How To Sell Me A Book

In case anyone was wondering, the answer is to write a review like Matt Denault’s review of Filaria by Brent Hayward, published last year by ChiZine Publications:

At a time when novels that are carbon copies of an author’s previous work and pastiches banged out due to contractual obligations have been short-listed for major genre awards, it is immeasurably refreshing to encounter a book that feels carefully yet ambitiously wrought to maximize the potential of its project. This is not to suggest that Filaria is (or rather, was) award-worthy, but the book is a reminder that this mixture of care and ambition marks a useful baseline for what we expect of fiction. Filaria is not a work that dazzles with new ideas, rather it impresses by deploying a greater set of storytelling techniques than many better-known works, and in so doing renews the sense of wonder associated with familiar concepts of SF and horror. The result is a novel that is entertaining in the commonly understood, page-turning sense, without fatally insulting the intelligence or the aesthetics of a cultivated reader. Filaria is a short book whose movements occur in a tightly enclosed space, that nonetheless manages to capture a great deal of the horror and the hope of human endeavor.

There is a level, I admit, on which the review plays to my ego: here is an interesting, under-appreciated novel, it says, and I think ooh, I want to know about the cool thing. Of such reactions is buzz made. But rather more important factors include the thoroughness of the analysis, the clarity about the reviewer’s own tastes and expectations, the care taken in composition — the review is a good piece of writing in itself, which makes me trust the recommendation that much more — and the modesty and specificity of its claims. It does not say Filaria is a criminally neglected masterwork; it does not say that it is flawless. It says: “Filaria is good because it handles the basics of entertaining storytelling so well, balancing plot, character, setting, prose, and pacing, while encompassing core themes of both SF and horror”; and that what it uses those elements to do is interesting. And so I ordered a copy for myself, and it arrived a couple of days ago.

21 Responses to “How To Sell Me A Book”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Of course, the review that sold you the book was not an attempt to sell you the book…

  2. Niall Says:

    Well … it was an attempt to get me (and anyone else encountering the review) to read the book, I would say.

  3. Karen Burnham Says:

    OK, time to get back on my hobby-horse. I object to a piece that routine contains over-written run-on sentences like:

    “At a time when novels that are carbon copies of an author’s previous work and pastiches banged out due to contractual obligations have been short-listed for major genre awards, it is immeasurably refreshing to encounter a book that feels carefully yet ambitiously wrought to maximize the potential of its project.”

    being held up as an example of “a good piece of writing in itself, which makes me trust the recommendation that much more.”

    No offence to Matt: I myself struggle unsuccessfully to dismember my own run-on sentences. I’m just hoping to hold reviewers to something like the high standards vis-a-vis writing to which we (should) hold fiction authors.

    However, I agree that the review itself has many interesting insights, good analysis, and it also made me feel quite favorably disposed towards “Filaria.”

  4. Karen Burnham Says:

    For ‘routine’ above, please read ‘routinely.’

    (I always spot a typo the nanosecond after I’ve hit ‘submit,’ no matter how many times I read it over first.)

  5. Niall Says:

    I’m pretty sure that sentence is just long, and not technically a run-on.

  6. Karen Burnham Says:

    Well, that will show me. Let me totally revise my opinion:

    OK, time to get back on my hobby-horse. I object to a piece that routine contains grammatically correct but over-written sentences that are too long like:

    “At a time when novels that are carbon copies of an author’s previous work and pastiches banged out due to contractual obligations have been short-listed for major genre awards, it is immeasurably refreshing to encounter a book that feels carefully yet ambitiously wrought to maximize the potential of its project.”

    being held up as an example of “a good piece of writing in itself, which makes me trust the recommendation that much more.”

    No offence to Matt: I myself struggle unsuccessfully to dismember my own sentences that run on too long. I’m just hoping to hold reviewers to something like the high standards vis-a-vis writing to which we (should) hold fiction authors.

    However, I agree that the review itself has many interesting insights, good analysis, and it also made me feel quite favorably disposed towards “Filaria.”

  7. Lois Tilton Says:

    I am pretty sure of this, too. It is a soundly-constructed sentence.

  8. Niall Says:

    Karen: ha! Fair enough. I can only say that I parsed the sentence without any problems on a first read, so it doesn’t feel too long or too complicated to me. I can see an argument for paring the first half of the sentence down to something more general, less specific — “At a time when unadventurous works are so often shortlisted for major genre awards, it is …” or something along those lines — but I don’t think that would be objectively better.

  9. Karen Burnham Says:

    That’s some very spirited defense: ‘not technically a run-on,’ ‘soundly constructed,’ ‘can be parsed on first reading.’

