Thursday, October 31, 2013

Interview with Will

My guest today is Will, whom I stumbled upon on GoodReads, where he posts well-crafted, meaningful reviews. With over 700 ratings and 2000+ books on his 'to read' list, you are bound to come across one of his reviews sooner or later. 

I'm a 36-year old composer of contemporary concert music (what “classical” music is called now) just outside Chicago, IL. I do a little reviewing when a publisher sends me a book now and then, and I have just recently been appointed/elected to my local Library Board of Trustees.

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

I try to review anything I read, and I read a great deal of literary fiction, history/biography, poetry, and the odd book sent to me by authors or publishers. I try to read only the best books, but I'm willing to try any book that I can have a reasonable suspicion of the writing at least aspiring to greatness, so I read quite a few that fall short. I do also read a great deal of sequential art, or graphic novels. It's a hot button topic in the community, and like anything there's a great deal of junk, but it really is a medium where some creators are making significant artistic contributions. This did lead to a public argument that involved Captain Underpants at one point, and people are very slow to accept that there are graphic works that don't involve children's themes or superheroes and capes that are at the level of high art. I also want to add that the Captain Underpants person is a good friend of mine now!

On average, how many books do you review each month?
It changes quite a bit from month to month but between 3-8 books a month

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

I tend to get very few offers to review books, perhaps fewer than 10 a month (which seems a lot to some, I know) but with a to-read list currently standing at 2,038 books I'm not worried about having nothing to read. I will admit most of the books I review that are given to me tend to be from traditional publishers, either sent to me or from giveaways I expressed interest in to the publishers, and one or two from entered giveaways from non-goodreads sites. I think I won a goodreads giveaway only once, a long time ago. I've recently done two from Random House, and I have one in the pipes from Henry Holt and Co. I tend to get new history and poetry books as it seems there aren't a ton of people willing to write reviews for them, and those are two genres I read and love a great deal. But I will consider any book thrust at me, so if you're an author reading this, I can't promise I'll accept it, but I will give it the same squinty look a Pulitzer winner gets. Finding and helping a truly great book reach a wide audience must surely be the dream of any reviewer.

Considering the recent surge of self-published books on the market, what is your experience with self-published titles?
My father is a self-published author, and he had an actual printing run of his novel, so I know all the things that go into doing that, and I've received a number of self-published books from self-published authors. There's a great many problems I see from cover design, font choices, material selection, and the ever-present editing (or lack of) problems. More often than not I see the author shooting themselves in the foot before the words have a chance to make an impact, and that's a shame. I'm also involved a little in the world of the more professional reviewers and small publishers, both of whom go even further in their disdain. I wonder whether a publishing collective might be a better route, offering a standardized set of publishing conditions (paper stock, cover materials, collective funding of cover design and editing, etc) The things I hear from the minor publishers about SP works is pretty rough, and I think a majority of terrible books is muddying the waters for the better ones. It's a terrible shame in that I'm sure there's some great writing that just needs some better materials and some editing. The current angst we're seeing with authors making outrageous comments for attention or engaging in all-out warfare with reviewers lately really isn't helping either. The mood in the online literary world seems to be shifting towards an Us vs. Them on every forum and website, and I point out to authors that you're trying to sell a product, not create an enemy. I understand their angst at the same time, as a professional artist selling a product that I spent months and years creating alone in my studio, it's easy to get very touchy about your work. It's not a good policy if you want to actually SELL your work, however.

