Sunday, September 22, 2013

Interview with Jim

In the second installment to Interviews with the Reviewers, I have had the pleasure to talk with a gentleman I came across on GoodReads, Jim. Unlike many reviewers who have either a blog or a web site, Jim only posts his reviews on Goodreads.  To stay true to the theme I was going for when this idea was born, I want to hear from many different reviewers, and Jim certainly fits the criteria that I established.

His reviews are well written, his opinions educated, and his reading choices are quite exceptional. (This, of course, is only my opinion). A while ago, I decided to follow Jim's reviews. I'm glad I did. Thanks to his TBR list, I now have many, many years of worthwhile books ahead of me.

So, without further ado:

Do you have specific genres that you review, and what is your favorite one?

I don’t usually review genre lit (i.e. sci-fi, horror, thrillers) because I rarely read genre lit. I don’t feel like I can fairly evaluate those kinds of genres without being familiar with their conventions and norms. So I prefer to review non-genre-specific fiction. I do sometimes review non-fiction and historical fiction because they are more general in structure and content.

On average, how many books do you review each month?
I try to review all the books I read, time permitting. Maybe 2 or 3 per month, sometimes more.

Do you accept unsolicited review requests, or do you only review books you select yourself?

I mostly read and review non-contemporary books, most of which are more than 10 years old. For review requests for contemporary books, I usually correspond with the author/publisher first to get a feel for the book’s content and if it sounds like it fits my tastes, then I agree to review. If not, I tell them I don’t feel qualified to give an honest review based on genre or subject matter.

Considering the recent surge of self-published books on the market, what is your experience with self-published titles?

At this point, I’m not very experienced with SP books. The few that I’ve read and reviewed were pretty good, so I’m encouraged by that. A few have been either unedited or very poorly written. In those cases, rather than spending time reading bad books, I politely decline to review the book and suggest that they consider having someone edit the book and then republish. So far, no one has been angry with me, and I think they appreciate me declining the review rather than publishing a critique that could harm their efforts.

As a reviewer, you have to state your honest opinions. Do you publish all reviews regardless of the rating?

I have published reviews for all the books I’ve agreed to read and review (I have three that I’m currently reading and will review soon). As far as honest opinions go, I decided early on to have two categories of book reviews. One is the professionally published book by an established writer – for example John Irving or Michael Chabon or Margaret Atwood. These writers are reviewed against the same standards I’d use to review classic literature like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. The second category is for the SP authors. They’re usually working alone without the benefit of professional editors and publishers, so I’m much more flexible in how I critique the work. It’s an amazing accomplishment to complete a book, so I seek out what is successful in the work and mention the shortcomings only as things the author can work on to improve in their next book. The reason for this two-category method is to encourage an emerging artist to keep at it. There is nothing lonelier than creating great art and I would rather be encouraging than discouraging. If I really like the book, I correspond with the author privately to let them know what I think in addition to what I put in the review.

Is there any particular book or author that set the benchmark for you in a specific genre?

For fiction, the Modernist triumvirate of Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner are at the top of the bench. Right behind them are 20th century masters like Henry Miller, John Irving, John Updike, Borges, Pynchon, and several more. I don’t usually benchmark against pre-20th century authors because it seems unfair and somehow non-applicable to compare a contemporary author against Rabelais, or Shakespeare, of Melville. In sci-fi, I like Neal Stephenson, Ursula LeGuin, and Arthur C. Clarke. In non-fiction, I like the styles of Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, and Michael Pollan.

What was the catalyst for you to become a reviewer, and what keeps you going?
The catalyst is my participation in Goodreads. I don’t currently have a review blog, but friends often suggest I start one. What keeps me going is the comments from friends and strangers who read the reviews and share their opinions, both agreeing and disagreeing with what I’ve written. The discussions make it worth the time spent.

In your opinion, do you find the new titles original and creatively executed, or do you see more of a repeat of the same (think Hollywood's surge in remakes)?

Well, this is a tough question considering that most of contemporary literature is a repeat of the ancient Greek dramatists of the fourth and fifth century BC. I don’t usually read vampire or zombie or dystopian society books, but I imagine there must be a fair amount of repetition there. Certainly there is a lot of “me too” soft-core mommy porn being published in the wake of 50 Shades. Market forces tend to dictate what gets published, but thanks to smaller presses, a lot of creative work makes it into print.

Out of all the books you've read, are there any particular books or characters that stayed on your mind?

Infinite Jest made a deep impression that I’m sure I’ll take to my grave. Wallace really let it all hang out when he wrote that book. Other recent gems would be Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood and Georges Perec’s, Life, A User’s Manual.

What is the one review you are the most proud of, and why?

I don’t really have a favorite review.

I would like to thank Jim for taking the time to answer my question.

Jim is an expat American living in the South of France. He studied literature and art at Rutgers University. He currently reviews books on, where he also moderates a reading and discussion group called "Brain Pain" Brain Pain

A side note: 
I greatly appreciate book reviewers sharing their thoughts with me. I hope this series will take off and the interviews keep coming, because it is not often that either readers or authors get to know the reviewers. Sure, we all get to read the reviews and see what they thought about a particular title, but it usually does not go beyond that. Please show your support by either following their reviews or linking to their respective sites. Moreover, please no spamming my guests with unsolicited material.

To keep the perspectives changing, my next week's guest will be an author, interviewed, of course, as a reviewer only.

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