Diversifying the voices in our heads

Inspired by Shut Up, Shealeas post on Diversity 101

I’ve always loved fiction that takes me other places, whether other times, cultures, or realities, so looking to include diversity seems a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you want fresh voices?

Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way, and actively promoting diverse reading is required to help broaden our understanding of the human experience. It’s incumbent on those of us with white CIS hetero Protestant privilege to be good allies.

Shealea of Shut Up, Shealea posted an amazing primer on diverse reading, giving a call to action as well as definitions and suggested readings.

The larger call for diversity is a call for equal accessibility and opportunity for stories about marginalized lives *and* a publishing industry that reflects the diversity of the world that we live in.

Shealea, Shut Up, Shealea

Since I’m not in the publishing industry, anything I can do is indirect. I’d read awhile ago that self-publishing was one of the ways to help promote voices that aren’t getting taken up by traditional publishers. As long as we’re a capitalist system, the main way to create diversity is to make it a market demand. Buying, borrowing, and talking about those books is important.

If you’re an author considering self-publishing, promoting diversity can also mean affirmatively seeking out diversity in those doing the editing, cover art, layout, e-book formatting, etc. Now sometimes that’s tough—people have to self-identify first, as you don’t want to ask “Excuse me, are you nonwhite, non-Western, disabled, neurodiverse, or LGBTQA+?”

One of the people who helped me think about the question of representation in literature is Ian Hancock, a Romani linguist and activist. He pointed out was that the Romani, still frequently referred to as gypsies (considered pejorative by most Roma), lost the same percentage of their population as the Jews, but the Porajmos, as Hancock and other activists refer to the Romani share of the Holocaust, is not spoken of as often. Part of that is because the absolute number of Jews is much higher.

Hancock and others also point to the differences between the populations. The Roma have been systematically oppressed for generations, and are poor and largely illiterate, as opposed to the Jews, who have also been systematically oppressed, but are largely literate. As a result, there is no mindset for record-keeping, nor, as Hancock has put it, a Romani elite.

For him, it was necessary to have a percentage of Romani who became well educated to have representatives whose speech would be respected by the dominant Western white cultures. It’s kind of like the concept popularized by W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth.

Although there are controversies about some of Hancock’s opinions, the salient point is this: Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters. The Romani experience of the Holocaust illustrates that. The sheer number of deaths suffered by the Romani was not enough to raise awareness of the Porajmos; authors were needed to bring that forward. There is no diary by a young Romani girl; there is no parallel to Night by Eli Wiesenthal.

Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters.

As literacy grows, the barriers should be lower for those underrepresented voices to express themselves in ways that others can read and empathize with. It shouldn’t be about an elite—it should be available to help pave the way for people of all types to “live their best life,” to use a cliche. That doesn’t happen, though, without conscious thought, because the powers that be are still overrepresented in every aspect of publishing.

So it’s incumbent on all of us to read diversely and to demand diverse voices in our books, and to promote those voices. However, as an ally and reviewer, I’m sometimes in a bind—I’m not an authority on any of the experiences of these communities, but I’m passing my admittedly subjective judgment on books. My goal is to look at the writing as writing when looking at books by members of those communities—not addressing the validity of the experience so much as how well it is communicated to an outsider.

However, it’s trickier when it comes to characters from those communities. Who am I to pass judgment on the authenticity of the characters, particularly if there’s no overt self-identification by the author? Again, I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to the experts in the community. I won’t spot them all as I don’t have that finely honed sensitivity one gets about their own issues, but I feel that when a book starts rubbing me the wrong way about its depiction of a person of color or a LGBTQ character, then I should point it out.

I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Because, of course, even members of any of these communities will have different perspectives on their experiences which will shape their feelings about the characters in question. Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Shealea posed two great questions that stopped me because I rarely think of casual or nonreaders in this context, despite their existence in my immediate sphere:

  • How can you encourage other readers (and even non-readers!) to pick up diverse books?
  • Do you think that accessibility plays a large role in a person’s ability to read diversely?

The second issue is probably easier—yes, there is so much noise out there that finding diverse novels takes more effort than simply picking up whatever is on a rack in the drug store.