    Really? That’s all it takes for a piece of writing to be held up as good and noteworthy? Would we honestly accept paragraph after paragraph of this kind of sentence-level writing from a short story author?

    I’ll also note that the sentence under consideration breaks the rule of thumb about eliminating unecessary intensifying adverbs/adjectives (“immesurably refreshing”? How would you measure refreshment?)–but maybe to some that’s a feature, not a bug.

  10. Niall Says:

    Would we honestly accept paragraph after paragraph of this kind of sentence-level writing from a short story author?

    You mean correct, clear and characterful sentences? I’d be inclined to accept that, yes. Not that every sentence in this review meets those three criteria, actually. But enough of them do.

    And I’d say that if there’s an issue with “immeasurably” it’s not whether or not refreshment can be measured — clearly it can: you can be a little refreshed or a lot refreshed — but whether it’s justified to say that encountering Filaria provides limitless refreshment. Possibly it strays a little too close to reviewerly hyperbole after all, putting the lie to my claim of modesty; on the other hand, it gets across the strength of feeling behind the point.

  11. Karen Burnham Says:

    OK, if that’s great writing, then I need to seriously rethink my slush pile reading strategy. Because I have rejected many perfectly good stories for having prose that makes me want to *skim* rather than grabbing me and making me *read*.

    Look, in my mind, good writing is a joy to read, regardless of subject matter. I wonder if anyone on this forum will stand up and say that Matt’s review was truly a joy to read on a sentence-by sentence level.

    I find that fiction writers are usually easier to read, even when they’re writing non-fiction. They are not generally better critics than the pure reviewers–some are great, some aren’t–but they tend to be much better craftsmen. I find that the biggest difference in prose being plodding vs soaring happens at the sentence level.

    Now, we can say that of course the fiction writers are better–they’re professionals. But can’t we at least aspire to hold ourselves to those standards? You don’t have to be a fiction writer to write well, and being a critic doesn’t mean that we aren’t writers as well.

    There are lots of critics and reviewers in this field that I love and admire, but I would not read their writing if I were not heavily invested in the subject matter they write about. Maybe I shouldn’t complain about the quality of the writing then–after all, I don’t critique the textbooks I read. But I seriously think that we can do a little better than that. And it might help us to proselytize outside the field a bit instead of continually preaching to the choir.

    BTW, I want to make clear: when I talk about readability, I don’t mean simple sentences or journalistic prose ala Asimov. Some of my favorite writers to read, either fiction or non, are Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delany, Jeff Ford, Elizabeth Hand and Hal Duncan. (For pure critics today, I favor Michael Dirda as being nicely readable.) I don’t think anyone would accuse their writing of being simplistic, but it is absolutely a joy to read, whether it’s in a story or an essay. There’s a lot more to good writing than simply being grammatically correct.

  12. Niall Says:

    I would have thought it clear from what I’ve said so far that I found Matt’s review a pleasure to read, and that it engaged me, and that at no point was I tempted to skim. I wouldn’t expect everyone to have the same reaction; the point of the post, after all, was to highlight a review that appealed to me, that worked on me, that made me buy the thing it was reviewing. But where you lose me is in linking your response to the review to a call for higher aesthetic standards for reviewers — which you know in principle I entirely agree with — because so far, as far as I can tell, all you’ve demonstrated is that the style of this review isn’t to your taste. I don’t understand, for instance, where your objection to that sentence as “too long” is coming from; the obvious reason I can come up with for considering a sentence too long, that it has become difficult to follow, is one I don’t consider to be relevant here.

  13. Karen Burnham Says:

    OK, I’ll try to explain the ‘too long’ thing. It feels like he goes on a tangential rant in the middle of the sentence (about the sins of other authors) before getting back to his point (about this book being fresh). For you, that’s witty and adds character. For me, it was begging an indulgence that I wasn’t willing to grant at the end of an essay that I found filled with that sort of thing. And then he goes on to liberally overuse adverbs. Again: adding character or overindulgence?

    So we come back to taste. Obviously after the basic rules of grammar aside, there’s no objective standard of ‘good writing.’ If writing that I find painful is a pleasant read for you, that just goes to show how wide the spectrum is. Fair enough; de gustibus and all that.

  14. Brent Hayward Says:

    At the very real risk of appearing like a mental-sluggard beneath such a string of academic comments– generated by a review that was also rather academic (& that made me pretty damn happy)– may I just say how much I enjoyed this exchange…
    For the record, I think the sentence discussed at the top (“At a time… question.”) is solid, but I did have to read it twice, for what it’s worth. Just like I had to read most of these comments twice…. Niall: glad you bought the book.

