Tuesday, September 01, 2009

It's not about you

Christopher recently addressed his concerns as a reader having too much access to low quality information - why read a book on the bus when you can check email and read blogs on your i-phone? But I must also wonder, coming at this a different way, if technology is making our writing a bit sloppier. Yes of course it is in terms of grammar in emails, typos every which way. But I mean book authors. Why pore over drafts when you can just edit on screen and email chunks or even the whole manuscript off to your editor, just like that?

This is being too simplistic. Other pressures come to bear on the modern author. Timelines are always getting shorter. Editors are ready to launch a book the minute they sign it up, ready to publish it a minute later. Manuscripts are in demand and authors are being told to work on that elusive "platform," get the website ready and start a viral campaign, make a book trailer. (And by the way, I know others disagree, but book trailers? Fail.) If the editor, pushed by marketing, feels the idea works, even if the idea seems horrendous to some of us, the author should type up some words and then get to publicizin'.

Example? Here is a completely pathetic idea for a book that has now been published, and the author has created this trailer. The idea? Ask a question on Twitter every night, get results from followers, and publish it. I know, people. I purposely waited to eat lunch until after I typed that for fear of a mess on my keyboard. Beyond stupid. My nephew Nicholas has come up with better ideas over breakfast, and he's four. This is a parody of a book idea in a world of online media. But my point is that the idea was good enough in one instance in time for an editor to say yes and the author to do this experiment and jot it down and for the publisher to hit print - whatever whatever whatever DO THE TRAILER!

Elizabeth Kolbert busted someone with a flimsy idea recently in the New Yorker, calling out writer Colin Beaven on his "eco-stunt" that did not serve any larger purpose. Well played!

My point is that books are not articles, they are not blogs, they need stronger ideas in place to make them worth putting between cardboard and binding. A book is not merely based on an experience - that should not be enough to qualify you as an author. It should be based on that experience processed - and readers should be willing to pay for a good execution. As a reader, I'm often perplexed on how to find a good non-fiction book amidst all this junky product published and forced into bookstores in huge numbers.

Something that doesn't entirely bother me as much as perplexes me are memoirs that are half-baked, that could have been great novels or perhaps memoirs if the author hadn't stopped short and just gone with it as is, rather than taking it to the next level of processing. Unfortunately, this is how I felt reading The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder by Stephen Elliott, published by wonderful independent Graywolf Press. Let me first say this is a great cover and very well crafted title and subtitle, and I say that knowing exactly how hard these aspects of any book can be. The packaging works beautifully. And I should also say now that I got the galley because the author put out a call on his website, The Rumpus, asking if anyone wanted a copy. I wrote about it on the blog. I had to read it and then send it on, making it viral. He has since emailed everyone who requested a copy multiple times about doing talks, inviting us to local events, asking us to spread the word, etc... He's handling it well, not overdoing it but keeping us in the loop, and I imagine I could be taken off the mailing list if I wasn't interested.

So all the goods are there, right, but the problem is the book itself. It's very readable and includes some really nicely crafted passages, but... what is it about? The writer is given free range, to roam from his addiction to Adderall to his connection to a murder in San Francisco, from memories of his early childhood to his masochism with various women. There is not a central narrative. Perhaps this is intentional, but it feels half-cooked, and hence frustrating. Maybe it's just the editor in me. And what was even more disturbing was how easy it was to read, because of the confessional tone. It's like reality tv! I can thoughtlessly go over pages enjoying the voyeuristic aspect of hearing about an untoward sex life, of tough life on the streets, private conversations...

What gets me even more is when someone like Steve Almond, who crafted a smart, readable memoir WITH A POINT in Candyfreak, praises this book in the Boston Globe! As I read the review last Sunday, I was thinking, "Don't say it, Steve. Just don't sa... d'oh!"
Although “The Adderall Diaries’’ is being marketed as a true crime book, it is not the sort that serves up its felonies in a lurid gravy of gore. When he chooses to focus on the Reiser trail, Elliott writes with a grace and precision that calls to mind Truman Capote’s landmark work, “In Cold Blood.’’ He, too, is fascinated by questions of motive, how our capacity to love is disfigured into evil, and our tangled mechanisms of denial. But the prime suspect in this book is not the murderer. It’s the author.

This is not Capote, people. Please. Truman had his issues and certainly was not above some hardcore vanity, but he still took the time and patience and steady hand needed to craft something substantial and lasting. Is In Cold Blood voyeuristic? Of course, but he still builds in some distance and pace and structure. He engages more than just blood lust. He has processed, and then he wrote, and then he edited and edited and edited (with help from William Shawn). Capote spent 6 years on that book.

I guess I just wish Elliott had taken those questions, his fascination with his own experiences, and maybe crafted them into more fiction, instead of just putting them nearly formless (but titillating) on paper.

But in an age of immediate everything, could we still wait around for 6 years for a book?

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