Sunday, July 8, 2012

Judging a book by personal taste or literacy?

This past week brought up an interesting question from a member of The indiePENdents who had signed up as a reviewer and took exception to one particular title: Do we judge a book by our personal tastes or by its literacy. My response, for obvious reasons omitting mention of the title, follows:
 All I can say is that your letter made me read excerpts of not just the title in question but several others under the same name. There are so many of identical titles, one could call it a genre, as they all suck blood (and other things), pierce each other in many ways and pulverize a confusing array of ill-defined enemies or friends, it don’t matter. I now have a better idea what the current movies of this kind are all about, movies that I am told are the delight of teenagers and hits at the box office.
To each his own.
Some of the titles I checked out of curiosity seemed better written than others; I am sure it was my sheer luck I didn’t come across any that wouldn’t pass a literacy test. As you yourself said, the one [you got to review] can be faulted for formatting: I don’t know about that aspect of the book, so what I am left with is that you fault our standards for somehow not aiming at excluding content you and I may not like. The answer is that we can reject a book if it confuses its characters or for a fault in formatting, but not on the basis of personal reading preferences.

But friend, can we arrogate for ourselves the rights to be arbiters of the literary tastes and access of others to them? I remember how, back in 1985,  I grossed out a lady lunching with me at a Greek restaurant on 9th Avenue, while they were still serving roasted lamb’s head on a platter, soft cheeks, succulent eyeballs, tongue et all. Age and lack of availability had since made my barbaric yen for innards disappear, but I will not agree with anyone picketing a restaurant offering such fare.
Similar to that was a dilemma we faced at In Touch Networks, a national 24/7 radio reading newsstand for the blind (and otherwise print-handicapped people) over whether or not we should read Playboy on the air. Some donors questioned our broadcasting such disgusting material and Indiana authorities banned it. A blind lady client of ours objected to our reading The Daily News, and thought that we should stick to The New York Times. 
My answer was that as long as sighted people have the right to pick up anything they fancy from a newsstand, who are we to deny such right to those among us who are blind. The venerable newspapers and magazines, all of which gave us copyright permission, didn’t object to be in the same program with The National Inquirer sold on the street or read in our scheduled broadcasts.
Similarly, our Seal does not tell people what genre they should read: Our only intention is to distinguish, within each genre, those who don't do damage to the English language. 
Our Seal should not be construed as a card of identicality (my coinage) of its recipients. It is a given that they are diverse. Neither do the Seals mean that we recommend the political or any other orientation of the authors or that any of us approve each other’s company; they do attest that the titles carrying them have earned the right to a level playing field in public spaces. The final arbiters are the readers.
...., I hear your concern about the company you keep. But, please, did you take a look at the three awardees so far? They are all different. [The book you got for review] happens to be about vampires, with 13 more in all kinds of genres now in the pipeline. We cannot determine who will submit what work to us in the future. An objective reviewer shouldn’t ask for an assignment to his/her taste. This is not what we evaluate. We are not censors of the public taste. Let the readers buy what they want. We just tell them if the author passes muster as a writer.
I have come to respect your knowledge, judgment and persona.  It would pain me to see you separate from our goals on the basis of a misunderstanding. I am sure we can find a joint ground. 
Please reconsider. Don't leave. Give me your suggestions as to where you think we might change, improve and clarify. 
Most cordially, and reciprocating your affection,


Jenny Milchman said...

This is the exact conundrum that traditional publishing has been honest enough to say, "I represent" (in the case of agents) or "I acquire" (in the case of editors) only what I fall in love with.

Of course, taste has to come into play for any agent or editor or publisher who is tying him/herself and investing a great deal of money in a title. What keeps the traditional publishers from being doomed by the subjectivity factor is that they have many different people representing and acquiring, so ideally a whole gamut of tastes is reflected.

As we know, ideals don't always happen. Some books, especially those that might happily find a more narrow audience than the economics of traditional publishing can afford, get shut out.

What Jasha and I may disagree about is that once you open a door to allow in the gems that are missed, a whole lot of not-gems will flood in, too.

I personally do not believe grammar and literacy are high enough standards to determine which books should get a Seal. I agree that literate writing roughly correlates with quality, but it does not get at many things--

Sparkling prose
Subtle dialogue full of subtext and action
Laden imagery
A competent plot arc
Meaningful, non-stock characters

The list could on and on. Avid readers will have their own lists.

For me, for a Seal to deliver into my hands books I would truly want to read, it will have to both identify the type of book it is--this should be independent of taste; I may not like vampire books, but I can still recognize a well-written one--and how good it is.

Is this a pedestrian, competent genre read? A dazzling, breakout bestseller?

Traditional publishing has codes and archetypes in place that suggest these things and that readers can rely on to whittle down the volume.

With a far more massive volume facing us with indie releases, I believe the same will have to become established--and I'm certainly glad places like IndiePENdents are starting to grapple with the task.

Jasha Levi said...

I'd like to reply to just two paragraphs in Jenny's comment:

"What Jasha and I may disagree about is that once you open a door to allow in the gems that are missed, a whole lot of not-gems will flood in, too."


"I personally do not believe grammar and literacy are high enough standards to determine which books should get a Seal. I agree that literate writing roughly correlates with quality, but it does not get at many things--"

Do I understand you, Jenny, as saying that unless the results are guaranteed 100% perfect, no try should be made? Some oysters I eat have sand in them, most don't. I will not stop eating oysters to avoid some that may be sandy. You may end up not liking some of Seal awards, but it won't be because they are bad books.
As I say in the blog, some of the vampire books I sampled are remarkably well written. So are very many self-published books in many genres and, unlike some other reviewers, we will not discriminate against any.

We do not impose our preferences on the reading public -- we only want to attest that the author is presenting a real book and is not a pretend writer. Besides, our reviewers are looking at titles seeking the Seal not as so many pedants chasing minutiae of grammar and literacy, but are by implication looking at the value of the book as a whole.  They are as good readers as are the agents, publishers, and you and I.  Their judgment defies being based on narrow definitions, such as some you mention.
Unfavorable predictions notwithstanding, we will let life, not theory, decide if provides a viable cultural service, filling the gap left open by the industry which, unlike us, has given up on new talent.  

The enormity of the task we are undertaking is no argument against it.

Joel said...

I'm not clear whether the reviewer was objecting because they were asked to review the book, or simply because IndiePENdents was even willing to accept it for review. Since we're all volunteers, I'll assume the latter for now.

No book on earth will please all readers. There is a difference between actively promoting something, and passively allowing others their own opinion and path. If IndiePENdents grants a Seal to something I find abhorrent, it does not mean I approve, only that someone who doesn't find it so abhorrent was able to verify that it meets the standards agreed on by the steering committee.

As for these standards being "too low" as has been argued almost ad infinitum: the step from "nothing" to "something" is the single greatest leap possible.

If we cannot even make this step, we'll never make the others. It's pointless for us to try to walk on the moon when we can't even climb a hill.

Eventually, reviewers will arise who can address sparkling prose, subtle dialog, imagery, plot, and characters. But before we shoot for the moon, can we please be allowed to get up the hill?

IndiePENdents are continually chided for not aiming high enough. I have yet to see anyone creating a viable alternative.