  15. Niall Says:

    Heh. Well, glad you enjoyed the discussion, at least. I think you may have put your finger on one root of our disagreement, actually, when you describe the review as “rather academic”; since I suppose it is, in the sense of being a quite sober piece of writing. I think Karen’s taste is for more playful writing. I’m all for individual reviewers with that sort of style, but I like Matt’s style as well.

  16. Karen Burnham Says:

    Brent – glad we could entertain! I’m with Niall on “rather academic.” That gets to the heart of things nicely.

    However Niall, I’ll take issue (since I’m apparently in an argumentative mood this week) with ‘playful.’ Could I propose ‘lyrical’ or ‘musical’ instead? I object only because ‘playful’ (especially when contrasted with ‘sober’) has implications of ‘not serious.’ I think that writing I consider beautiful can be just as serious and informative as any academic tome.

  17. Karen Burnham Says:

    Brent — I also wanted to say that regardless of discussions of quality and style, Matt’s review was also successful in piquing my interest about your book. I’m looking forward to picking it up!

  18. Matt Denault Says:

    I’ve been of two minds about joining this discussion. On one side, this seems to me very much a case of the “author’s shouldn’t reply to reviews of their work” dictum, albeit an unusual formulation of that case. On the other side, it does touch in a more general way on matters of reviewing that interest me.

    So with regard to the praise and criticisms of the review, let me just say that Niall, I hope you enjoy the book (especially after all this), and Karen, no worries, I am not at all offended. I very much agree that the quality of the review is the quality of the review, with no excuses for the level of experience of its author. What you’re asking for is what I’m aiming for, and I thank you for holding me to high standards.

    What I think I can more safely comment on is the question of intent with reviews. Niall writes:

    Well … it was an attempt to get me (and anyone else encountering the review) to read the book, I would say.

    There’s an element of that, to be sure, But honestly it was fairly far down the list in this case.

    Questions of “academic” vs. “playful” aside, I wouldn’t write reviews if I didn’t enjoy the process of writing them. I enjoy the way reviewing forces me to think about books, but I also greatly enjoy the art of putting what feel like the right words in the right places. I had to argue with Niall to let me put “decadent” twice in the same sentence in this review, for example (it should be pointed out that Niall was the review’s editor, so may have a privileged position in terms of knowing that I’m at least thinking about matters at the level of word and sentence). While I had logical reasons for the repetition (wanting to show how two seemingly different characters were two sides of the same coin, etc.), part of my reasoning was also that, in a review of a book that had a decadent setting and a somewhat decadent writing style, the lyricism of repeating the word for emphasis felt appropriate. And also I liked the sense of wordplay: decadent twice in the same sentence is decadent. This may seem self-indulgent, but looking at what people have written above, I don’t think I’m alone in enjoying this sort of thing. Similarly, I enjoy writing sentences like “We’re one of many species on one of many planets in a universe that seems to be mostly deserted and does indeed extend very, very far” when, earlier in the review, I had quoted from the novel: “How far did the world extend anyhow? Hallways and more of these deserted hallways, changing subtly, going on forever.” So in this sense, the review first and foremost is an attempt to create a piece of writing, using the novel as a starting point, that I enjoy intellectually and aesthetically.

    I do have vague notions that writing reviews is a way of giving back to the world of literature, that has given me so much pleasure as a reader. But when I try to envision how exactly that happens, I imagine helping readers (who may also be fellow reviewers, or authors or editors, etc., or may be “just” readers) engage with good books, and thus helping advance discussion and debate, and helping more good books to be written and consumed, more than I do helping to directly sell books that I think are good. This is probably overly idealistic. The concept of review-as-recommendation does come to the fore sometimes: the review I wrote of Palimpsest was definitely half “here’s a really good book you really should read” and half “and here’s a way of getting the most out of it.” But that latter half is always the more important for me; it’s why I read reviews (and I think the best comment I’ve ever received on a review is this one, from someone who read the review after reading the book).