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

I do, but I'll admit I rate a little differently if it's a book given to me from a SP author. I will usually give no review or stars if I think it's just bad, and I will bump it up a little bit compared to the rating I'd give if it comes from a traditional publisher. Often times we're speaking about a difference in editing rather than the writing, so they get a little credit there. However, that said, that's the rating and not the review. The review will reflect my honest and considered opinion, and I don't shy away from calling a spade a spade. Thus far this hasn't been the source of any problems from authors, as I generally won't review something I don't think COULD live up to a high standard, but I have gotten some trouble, such as a twitter attack from 20,000 followers of a celebrity whom I apparently offended and the celeb in question threatened to quit twitter because of it, so I had a lot of very threatening private messages on twitter and across several other sites. It died down within a week or so, but it means that at this point I don't fear any new controversy...after all it probably can't be WORSE than that. I'll also say that I sat down and wrote a nice note to each and every one of those people who said some horrible things to me to express that I was sorry I "ruined the internet" or "ruined their entire day" or whatever each person said but I wrote what I thought was the truth and can't take that back, and wished each one that I hope they understood and that their day got better. Except for a few, almost ALL of them wrote me back and even apologized for reacting emotionally and that they felt bad for saying something terrible if they did.

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

First I'd like to say that there's actually a review that set my benchmark for writing reviews, and that's Ursula K Le Guin's review of Peter Carey's “Parrot and Olivier in America”. I read and reviewed the book during a group read of it, and afterwards I read Ms. Le Guin's review online in The Guardian and I hope that someday I write reviews as well at that. I try to write shorter and far more direct reviews than many of my friends who do so professionally or get a lot more attention than I ever will, and while this style doesn't get a lot of "likes" or acclaim, this is my standard for how it's done.

I do want to mention a couple of really lesser known books for hardcore history (lacking literary-style narrative effects) I have to mention “From Prairie To Corn Belt: Farming On The Illinois And Iowa Prairies In The Nineteenth Century”, by Allan G. Bogue, and “Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America”, by Henry F. Dobyns. Both are amazing and somewhat hard to find texts on subjects that you might not think are compelling but are. If you can get a reader to turn a page and really FEEL the deaths of 27 million people over a very short period of time without using emotional language, you're good at conveying facts.

What was the catalyst for you to become a reviewer, and what keeps you going?

Really just the challenge of having to compose thoughts on each book. I try not to allow myself to get wrapped up in anything past that.

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)?

I see some of both. I think there's a major argument going on in the literary community that I see playing out at all levels, with the writers (Zadie Smith wrote extensively for the NY Review of Books in 2008 on this), with the publishers, and at the local Library level on what direction fiction is taking, and the role of technology in the composition, publication, promotion, and reading of books. E-readers are something publishers and libraries worry about constantly, and libraries are facing pressure from some people in their communities to take a smaller share of the tax levy and essentially give up on physical books. I suspect less from a devotion to a futuristic vision of a paperless library, but because they'd like to see that money get spent elsewhere. Despite the average citizen overwhelmingly preferring a paper book, these ideas still need to be combated actively to preserve the depressingly tiny amount of resources available to libraries and to a lesser extent the smaller publishers.

Out of all the books you've read, are there any particular books or characters that stayed on your mind?
To be honest, whatever I'm reading at the moment dominates my thoughts, so I'm thinking about James Madison quite a bit right now. He's a Sphinx-like figure with remarkable discipline, but it also makes him somewhat unknowable.

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

In all honesty, no. Reviews are a service in the hands of able practitioners and a weapon of malice in the hands of the incompetent. I aspire to someday approach the former and always avoid becoming the latter. I suspect I'm firmly in the mediocre. I DO try to do something a little different in mine, which is to keep it short, and to keep it about the writing and my general impressions. I want to give somebody like myself a quick idea of whether or not the book is worth my time, and not write some high-handed literary essay. I know some excellent reviewers I consider friends who often seem to try to outdo the book with the review. I just want to tell a friend I haven't met yet whether or not they'd enjoy reading the book themselves. This deliberate choice of style probably precludes me from ever reviewing professionally, but oh well.

I'd like to thank Will for sharing his thoughts with me and for all of his reviews out there. Reviewing is often a thankless and hard work. Please show your support for my guest by either visiting their links or leaving a comment. 

You can find more about Will on his website: 
or on his GoodReads profile: 

If you would like to see someone featured on my blog, drop me a line. 

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