Dave Eggers (you may remember him from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) liked The Brothers Jetstream enough to drop a glitter bomb on it. “Thank God for Clarence ‘Zig Zag’ Young. This is a truly original writer. He sounds like no one else, plays by no rules, and creates wildly entertaining books that create an indelible stamp on the mind." A very thoughtful (and award-winning) poet said this about it: “A remarkable achievement offering an intricate world with wondrous and richly developed characters well worth revisiting.” An author who’s about to dust a space on a shelf for a short story Hugo or two said this: “Take Buckaroo Banzai, Hellblazer and Barbarella, turn it into the 80s cartoon of your childhood dreams, and fast forward to right here, right now. If that sounds too much like a virgin version of your favourite cocktail, don't despair. This is a grown-up pleasure.”
So let’s not be coy. We love good reviews. There’s this sense in writing communities that it’s gauche for a writer to embrace this love. THE WORK SUFFICES. Yeah, Gandalf, no. Nobody does this in a vacuum (unless you’re one of those experimental types who puts an “e” on the end of artist). The dolphins at SeaWorld aren’t masterfully somersaulting through hoops for the unfettered joy of performance; they’re doing it hoping not to get tortured—and plotting a murderous overthrow of dry bipedal bastards. But damn if the fish don’t taste good. A good fishy review fills the belly. Not a smoke-blown-up-your-butt review, or its opposite, the perennial I-didn’t-read-it-but-it-sucked (just as there are lazy writers, there are lazy readers). Sincere and real are the keys.
Viewed clinically, reviews are invaluably essential feedback that help you evolve. Those that praise could cause you to evolve webbed feet because webbed feet are cool; swim on, swim deep. Those that don’t can help form the calluses or plating needed to either protect you from hubris or to—well, actually that’s it. (Again, we’re not talking about doofy-assed negative reviews or reviews from mom and dad.) Hubris sucks and makes you a putz. Favorable to you or non, evolution (tiny mental revolutions) should be your prize. You are not here to write the same thing over and over after the same fish every day. With each effort you should overthrow you and grow what you did in the last project into a new existence entirely. Reviews help this along by shining lights and holding mirrors to mental places you might not have seen.
Like this one. This review of a fairly recent short story of mine from an antho points out some good stuff (if I’m sciency enough to pay attention). “I feel as if this story is meant to have some big ideas, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they are or why I as a reader am supposed to care about them. It’s a story where very little actually happens, and none of it seems to mean anything.” Which makes me ask: Do I have a pattern of being obtuse? See, you can post about your stuff on Facebook and a hundred people will “like” it but never buy your work. That’s not as helpful as you’d think. You get one actual review of your work from someone trying to continue (in a small way) the conversation you started in producing the words you produced, that’s a solid win. Run with that and be happy.
Be the kid with the fucking juice box skipping down the street on a hot sunny day.
Be a Doyen of Glittery Proportions for just a little while. As long as you remember the review is not “about” you but (a) the work and (b) any plan you have for your continuance of it, all is cool.
No need to thank God for your staggering brilliance. A farmerly “That’ll do, pig” is good enough.
I don't know about you but I'm a sucker for a good book recommendation, and there are certain authors who somehow--TO THE DETRIMENT OF MY PREMIUM FAUX LEATHER WALLET--manage to bring the recommendation thunder every. single. time. Same as you, I have very particular tastes when it comes to reading. I can't go where I've been a million times before; filler is a Kryptonite stake dipped in nasty and trimmed in ugh; lazy, uninteresting prose = the backhand learned from Joyce Carol Oates during that year on the mountaintop. So when certain authors recommend a story or book I immediately break out with "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" I know they're not recommending their mom or their cousin (unless their mom or cousin has written a helluva book).
A good recommendation is an act of communion.
What makes for a good rec? Enthusiasm. When a writer's work hits another writer's sweet spot it's, well, it's
And the recommending writer has no shame sharing this with you. The enthusiasm bursts like Pop Rocks. Giddyness is a good sign.
Clear directions. When a writer is really impressed, she'll say "Buy this." Not "consider" not "mebbe" not "you might also like." I heard a preacher say one day, "If I had time to tell somebody I'd tell everybody." That stuck with me, that directive to go forth. I read. It rocked. I read again. Witness.
Sensibilities. I guess that kinda goes without saying but respect the sensibility of the recommendation. Writing is an empathic activity, and a good empath can sense where a writer is coming from. This is reflected in the recommendation. It doesn't mean you're going to have the same emotional experience every time. Joy needs to be a varied thing. A primo book reccer builds up a diverse catalog. Excellence will be the common theme but excellence crosses all genres. A discerning writer of science fiction can read a romance novel and be blown away, and vice versa. Do you sense this inclusiveness? If so, you may trust your recommending writer's judgment.
Brevity. A good recommendation doesn't spoil the potential reading experience by telling you every little thing about the book. Not even a review should do that (unless you're an ass), and there's a difference between a recommendation and a review. Rec is small plates. Review might be dinner. There are a ton of unspoken-but-understoods in a recommendation. Mind meld. Simpatico. Sometimes the more brief the recommendation the more intense the book love. You get "OMFG!" from a trusted source, you know to get your ass to a book store.
