What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tiptoeing Back Into the Blogosphere...

Suddenly, literally overnight, I stopped blogging about books. It happened a little over two years ago, and I remember precisely what happened. I had been attending the National Association of Business Economics conference in downtown Manhattan and, after a very long day of listening to people talk about the business cycle, employment data, commodities prices -- and interviewing Sheila Bair about financial market regulations -- I staggered home to Brooklyn. I let myself in the gate in the fence that surrounded the brownstone in which I had an apartment, and lifted up the flap of the mailbox affixed to that fence. Up until that day, I had always been grateful for the large flap -- it meant that if I wasn't home, USPS, UPS, etc. could simply put any deliveries from Amazon, Book Depository or elsewhere in the big metal container. There was no problem about getting oversized mail.

As it turned out, there was also no problem in receiving other, less desirable, substances. A short while previously, I'd received an advance review copy of a new book by a debut author. I really hadn't liked it. I had said so in my review. I hadn't used any vulgarity; I hadn't commented on the author; I hadn't told people that they should burn their copies. I just said that my experience of the book made it one I wished I hadn't read at all, and listed the reasons. Usually, when I pick up a book like that, I put it down -- I return it to the library and forget about it. In this case, I had made a commitment to review it, and did (although not on this blog.) I didn't Tweet about the review, or otherwise draw attention to it. Nonetheless, instead of allowing the review to sink into obscurity, the author, as I recently chronicled in a recent column for The Guardian about the perils of book reviewing, took offense -- great offense. So did a great number of her fans. Someone -- I have no way of knowing who it was -- decided to wrap some dog sh*t in a piece of paper, on which were printed some of the same phrases that the author had used on her blog to castigate me. In my hurry to get home, I had reached my hand into the mailbox and straight into the poop.

Of course, I called the cops; I preserved the "evidence" for a few days, until it was clear that they weren't going to show up to get it and conduct DNA tests or whatever one does with such unwanted gifts, at which point it went into the trash. My sweater went to the drycleaners. My hands got scrubbed with disinfectants, using a rough nailbrush that subsequently went into the trash. And I stopped blogging. Because, let's face it, why deal with loonies?

I still reviewed for Amazon's Vine program, and resurrected the dog poop experience, at my editor's insistence, when I sat down to write about the democratization of reviewing, and how getting a bad review can temporarily unhinge some authors. Not that that is anything new, of course. Richard Ford spat in Colson Whitehead's face after a bad review, and shot a bullet into a copy of a book by Alice Hoffman after she also failed to appreciate his genius. It's fairly safe to say that you won't see me weighing in on Ford's prose here, especially since my recent reading of Canada left me underwhelmed. Pissed off writers with guns worry me considerably more than those with blogs and fans with dogs and dog poop.

Writing the column for the Guardian made me stop and think, however. I hate bullies. I don't know who was responsible for shoving that dog shit in my mailbox -- the author (who removed the offensive content from their website after I contacted the publisher), their spouse (who admitted harassing me with a series of messages), or one of the author's fans, from whom I also heard. I'll never know. But whoever it was, was a bully -- and that person took advantage of my reluctance to fight back. After writing and posting that review elsewhere, any review I posted on my blog ended up with my e-mail box full of obnoxious messages and lots of messages here for me to wade my way through and delete so that they wouldn't affect what a handful of readers enjoyed -- the discussion about books. But why give in to bullies?

I also read author Matt Haig's wonderful post about blogging. Haig spoke out, via Twitter, in favor of "a critical culture in books", arguing that we need "people to say what they want about books", even if it isn't unrelentingly positive cheerleading. He acknowledges that he himself has felt under pressure to say "nice things I only half mean". And that not all books can be good. Finally, of all people, I listened to a presentation by Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, at the Boston Book Festival. To be clear, I think his views about blogging cross the line into elitism -- certainly, he'd have no time for someone like me -- but he did make several arguments that I couldn't help but agree with. Firstly, talking about books isn't just talking about what you "like" -- in fact, he skillfully eviscerated his final questioner of the day, someone who clearly was expecting a sympathetic reaction when she identified herself as a professional reviewer who explained her dilemma -- that she only found herself reviewing what she "liked", because, after all, life is too short. Stothard looked at her in disbelief. "You don't need to like a book to think about it critically," he said. Clearly, in his eyes, professional reviewers like her were as much of a problem as amateurs like myself. "If everyone only reviewed what they liked..." And words failed him, which I suspect doesn't happen to the likes of Sir Peter Stothard very frequently.

So, with all of the above in mind, I'm tiptoeing back into book blogging. We'll see how it goes. Whether I love a book or loathe it, what you'll continue to read here are my honest opinions. Perhaps I could do worse than to borrow some other words of wisdom from Stothard: one "should never say anything in a review that one wouldn't say to the author's face." I think that's generally good advice for anything in the public domain, in any event. On the flip side, I think reviewers need to feel able to voice an opinion without worrying about what's in their mailbox or -- far more heinous -- being cracked over the head with a bottle of wine while out shopping.

Happy reading, everyone.