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

As to the first question: Is it a matter of providing “gateway” books (like comics or graphic novels)* by underrepresented communities to places where people are more likely to pick up a book? Or has the ubiquity of cell phones crowded out the possibility of someone picking up print places where we used to: doctor’s offices, hospitals, garages, or anyplace else where you’re trapped waiting on someone else?

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

If you’re ready to read, go to Shut Up, Shealea and find a book to broaden your frame of reference. Or, if you’ve exhausted her list, or need some other places to check out, try some of these sites:

Comments much appreciated!

(Many thanks to S., Fabienne, and HermitCrone for their assistance in helping me think through this post; however, no blame attaches to them for opinions expressed herein.)

* Not meaning any disrespect to comics and graphic novels, but they seem to be less intimidating that walls of words.

Awards season, indies, and the tyranny of numbers

the ides of indies, a recurring discussion of indie publishing matters

Let’s talk about awards season and how indies have been faring in fiction. as well as the state of inclusiveness for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.* Kirkus Prize and the World Fantasy Awards have already announced their winners, Goodreads is in semifinal voting, National Book Awards will announce their winners on 11/18/2020, and the Booker Prize will be announced on 11/19/2020. I got award fever, so I’ll announce the Bibliostatic 2020 Year of Doom awards at the end (going to have to rethink that name—open to suggestions).

After we hear from the president of the academy and the PriceWaterhouse guys, there’ll be awards: Most inclusive award, Most indie friendly award, Sole SP award and much, much more!

But first, the analysis. I got out my handy spread sheets and did a whale of a lot of cut and paste as well as some heavy Googling (sounds like a weird sex act, but never mind). I’m sure errors have crept in, but I wanted to share what I’d learned. And, yes, I realize, it’s not a scientific sampling, but it’s still interesting.

Quick note on the data: I only took the Goodreads data from the semifinals for fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. The Kirkus Prize was based on fiction nominees only. The Booker Prize information is from the longlist. For determining POC and LGBTQ+, I looked at the authors and protagonists as described in the summaries, and at the shelves on Goodreads. This is probably the part most subject for debate, because I have no idea what criteria was used for shelving.

83% of the nominations, unsurprisingly, are Big5 publications.

Not surprisingly, the Big 5 dominated the awards overall. Of 94 nominations, constituted of 90 separate books, the Big 5 took a respectable 83% (or 78 nominations) through all their various imprints. Sometimes it’s like following pirate maps to figure out which are Big 5. During my first run at researching, I thought Bookouture and Sourcebooks Landmarks were independent publishers, and congratulated them on being the only indies nominated in the Goodreads Mystery category.

Turns out, Bookouture used to be an indie, but was acquired by Hachette a few years ago. The founder was a former Harlequin marketing guy, but the website doesn’t have anything that would make you think it’s a Hachette subsidiary. It’s not until you do a little digging that you find Hachette is the parent company. Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed about that tweet now.

Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, says it’s an independent publisher on its about page. Seems straightforward. As you, a seasoned reader will have guessed, it’s a little more complicated. Penguin Random House has a 45% ownership share in Sourcebooks. Is it then still an indie? Sourcebooks says yes; I’m not convinced, and I’m moving them to the Big 5 pile.

I just can’t bring myself to call Amazon’s imprints indie publications.

Then there’s Amazon. Not one of the traditional Big 5, but it’s hard to argue it’s an indie when it’s bringing in cash for book sales comparable to those hoary veterans: a whopping $5.25 BILLION compared to Simon & Schuster’s measly $830 million. (I’ll take that version of measly, please.) Granted, Amazon’s not making even most of that wad of cash from their own imprints, and it may not be quite the same kind of conglomerate as the Big 5, but it smells more like a Big 5.5, so its nominations are counted with those guys.

Genre fiction was a minority among the non-genre awards. Only a dystopia and a few arguably crime novels were nominated. Genres don’t get no respect.

And I have to talk about Shuggie Bain, and not in terms of its content. Shuggie Bain is listed as a publication of Grove Press in most awards—except the Booker Prize, which lists Picador, an imprint tracing back to Macmillan. So which one is it? Well, the novel is published in the US and Canada by Grove Press, but by Macmillan in Commonwealth countries.