And then: the actual reading. You've bought the book and brought to it all the "you" necessary to make the reading experience flower. A recommendation might prime you but it doesn't color the experience. Being told something is good doesn't automatically make it so. A book has to reach into you and rearrange a few things. It's feng shui of the mind. You're not looking for perfection, you're looking for flow. The recommendation pushes you and the book away from the shore; the rest is up to you. There are so many books out there. So many writers. So many outlets. Book recs can be great guideposts. Even if you don't like what you read you tried something new (which can happen; we both might like cheesecake but you're a heathen who puts whipped cream on your cheesecake and I can't even). An expanded mind is a wonderful thing.
Oh, and on the practical tip: Ideally, book recommendations lead to book sales. More sales means more cool things get written and published by more cool writers whom you may not yet realize you love. So writers, keep recommending. Nobody who loves reading (and that's what the best writers are: avid readers) treats this enterprise as "The Highlander" game. There can always be more than one. Readers, keep feeling the love. End result is this
Yes indeed. We are Groot.
Last week I had the pleasure of doing a reading with the Afrotopia Book Club in my home town. Here are some random thoughts that related to/came of it:
The Brothers Jetstream—at its core—is about black folks doing what we’ve always done: protecting Mother Earth from greed. The eternal war: Art vs Commerce. Art says “Let’s explore our inner and exterior boundaries, let’s imagine new shared realities, ones beneficial to all.” Commerce says there’s only one reality: strife, because strife makes people buy things they don’t really want—and then commerce sets about making that false state a lasting reality. Granted I want everyone to buy this book…but money wasn’t the prime driver in getting the message of this book out.
The message was how do we (and specifically black people) deal with an insane world: we create, we rebuild, we renew.
THE STATE OF SCIENCE FICTION
We’ve caught up with the old stories. We live a science fiction life. Look at Flint. How big a stretch would it be to have Katniss walking the streets? Now we’re at the point where our stories absolutely MUST go where the old rarely ventured: the everyday life of the individual, the soul of Life. That’s where people outside the mainstream excel. Why? Because their/our lives encompass the need to escape from the hellish dreams of oppressors. It’s the difference between “We find the problem; let’s create a solution” and “We are the problem; let’s pretend we’re the solution.”
Sad / Rabid Puppies & the Lovecraft Award change (people manic about hanging on to the old ways).
JK Rowling (stepped in it as the latest trying to Disneyfy First Nations people).
PoC Destroy Science Fiction (which I submitted a story to) – It’s like with Detroit, people always wonder where Detroit’s comic, sci fi, and other visionary healing are. Answer: IT’S RIGHT THERE. ALWAYS BEEN THERE. Andre Batts has been putting on the Motor City Black Age of Comics convention for years. MECCA Con (Midwest Ethnic Convention for Comics and Arts) spearheaded by Maia Crown Williams is another comic-geared convention, and it rocked the hell out of the Main Library last fall. We’ve always been here. The problem has been we were squelched. We’d be the ones jumping outside a window and the Mainstream’s inside saying, “Nope, don’t see you.”
A friend posted this a few days ago from Humans of New York. It touches perfectly on the False Prophet Buford’s motto “If it was special we made damn sure it didn’t stay that way”:
A gentleman is sitting on a park bench above the caption: “I don’t enjoy observing people as much as I used to. Everyone acts like they’re on stage. People used to come to The Village sheepishly. Nobody was sure if they belonged. We didn’t know if we were artists. These days everyone walks around like they’re contributing something. There’s no angst anymore. There’s too much certainty. And that’s a shame. Because all the best art comes from people who feel like they don’t belong. Art is a way of proving your existence. When I was a young man, a person that I respected told me that I was an artist. It was one of the worst things that could have happened to me. I stopped walking into museums or galleries with a sense of awe. I walked in feeling like an ‘artist.’ My arms would be crossed. If I liked a piece, it was ‘good.’ If I didn’t like a piece, it was ‘bad.’ I didn't feel vulnerable anymore. I lost my humility. And that’s when growth stops.”
The Jetstreams is about that sense of wonder never going away…even when your daily life consists of Atlantis, vampires, and a hundred entrenched global conspiracies.
Pen. Your pen must flow as smoothly as well-lubricated sex. Choose wisely.
Laptop. Indispensable. Why? You can spread out on the couch. Too long at a desktop = unhappy buttocks. Laptop + couch + lounging that ass off = Happy Buttocks. Always bet on happy buttocks.
Desktop. The old war horse.
Paper. As in writing pads. Many writing pads. Not everybody writes longhand first but there will always be those flashes of inspiration during inopportune moments requiring silence and/or stealth. Midnight. Phone or pad out of power. Jury room. Confessional.
Internal drive to grasp the narrative thread given us by perceptions of linear-based time in order to solidify thought and emotion. A necessity.
Snacks. And an exercise regimen. Yeah.
Life, the universe, and everything creative
Towel Photo credit: EvelynGiggles via Foter.com / CC BY