Books live and die by critical reviews. And when they die, the author often wants to jump on the pyre, too. S/he feels like the pretty pony who got trucked over to the glue factory by some tragic mistake.
Word of mouth, of course, is the gold standard, but the only way you can get more than a handful of mouths flapping is by receiving press in a big-time media outlet. Now, in terms of sheer numbers, that means places like USA Today or Regis and Kathy. The most hokey mention in Family Circle could sell thousands of your title, but that's not what authors crave. What they yearn for is a New York Times Book Review. It's the ultimate trophy that you can send to your ma and say, "I done good."
Even if the NYT review is critical, it's considered an honor just to be taken seriously. Even if the freelancer they hire to review your book is a stringer for the National Enquirer, you feel like you've been handed your tweeds and pipe. You have arrived.
I grimace as I describe the mythology to you, because as you might anticipate, the glory of your NYT appearance is a bit anticlimactic. I know it from both sides. I've written reviews for the Times and also been reviewed a few times. My first assignment for them was the most fun: I got to excoriate an erotic art history book, The Art of Arousal, bizarrely authored by Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who knows as much about art history as a bucket of cement.
Dr. Ruth's book had pretty pictures, and I delighted in encouragine people to skip her comments and drop to their knees in awe of the pictures like Courbet's "Origin of the World," perhaps the greatest painting of what lies between a woman's legs ever imagined. Painted in 1866, and no one's matched it.
I also favorably reviewed an essay compliation by Dorothy Allison, after she became famous, so I don't think my rave provoked a turn in her career. Neither did I stop the meteoric rise of Dr. Ruth in the advertising world.
But my last review, of a women's erotic photography book called The Erotic Lives of Women
by Linda Troeller and Marion Schneider, was more telling. This book is remarkable and you've probably never heard of it. Toss all those Taschen fetish books in the trash and spend a few hours with this masterpiece. These two women created an erotic porfolio that is raw and intimate and candid and gutsy.
I sang the praises of the author/photographers. They were thrilled, and they probably did up their hair and lipstick, waiting for the phone to start ringing off the hook. And waited. And waited. They got a rave review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, and although that probably sold a few hundred copies for them, that was the end of the line.
They never told me they were disappointed, in fact they only wrote to thank me. But I could hear the disappointment in their voices. I could hear it in their "hello," because I recognized the same experience I'd had myself.
The frustrating truth for book authors, is that even with credible reviews in prestigious places, the truth of bookselling is that only a handful of books receive million dollar publicity campaigns each year, and those few books vary widely on their merit.
I mean looking back on it, can you believe that people like The Rules Girls were promoted-- at all? Or what about the guaranteed unreadable Life of Catherine M. that migrated to its American edition from France last year? It was reviewed in all the "best places," I myself received five review copies from the publisher, and it was the absolute pinnacle of shit on a stick.
This year, the NYT is going wild by addressing quite a few books about sex, and the phenomena of erotic bookselling in general. This is after years of holding their nose. The booksellers demand it: they can barely sell a book that isn't on the subjects of sex, get-rich-quick schemes, or diet cures.
Books about making money are treated with respect, and so are serious recipe collections. But not sex. The Times is conventional among Eastern media traditionalists in their habit of rolling their eyes and making witty disdian of the baser instincts of sexual desire and erotic expression. In this sense, my devasting review of Dr. Ruth fit right in, because I roasted her.
A couple weeks ago, they ran a review by Amy Sohn that discussed a hodgepodge of books about sex, from dildo instruction manuals to novels about women who haven't been laid in a year. She engaged the traditional cynic's tone of "I wonder what the sex people doing today..." as if they were a band of Smutketeers who have little in common with normal readers and intellectuals. It's not necessarily mean, it's just... at a distance.
(To be sympathetic with Sohn's task, there are so many ridiculous, corny, crap-for-brains sex books published today to exploit the prurient interest, it's hard to avoid kicking a few when you get a chance. Most of them ARE stupid, and anyone who buys a book called "How to Give the Best Blow Job Ever and Make Your life Complete" really does deserve a good pinch).
The recent compliation of novellas that I edited, Three the Hard Way, was remarked upon at the end of Amy's review. She wrote that "Susie Bright has made a career of publishing high quality smut... one handed reading if you will..."
My editor wondered if I wanted to use that line to promote my next book, but I said, "Why? It sounds like an insult. It's like saying I've made a career of producing first-rate garbage. It's so inconsequential you can read it on the toilet with one hand on your dick— Now I can die happy." I guess you could say I didn't like it.
My mother didn't read it, but my softspoken next door neighbor greeted me in the driveway the next morning, saying, "One handed reading, huh?"
Sohn's review was tricky, though. After she introduced my reputation, she went on to say that she had become captivated by at least one of the stories, so much so that she had to tip her hat in respect and say that it was, after all, "two-handed reading." Well, aren't we proud!
You know, compared to the other "sex books" she rated in her review, Three The Hard Way received glowing praise. Amy herself has written breezily about sex for years in New York periodicals, reguarly being labeled a slut and a smutmonger by angry letter writers. She's recently written a breezy guide to the "Sex and the City" television show, so questions of "one- vs. two-handed reading" could all be taken with a grain of salt.
But I still cringe at her backhanded compliment. I would have preferred the more forthright, "I thought Susie Bright was just a porn hack, but once I read one of her books, I realized that she cultivates some writers of uncommon talent and grace. Boy, was I wrong about my stereotypes..."
The author she singled out, Greg Boyd, who wrote the second novella in Three the Hard Way, called "The Widow," if a freakin' genius. He can write better than me and Amy Sohn hogtied together to a desk.
But meanwhile, a new erotic book has appeared on the NYTimes erotic horizon. It is called The Surrender, and it is the anal sex awakening memoir of a former NY City ballerina.
I just burst out laughing writing that! If I'd known that I had become a member of the ballet corps to get respect for my own anal sex epiphanies, i would have paid a lot more attention to my toe shoes all those years ago.
This book is a big deal for the prestige book review troops. On the surface, the subject is something they'd normally ridicule, or more likely, ignore. Apparently the prose quality of this book is mixed-- I can't wait to read it myself. But what's obviously more important is that the publisher of this novel, Judith Regan at Harper Collins, has pulled out all the stops to make this book essential media fodder, and it's going to be treated with gravitas, dammit!
Charles McGrath, one of NYT's most sage reviewers, opens his critique by saying,"Every now and then, there's a dirty book so literary, or a literary book so dirty, that it becomes a must read or at least a must-discuss among the sorts of people who would never let themselves be seen hanging around the porn shelf."
Yes, those "sorts of people" have been a real pain in the ass, haven't they?
"The porn shelf", where apparently you must be an utter toilet of a character to enjoy, is exactly the place where Henry Miller, Pauline Reage, D.H. Lawrence and every significant member of the Beat Generation found their books shelved for decades. It's the only corner that gay and lesbian writers could be found for many years. It's certainly the place that my books are often sold, and my god, if you could only imagine the ballerinas and anal sex artistes I've collaborated with over the years!
The "porn shelf" of today's bookstores was literally nailed together over the past fifteen years by unheralded artists who insisted sex was a drama worth writing well about. We sold enough copies, despite every snubbing, that dilettantes in a high places finally cried out, "Hey, let's get my neice/secretary/mistress to write one of these smutty lit things, and make some money!" The very people who disdained the new wave of erotic lit are now in charge of mentoring the nouveau mediocrity of erotic talent that you will soon see flayed in every glossy magazine.
You're not seeing the best authors in these publicity campaigns, you're seeing the best publicity campaigns, generated among people who have frequented the requisite chattering class parties. Their sex lives are now yours to consider. I'm sure some of them are quite worthwhile. I will try to ferret the best of them out for further revew, and if I love The Surrender, I will join in the chorus with The New Republic, of all places. I think anal sex needs all the sensitive appreciation it can get.
But if you want to read great erotic literature, the first thing you have to do, as a critic, is to stop being ashamed of sex.Even if your shame masquerades as smugness. Wby not expect, and demand, literary merit from sexual lyric? Until I hear that note, of great expectations, I'm won't be finished with my high quality, glorious "smutty" career.