I am an arrogant person. No less an authority than Sherman Alexie thinks so.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Sherman Alexie’s new novel, Flight, for the Rocky Mountain News. I am a big fan of Sherman Alexie, but felt he didn’t fully realize the concept that he set out for himself in this time-traveling narrative. (My full review is here.) I wondered why the first novel by Alexie in over a decade would be brought out as a paperback original, and I wrote, “Unfortunately, Flight is disappointing, and the signs are that the publisher knew it – why else would a novel by such a major writer be brought out as a paperback original?”
Before the review ran, I asked the Rocky’s Books Editor, Patti Thorn, whether she felt that this assertion seemed accurate enough to run. She thought it was a fair statement, so she ran it. Then, yesterday the Boulder Weekly ran Dale Bridges’ interview with Sherman Alexie, in which he said, “It was shocking to me that someone with very little experience in publishing like Jenny Shank would even have a guess at that. The arrogance was astonishing.” That’s right, he actually remembered my name, something that I sometimes have trouble doing myself. He goes on to call the newspaper “the Rocky Mountain Fucking News,” a name catchy enough that it just might increase circulation if they were to switch to it.
Here’s the full exchange:
BW: Some critics thought it was strange that Flight was not published as a hardback.
SA: Actually, we did that for a number of reasons. There are so many returns of hardcovers that it’s an economic model that’s broken for most writers. So I did this to try to remove some of the stigma from publishing a paperback original. I took a lower advance, and we published in paperback to send a message: This is the way [writers] are going to be more successful. It’s also the way more first-time and experimental writers will get published.
BW: But not everyone saw it that way?
SA: This is the first time I’ve gone public with the idea — with the Boulder Weekly. Part of it is that I’m responding to a review in the Rocky Mountain News by Jenny Shank. She thought Black Cat (Flight’s publisher) hated the book, and publishing a paperback original was like a studio not allowing a movie to be reviewed before its release. It was shocking to me that someone with very little experience in publishing like Jenny Shank would even have a guess at that. The arrogance was astonishing. So I’m telling the Boulder Weekly all this so you guys can hammer on your competitor, the Rocky Mountain Fucking News.
BW: We definitely will.
Alexie is right, I have “very little experience in publishing”–I’ve never worked for a literary agency or a publisher, for example–so maybe don’t have any right to comment on this. But on the other hand, this informative article in yesterday’s New York Times business section discussed how even the experts in publishing are just guessing about how to conduct business most of the time.
The irony is that right there on the front page of the galley for Flight was a glowing review by me for his last book–I called him “An absolutely fearless writer.” In the prepublication galley, they include my name. On the back of the paperback, they omit my name, but the quote is mine. Flight is the only work by Alexie that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. I still remember the first time I encountered his writing, the short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” in one of the Best American Short Stories collections, a story that featured a sublime blend of humor and heartbreak. I knew that I had to read everything this guy ever wrote from then on. I still plan to.
In retrospect, even though I stand by my opinion of Flight, I wish I would have omitted the sentence in my review that provoked Alexie, because it seems to have distracted from my over-all thoughts about the book. But hey, I’m currently a stay-at-home mom writing book reviews for $50 a pop, trying to read and review as many books as I can during the few minutes when my 11-month-old deigns to nap, and I mess up sometimes.
I always read the entire book I’m reviewing, and give my honest opinion. The lone exception to this is when I’m reviewing a first-time author—I don’t see the point in criticizing them too harshly when the publishing world is stacked against them as it is, so I find what is praiseworthy in the book and write about that. For well-established authors like Alexie, I pull no punches, but I never approach a book trying to find something wrong with it or hoping to make fun of it. I am giving over the little free time I have to read and write about books and I am always rooting for them to be good. In my own, astonishingly arrogant way.