Skip

"Last Sunday night I spent a good five minutes lying face down on my couch..."
July 5, 2012 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Thank you for killing my novel - A negative review in the NYT sparks a dialogue between an editor there and a fictional character from the book in question.

An interesting discourse on reacting to bad reviews and ghost relationships, where the symbols people or things represent supersede their realities and create something new in a person. A cute hermeneutic distraction.
posted by smoke (46 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ha, that's great. I wish my job included the chance to correspond with fictional characters.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:09 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think Ed Marks must be a fellow worth knowing.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:23 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wish my job included the chance to correspond with fictional characters.

When I ran the bookstore, I am reasonably sure that roughly 30% of my clients were fictional. They certainly weren't real, in the common way of things.

Additionally:

Metafilter: But that is just my opinion, and I am not real.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:32 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Subject: Did you get hit on the head?"

I don't know why this is the detail that has me in stitches, but there you have it. Here is Ed Marks, describing the making of a documentary about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (I wish it was more clear whether this footage is from Marks' own collection, since he mentions buying videos of the trip when Kesey put tapes on sale).
posted by EvaDestruction at 6:39 PM on July 5, 2012


Where is the dialogue? All I see is one brief (like, 5 paragraphs) Salon article. Am I missing something?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:43 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Janet Maslin, the New York Times reviewer, had made a critical mistake about a character (confused two, one of them the protagonist) and the day after the negative review was published, the culture desk editor emailed the character's email address (included in the book as part of an email exchange), which the author had actually created, to verify the error.
Here it is: (Our exchange is published with his permission)
Dear Mr. Hanson,

Given the vagaries of fictional life, I understand that you might not be able to answer this question, which has come up after one of our readers read the review of “This Bright River” that we published. But – in the prologue, are you the person who is hit on the head?

-Ed Marks, Culture Desk
It was a very, very odd feeling to read this after a sequence of odd (read: horrendous) feelings from the night before. I was glad that the Times wanted to talk about it, and I was impressed by the playfulness and the levity of the email, but I also thought: This may be the most sadistic moment of belated fact-checking in the history of mankind. The New York Times, the paper of record, had written a fictitious character to verify a fact.

On purpose.
Which, all by itself, is pretty cool.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:45 PM on July 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


"Where is the dialogue? All I see is one brief (like, 5 paragraphs) Salon article. Am I missing something?"

You have to click the "continue reading" link to, well, continue reading the whole article.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:46 PM on July 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


Janet Maslin, who is not only one of the most accomplished critics in the world,

Notice that he says "accomplished" and not "astute" or "intelligent" here. I don't think she respected as one of the best book critics out there and this "misreading" of hers is evidence of that.
posted by mattbucher at 6:46 PM on July 5, 2012


You have to click the "continue reading" link to, well, continue reading the whole article.

That option did not appear for me. Turned out to be a Firefox issue.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:49 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


You have to click the "continue reading" link to, well, continue reading the whole article.

I couldn't find such a link, but the "PRINT" link worked.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 6:49 PM on July 5, 2012


You have to click the "continue reading" link to, well, continue reading the whole article.

More importantly, you have to disable adblock or the "continue reading" link does not appear, a fact that I spent several confused minutes discovering earlier today. Alternatively, you can click through to the "print" view, which includes all of the text.
posted by Partial Law at 6:50 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I tried disabling Adblock Plus, and the "CONTINUE READING" link appeared. Along with a whole lot of really obnoxious ads, and a popup or two.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 6:52 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I tried disabling Adblock Plus, and the "CONTINUE READING" link appeared. Along with a whole lot of really obnoxious ads, and a popup or two.

success!
posted by xorry at 6:53 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's interesting, because I have Adblock Plus turned on, but I still got the link. I'm on Chrome, BTW.

I stopped reading Salon a long time ago, so I don't have much experience navigating their articles.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:54 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


More importantly, you have to disable adblock or the "continue reading" link does not appear, a fact that I spent several confused minutes discovering earlier today. Alternatively, you can click through to the "print" view, which includes all of the text.

Ah, so that's why! Mystery solved. Thanks.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:56 PM on July 5, 2012


"At the very least I would prefer that the correction definitively states, somewhere, that Ms. Maslin was wrong about a fact....But that is just my opinion, and I am not real."

I'd never heard of Somerville, but now I'm going to read him.
posted by Beardman at 7:10 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


What's interesting here to me is that the author, Patrick Somerville, acknowledges that he wrote the prologue in an ambiguous style. He says the prologue has two characters, and neither of them are identified by name. He adds, "I did my best to make [who the characters were in the prologue] apparent in the last third of the book", but he doesn't consider the possibility, at least in this article, that it wasn't clear enough for all readers.

I just read the opening with Amazon's look inside feature. The prologue has two characters called "he" and "the guy". As I understand it, Somerville is upset because Maslin thought "he" was Ben, but in fact "he" is a different character.

Maybe Janet Maslin is a poor reviewer, I don't know. But I kind of feel like Somerville wants to have it both ways here. He wants to write a mystery meat prologue, but also call a reviewer who interpreted it differently than he intended.
posted by Georgina at 7:29 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Let me be the lone voice of curmudgeonliness and say this book sounds gimmicky and needlessly ambiguous. I dislike authorial trickery like concealing characters' identities to no real purpose. That's the hazard of overconfidence in your cleverness as an author: your ambiguities are less delightful than confusing.

Also I suspect that gimmicks like intentional plot ambiguities and having email addresses for your characters are strong signs that the author doesn't trust her/his ability to tell a good story.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:30 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


(Sorry, call out a reviewer.)
posted by Georgina at 7:31 PM on July 5, 2012


Maybe Janet Maslin is a poor reviewer

Maye Janet Maslin didn't actually read the whole book, or just gave it a passing skim is more what I'm thinking. It's very common.
posted by smoke at 7:52 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


In 2010, Stanford professors Alan Sorenson and Jonah Berger published a study (PDF) examining the effect on book sales from positive or negative reviews in the ''New York Times Book Review''. They found that lesser-known authors benefited from negative reviews, in other words bad publicity actually boosted book sales.
posted by stbalbach at 8:19 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


If it's any consolation, this ordeal is probably going to sell more books than a positive review ever would have.
posted by schmod at 8:34 PM on July 5, 2012


A cute hermeneutic distraction.

Okay this has been bothering me, seriously. Can someone please explain to me what in the hell hermeneutics means? Bonus points if you can contextualize the meaning in a theological / historical context.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:48 PM on July 5, 2012


i was just thinking, this little email exchange is probably gonna do a world of good for sales, and that editor was totally throwing him a bone. which he deserves, if only for actually making a fake email account in the name of his character, and then running with the results.
posted by messiahwannabe at 8:49 PM on July 5, 2012


Numerous professionals read any mass market book before it's published, looking for possible inconsistencies and confusions. When a passage is deliberately ambiguous, great care is taken so that the reasonable reader will not be misled. The writer takes care, the editor does, the copy editor takes the most care of all. It is expected that the reader will take reasonable care to be sure that, if something perplexes them, they can read more closely and understand what they are reading.

Which is a build up to noting that it's pretty shocking for the critic at the paper of record to be so careless in her reading and her judgement that a correction must be published, and pretty swell that Ed Marks made it possible for Patrick Somerville to get some positive publicity out of this mess.

Ms. Maslin must be terribly embarrassed. But reviewing for so many readers is a huge moral responsibility, and she should do better. Not every writer would take such an unjust attack as well Mr. Somerville has. Every critic should take note. There are people at the other end of every review. Be kind, and be fair.
posted by Scram at 9:04 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can someone please explain to me what in the hell hermeneutics means? Bonus points if you can contextualize the meaning in a theological / historical context.

As I introduced, I feel it's incumbent on me to clarify. This is my definition - not the only one, not indisputable. Just my personal definition.

Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. Interpretation as a skillset with different methods practiced in different ways.

Bonus points if you can contextualize the meaning in a theological / historical context.

The root of hermeneutics is indeed theological. Arguably, St Augustine was one of the first hermeneutic scholars. Obviously, in a biblical context, interpretation was critically important. If the Bible is the word of God, how do you interpret the word of God? Literally? Metaphorically? Which metaphors? Do they change from reader to reader? Should they change?

You can see, especially from the late Roman to early-mid Byzantine empire, the tremendous weight these questions would have had where religion - its interpretation and practice - was intrinsic to both the notion of a state/empire, but also arguably crucial in its practice. Empires warred, split and dissolved around religious interpretation.

From this early, biblically-focused perspective, hermeneutics develops in Germany by way Schleiermacher, until you get to Hegel - who in my opinion is like, I dunno, the Mozart of hermeneutics. Hegel really outlined a systemic philosphy for how texts, and inviduals interact - how culture (not just a man or a woman) shapes texts and is shaped by them.

Of course, this lead directly to Marx in a lot of ways - Marxist analysis from a hermeneutic perspective gets short shrift these days, but I actually feel that Marxist cultural analysis is much more resilient than Marxist economic analsyis, which was cruelled in a number of ways from the outset. However, in addition to Marx, who really looked at interpretation from that cultural, political aspect, it was also taken up by philosophers who were more interested in the phenomenon of interpretation - or reading, mostly, as it was back then.