That wasn’t terribly helpful to me when I was trying to decide what bucket to put it in, so I decided to look at the publication dates. Voilà! Picador/Macmillan: August 6, 2020. Grove Press: October 13, 2020. The widely recognized Shuggie Bain goes into the Big 5 pile. What a disappointment!

Follow the money.

Why do the Big 5 get so many more nominations? If you look at the total number of titles released in a year (around , they only publish around a third of all the different books published in the US each year, over 30,000 titles of the estimated 2.2 million worldwide and over 100,000 in the US alone. Oddly enough, when you look at the total sales, though, the market share of the Big 5 is (drumroll, please) 80%, fairly close to that of their nominations. Together, they make over $7 billion each year.

So, of course, they have the pull to get more attention for their books (and to make it pretty and neat). If you’ve tried self-publishing (or even book blogging), you’ll know that the challenge is being heard over all the noise. The Big 5 (and Amazon) have air horns and rock concert sound equipment. They’ll get heard.

There’s a world of difference between Grim Oak Press with its $6 million annual sales and Bloomsbury Publishing with nearly $214 million, right?

But how does that play out among indies? There’s Bloomsbury Publishing, home of Harry Potter, with the wealth that series brought, and then there are others that make far less than the million dollar magic goal. Grim Oak Press and Bloomsbury are both semi-finalists in the Fantasy category of the Goodreads Awards, along with lonely Hidden Gnome Press, Will Wight’s self-publishing alter ego. What are their chances against the other 17 books? I’m really asking; I’m no good at calculating odds—where are C-3PO or Spock when you need them?

Similarly, people of color and other traditionally underserved populations (what do you think of that euphemism?) are fighting that entrenched policy of racism and other nasty -isms. Money, power, elite…you get the picture.

Mystery, do better.

Overall, a rather surprising 35% of the titles (a total of 32) were either authored by and/or had a character in the novel that was a POC; LGBTQ+ rated 17% representation (total of 15). The standout for least inclusiveness was Goodread’s Mystery category, with no LGBTQ+ and only one Black protagonist written by the only Black author from the 20 titles in the semifinals. Interestingly, Mystery was the only group of nominees that had zero indie publishers.

And the winners are…

Award for the most nominations for a single book: Go, Douglas Stuart and his Shuggie Bain, nominated for four different prizes: Goodreads Historical Fiction category, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize. Honorable mention to James McBride for Deacon King Kong, which received nominations from both Goodreads Historical Fiction category and the Kirkus Prize.

Award for double appearance by single author: Jim Butcher appears twice in the Goodreads Fantasy category. Butcher’s double appearance was a result of the publisher splitting the intended single novel into two halves, Peace Talks and Battle Ground, because of the total length, to much muttering and grumbling among fans of the Dresden Files.

Award for only self-published: Will Wight is in the room, ladies and gentleman, and he brought his own damn self with Wintersteel.

Award for the greediest Big 5: Okay, perhaps I should say “most successful.” I’ll give you a hint: Unsurprisingly, it’s the largest of the Big 5. Yep, Penguin comes out on top with 28 nominations. Then there’s nearly a three-way tie: Macmillan and Hachette with 13 and HarperCollins with 12. Simon & Schuster, what the hell happened? You only got 4.

Award for most titles nominated from a single indie publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (do you see my surprised face?) takes this home with four titles: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas and Piranesi by Susanna Clark in the Goodreads Fantasy category and Apeirogon by Colum McCann and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid on the longlist for the Booker Prize.

Award for smallest of the presses to receive a nomination: Scrappy Tin House Books, whose annual revenue is an order of magnitude away from the next closest traditional indie publisher, has a nominee for the National Book Award, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha.

Award for most inclusive genre: Hello, Historical Fiction—13 total titles over more than one awarding group with either a POC character and/or author and/or LGBTQ+ characters. (I”ll give you a minute to sort out that sentence; suggested rewrites welcomed in the comment section below.) However, Fantasy had the most titles with both POCs and LGBTQ+ characters and/or authors.

Award for managing to avoid any indie nominees: We have a tie for the big fat goose egg. The Goodread’s Mystery category included all of the Big 5 plus Amazon, but no indies. The World Fantasy Awards listed books from Redhook, Orbit (both Hachette imprints), Tor.com (Macmillan), and Pantheon (Penguin Random Books). The tie-breaker: the award will go to the one which had the most total opportunities to include an indie. Congratulations, Goodread’s Mystery category, for your second raspberry, since you failed to include one indie among the 20 choices. (And, no, your own imprint doesn’t count.)

