“If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead”: On Authors Praising Authors

Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo

The title of this post comes from an essay by Levinovitz called I Greet You in the Middle of a Great Career: A Brief History of Blurbs. He quotes George Orwell, who was a strict enemy of blurbs, calling them “disgusting tripe.”

The article is an interesting history of praise of authors by authors. And Levinovitz does a good job cataloguing the sins that the publishing industry has committed (for centuries, it would seem) in the process: corruption, cronyism, hyperbole, and the practice on the part of some publishers to provide sample blurb templates.

As authors become better known, they inevitably find themselves overwhelmed by blurb requests. Often these come from publicists, but some come from authors themselves. Ignoring a publicist is one thing, but turning down a fellow writer can be awkward. Even more awkward is reading a colleague’s book to find that you can’t give it a a positive blurb. Many accomplished authors deal with this by having a no-blurb policy. Others, like Camille Paglia, have publicly called for an end to the practice all together.

In To Blurb or Not to Blurb, l Morris asks the question of whether or not blurbs sell books. The answer appears to be a qualified yes. Praise by an author you know and like may indeed get you to pick up a volume from a display table. That said, Morris also finds that a blurb by an author a reader distrusts or whose work she dislikes may be a turn off.

Last spring I got a note from my publisher that it was time to start seeking out pre-publication praise for Epistolophilia. I swallowed my pride and started to cast about for writers to contact. In some cases, I was met with silence. In others, I received kind notes that explained, with an apology, that the writer had a no-blurb policy. (One answer arrived long after the due date for jacket copy, and though I didn’t get a blurb, I did make a valuable and friendly new contact with whom I continue to correspond. So even this most humbling of processes can bring unexpected rewards.)

Getting turned down didn’t surprise me. Nor did the silences. What surprised me most was getting three sincerely positive blurbs for my book. One of them is from David Bezmozgis. His blurb for Epistolophilia: “An intelligent, humane, and noble book that rescues from obscurity an intelligent, humane, and noble woman. It stands as a testament to the power of reading, writing, compassion, and extraordinary courage.” Wow. That even impressed my publicist.

Is the process of blurbing cynical and corrupt? Sometimes, yes. But it is also a way for established writers to help unknown ones.

The first time this occurred to me was when I heard Stephen Elliott (The Adderall Diaries) talk at the AWP Conference last year. When Roddy Doyle blurbed his book (writing, “You don’t just read The Adderall Diaries; you fall right into them. You read as if you are a few words behind the writer, trying to catch up, to find out what happens, to yell at him that he’s doing a great job. And he is. It’s a brilliant book.”), he changed the game for Elliott. Far from a cynical move, such a blurb is a gift.

The same is true of Bezmozgis. He didn’t have to read my book, or even answer my email. He didn’t know me or owe me anything, and goodness knows, he has enough on his plate. But he read it, found it valuable, and said so. It was an act of generosity that I’ll never forget.

Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to do the same for someone else.

Your thoughts on blurbs?

[Photo: Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

The Right to Write, or Whose Story is This Anyway?

I’ve finally started writing my new book, Siberian Time, in earnest. It will tell the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to Siberia. Inevitably, too, it will tell stories about my family members: my father, his sisters, my cousins, my grandfather.

Because my chosen forms are the personal essay and creative nonfiction, I almost always appear in my work. Often too, there are traces of my husband and son, simply because they’re always around, and life with them colours everything I write and do. But until now, the prism of my life has been a tool for bringing someone else’s story into focus. My life, and that of my family, have never been at the centre of a project.

Until now.

So, I’ve just finished writing a lengthy essay about my 2010 trip to Siberia, when I travelled for four days by train across Russia to find the village where my grandmother was forcibly exiled. My cousin Darius came with me, and turned out to be the perfect companion. Before leaving, I warned him (with a laugh, but nevertheless deadly serious) that he would inevitably end up in my book, and he assured me that this was cool with him. Little did he suspect that my first piece of real writing stemming from our trip would be all about him.

For a long time I blamed the wound of my grandmother’s exile for the premature deaths of two of her three children. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eighteen, and his sister (Darius’s mother) died of cancer about four years later. But only after returning from Siberia did I start really to wonder how my grandmother herself survived. Though it wasn’t so much about Siberia that I wondered, but Canada.

My grandmother arrived in this country in 1966, reuniting with her children after 24 years of separation. The six-year-old boy she’d left in Lithuania (my father) was balding, married and approaching middle age the next time she saw him.

The piece I’ve just finished asks the question: How do you survive when faced with incontrovertible evidence that life has passed you by? My answer: my cousin Darius. I explore the idea that he was her second chance.

My essay (currently titled “Trans-Siberia: Like Birds Returning Home”) narrates some painful memories that my cousin, who was in large part raised by our grandmother, shared with me on the train to Siberia. It also tells of our trip and of what we learned. Once I finished, I was pleased with my resulting text, but worried that I’d overstepped a line of privacy. The memories I used in my writing were not mine, and I felt I needed to ask permission before putting them out in the world.