Husserl is probably the most famous and perhaps influential of this generation. His efforts to understand understanding, the process of interacting with a text, and not just understanding the words, or the arguments - but something more holistic (more Hegelian) - the essence of a text really launched hermeneutics as a field of philosophy in a lot of ways.

The next most notable evolution of the model was the Frankfurt School. People like Horkheimer and Adorno, Walter Benjamin. These thinkers were reaching their peaks immediately before, during and after WWII - and many of them were Jewish. Their thinking was shaped both indelibly by the Jewish intellectual, political and philosophy identity/evolution, and in particular by the history of Jewish left-wing activism and philosophy as typified by Marx, and the horrors of fascism and WWII.

In this respect, they really married the Hegelian ideas around culture, synthesis, cultural evolution etc to the hard political and power-orientated analysis of Marx. The Frankfurt school also presided over arguably the first age of truly mass media, and a lot of their work focuses on how the powerful elite control discourse in texts and mass media to preserve, consolidate, or expand their power (by expanding their worldview which, de facto, has them as the most powerful).

From this point (in my opinion) we see another strong divergence in the field of hermeneutics. A tri-partite divergence. In Germany, philosophers like Habermas and Gadamer took up the mantle of this cultural phenemenology, how a culture reaches an understanding about something, communicates or connects with another culture, understands itself and evolves.

In the Anglosphere, people like F.R Leavis and other "New Critics" instead chose to really looked at the individual phenomenon of reading, and reading a text. Essentially, how to "properly" understand stand something, a rarefied form of criticism. In contrast to his contentinental colleagues, Leavis wanted to keep culture out of analysis and reading of texts. He felt that texts were self-contained works and everything you needed could be found within. This eventually developed into a term called "close reading", where every word in a text carried huge weight for its ultimate meaning. This kind of close reading was later taken up in the US by people like Stanley Fish, and people with an interest in linguistics and symbols (semiotics). Fish became known for Reader Response which - Like Leavis, wanted to leave the author's culture out, but also wanted to kick the author out as well! They had no place in deciding on the meaning of a text.

And in France, postmodernism was beginning to blossom with at once an intensely political focus, a deep and abiding affection for culture and its dispersal in texts, and a love of of close reading, not so much for what's there, but for what isn't - the ellipsis. This kind of negativism (there are no concrete answers, objective truth is unattainable, very much associated with modernism in a lot of ways) is something that has historically been very integral to the field of hermeneutics. You can see this in from thinkers like Lacan, Fouccalt, and later Barthes and Baudrillard.

And that's a potted history of hermeneutics. I have left out tonnes of critical thinkers, skewed timelines, and drawn direct connections where connections were more tangential, allusive or orthogonal - but it's my interpretation.

For me, the interview reminded me of a Polish philospher not much followed now, Roman Ingarden. I responded to his take on hermeneutic because (in a much more close reading-orientated and less ambitious way) like Gadamer, his whole take was that interpretation is a creative act - which I totally agree with, reading as an act of creation not consumption - between author, reader, and culture. A delicate kind of dance where each contributes certain values, aspects, interpretation. Thus a reader has a certain freedom, but a freedom that is shaped or limited by culture, by author etc.

The idea of ghost friendships made me think of Ingarden - a co-creative act if ever there was, and what, exactly, is created? Who can say - quantifying a ghost friendship is hard. But something is. A lovely metaphor for the reading process, if I do say so myself.
posted by smoke at 9:30 PM on July 5, 2012 [49 favorites]


Text of correction: The Books of the Times review on Monday, about the novel “This Bright River” by Patrick Somerville, misidentified the character in the prologue who is hit on the head. While the identity of the victim is not revealed at that point, he is not Ben Hanson, one of the protagonists. Thus it is not the case, as the review said, that “that knock on the head accounts for some of the vague, so-what nature of Ben’s perceptions about himself and others.” (Mr. Somerville says he intended the victim’s identity to be an open question at that stage of the novel, and he prefers that curious readers learn his identity in the novel itself rather than in this space.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:41 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Janet Maslin is a very good book reviewer generally. This doesn't sound like the kind of book that's exactly in her wheelhouse, and yeah, that was an unfortunate error for her to have made, but she is quite well respected as a reviewer despite Mr. Somerville's damning her with faint praise.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:02 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Correction to the study mentioned above:

Alan Sorenson, Jonah Berger. "Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: When Negative Reviews Increase Sales". Marketing Science, Vol. 29, No. 5, September–October 2010, pp. 815–827.