Award for most inclusive Award: Kirkus Prize, which only had one nominee that wasn’t either a POC or LGBTQ+ and awarded the prize to Raven Leilani for Luster. Yeah, it’s Macmillan book, but whatcha gonna do?

Award for the Award with the most nominations for indie publishers: Although several got up to 4 indie published nominations, only one had a significant percentage of them: Kirkus Prize, which nominated a striking 2/3 (or that annoying 66.66%) of its list from indie publishers. That would be more significant if it weren’t for the fact that Kirkus makes its money from reviewing books ($425-$575 a pop) and book editing ($500 minimum), and there’s potentially a huge indie market for them.

Although I had fun with this, the takeaway was all too depressing: $$=respect. Damn.

*Or whatever term you prefer; as a straight, CIS, white woman I don’t and shouldn’t have any preference, but can’t determine what the consensus is at the moment.

A reviewer’s dilemma

A self-indulgent ramble on anti-racism, writing, and reviewing

Brandon deWilde, Ethel Waters, and Julie Harris in Member of the Wedding, from the novel by Carson McCullers, a novelist noted for groundbreaking portrayals of Black characters.

I’m about to review a book that has raised my hackles about how the author has written about two Black characters, which has raised a big question for me. How do I, a white woman, critique another white woman’s depiction of these characters. (And what am I going to do about the capitalization of white/White?)

As usual, I start with research, and started Googling the issue. Laura Lipman’s article in the Washington Post basically told me not to ask any Black acquaintances, and I get her point, but that’s not helping me decide what to do or say.

This article from Writer Unboxed was great, but, again, didn’t really help me from a reviewer’s point of view. Additionally, the specifics she raises doesn’t really address the particular situation.

The thoughtful article by Sarah Schulman, White Writer, gave a better theoretical framework for considering the issue. To oversimplify, the idea is that white writers addressing Black characters should make sure they are not reinforcing privilege and “cultural dominance.”

I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my own evolution in the struggle for anti-racism. I grew up as a military brat, and, although I can’t say there wasn’t racism, there was at least a good faith effort (well, I perceived it as good faith) to create a more equal environment. My first experience of the N-word was on a school bus on the way to Hamura Elementary, a DoD school that occupied a former Japanese POW camp sometime in the late 60s. (Take a second and unpack that. I’ve tried to find more info about it as an adult, but no joy yet.)

Some kid yelled the word at another kid, and a chorus welled up from listeners. “OOoooh, your dad is gonna get in trouble for that,” was the main version, although the phrase “court martial” was also thrown around. I was in second grade.

My next memory of awareness was in recess at the same school, a year or so later, when I was confronted with the choice of playing with a Black girl. I didn’t like her, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t dislike her because she was Black regardless of her character. I played with her, begrudgingly.

Makes me think of this bit from 30 Rock, particularly the interplay between Tina Fey and Wayne Brady:

Fast forward to the 90s (I’ll omit the rather long story of moving to Alabama in 1972). For various reasons in my life and surroundings, I had few Black acquaintances until my thirties. First was my husband’s work friend, another military brat with whom I had more in common with as a result of that shared experience than with many white friends. The second shaping experience was a multitude of interactions with my students when I started teaching at the local community college.

At that point, I was consciously raising racial issues in classes. I’d learned late about white privilege, and was determined to get that out there, as well as historical perspectives on how we got to where we are. This forced me to really think hard about how to talk about difference.

I realized that I had originally thought anti-racism was just pretending nonwhites were white. I had trouble identifying someone as Black or Mexican American (San Antonio, remember) for a long time, as though it might embarrass them somehow–as if it were a social disease.

But I realized that was a paternalistic racism, an attempt to erase difference in favor of the white version of reality. So I started facing the issue head-on, asking questions in classes made up of Black, hispanic, and white kids. I found that there was often ignorance of each other all the way around, and the conversations were useful. (I still remember a Mexican-American kid saying after one of the movies I showed (I want to say Mississippi Burning) that he didn’t realize how bad it had been for Blacks. My jaw about dropped.)

