me.

Despite the gravity of [his] burdens and dilemmas (race, success, sanity, America, Germany), the book’s tone is comic, pleasingly spry, and the prose breaks naturally into witty one-liners: “Manfred had a type: the most attractive woman in the room.” Or this piece of perfected wisdom: “One of the surprises of growing up was finding out what things had been about.”

What’s especially witty in those lines?

The review not only left me uninterested in Black Deutschland, it made me doubt Woods’ taste as a reviewer and think about moving him into the Michiko Kakutani category.  If she praises a book in the New York Times, I usually don’t like it.  And once when she trashed a book, I was so intrigued I went right out to my neighborhood bookstore, bought it, loved it, and wrote the author fan mail.

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault With a Deadly Lie was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.

Why I Quit Newspaper Reviewing and Became a Happier Writer

Ten years ago I stopped reviewing for the handful of newspapers and magazines I’d spent a decade freelancing for.  But I kept reviewing on several radio stations because I felt freer there and had more fun; eventually I also moved on line to Bibliobuffet.com and The Huffington Post.

I didn’t quit print reviewing because the deadlines wore me down.  I loved the discipline of writing well under pressure, seeing my work in print so quickly, and knowing people read it.

And I didn’t quit because I had a vision of the decline of print journalism.

My main reason for quitting was bad policy.

On radio, nobody hassled me about whether a book had come out that week, that month, or the month before–but print reviewing was very different.  One newspaper editor in particular was obsessed with “timeliness.”  Here’s what she meant:  I couldn’t, for example, review a book in December if its official publication date was in November. Why? Because by then it was old.

This struck me as ridiculous. Reviewing books isn’t like covering fast-breaking news stories. Why would readers think the way my editor(s) did? Especially when I was reviewing fiction? Why would readers care about publication dates?

Let’s be clear. Not every newspaper or magazine operates in this way, but those that do are extremely rigid in their boundaries, and that’s sad.   Books get lost; staffers at publishing houses fall ill and fall behind; sometimes they forget to send all the review copies out.  Books can reach the reviewers late for any number for reasons, but if that happens at one of these outlets, the author and the publisher are completely out of luck.

Reviews are a crucial part of a book’s success, even bad reviews, because they alert people to the book’s existence, and not everyone believes bad reviews anyway.  I’ve bought books precisely because a certain reviewer didn’t like them and I knew our tastes were very different.

I don’t miss living with that kind of rigidity at all.  And I feel sorry for all those authors whose books don’t get in under the wire to at least be considered for review.  The strict policy about publication dates is old-fashioned, idiotically restrictive, and doesn’t serve the interests of the reading public well at all.

I’m glad I don’t have to work with editors who are so inflexible and that I can share my excitement about a book whenever I discover it, because that’s the best part of being a writer-reviewer. The second best part is finding a book to review that also makes me a better writer and when that happens, it’s magical.

Lev Raphael’s books have been translated into fifteen languages, most recently Czech and Romanian.  His 25th book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police: Assault with a Deadly Lie.

 

Why Are So Many Reviewers Careless and Clueless?

I confess. Even though I’m an author, I did go over to The Dark Side years ago and I’ve done hundreds of book reviews for newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and on line.

I’ve always tried to be fair and to avoid spoilers; I’ve always been scrupulous about getting my facts straight. But over the years I’ve had to put up with many reviewers who’ve been careless and just plain wrong when reviewing a book of mine, and it’s irritating. I’m not talking about reviewers who don’t like a book for one reason or another, but reviewers who just plain goof. Here are just a few examples.

A Booklist reviewer said that my novel The German Money dealt with a theme it didn’t remotely touch. I was lucky enough to know one of the Booklist editors and complained. He agreed, he apologized, and he changed the review on line, but the print review couldn’t be altered. I’m convinced the reviewer only skimmed my book and was thinking of another title of mine.

Then there was the Publishers Weekly reviewer who never even bothered to count how many mysteries there were in my Nick Hoffman series and published a review in which the number was off. That’s just plain sloppy and it’s happened more than once with other reviewers. Of course I wondered how carefully those reviewers even read the books if they got something so basic wrong.

A Michigan newspaper reviewer once criticized my narrator for misusing the word “access” when he supposedly should have used “excess.” Well, my narrator Nick Hoffman was an English professor and knew what he was saying.  He used “access” correctly in the sentence the reviewer didn’t understand; he was talking about an outburst of feeling. A quick check of a dictionary–physical or on line–would have helped the reviewer avoid making a mistake in print. It would also have expanded her vocabulary.

The latest example of a clodpole mishandling one of my books is the online reviewer who couldn’t even read the cover of my 25th book correctly. It’s clearly subtitled a novel of suspense, but this nimrod criticized it for violating the rules of a mystery. The only response to someone who doesn’t fully appreciate the difference between the structure of a mystery and the structure of a suspense novel is a head smack.

Head-smack

Oh, and a blog.  🙂

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking and gun violence, and 24 other books in a wide range of genres which you can explore at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.