Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Independent Writers of Southern California-- and me!

Gary Young runs-- at least up to this date, it seems-- at least part of this organization which, as you can see at lives up to its name. Gary invited me based on the strength of my Amazon reviewing and the fact I am foolhardy enough to leave at my Amazon Profile my e-mail. Not to mention that I live in Los Angeles. I had a wonderful hour earlier today to share with a couple dozen fellow writers with far more experience than I have, for they publish, and I trust that they (unlike me) get paid at least once in a while. They asked me, as practitioners, what I was looking for in my admittedly eclectic choices.

For books, how an idea percolates down from the rarified to the demotic, so to speak, engages me as a consistent, if silent, attraction. How does an idea like purgatory get to be inextricably woven into the consciences of billions of Catholics, and non-Catholics wishing or resenting such a liminal state, over centuries? This became my dissertation. I suppose a similar urge to span wide areas of knowledge and make them relevant drives my teaching and my thinking. I talk most of the time to students without any real liberal-arts background or inclination. To survive in such a classroom, and to keep myself honest, I have to translate what I read in some scholarly tome into popular terms. This means for me a broad familiarity with examples I can pull out and share within the give-and-take of discussion and presentations. My Amazon reviews often warm me up for deeper study when I sit at this keyboard, and over the years I have used this process to keep my intellect alert and my tendency to procrastinate in check.

I tend towards the neglected and overlooked album within my general fields of all sorts of usually lesser-known rock. I also search out Irish traditional or folk music. My emphasis, as I have come to realize after seven hundred reviews the past eight years (but the vast majority over the past three or four years), is in getting abstruse, academic, or arcane ideas across in an accessible fashion. In turn, this tied in, as a couple of respondents noted, my own tension between living here and wanting to be in Ireland, that sheer separation of utter oppositions, and the restless intellectual longing created by this shift that energizes my thoughts and choices.

This complements, as I explained to the IWOSC folks earlier today, both my own attraction to books and information (within which I can include film and music!) and my teaching career with vastly different students than myself, with whom I share perhaps only the unfamiliarity with growing up lacking a cultured bookish environment. Beyond that of my own making. Which is the reality behind the current buzzword of "lifelong education." I only wish my current teaching regimen allowed me and my students a wider range amidst which to roam.

Giving my modus operandi helped me clarify how reviewing helps my own critical acumen. I read with a few notes the better to concentrate the essence by a well-chosen quote the power John Banville can convey, despite his opacity elsewhere, in his fiction. I think as I listen to an album about the numbers corresponding to weaker or stronger tracks that I can comment about to back up my general impressions. Generally, and this is why my rating is relatively low, averaging perhaps 3.5 votes per posted review, I wander the hinterlands rather than the marketplace. The less common book or album needs attention on Amazon, not only the bestseller with 600 previous reviews, many a useless sentence of two of anodyne praise, exclamation-pointed contempt, or bland recommendation based on emotion. Or, in answer to another question, seemingly friends of the band or author. This is a delicate point, for Gary answered another writer's thought. She articulated a common thought for a room full of authors.

How to boost your ratings? Get your friends to chime in, sure, but beyond that, is there a Google-like algorithm that can be manipulated? He seemed to think that a concentrated barrage of queries into the Amazon keyword search as well as direct hits by name and title might do the trick, at least temporarily. Besides the mysteries of Eudora and concentrating your appeal to a list of your five hundred closest friends and that 1-2% response rate, it seems that for all the hi-tech we have thanks to this medium and Amazon's dominance over a significant part of cyberia that the elusive word-of-mouth or tap-of-the-key still works best, on as off-line, in the absence of agents and deep-pocketed publishers.

Not getting paid for what I read or listen to means more visits to the library, as I have to pay for the music. I do peruse other reviews in general that alert me to titles of interest, but I do not scrutinize published critiques before writing my own, nor do I study earlier posted reviews on Amazon before deciding-- given whether I can make a fresh contribution to the review thread or not-- to comment upon and rate a work. This does get frustrating at times as I think I have a lot to say after listening to an album or reading a fine book. Then, I log on to Amazon and find it's been said already, and there's not really any more to say. But, if I do post, building upon what others earlier have reviewed makes, I trust, my own contribution more meaningful. Still, as I lamented, the limit of five stars, the bias set up by "3 out of 23 readers found this review helpful vs. "567 out of 589" and the emotion that replaces analysis for so many reviewers, top or otherwise, limits the impact of the whole mechanism that Amazon uses to boost our egos and sell their products.