One consistent reaction was to my presentation on white privilege. The white kids usually were unaware of the concept, and the Brown and Black kids had a hard time understanding how they couldn’t be. That blindness, the inability to see the food sticking in our teeth and swiped across our faces, is what makes us ask the dumb questions about “is this racist?” to friends and acquaintances of color. (My favorite comment in response to something I’d said and then questioned was, “Probably, but you mean well.”)

So in the current climate, where we are elevating the discussion of anti-racism and looking at our issues, it seems remiss not to discuss what I find to be insensitive handling of race in a book I’m reviewing. On the other hand, it’s so charged that I anticipate an overreaction if I raise it.

In this case, I wouldn’t say that you could simply omit the Black characters. It’s set in North Carolina, and the two Black characters are the housekeeper and a cook/chef. This is a reflection of a reality that still exists, so to pretend that it’s otherwise would be inauthentic.

But it seems like the writer is trying to dodge around their Blackness, which seems to me to be as big a problem as caricaturing them. It triggers my judged past of treating Blackness as a social disease. But i’m not sure how I’d tell her to fix it beyond not ignoring it and them making those characters fully rounded individuals, not just place holders. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book yet, but that’s where I am in the process.

I understand that there’s a problem inherent in this situation for the white writer: how do you write the Black characters in a way that doesn’t exclude them, but doesn’t pretend you know something that you don’t, nor does it whitewash them? (Guys, really, read Sarah Schulman’s White Writer,)

And then another thorny bit: there’s a reference to a joke about the protagonist inheriting the housekeeper with the house. I didn’t realize until that point that the housekeeper was supposed to be Black, and it was only because of a clumsy attempt to distance the protagonist (it’s first person) from the joke which more clearly references slavery. It could be argued that it’s a way to get the protagonist, that you need to see her flaws, but it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to me for that—more that the author doesn’t even realize it’s problematic.

What’s a reviewer who wants to be sensitive to both the race issues and to the writer do? Truly. I’m asking. What do y’all think?

The little things that make me say no to SPs

a note to indie authors

I tell myself that I shouldn’t judge on such superficial things. But when there are so very many books to choose among, there are things that immediately make me prejudge a book as being sloppy or amateurish. I was tempted to put the covers up here as examples, but I’m not a fan of shaming people.

For the most part, my pet peeves boil down to my dislike of being careless about communication. If authors aren’t careful about these issues that directly impact the perception of their book, how can I trust them to communicate effectively in the book itself?

For the most part, my pet peeves boil down to my dislike of being careless about communication. If authors aren’t careful about these issues that directly impact the perception of their book, how can I trust them to communicate effectively in the book itself?

These are in no particular order of importance.

Typo in the title: An immediate turnoff. I found two like that yesterday looking for new releases. One lacked an apostrophe for a possessive, the other had a misspelling.

Including a description or promo in the title: This kind of thing: Bibliostatic, a wonderful book review blog that all should read–or even just Bibiliostatic, a book review about fantasy books. When I see this on Amazon, I cringe. It’s not just unprofessional—it strikes me as needy.

Not formatting the book correctly: If I open the book and the text is not separate from the front matter or the font size or line height makes it difficult to read, I peace out.

Not listing a publisher: It’s a really stupid prejudice on my part, but I want to see that the author is serious enough that they set up an imprint to publish under. So often indie authors omit this step.

Listing the publisher with “LLC”: Look at how the Big5 or small presses do it (which is pretty good advice across the board). They just put the name of the publisher, not the corporate entity ending. That may be the legal name of the company, but there’s no reason to include it here. Again, it feels like a failure to adequately educate yourself about the business you’ve entered into.

Listing a support service as the publisher: There are various services for self-publishing. If they say the word “self-publishing,” they are not your publisher! A few of these I’ve seen listed as the publisher: PublishNation, CreateSpace, and Ingram Spark.

Using the same title as a bunch of other books: Rather than carelessness, this reflects a concern that the book is unimaginative or trite if they can’t come up with something new.

Messy/difficult-to-read cover: This is a hard one to explain without showing examples, so I made a faux one. If the cover is, well, covered from top to bottom with text, it bothers me.