    This Filaria review had a more complex gestation. I read the book back in the spring; at the time, I thought it was quite good on many objective fronts and also hit a lot of my sweet spots as a reader. Then several things happened. One is that the book stayed in my mind: the ending was such a perfect mix that I thought I knew what the ending meant, but I wasn’t sure. The question lingered. At the same time, I wasn’t seeing any other mentions of the book, anywhere. The final thing that happened was the year’s Hugo nominations came out, Adam Roberts went on the warpath, and I found myself largely agreeing with him. And Filaria became a case in point in my thinking: what was going on with the genre, I wondered, that a book like Filaria — which I don’t think merited a Hugo win, mind you — was so much more enjoyable to read, intellectually and aesthetically, than several of the Hugo nominees, yet was relegated to being an almost-impossible-to-find release from an unheralded small press? The Roberts discussion got a bit sidetracked with people thinking he was calling for more experimental fiction, full stop. What I wanted to focus on, what Filaria seemed to me a good example of, was work that felt both careful and ambitious — that these qualities don’t have to make a work hard to read (especially not with your friendly neighborhood reviewer willing to lend a hand), but rather that they can greatly enhance the pleasure of reading a story. In a sense I shouldn’t have been as taken by Filaria as I was; what it does should be, to my mind, closer to the baseline, not an exceptional case. That this isn’t the case saddens me, and in this sense the review was — to get back to the original question — equally an attempt to have a go at the values of a segment of genre readership and publishing, using this one book as an example, as it was an attempt to give this book the coverage that I thought it deserved. It was an attempt to get people to read this book, yes, but also an attempt to get them to read others with similar qualities.

  19. Brent Hayward Says:

    It goes without saying that I am a huge fan of Matt’s review, both for its content and intent. Filaria aside, the marketing and business aspects of a creative product– books, songs, films, etc– especially those that may not be catering to any obvious current trends or those that are not easily categorized, and the reception of these products, is unfathomable to a good deal of us. I have just read Cisco’s The Divinity Student (Prime) and Ohle’s The Age of Sinatra (Soft Skull) and was blown away by both of them: so much more engaging, smart, and ambitious than the rest of the books I have read this year, in and out of the genres, but I fear these titles, too, are languishing, unsung. Worse, there are no doubt numerous artists out there who have produced visionary, innovative works that don’t even get as far as these books did, while the Dan Browns of the world sell seventeen million copies…
    I am almost at peace with this, or at least I am accustomed to it. I do what I can to spread the word, support the indies. Of course, big sales, reprints, and awards for Filaria might have been great, but just being able to hold a copy, see it in bookstores, and read insightful, positive reviews and comments like these above is incredibly rewarding.

  20. Karen Burnham Says:

    Matt – thanks for your post! I appreciate your sanguinity in the face of my harsh comments. I like your philosophical approach to reviewing, and I’m glad that you and others are out there championing books like Filaria. Someone’s got to!

  21. Schrodinger's lolcat Says:

    “what was going on with the genre, I wondered, that a book like Filaria — which I don’t think merited a Hugo win, mind you — was so much more enjoyable to read, intellectually and aesthetically, than several of the Hugo nominees, yet was relegated to being an almost-impossible-to-find release from an unheralded small press?”

    This, to me, is the most compelling thing I’ve heard said about this book and yet it was not in the review (except for a kind of glancing take with that first quoted sentence.) Why was this particular hand underplayed?

    Hayward – While I’m not particularly frustrated with the idea of mainstream success, I am disappointed that genre awarding seems to be either insular, out of touch, or woefully unambitious – adjectives that I think unfortunately reflect the broader state of SF as a whole.

    I also feel like I’ve seen a more general decline in science fiction’s quality since I started reading many years ago (maybe even inversely proportionate to the amount of tie-in fiction shelved in its section? Not that correlation is causation…) Maybe this is this part of my own growing up but what I can say is that often the works I’ve heard the most about prove to be the least engaging for me on an intellectual level.

    I think the frustration, to use a non-genre example, is not that Dan Brown sells copies. It’s what one would have to say about the state of affairs in literature if he was getting the Booker prize for what he produces. Do Hugos belong in the hands of the flawed and daring or the vanilla tasty and popular?

    I think the nuance of Matt’s point is that while Filaria is not exceptional in any particular way, it handles everything effectively. And yet, strangely enough, it has been relegated to small press while the larger, more-awarded, advertised (and read) books of SF often fail to meet even this as a bar of entry.

    That is, to my mind, the most frustrating thing for me. Every time I hit up my local Barnes and Noble, I swoop through SF section and pick up different titles, sometimes at random or because I’ve heard mention of them on the web.

    For every original, well-written first couple of pages I stumble into, there are at least five utterly derivative works. Sturgeon’s Law, you say. And yes, I suppose. But as easy as it is to find this kind of disappointment in the mass market paperbacks, if I head to the “new fiction & hardcover” section of the shelf, the proportion grows worse. Sometimes it seems to me that more lavish the cover, the brighter colors and the more glowing the endorsements, the worse the muck seems to get.

    Have authors grown less ambitious? Are editors looking for the more obvious, easier sell? Are publishers pushing only what they understand, what they’ve seen work before? Better to be watered down and established than effective and pioneering?

    I don’t know. These are just general observations but if things are as Mr. Denault claims, what’s rotten in the city of Sci Fi?


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