Treading dangerous waters this morning as a writer, but hey... book reviewers like Janet Maslin of the New York Times
get paid to cast their opinions every day. Why not us lowly authors who pine for the bone they hope gets tossed their way in the form of a "rave" review in some such publication?
The Last Season has gotten many rave reviews, I think in great part because of Randy Morgenson's character ? be it considered flawed, funny, self-righteous, and/or downright heroic. Some people loved Randy's piss-and-vinegar, Edward Abbeyâ€“like prose, while others (very few, actually) got bogged down by it. Some forgave him the affair he had, while others cast their entire opinion on that "flaw." And a major draw for many who read and reviewed The Last Season was of course the book's main character, the High Sierra wilderness itself.
Those who could relate to this setting ? the harsh, rugged, lonely landscape where solo rangers patrol on foot ? were more captivated, say, than individuals who hadn't been exposed to such environs. Maybe this is why Outside magazine, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure gave the book the coveted lead review slots in their April 2006 issues. Might be why Audubon made the book its "editor's choice" that same month. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 reviews were all amazingly kind about The Last Season.
And then there was the New York Times, which I won't link here... it's easy enough to find online. To give you an idea of how it turned out, I'll quote my agent, Christy Fletcher, from the e-mail she sent me that morning back in May of 2006. "Eric, read the NY Times review, and alas, it's not rave..." She, like any good agent, went on to offer me words of condolence, the kind associated with a close relative falling gravely ill. Such is the stigma associated with the coveted New York Times, especially for a new writer.
Essentially, the review wasn't THAT bad. In fact, The Last Season received an entire column of words (most of which discounted the story's very premise ? that Randy Morgenson and the High Sierra deserved a book about them at all ? but hey, it was an entire column and it actually made my sales jump remarkably that week, proving the old adage: any press is good press). And for some reason, I wasn't all that hurt, though I did write Bill McKibben, an author who selflessly answered a cold call from me to read the book and provide a backcover quote, to tell him that I'd become an official writer because I got blasted by the New York Times.
He told me how many of his books had been blasted by the Times and other "big names." He told me to forget about it and "Whatever you do, don't write a letter!"
I didn't want to be one of those whiny writers who can't take criticism (constructive or otherwise). For instance, the Washington Post said nice things about the book, but constructively said it would have been more effective had it been a tad bit shorter. As for the NY Times review, I was fully prepared to not say a word ? until I was on a live radio show (kind of like this one I did day before yesterday) in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had done probably a dozen shows at this point and was pretty quick on my feet, able to answer most questions quickly and fairly succinctly. But this host threw me a curve ball with "So, what did you think about the New York Times review?"
There I was at home in my pajamas, mouthing the "F" word while shaking my head. I knew better. I would NOT say A SINGLE WORD about Janet Maslin in the negative. Instead, I would work really, really, really hard on my next book, and maybe then she'd give me a nice review.
So I calmly replied, "Well, I'd rather focus on ALL THE OTHER GREAT reviews than that one single NOT-SO-GOOD one," and the host let me off the hook with "fair enough."
Here is where my inexperience shined through... I was let off the hook but I kept on talking about it anyway.
"You know," I said, "I get the feeling that Janet Maslin's idea of an outdoor or wilderness experience occurs when she has lunch in downtown Manhattan. She walks up to the host and when he says, 'Would you like to eat inside or on the patio?', Janet says, 'Hmmm, I'm feeling adventurous today. How about the patio?'" In other words, I said, "I think she didn't quite 'get' the book. Couldn't relate."
I admitted what I'd said on this show to my HarperCollins editor, Henry Ferris, who was quiet for a minute, then replied with something like, "Most seasoned writers would have responded with, 'Everybody has a right to their own opinion,' but, yours... I like yours better. Congratulations, you're officially an author."
Anyway, that's the story of my first review in the New York Times. Now for some great local flavor from Powell's hometown, check out Jeff Baker's highly accurate review of The Last Season in the Oregonian last April.
Which brings up the topic of East Coast versus West Coast reviewers. The New York Times aside, I did not really notice any major differences between the two, at least when it came to my book, so I deduce that it mostly comes down to the individual reviewer, not the geography.
Not that there isn't something to that theory: Here's a slightly differing opinion from an individual whom I respect. He sent me the following e-mail after Monday's blog. He's a ranger, very well read, and I think he should write a book himself one day because I think he could give Edward Abbey a run for his money:
"Your comment about saying something eventually about east coast vs. west coast reviewers. I was just mulling that over the other day again. Seems like someone ought to do a New Yorker type essay on the subject. Influence of landscape on literature; how it's perceived between east & west. Classic is a Vogue (?) review of Ansel Adams about 5+ years ago. Same with rejection of Norman MacLean's River Runs Through It ? 'This book has trees in it...' Also it's rumored that Steinbeck wrote Winter of Our Discontent only to gain credibility with Eastern writing establishment ? and so the only way he got the Nobel. Too bad Stegner isn't around anymore to comment."
The same person, whom we'll call Ranger Dude, followed up after doing some research and sent me this quoted segment:
"There is a kind of sweet western justice in all this success, for a Maclean recalls his book was first rejected as 'western' by several eastern editors, one of whom included in his rejection letter, 'These stories have trees in them.' Later, after the book had finally been published by the press of Maclean's own university and had become famous, the same editor, conveniently ignoring his previous dismissal of the work, wrote Maclean a fawning letter, praising the book and obsequiously suggesting that Maclean give them first chance at this next book! To which Maclean responded, 'If the time should ever come when you are the last publisher in the world and I am the last author, then that will be the end of books, as we know them.'"
And linked it to this.
At the end of the day, we writers (like our reviewers) shouldn't take ourselves too seriously (we learn this in therapy). The fact that "anybody" is reading our stuff is cool beans (again, therapy). We need to just deal with the bumps and bruises, because, as Wallace Stegner told Randy Morgenson in one of his letters, "Writing is a contact sport."
It's been a fun week. I thank you all for joining me and, oh... about the script for the movie adaptation of The Last Season: I read the first 35 pages and I'm riveted, even though I know what's going to happen. Probably a good sign. Again, please visit me any time at www.thelastseason.com. Join the newsletter there on the site or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.