First, there’s just too much text. Second, many of the letters are lost because of the lack of contrast. Third, it’s not easy to read at a glance.

I’d go with the same idea that designers are *supposed* to use with billboards: something that can be read at a glance while traveling at high speed.

Asha at A Cat, A Book, And A Cup Of Tea was kind enough to share her turn-offs: “poor cover artwork, bad reviews noting poor grammar/spelling, authors promoting inappropriately on social media (DMs, cold-tagging, replying to irrelevant tweets with buy links), authors who don’t read review policies!” Asha notes that these problems are not confined to self-published books. I agree, although the issues seem to come up less often in traditionally published books.

The point of all this is to say that indie authors have control over all of these issues in a way traditionally published authors don’t, so use that control so that readers will look at the candy, not the wrapper.

Any superficial qualities that make you avoid a self-published book?

Criticism, writing, and readers

an aside to writers in honor of NaNoWriMo

I was talking to my son about a piece I wrote because I wanted feedback about what I was getting across with the meaning of a piece. In the conversation, I had an epiphany of sorts that I wish I’d head in the 90s when I was first teaching writing. Granted, it wasn’t creative writing, but some of the same principles underlie all good writing.

Let me give you a little background. My son is a visual artist. The short version is that he didn’t opt for art school for multiple reasons, and one of them he is thankful for is that he doesn’t have to make art to make a living. He is passionate about art for Art’s sake.

I believe that in creative writing, you shouldn’t make art just for others. If you get too tied up in the salability or popularity of the book, you’ll end up strangling the work.

So in that context, he gave me a response about the writing piece which I suspected about this first draft: it was kind of all over the place. “I can’t tell if your article is an Allegory for white flight, racism in America, or someone earnestly trying to bring awareness about birds in SA.”

After a little discussion about the content of that statement, I asked, “ Do you think it’s worth pursuing as is?”

For me, that was a question about technique. I wanted to know if what I’d done could conceivably achieve the effect I desired. I think the question, if posed to a visual artist, would be “Do you think this drawing that you can’t tell is a bird or a cat can be worked on so that it looks like a cat, or is it too far gone and I should just get a new piece of paper?”

He took the question as “Is it worth drawing a cat?” and went on to make valuable points about not getting tied up “in the get,” as my daughter would say:

“I would just set the expectation that this is for you, and maybe other ppl will like it or not, but it should be about your expression first and foremost.”

On the other hand, there is technique.

I agree with that statement. I believe that in creative writing, you shouldn’t make art just for others. If you get too tied up in the salability or popularity of the book, you’ll end up strangling the work.

On the other hand, there is technique. In visual art, it’s a  little easier to separate the output from the technique (or maybe is just my ignorance that makes me think so). I hadn’t thought of it that way, though, until this discussion.

My response was this: “Yes and no. Because writing is about communicating with others, clarity about what the writing is is a matter of technique, so getting feedback is made akin to asking how to mix the color you want (or what choices you might have according to color theory). It’s a tricky line in writing, i think, trying to separate technique from substance.”

I realized that not separating technique from substance is part of the problem with getting criticism, whether constructive or not, on something you’ve written, whether it’s in the editing stage out of the final product, as in a book review.

In art, sometimes you hear people speak in terms  of craft (as well as it being an arbitrary distinction between arts and crafts, but I’ll pass on that digression). Craft refers to how clean and finished it is,  how much you can tell that a maker has figured out how to use the materials. If you’re not versed in the craft, it can be very hard to tell when a piece is lumpy because they didn’t know what they were doing or that they’re making a point about lumpiness. You just know whether you like it or not.

I believe I try to sort out substance from technique by trying to say upfront what I don’t like about a book that is a matter of taste: I don’t like peanut butter or horror. Not a judgement on the validity of someone making or eating the one or writing out reading the other. Just me.

The question isn’t, fundamentally, did the reviewer like it, but did the piece have the effect I wanted.

But since it’s hard to separate what you’re trying to say with how you say it, sometimes both the reviewer and the writer make errors in the how when trying to get to the what. The question isn’t, fundamentally, did the reviewer like it, but did the piece have the effect I wanted.

