2013-07-10 / Arts & Entertainment News

True Confessions

Phil Jason tells all about life in the fast lane as Florida Weekly’s book critic
BY PHIL JASON
Florida Weekly Book Critic

“So many books, so little time” is the credo emblazoned on one of my sweat-shirts. Isn’t that the truth? Among my favorite T-shirts is “Lead me not into temptation … especially bookstores.”

I confess: I’m addicted to reading. Worse, I’m addicted to blabbing about what I read. I want to do you the favor of knowing what I think. You see, dear reader, I’m looking out for your best interests.

Well, not really. Usually I don’t warn you when a book is not worth your time. With rare exceptions, I do not write negative reviews. Why not? Wouldn’t a balance of negative and positive reviews give my work more credibility? Perhaps it would. But I don’t care. I don’t have enough space to tell you what not to read or why you won’t like something. Besides, if a book is inferior, it will sink under its own weighty badness — it doesn’t need my help. Silence can be a good thing.

Many writers, especially novices, do not understand my refusal to write reviews of their efforts. My Florida Weekly “Florida Writers” column brings me a lot of e-mail from authors (and publicists) whose attempts at gaining my respectful attention are so poorly scribed that I can only imagine how bad the actual book is. Still, if I see any hope of being able to praise it, I’ll ask for a copy (or a pdf or an e-version). Too often, I end up not reviewing the book, hoping to cast my refusal so that it doesn’t do unnecessary harm.m.

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“But I’m a Florida W riter. ite, Why not?” It is not true, I insist, that all publicity is good publicity. Why find yourself rt insulted by my honest appraisal? However, I understand - that the author of this question cannot imagine that his book could garner negative reviews. I pretend to agree that the problem is simple: There’s something wrong with me.

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“But you’re the only person doing r egular book reviewing around here. If you don’t help me get the word dout, out no one else will either.” Sure, I feel guilty. However, book reviewing is not public relations work; or at least it shouldn’t be. (You want a planted, paid-for review? I’ll tell you how to buy one.)

In case you’re dying to know the exception to my rule about not writing negative reviews, here it is: I will write a negative review when a well-established, talented author slips from thee standard that he or she has set and thatt readers expect. Here’s a case in point:

Though I love stRandy Wayne White’s work, a couple of Doc Fords ago I thought

- he had let us down and said so. Fortunately, o

I was soon able (and happy) to praise his first Hannah Smith novel andd the most recent Doc Ford addition.

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Confess, Phil — confess that sometimes you do not review a book that you know is pretty good. What’s the deal here? Laziness?” Sometimes I’m lazy, but more often I just don’t think that the book and I are compatible. I can’t get excited about its virtues. I need to move on to another book that engages me more fully or that I feel will be of value to my readers. I don’t have time to agonize about the one that gets away. Again, my publication space and reading-writing time is limited. Careful selection is what gets me through. It’s like dating.

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“Why do you review so many selfpublished books? Aren’t they bound to be just awful?” Hey, you snobs out there, with all the mediocre books put out by the trade houses, the burgeoning body of self-published titles offers a truly viable alternative for the serious reviewer looking for quality publications.

I don’t let the publishing industry make up my mind for me, and I’m prejudiced against prejudices. While there are many periodicals that refuse to publish reviews of self-published titles, Florida Weekly has allowed me the privilege of deciding by the case and not the category.

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“How come you write almost exclusively about books by Florida writers?” First of all, it’s convenient. It eliminates so many books that I don’t have to worry about!

Second, Florida is a very populace state with scads of authors turning out good work. Thus, I still have plenty to choose from.

Finally, I value the slogan “all news is local,” at least to the extent that a local newspaper (or one that covers various markets across a state) should pay special attention to local authors, just as it does to local theater, art and musical performance.

Here’s another answer: I don’t write almost exclusively about books by Florida writers. My opportunities to review in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Southern Literary Review, Jewish Book World and several other publications allow me to sample and respond to a much wider sweep of book publication.

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“How do you keep up with what’s going on in the world of book publishing?” I don’t do anything remarkable. I follow Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review. I use the search boxes on amazon.com and bn.com, filling them in with topics (“Florida fiction”) rather than titles or names of authors. I look for timely (daily, if possible) book industry information from Internet sources. My most recent discovery is shelf-awareness.com, which puts out two e-mail editions each day, one for the avid general reader and another for people involved in some way in the book trade (like reviewers).

Beyond this, I’m bombarded by press releases from publishers and publicists, book catalogues and frantic pleas. My normal interaction with authors (e-mail conversations) supplies an endless stream of information.

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“ Who are your favorite Florida authors?” My favorite old-timer (though he’s probably younger than I am) is James W. Hall, a fine poet whose Thorn mysteries are incomparable.

No one captures Florida as a cultural swamp more elegantly and provocatively. My favorite (relative) youngster is Lisa Unger, whose psychological thrillers are deeply chilling and chillingly deep.

I always enjoy new works by Mary Anna Evans and Les Standiford. And though he only lives here part of the year, Michael Connelly is a master. I’d better stop. The longer the list,

the more people not on it will be dismayed. Read new titles by any of these fine writers tot get you through thet summer.

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“Why don’t more pu publications of fer book bo reviews?” I’ll comcome clean. No one eveever asks me about the death of newspaper per book review sections tions and the shrinking oppoopportunities that writers ers hhave to receive commentary on their published works. The unfortunate answer is that you, dear reader, are not demanding more book reviews. And if you do, the periodical you harass is likely to pay for syndicated material that you can easily find on the Internet. Because Florida Weekly allows my column to exist, there is one more voice in a shrinking chorus.

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Almost final questions that have the same answer: “How many book reviews have you written?” or “How many books do you read in a week?” As it says on my other favorite T-shirt: “English Major – You Do The Math.”

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“How do you feel about traditional printed books versus e- books?” Great topic. I’ll answer it, Florida Weekly willing, on another occasion. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

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