Skin in the Game


One of the least rewarding parts of my graduate classes in English was having to read reviews of new books of literary criticism. Especially after an undergraduate class I took with a professor who helped shape my own pedagogical approaches, it was hard to read those reviews and not see how the reviewers were using the opportunity that review provided them — hardly a small one — to promote their own careers. At some point in nearly every review I read, the reviewer would invariably tail off into some thread, digressive or otherwise, to say words to the effect of, “The book doesn’t explore this facet of its subject matter adequately enough.” Even as a relative novitiate to this side of academic English, I could tell that the reviewers had plans to write about those facets, and they were priming the audience for these reviews to want their upcoming treatises. This kind of behaviour is a good part of the reason why I chose not to pursue a doctorate in English after I got my MA, and why I’m still disinclined to start down that path. (If I were to pursue a Ph.D. at this point, it would probably be in Higher Education, but that’s a subject for another blog.)

I spent my earliest years on the Internet producing critiques of popular culture, and the vagueness with which I refer to that time of my life is a good sign of just how embarrassing that was for me. Years after I left that scene and went back to college, I posted reviews of a few CDs and video games on Amazon as a lark, and even those are kind of painful for me to look back on now. I’d actually thought about keeping that up — there was a possibility of a contest with an online friend to see who could the most likes on their Amazon reviews — but after I started seeing how some book reviews in academic journals were operating, I kind of bristled against the idea of doing any further reviews. Even though I didn’t have any ideas for books at the time (or at least any that I can remember today, which doesn’t preclude the possibility that I forgot about ideas that became super-humiliating in retrospect), I knew that I wanted to have books for sale at some point, and so I worried that any need I may feel to promote my own work would seep into my reviews, and turn them into disguised self-promotion.

This hasn’t stopped me from recommending what I consider to be top-notch material in any medium, whether I’m making research suggestions to my students or just trying to impress new friends by introducing them to the most awesome stuff on the planet. This isn’t to say that people can’t be both critics in a medium and create work in that same medium; Michiko Kakutani is a prime example of that. For me personally, though, I feel so uncomfortable at the thought of posting any kind of evaluation online — even if it’s just a star rating on a site like Amazon or GoodReads — that I just avoid doing so. It helps me avoid potential conflicts of interest in my professional life, and I honestly don’t feel like I lose anything by not posting reviews online. (Given the current online climate when it comes to criticism of media, I probably save myself a lot of headaches as well.)

My first novel, The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, came out a little over three years ago, shortly after Mom’s passing. At the time, I was in the middle of reading Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, and I’d been having a hard enough time reading a novel where the protagonist’s mother dies that I’d basically let it lie by my bed for months, barely touched. Reading it became even harder after we lost Mom, and even though part of me wanted to finish it — Tartt’s earlier novel The Secret History is one of those books that I feel comfortable recommending to everyone because it’s so good — I wound up leaving my copy of the book back in Toledo when I moved out to Colorado in 2017.

Adjusting to life in Colorado, and then life in Wisconsin when I moved here less than nine months after my first big move, took a lot of my time and mental power, so I wasn’t doing that much reading there for a while. When I was reading, I was usually doing research for my next book (more on that in the coming months), or else I was reading other non-fiction to help me with other things, like my teaching career. I wasn’t going out of my way to avoid reading another novel, but I certainly wasn’t pushing myself to read something else, and I have to wonder how much of that was due to me being concerned about how differently I would read novels now that I am a published novelist.

Last year, when Linda Holmes released her first novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, I cheered for her success because she’s one of my favourite podcasters. I purchased a copy of her novel, but I let it sit on my tablet because I really didn’t have time to read it for a long time there. As my winter break has been going on, though, I’ve felt like maybe I needed to change that. I’m still deep into research for my next book, but I figured that I should mix things up a bit, and so while I read the next non-fiction book I’m using for my research, I’m also slowly making my way through Evvie Drake Starts Over.

I’m not going to post my thoughts about Evvie Drake Starts Over, mainly because Holmes is working within the conventions of romance, a genre I have precious little experience with. What I am noticing, though, is that it’s way too easy for me to get preoccupied with thinking about what went into Holmes’ novel becoming a bestseller when my own first novel remains languishing in obscurity. A lot of the answers are obvious (Holmes came into her novel with an exponentially-larger platform, plus she has the support of a major publisher), and I’m certainly glad for Holmes’ success, but it’s hard to avoid feeling more than a little envious of her. I hadn’t counted on that being a difficulty of reading other people’s novels as a published novelist, but it’s making me wonder what will happen when I read a novel by someone whose voice I don’t hear twice a week on the podcast app on my tablet.

It’s too early in the process of me writing my next book to think about what my next big project will be after that, but I certainly have ideas for other novels. At this point, though, I have to wonder if I should ever write about anything other than my own work. I’ll certainly be trying to sell all my books for the rest of my life, so maybe I should just focus on that, and let everyone else’s books succeed or sink on their own merits, regardless of my feelings about them. Can I at least say that Linda Holmes is a wonderful person, and you should be following all her work, both in audio and in print?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.