So, say, for example, that you want to leave people with an ending that is ambiguous, letting them fill in the blanks. For me, what I’m about to say could be a spoiler, but I’m a little overboard on my definition, which will be the subject of another post.

A great example of ambiguous endings is Washington Black by Esi Edugan. It’s won all kinds of awards, and is an excellent piece of writing. It’s a little risky to end the book the way she did because of the way endings can change how we feel about the entire book, but that was the choice she made.

I hated the ending, and it did affect how I felt about the book as a whole, which I was enjoying immensely until it ended. I felt like it just stopped and there was no resolution, and, dadgummit, I wanted to know what happened to this character I’d come to love.

Which brings us to the problem specific to reviews, a problem endemic to our society that begins in kindergarten: grading or rating.

We have been graded our whole lives, so we think we know what grades mean. Grades are easy. They don’t require us to think critically, and we can quickly review many choices to find what we want. It’s a symptom of both abundance and mass production. We have so many choices because things are mass produced, but to mass produce, you must have uniformity, requiring grading and sorting of things that aren’t really uniform.

Hence the pressure in reviews to rate, whether 5 stars or ten, stars or pickles. As a writer, it is tempting to see that as a comment on substance rather than technique, when it could be either.

In the case of Washington Black, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, which was kind of meaningless, because it was a compromise between what I thought about her technique (5) and whether I’d recommend it to someone (debatable, but maybe a 1, because the ending pissed me off because it wasn’t how I wanted it to end).

So if Edugan cared what I thought, she’d read the review to see why I rated it like that. But because I rated it in the middle, splitting the difference between my rating of her mastery of the craft with the rating of whether I’d recommend it, it would be lost in the averages. If, hypothetically, she was trying to get feedback on the effect she was having in the exercise of that craft, then a one-star review would have been more useful for her, as that flags it as something someone felt passionate enough to rate it that way.

Book reviews, like any feedback, are useful to the degree that they succeed in telling you something about how a reader experiences the book. Book reviews are supposed to be for other readers, not for the writer, so the thrust is why I did or did not like the book, regardless of whether it is technique or substance.

Frankly, I didn’t want to give it a one because Black writers have more barriers to get thorough to have their work read, and I don’t want to contribute to the problem. Edugan is a fabulous writer and deserves to be read. It was just a case of me not liking the aftertaste.

So when reading a particular review about your own writing, you should ask yourself whether the criticism addresses what you’re trying to achieve. Does this reviewer think it’s a bird when it’s supposed to be a cat? Or does the reviewer want it to be a bird because he doesn’t like cats? Those are important distinctions, and not always easy to sort out.

Of course, if you’re trying to make them wonder if it’sa bird or a cat, then, again, congratulations, you’ve done it. But this analogy is assuming you want them to talk the difference.

As a reader, one rating can’t tell you whether a book is worth reading; you have to read the substance of the review to see if you, as a cat-lover, would agree with the reviewer who dislikes a book because it’s not a bird.

However, an aggregate rating is more informative. If a hundred people have rated a book, and it’s got less than a three-star rating, maybe it’s because the craft hasn’t been mastered—or it may just not have found the right readers yet. If a thousand people have rated a book that low, it’s becoming more likely that it’s a matter of craft rather than substance unless it’s trying to make a point about lumpiness that only a small number of people will get.

Or if it’s particularly controversial, but that tends to be clear at the outset, and relatively fewer people will read a book they know they won’t like, although trolling is definitely a thing. For the most part, though, a book had to have reached enough readers who liked it to gain the attention of trolls, so for a newer or more obscure book, it’s less likely to be an issue. But for bots. Okay, I’ll stop looking for exceptions.

So the point here is that reviews, like any feedback, are useful to the degree that they succeed in telling you something about how a reader experiences the book. Book reviews are supposed to be for other readers, not for the writer, so the thrust is why I did or did not like the book, regardless of whether it is technique or substance.

For me, that’s part of raising the status of indie authors and publishers: trying to spotlight what’s good quality writing regardless of whether I like what someone is writing about.

That’s why my review process is an attempt to separate the two. If I think it’s an issue of insufficient attention or mastery of the craft, it ends up in the “Not ready for primetime” summary reviews. Full reviews assume that the book is competently written and are focused more on matters of taste, just as the Big 5 won’t publish a book if the author hasn’t adequately mastered craft.

