I’m lucky enough to still be a book critic for a newspaper. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has fought (and lost) some of the same battles all print media has these last years, and while the book page has steadily shrunk, it still lives. Three or four full, original reviews every Sunday, along with thumbnails (often of kids books!)
The way it works is, every six weeks or so, I go downtown to the PD’s Book Room, where ARCs of upcoming novels and non-fiction are stacked floor to ceiling. I settle in, reading covers and blurbs and first pages, choosing writers I love and writers I hope I will. Never ever ever never do I pick a book I expect to dislike. Writing reviews dipped in acid may appear fun–for some I’m pretty sure it is (Michiko Kukatani, I’m looking at you). For me it’s torture. Maybe because I’m a softie who hates conflict (except in my fiction). There’s also the fact that I know too well how hard it is to transfer that dream in your head to words on paper. No writer ever sets out to write less than the best book she can.
Recently I chose novels by two of my favorite authors: the wild, magnificent Lydia Millet and the compassionate, meticulous observer Stewart O’Nan. Aargh. Both, to my astonishment, disappointed me mightily. The Millet was a dull mash-up of comedy and thriller and never took off the way her books always do, and O’Nan made the inexplicable choice to write a biographical novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days that to me lay dead on the page. Writing those reviews, I was very grateful I know the rest of their work and could sing its praises.
Crazily, those books made me all the more eager to see what Millet and O’Nan do next. They took risks that, for me, didn’t pay off. It’s reassuring and endearing to see these two greats as human (translation: like me). Writing is not something you can learn and know from then on. It’s no ride on a two wheeler. You learn again and yet again, with each new book.
I’m waiting now for reviews on my upcoming books (chewed fingernails, anxiety dreams), even as I struggle to put newer dreams onto paper…