So, I braced myself, and sent the text to Darius.

His response has been beyond encouraging. My cousin wisely counsels me to continue on, not to censor myself, and to be fearless. Nonetheless, I still feel a bit of uneasiness, and maybe that’s not so bad.

I recently reviewed Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries. In it he states that he doesn’t seek approval from those he writes about. And though I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t, and don’t disapprove, I nonetheless continue to feel a responsibility to those whose memories I use. I’m not sure how much vetting I’m prepared to invite or allow as the book progresses. You can’t please everyone, true, but to what extent are we answerable to those whose lives intersect with what we write? For me, this remains an urgent question.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in this area. Have you written something using others’ memories or experiences? Did you allow for vetting or approval? Did you suffer a backlash? What is the biographer’s or memoirist’s responsibility to the lives she borrows for her work?

(NB: My essay is still a draft and destined for an anthology about exile. I’ve given it to a trusted friend for feedback, and will announce its appearance in print once that happens.)

[Photo: supercanard]

Life-blood: Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, The Adderall Diairies: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (Graywolf Press, 2009).

“. . . only a fool mistakes memory for fact”Stephen Elliott, in the disclaimer to his memoir.

I decided to buy this book after I heard its author speak at the AWP writers’ conference in Washington. He stood up in a t-shirt that showed off his tattooed arms and, with charming and self-deprecating humor, offered some really good insights into the mechanics of writing. If nothing else, this guy had charisma. I wanted to know more, so I ordered The Adderall Diaries. I’m glad I did.

It’s a hard book to summarize: the stitch that holds it all together is an exploration of ambiguous confession.

Elliott starts the book: “My father may have killed a man.” He learns this after reading an unpublished memoir that his father (a failed writer) sends him. He then goes on a hunt to determine the truth of the confession, combing newspapers, checking county death registries, and so on. The search is inconclusive.

This first curious confession reproduces itself, but in slightly different form, when a casual acquaintance of Elliott’s confesses to having killed “eight and a half” people, the last of whom he claims was his lover Nina. Though most of the supposed victims of this would-be serial murder can be accounted for (his confessions are false), Nina is indeed missing. Her husband, not the would-be serial murderer who confessed to her murder, is charged with killing her. Elliott follows the trial of Hans Reiser, and we follow him doing so.

This is where it gets really interesting.

I once heard Michael Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) say in an interview that he knew he was on to something good when it made him feel uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I work on my third book, and try to find the courage to tell some truths and find the edge of what I’m comfortable with. Elliott, for one, has gone to the edge of comfort and often goes beyond it.

Now, the murder confession is but a framing device in this book. More than true crime, it resembles a journey through Stephen Elliott’s mind and his past: addiction, overdose, homelessness, petty crime, suicide attempts, masochistic sex, gogo dancing, familial loss and estrangement, and, finally, a coming to writing.

In the end, the book itself constitutes a way out of pain for its author, but is by no means a cure: “I hear doors open but can’t see them. I move forward without a path. I am not sad all the time but I will always be sad sometimes. [. . .] Neat conclusions do nothing for me. I write to make sense, to communicate, to connect” (198).

Given the subject matter (murder, sadomasochism, addiction), a reader might be forgiven for expecting an icky memoir that tells too much, perpetuates voyeurism, and titillates through disturbing imagery. But this is not at all what I found.

Stephen Elliott’s book impressed me on so many levels. The writing, first of all, is superb. It’s simple and clipped and economical, so that when he describes harrowing scenes of suffering (mostly his own), there is no melodrama or self-pity. Where sex is concerned, the tone is frank, the details sparing. He manages to give insight into the dynamics and emotional payoff of S/M where the narrative necessitates, and then he moves on.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I found Elliott’s portrayal of women amazingly complex and affection-filled. This is rare in a book that explores (if peripherally) sexual power relations, and I suspect that it’s successful in its portrayal of women because Elliott has thought more carefully about sexual dynamics than most. In a scene towards the end of the book, the author’s father mockingly suggests that a woman walking by on the street might make a good dominatrix for his son. It’s a moment that we could pass over without comment from the author. Women, after all, are judged and denigrated and sexualized in public like this every day. But Elliott corrects his father, saying that dominant women rarely look dominant. There is more to most of us, he stresses, than meets the eye.

Elliott’s book ends on a quasi-hopeful note, but the message here is that life and writing are a process. In the final pages, he is still snorting Adderall (speed), if less than before, and his S/M continues. Both ostensibly help him write (and live), so it’s hard to distinguish his poison from its antidote.

Maybe that’s the point. Or one of them, anyway.

Ultimately, Elliott’s book is about survival, getting better, getting worse, keeping going, and about lies, truth, and how the two can sometimes be indistinguishable. It’s about writing as a life practice and healing mechanism. Importantly, it also proves that even the most confessional text can be art.

I found this book hard to put down.

You might too.

Try it.

[Photo: hipsxxhearts]