Within Spitting Distance:  William Giraldi, Alix Ohlin, and the Book of the Damned

It was on Facebook where I first got wind of William Giraldi’s NYT review of Alix Ohlin’s two new books, when a much admired friend and writer raged in his response:  “This is a disgrace…William Giraldi can't write worth a damn.”  Within a few days, the post received ninety responses, many of them linking to other lists of responses, all of them berating Giraldi as eloquently and creatively as writers so effortlessly can.  In the past, I’ve found the ability of my fellow writers to maim others with a flick of a pen rather uplifting—particularly after a bad breakup or in light of stupid reviews of my own work.  But this time, I could only think:  Oh, Billy, what did you do now?

You see, William Giraldi—or Billy, as I know him—is a friend of mine. We work together in the same department at the same university, and he lives with his saintly wife and adorable two little boys (one of whom is still crawling) on the first floor of my apartment building.  We exist within spitting distance of each other, that is if I just stuck my head out the window and looked down.  Not only was Billy one of those excellent pen flickers in regard to the above, but he’s helped any number of writers by making connections for them with editors and publishers and putting good books in the hands of important people.  He even helped with my own.  All in all, this guy really loves books.  In a three-room apartment, one room is devoted almost entirely to bookshelves and is overflowing to the point of recklessness.  He has hundreds and hundreds of books in his storage unit downstairs.  Recently I lent him a key to my own storage unit so he could store hundreds more.  The idea of getting rid of a single text sounds as desirable to him as a lobotomy.

But I also know Alix.  I was lucky enough to meet her when she was a Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and I was one of the lowly members of Bread Loaf’s topsy-turvy elite:  the waiters.  I served Alix bread. I drank whisky with Alix.  I sat more than happily through Alix’s readings and craft classes.  Alix is, well, adorable.  She’s also a damned good writer.

When I finally got the nerve to read the review, I was horrified.  Billy isn’t a newcomer to reviewing.  His work appears in almost every magazine you can name.  He’s tireless and incredibly thorough. He’s been highly awarded for his work.  But this review, it’s almost as if he suffered a manic episode after having been locked in solitary for a week with only a thesaurus for a friend.  The review is cruel, repetitive, and strangled by its own attempts at elocution.  The last few lines would rankle even the most dormant feminist.  I could only think:  What happened?

Stranger still, Billy was one of my most trustworthy defenders when it came to my own NYT review two years back.  That review is mild by comparison, but the reviewer essentially states that the fifteen-page journal on which I loosely based my novel is a better read than my own two-hundred page fictionalized version.  The fact that the reviewer incorrectly notes the contents of the journal and doesn’t seem to have read beyond the second chapter of the novel appears beside the point.  I did my research.  The NYT had assigned my Iowa-based novel to a PhD student of English at the University of Iowa.  The connection to Iowa must have been the reason for the match, no matter that she’d lived there for only a handful of years.  Heard told, she’s a rather good poet and otherwise veers toward the essay.  We share a few distant friends, and their general opinion of her is: “she’s great.”  But she doesn’t write fiction.  She doesn’t even seem to like it much.  Of course she would prefer the journal, even if that text is shorter than most short stories.  I once believed that our most trusted reviewers judge not on personal taste but through an evaluation of craft.  I believed that was the difference between reviews by major publications and Amazon.  Was I wrong?

When I received news of the review, I was in Iowa City myself and midway through a two-week book tour.  I’d just finished a lucky hour-long stint on Iowa Public Radio, after having driven hours through cornfields to appear on the show, and was readying for my reading at Prairie Lights that evening.  I’d had readings every night.  I’d driven hundreds of miles everyday.  I was guzzling gas like a true American and praying to get something for it.  I was also exhausted and feeling somewhat deranged.  If I’d known then that the reviewer herself lived in town, that she could possibly appear at my reading that night, I might have had a stroke.  Instead of going to my hotel room to take a nap, I found myself rooted in a parking garage in the Oldsmobile I’d borrowed from my mother and crying at my boyfriend over the phone.   “My book is dead,” I said hysterically.  “The Times just killed my book.  I might as well just come home.”  After more than an hour, I ran out of Kleenex. I blew my nose on whatever pieces of paper I could find.  I blew my nose on my shirt.

Of course, these statements were ridiculous, but the idea felt very real to me at the time.  The Times is still the quintessential review of books.  I’d had other major reviews, but after that piece, no one even took a glimpse.  In that particular category of publishing, my book was dead, and I had no recourse.  It’s bad form for a writer to write her own defense, and worse, a writer risks not being lucky enough to appear in the same publication again.  And I was lucky. Even if the review wasn’t stellar, it got people’s attention.  Still, a popular and much-published author will have plenty of devoted readers to submit complaints, but us newbies have to pretend it never happened and feel thankful instead.  Ever poke a stick at defenseless animal in a cage?  Me neither.  But it happens every day.  To complain of such a thing is like a movie star out in public complaining of never having a moment’s peace.  That’s your job, you idiot, I always think.  After the review, I repeated much of the same to myself.

My book wasn’t dead.  Reviews don’t make books these days.  That’s either a sorry or happy state of affairs.  Over the course of more than a year, I received all sorts of positive and negative reviews to my book—both in major publications and hidden in the smallest of blogs—but the latter either missed the point of the book entirely (“I had to skip over the parts about slaughtering animals, it was gross”) or proved themselves eloquent responses to my book’s weaker points.  I don’t worry much about the first category.  As for the second, seeing as this was my first novel, I know I still have room to grow.  Nonetheless I’m still astonished when I receive positive reactions, and thankful that those form the majority.  That’s the stuff that keeps me writing.

I’ve learned a lot from my reviews, and so have my readers.  Isn’t that the point?  A book review is intended to hold its subject up to the light, to ensure that we as writers don’t get lazy, that we constantly strive to produce the best work.  And that we do so for the truest of purposes—not for royalties or enlarged author photographs in magazines—but for the work itself, for the sake of books and reading as a whole.  A negative review is of course part of this cycle, but there’s a difference between skewering a writer and elevating the written word. I don’t see the point of saving a writer from near obscurity only to throw her off a cliff, nor do I understand why more established authors seem to always get a free pass.  And if a reviewer is writing merely to draw attention to his own cleverness, he’s got the wrong job.

I haven’t yet had the chance to talk to Billy about his review.  In truth, I don’t know if I want to.  He likely won’t have satisfactory answers for me, or any answers at all.  As for Alix, she seems to be playing the role that every writer must—to sit as quietly as possible while her career explodes.  Luckily, those who love her work aren’t being so quiet.  There are human beings on all sides of this equation.  The page is an easy place to pretend otherwise.  But in the end, the book world is not merely “a small city,” as J. Robert Lennon smartly contends.  It’s sometimes a very small house.  To sustain it, all parties must be honest in their intentions:  For publications to discover and promote great books, even if they find them at the bottom of the pile; for reviewers to raise the level of the discussion without self-aggrandizing and to ensure that writers keep writing at the top of their form; and for writers to write our damnedest.  We should never consent to anything less.

About the Author

Michelle Hoover is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University and teaches at GrubStreet, where she leads the Novel Incubator program. She is a 2014 NEA Fellow and has been a Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell Fellow, and a winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award. Her debut, The Quickening, was a 2010 Massachusetts Book Award "Must Read." Her second novel, Bottomland, will be published by Grove/Atlantic in March 2016. She is a native of Iowa and lives in Boston. For more, go to www.michelle-hoover.com.

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