Unfortunately now behind pay wall.
posted by stbalbach at 10:07 PM on July 5, 2012


Hermeneutics is the study of Munsters.
posted by zippy at 10:13 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


found a copy in the wild: www.ssc.wisc.edu/~sorensen/papers/Negative_Publicity.pdf
posted by stbalbach at 10:15 PM on July 5, 2012


Well both an interesting post and a great history lesson from smoke. So thanks all. This has been a delightful read!
posted by salishsea at 11:32 PM on July 5, 2012


Thank God I don't have to worry about NYT reviewers misconstruing my novels. The cute exchange of friendly little 'fictional' emails which might result would probably give me diabetes.
posted by Segundus at 1:00 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which is even worse than being eaten up with jealousy.
posted by Segundus at 1:04 AM on July 6, 2012


he doesn't consider the possibility, at least in this article, that it wasn't clear enough for all readers

Sure he does. "Sometimes confusion is the risk of ambiguity - I say that to students all the time. It’s true at the fireside and it’s true in the parlor, and it’s true in made-up towns and New York. Two humans face one another, words come out of one, words go into the other mind through the ears and eyes of the listener. It’s a story. It’s simple. The gap is the thing. Make sure you build the bridge." He's implicitly acknowledging that he didn't completely succeed - well, obviously not, or Maslin couldn't have missed the point.

I dislike authorial trickery like concealing characters' identities to no real purpose.

How do you (or I) know it was to no real purpose? It sounds from his description of the book that the mystery was a key part of it.
posted by rory at 1:59 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did he actually write his emails in the character's voice? Because the emails read like they were written by a writer, and frankly kind of an annoying one.

Also, I had no trouble with the 'continue reading' link, and I'm running adblock with firefox. It could be an issue with an out of date block list maybe?
posted by delmoi at 2:02 AM on July 6, 2012


rory, thanks for pointing that out. I missed it my original read of the article.
posted by Georgina at 2:58 AM on July 6, 2012


damning her with faint praise.

If "one of the most accomplished critics in the world" is faint praise to you, people must need raincoats when you get effusive.
posted by howfar at 3:19 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


smoke: you're awesome. thank you!

One last, random question: Can you explain how someone might, using a hermeneutical view of history, arrive at the conclusion that Galileo was a spoiled brat who got a slap on the wrist?

I know that's random. It ain't my position. Just trying to settle a bet.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:24 AM on July 6, 2012


In a more just world, smoke is reviewing books for the NY Times, and Janet Maslin is anonymously posting on Metafilter (albeit with less favorites)
posted by leotrotsky at 7:36 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh my god, I love this. I wonder if it's going to start a rash of characters communicating with readers. This is a blog an author created for a fictional character; I am sure there are more.

Maybe Janet Maslin is a poor reviewer, I don't know. But I kind of feel like Somerville wants to have it both ways here. He wants to write a mystery meat prologue, but also call a reviewer who interpreted it differently than he intended.

Yeah, I read a lot of mysteries, where this kind of teaser is very common and where it's also common for people to actually disagree about what a prologue is doing. But I think it is a slip on a professional reviewer's part not to be more aware of this pitfall, precisely because this is a common device and you should never accept your first assumption when something basically screams out that it's ambiguous.
posted by BibiRose at 8:16 AM on July 6, 2012


I kind of feel like Somerville wants to have it both ways here. He wants to write a mystery meat prologue, but also call a reviewer who interpreted it differently than he intended.

I think that what Sommerville is dancing around, without actually saying, is that Maslin probably didn't read the whole book. It seems like he leaves the prologue a mystery at the time, but definitively rejects her interpretation in the final third of the book. It seems like the implication here is that anyone who had read all the way to the end would know that Maslin's reading is impossible.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:09 AM on July 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Maslin probably didn't read the whole book.

Which in and of itself suggests there are problems with it.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:48 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


A daily from the New York Times is a big deal for any author, and I was grateful to have it, whatever it said.

That could pretty much take the place of this entire story.
posted by Miko at 1:14 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's also an interesting element in this story of the difference between reading and interaction in a "literary" milieu versus a fan-orientated setting. Imagine a speculative fiction author - your Neil Gaiman's, or Joss Whedon's, or even smaller authors - having a character's email address prominently on their site. They would be inundated by letters from fans, perhaps even from other characters, or their own characters.

Somerville writes a different genre, and - prior to this exchange - only gets one letter, from a friend. I may have some issue with fan culture at times, but as a method of reading and engaging with a text, it is undeniably more vibrant, invested and creative than more traditional models, which have some catching up to do, imho.
posted by smoke at 3:44 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


smoke, that's right, I think "genre" fiction is much more open to that kind of crossover. This story reminded me of the Kilgore Trout thing. Having this interaction take place in the New York Times and with "literary" fiction seems much more remarkable. (I use the quotation marks because "literary" is also very much a genre to me, at least currently.)
posted by BibiRose at 6:57 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


« Older We Don't Pee!   |   Too bad Ted Stevens isn't alive to see this. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post