For me, that’s part of raising the status of indie authors and publishers: trying to spotlight what’s good quality writing regardless of whether I like what someone is writing about.

For another point of view, see this awesome post by Ryan Howse, Books Are Awesome. A short quote from his article: “Books need to be judged on what they are attempting to do, not on a predetermined checklist.”

The elusive definition for “independently published”

“Independently published” is a fairly broad term. The Independent Book Publisher’s Association seems to define it as a state of mind, and includes basically any publisher other than the Big 5.  You know the Big 5, right? They each have bunches of “imprints,” other names they use for certain types of books (and this is not a exhaustive list of all the imprints):

​Whew! Yes, you can probably read nothing but books from the Big 5 for the rest of your life. But since I tend toward the view that megacorps are not healthy for the world, I prefer to look elsewhere when possible (not to say I don’t read their books–that’s not happening). (Sidenote: What is HarperCollins trying to pull, having imprints with Facebook sites rather than regular websites? Trying to look all indie?)

I’m looking for independently published books (including self-published) whose publisher has not yet cracked that New York Times Best Seller List, but whose books should have.

Anyway, the IBPA definition is overly inclusive for my purposes. I’m looking to help those worthy books that aren’t yet mainstream. Reedsy, among others, distinguishes independent publishers from self-publishing. Self-publishing is definitely a different animal than having a separate entity publish your book on the traditional model, but I tend to use the terms “small press” and “self-published” to make that distinction and use indie publishing to include both. If I were a small press, I suppose I might object. to including among my peers those with self-published books (which includes publishers set up just for one author as well as those using what we used to call “vanity presses”). 

Aside from that, I basically agree with Reedsy’s definition: “An independent publisher is a publisher not affiliated with any big corporations or conglomerates — meaning they operate independently.”

But I’m focusing on the smaller denizens of that community, not those who already have the size or prestige to draw attention to their books. For example, Kensington Publishing Corp., with six imprints and a backlist of 5000 titles, calls itself “America’s independent publisher.”  However, Kensington has already managed to place books on the New York Times Best Seller List. So Kensington’s books are probably not going to end up being reviewed here. I will refer to the group of publishers whose books I don’t review as “Big5plus.”

I’m looking for independently published books (including self-published) whose publisher has not yet cracked that New York Times Best Seller List, but whose books should have.

Arbitrary? You betcha. Clear? Probably. It’s a bit of a hassle, checking out each books publisher, but it’s worth it to me.

How I review

Let’s get this straight: I despise spoilers. Nothing ruins a movie for me more than a trailer that is a summary of the plot. So there will be no plot summaries here. There will be a brief teaser at best–enough to give you an idea of the premise, but probably no more than the book blurb will give you. Any comments containing spoilers will be removed.

However, it’s very aggravating when you’ve completed a book and have no one to discuss it with. So there’s a Spoilers Forum here for each reviewed book where you can talk about anything. I will have a post in the Spoilers Forum that supplements the review with any spoiler-laden comments.

My biases (at least the ones I’m aware of) are that I prize characterization over almost anything and I like internal consistency. I don’t like being preached at, but I don’t mind a book that’s trying to make a point. I’m tolerant of a wide range of writing styles, literary or popular. I don’t subscribe to the notion that just because something’s popular means it can’t be art. However, I don’t care for self-consciously  artistic books that seem to elevate technique above story-telling. Techniques should always been in service of the story, not the other way around (I’m looking at you, James Joyce). 

​So here’s how my ratings work:

  • A five-star book is one where I long for and grieve for the ending at the same time, one that I can’t seem to shake, or one that affects my worldview in some way.
  • A four-star book is one that I could escape into with pleasure and will read again.
  • A three-star book is one I liked well enough, but wouldn’t read a second time.
  • A two-star book is one that I struggled to finish or just didn’t like.
  • A one-star book is one that I couldn’t make myself finish or hated.

You may agree; you may not. But any book here, one-star through five, will meet the minimum standards of being sufficiently well-produced and competently written so that our differences will be matters of taste rather than basic quality. Of course, we may disagree on what constitutes “competently written,” but where’s the fun in a review without the possibility of debate?