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.

The Editor Who Worked My Last Nerve

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have terrific editors for stories or essays appearing in magazines and anthologies.  The same goes for all my books, whether the presses were large or small. Well, almost all my books.

An editor at a good trade press once asked me out of the blue if I had a book for him–now isn’t that every writer’s dream? The dream became tarnished within a year. I was headed on a German book tour for another book while “his” book was in press and he told me the schedule had been advanced several months.  He insisted on sending me the e-galleys for correction while I was going to be in Germany. I told him I couldn’t go over them because I’d be on and off trains and rarely in one city more than one day. It wasn’t feasible: I wouldn’t have enough uninterrupted time to concentrate and do a good job. I thought I was being a responsible author, but he ignored my concerns.

db-overview-3This was my first book tour in Germany and it would turn out to be the worst flight I’d ever have going to Europe.  Trouble started with being in a seat that didn’t recline behind an over-sized passenger who reclined all the way. Then I was right across from a toilet so I was enveloped in that chemical smell for the whole flight.  A kid threw up in the aisle just a few feet away from me and soon after that, the plane turned back somewhere over the Atlantic because a man had a heart attack.

We landed in Newfoundland in complete darkness which was terrifying, and I knew for sure I would be late getting to Schiphol in Amsterdam. Very late.  And that’s a confusing, crowded airport anyway.

schiphol 2I was able to make some calls when we landed in Newfoundland, but I was totally stressed out and unable to sleep when we were back en route to Europe.  In Amsterdam, I had to run through that enormous crowded airport to make a connecting flight, and arrived in Berlin sleepless and exhausted.  There was just enough time for me to wash my face at my hotel, put on deodorant and change my shirt before being rushed to my reading (which I still managed to introduce in pretty good German).

berlin at nightBecause I used only a PC at home, I didn’t have a laptop in Germany and discovered to my horror that Internet cafés had German keyboards–well, of course, why shouldn’t they? But the layout and letters threw me and my emails looked like I was drunk.

Proof my book under those extra-trying circumstances? I explained to this insistent and clueless editor that even if I had time it couldn’t happen, so I asked him again to please wait till I got home in a few weeks–or proof the galleys himself. I’m not sure if he bothered, because at the next stage, back home, the book had a major goof which, he, I, and the copyeditor had all somehow missed.  This happens in publishing all the time as any author will tell you: mistakes slip through. But if I’d had the galleys and had time for them (say, with only half as many readings on my schedule), I would have caught the problem.

It was too expensive to reset the book at this late date–that’s what the publisher told me. So the book I was so proud of wasn’t published in as polished a form as it should have been, and the editor I was originally flattered to work with turned into an unsympathetic jerk.

An author friend told me when my career had just gotten started that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.  It opened you up to a range of shocks and disappointments you never knew existed. But I’m glad my career has proven his wisdom true only sometimes, and that this editor was a very rare exception for me.

Happy-Writer1Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, including Assault With a Deadly Lie, a suspense novel about militarized cops, which was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.