Tuesday, March 23, 2010

writer myths

I recently picked up a mildewed copy of Emily Dickinson's poems, and the first thing that struck me about the book was the emphasis put on the author's reclusive nature. The dust jacket blurb, the author bio, the introduction, the preface--literally all the text in the book that wasn't actually written by Emily Dickinson--spends as much time discussing the poet's reclusive nature as it does her actual poetry.

Here's how the dust jacket blurb starts: "Known as a recluse by her New England neighbors, Emily Dickinson fashioned in private a body of verse unmatched in its vision and understanding."

Here's the first paragraph in her author's bio: "Emily Dickinson was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sociable as a child, she grew increasingly withdrawn; she discouraged visitors, and in later years rarely left the grounds of her family's home."

Here's the start of the introduction: "Now celebrated as one of America's greatest poets, Emily Dickinson is also famous for her quiet, private life. [...] she confined her activities to the grounds of the family home. She traveled out of Amherst only a handful of times, and did not marry. Later in her life she dressed all in white and acquired a reputation as an eccentric recluse."

And this is from the book's original preface: "A recluse by temperament and habit, literally spending years without setting her foot beyond the doorstep, and many more years during which her walks were strictly limited to her father's grounds, she habitually concealed her mind, like her person, from all but a very few friends..."

Why is it, I wonder, that the authors of these words are so determined to drive home the idea of Emily Dickinson as a recluse? Why can't the focus be on her poetry itself, instead on her unusual habits, her unorthodox lifestyle?

The best answer I can come up with is this: it sells books.

For some reason, building up the myth of an author seems to provoke greater interest in that author's work. It's almost as if a portion of the reading public won't feel eager to engage with writing unless they feel that the writing is the product of an interesting person. The weirder or more tragic the author's life, the greater the interest shown in their work.

Take Sylvia Plath's ARIEL, for example. It came out two years after her suicide, and you can bet the fact of her suicide was made widely known during the marketing of the book. In fact, so much attention is paid to Plath's life and untimely demise that I'm sure most people know more about her death than her poetry. And I bet you'd be hard pressed to find someone who had read even a single Plath poem without knowing anything about the author.

Personally, I'm a bit uncomfortable with this idea. I think ARIEL is a great book of poems, a book that would definitely be able to stand on its own without any accompanying author-suicide hype. But the reader is never really given a chance to directly engage with the poems without first having their reading experience 'informed' by knowledge of the author's life and death. Somehow, that feels like a lost opportunity to me.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Ran across a very funny article on the Poetry Foundation's website. The author, Jim Behrl, hits a remarkable number of key points. The following passage in particular stood out to me, because of it's mention of "most poets in America [having] boring office jobs in which they are screwing around on the Internet most of the time," which makes me think of the some of the thoughts I mentioned on this blog while considering the potential merits of publishing online instead of in print. Here's Jim Behrl, putting it in his own words:

"How can you become the most important poet in America by tomorrow? It’s not as hard as you think. Poets used to have to pass out poetry-reading flyers by hand, one at a time, or publish poems one at a time in magazines, slowly building a career. But technology has changed all that. Now you can spam every poet in America with every new poem. Start a fan page for yourself and your books on Facebook. Blog about your every thought—they don’t even have to be astute thoughts. Most poets in America have boring office jobs in which they are screwing around on the Internet most of the time. Just mention the names of as many contemporary poets as you can in all your blog posts. You will catch all the self-googlers self-googling. Self-promotion is the only kind of promotion left. Without poetry reviewers to rely on, only you can spread the word about your product. And if you spread it suddenly, relentlessly, brutally, then you’ll have name recognition from here to Hawaii . . . and that’s all you need, because there are two kinds of poets: those you’ve heard of and those you haven’t. Almost all of us fall into the latter category, but not you! If only you take my advice."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

regarding poor reviews of unknown authors, and whether such reviews should be written

A long while back I wrote a review on this blog about a linked-short-story collection published by an author I've had classes with and done a reading with. My review basically stated that reading the book exacerbated feelings of ennui I often suffer from, that the book was so boring it made me feel like the effort of writing might not even be worth it, especially since certain other reviews called the book 'ground-breaking.' My feelings about the book are pretty much the same now as they were then. Even so, I now regret publishing the post because I did a Google search for the author a few days ago, and my review came up as the third search result. I don't like the idea that people searching for information on this relatively unknown author will have such a discouraging view as one of their first search results. Trashing a big-name millionaire like Dave Eggers is one thing, but hampering a young unknown's chances is another. So I tried to edit the old post in a way that removed any identifying details about the author. Unfortunately, even though I changed the post's title, the author's name and book title still showed up in the address bar when the link was clicked on. In the end I deleted it. My post still comes up as one of the first Google hits for now, and you can still read it in Google's cache, but I imagine it will disappear before too long.

For me, this whole process has made me think about the act of publicly reviewing your peers' work. On the one hand, I do believe that in the end any review is a good thing because it can help raise awareness of the work. And I also think it's pretty ridiculous to feel bad about not liking something, or to apologize for having an opinion. On the other hand, trashing someone's writing, or giving it a poor review, can hurt people's feelings, and I don't like hurting people's feelings.

Writers in particular seem susceptible to hurt feelings, and they often closely associate criticism of their work with criticism of themselves. When I think of the late Norman Mailer, for example, what comes to mind more than his works are his continual attacks on all those who dared give his books poor reviews. Even a somewhat objective approach to something relating to an author can inflame that author's ego. A personal experience I had with this came at the start of this blog, in which I published a tongue-in-cheek post referring to my stumbling across an author I'd found online who had a lengthy publications list full of pieces featured in places I'd never heard of, most of them online. I quickly found out that several of the editors of the sites publishing this author's work had in turn been published by the author on his own literary website, or had their personal blogs linked to by the author, and I delivered that information on my blog in the form of a facetious conspiracy theory. The author took it seriously, or at least seemed to be upset that I'd post a viewpoint relating his publications to anything other than actual merit, and he responded by lampooning me on his own website. I also got a series of comments from friends of his, defending him. Then I myself got touchy about it and responded with another snarky post of my own. It was all pretty passive aggressive and childish, and the ironic thing is that I never meant the first post as a personal statement relating to the author or his ability as a writer in the first place. I mentioned him as a 'key' to my unlocking of this 'conspiracy,' and the 'conspiracy' was the primary subject.

In any case, I'm not sure if the fellow whose book I mentioned at the start of this post even ever saw my review. I have noticed that in the times when I've been in the same room with him since I posted the review, he's avoided eye-contact with me, and hasn't spoken to me. Maybe he just doesn't remember who I am, or maybe he's harboring negative feelings for me. In either case, I meant him personally no ill will, even if I didn't like his book.