Bumps Along the Road
Years ago I got a sad and funny note from an author who was on tour. I had read a bad review of his latest collection in the New York Times and something about Michiko Kakutani’s damning description of the book convinced me that I’d enjoy it. I went right out to buy the book, loved it, and sent the author fan mail via his publisher. His reply came quickly from some hotel in the Pacific Northwest and he said, bleakly, that the publisher had spent $1,000 to send him there and the previous night he’d had seven people show up at Barnes & Noble.
Publishers don’t prepare authors for what it's really like to go out on a book tour, because if they did, some authors might balk. What sounds like it’s sure to be exciting and fun (perhaps even glamorous) is often in reality exhausting and deeply anxiety-provoking. There's a more than even chance that you'll be dealing with missed or delayed flights; hotel reservations that go awry; bad or indifferent food; cabbies taking you to the wrong place or being disappointed that you don’t know Stephen King; interviewers who haven’t read your book and don’t care; and perhaps most dispiriting: poor turnouts because your reading was scheduled at the same time as The Second Coming or something almost as significant.
Particularly unnerving are the comments some people feel they can make to you if they’ve bought your book, and even before they’ve bought your book. Being an author in those situations is like being the guy seated over a water tank at a charity bazaar, waiting for someone to throw the ball and hit the target so as to dunk you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a reading or just signing books at a table—some people take surprising liberties with authors. Now, most readers or potential readers are a joy to meet, but the readers who feel like rhetorical kamikaze pilots are at times hard to forget.
On one of my first tours, a woman in Washington, D.C. sallied up to where I sat smiling and loudly demanded to know, “What does your book say to women?” Well, I grew up in New York City, so I’m fluent in Sarcasm, and I wanted to reply, “It says, ‘Buy me!’” But this was my first time at that particular bookstore, there was a small crowd around the table, and I didn’t want to risk sounding like a jerk. I tried talking in general terms about “the human condition” but was saved by a clever friend who said, “The cover price of the book means that each story in his book costs you less than a dollar.” Apparently, the bargain spoke to that particular woman and she bought the book.
In a New York bookstore reading from a different book some years later, that same book of stories came up. In New York, everybody’s an expert on everything (believe me, I know!), and a guy in a track suit who could have been an extra on The Sopranos had something to share with me.
“You book,” he said. (It was not “Your book.”) “Some of the stories, they were short.”
“It's a book of short stories,” I offered helpfully.
“Yeah, I know, but I thought maybe some of them were unfinished.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, like maybe they left something out at the factory.”
I assured him the factory had adequate quality control.
Someone once told me that he didn’t like “metaphors and such.” More than one reader has confidently announced the intention to write a book, because if I could get published, so could he. Then there are readers who feel free to criticize your author photo, or the book title, or the cover art as well as what’s inside the book, and go on to tell you every other aspect of your book they didn’t like. Evidently an author needs to be brought down a peg or two, since these people are stingy in sharing anything that worked for them. Other readers ask why you didn’t write the book differently and then explain what was missing. Obviously, the answer is that you didn’t write the book differently because you weren’t smart enough and didn’t have the benefit of their wise counsel, but sounding like Lewis Black in mid-rant is not going to help build your audience.
Touring with books from my mystery series, I’ve occasionally encountered what I would have to call anti-intellectual “hecklers.” My amateur sleuth is a bibliographer and teaches in an English department, but some people have complained to me that he mentions too many books in the mysteries, and others that he uses words they don’t know–and had to look up. Recently I was invited to speak about my last novel, The German Money, at a reading group in my home town. I haven’t had much interest in reading groups based on what people in them tell me they’re typically full of: gossip, naive and sometimes inane comments about a book, more focus on the food than the book at hand. But the home where the discussion was going to be held was less than five minutes from my own, so what could it hurt to spend an hour or two on a Sunday evening talking about a book I loved?
It turned out to be a terrible waste of my time. The group of ten women and one man seemed interested to hear about the book’s strange and long genesis, but within minutes, the host was telling me what he thought was wrong with the book. This was prefaced by a fulsome sort of apology, and the further he went, the more convinced I was that a zinger was coming. He didn’t like the descriptions of Michigan in the book; they weren’t specific enough or artistic enough for his taste. I pointed out that the narrator was not a naturalist, not an Annie Dillard type and the descriptions were the first person narrator’s, not mine and so they matched the character.
He seemed sourly unconvinced and then went on to bash the main character as needing to grow up. Well, the story is about a dysfunctional family of children of a Holocaust survivor, and they’re all struggling with their dark inheritance. That cut no ice with him, either, since he didn’t seem to think that growing up with that kind of horror ensconced in the heart of one’s family was grounds for a troubled life. Then he added he didn’t like the fact that the New York sections of the book were set in one or two apartments–that felt claustrophobic to him. Of course, many New Yorkers do live in apartments, and the book takes place in Manhattan which is not filled with ranch houses, Colonials and split-levels like his neighborhood. The book also has a tight time frame to intensify the psychological conflict and the intimate family drama, but that, too, left him unimpressed.
I was a guest in his house and at his reading group, so I never told him how insulting his behavior was; I didn’t even say, “I guess an engineer might see things that way.” But I did have to wonder why he’d bothered getting his club to read this book since he had such a low opinion of it. Was the whole point to show off to these women that even though he couldn’t write, he knew better than I did what good writing really was?
Even if that were true, he certainly didn’t know much about manners. I’d never trash a writer’s book in my own home, or any home, with the writer present. I would be polite, which is a skill even New Yorkers can exercise. And I certainly wouldn’t do what he did the day after: he sent me an email that passed along negative comments made about the book after I left. Apparently the people who really disliked the book were too intimidated by my presence to say so–at least that’s what he reported. And some of the members thought that I must be misogynistic because my main character was. This is the kind of “criticism” I remember from classes of freshman English–jejune expressions of opinion presented as immutable fact.
I was tempted to tell him that the book was being taught in universities and one professor in New York had included it several times with novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth, so clearly the book had more value than he would admit, but I didn’t bother replying. At the back of my mind in such situations is the warning of a good friend trying to calm her writer husband who wanted to smack down a critic: “Listen, do you want to do good work or do you want to be known as a crazy person?”
I suppose that in the end, I was lucky. The venue was private, not public. An author friend of mine read from one of her novels at the 92nd Street Y and the first person to speak afterwards announced, “Let me tell you what’s wrong with your book.” I didn’t ask my friend if she was planning to speak to any reading groups, too.
So publishers neglect to tell you about these potential speed bumps and potholes along the way of a tour, but they also don’t tell you that people can say and do wonderful things that will blow you away. Like the poet who had me sign a well-worn copy of one of my books that she said she always kept by her bedside and had read six times. Or the book store owner in Germany who pressed bottles of local liqueurs on me in gratitude for my having spoken there. Or the people who have studied books of mine in university classes and even said I inspired them to become writers. These things happen, too, and far more often. They are humbling. And well worth holding onto when a tour takes an unpleasant detour.
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-four years, and a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of nineteen books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he’s seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can’t identify, and he’s done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His new memoir, My Germany, was just published by the University of Wisconsin Press and in September 2009 by Parthas Verlag in Berlin. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.