A couple of gentlemen asked me what I look for most in influencing book ratings. I told the first that for fiction it was continuity: so many novels-- take science fiction as the best example-- burst into life with great ideas but then fade into disappointment, confusion, or, as in one of the very first novels I reviewed ever, Mary Doria Russell's imaginative and often moving religious allegory "The Sparrow," duck away at in her case the very last page from the implications of the terrible vision that she had, for hundreds of earlier pages, brought into my imagination as chilling possibility and gripping reality. For non-fiction, I referred to academic collections by scholars, often a sorry compilation of their previously published articles with minimal if any scaffolding or internal consistency despite, say, a tacked-on introduction. Too few scholars rework and expand. Many cop out. They often say in their forwards that they have not gone back to rework essays since time has passed, they want to give their state of mind at that time, or they think that subsequent scholarship although valuable has not altered their original arguments. This may be true for some, but for others it reminds me of the lazy musician putting out yet another greatest hits compilation to fulfill their label deal.

A second inquirer asked again what at the start of the book draws me in. I answered, again for fiction as non-fiction demands and rewards different standards outside of a narrative arc, that the writer has to convince me that he or she can lure me into verisimilitude. That is, into the mind and soul and consciousness and body, or mixtures thereof, of a character (or characters) who I can recognize as true, as possible, as realistic in a basic sense that I can identify with who the author creates. I need to believe that despite thousands of years of written fiction, thousands of novels and stories that I have read already, that this novel or story conjures up anew what no other tale ever has before.

For books, in response to one man's question, I guess my choice averages about 70% non-fiction, around Irish topics, with forays into religion, current affairs, European history, Hungary and the Czech Republic, a bit of science if genogeography and DNA findings that further genealogy might be involved, and perhaps what I see at the library on the new books shelf.

Last weekend, at Glendale's library, I checked out in wild optimism six books. Ron Rosenbaum's hefty The Shakespeare Wars; Ken Bruen's newest Galway noir, The Priest-- probably the only mysteries I read, and not for the genre but the atmosphere; a Rough Guide 2006 to Ireland; the questionable but admittedly intriguing assertions by DNA genome project leader Francis S. Collins that such strands reveal The Language of God; Jesuit father James Martin's memoir that integrates hagiography with his own journey from Wall Street to the priesthood as My Life With the Saints, and, given my wife's insistent questions as she reads that Jane Kramer "The Pope & Islam" New Yorker piece, David Gibson's book on the first year of Pope Benedict's reign. The problem with new books is that once you check them out for the three weeks, you never know which if any or all will be recalled before you can renew them! So, I may not get through all of these so rapidly.

Back to conclude about my extemporaneous speech-- whose construction owed no little assembly to my Speech class yesterday as we studied that rhetorical mode with my talk in mind. See? I gave them credit as promised. Afterwords, George Hassan and I talked about the Shi'ite grip upon Persian freedom-- I silently admired his courage in wearing a baseball hat in properly Koranic green and white with the name of his book "Iran: Harsh Arm of Islam." Gary and his wife Cathy told me about their guide for those under 50 who have lost a spouse-- six million or so in our nation, not counting many more with partners. Sara Shai addresses a similar predicament of grief with her work on suicide. Peggy Miley told me of her grandmother coming over to NYC from Ireland with a five-pound note sewn into her dress. A woman named Bronwyn and I chatted about the book that I insisted that she has to read, all about Welsh-Irish encounters, the very obscure (at least to me before I stumbled upon it and surely must have reviewed it you know where) Minna Gallie's 1970 novel about the Troubles from a Welsh woman's p-o-v, "You're Welcome to Ulster." (I must write on this novel one day soon. Preferably before someone beats me to it, as is usually the case.)

Others, whose names I did not catch but to whom I gave cards-- with my blog address scrawled on as well-- also made me feel very at home. Perhaps I may expand my own interests and reviewing scope after the encounters I had? The range of interests that Amazon and libraries both represent on massive levels could be sensed among the few of us gathered in that small room. I thank all who welcomed me and shared with me and all of us in Encino today what I found a stimulating and enjoyable exchange of ideas.

No comments: