Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Less being more

I've just finished reading Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs (Penguin paperback, 2004) and I have a couple of complaints for the publisher. Maisie Dobbs, an Alex Award winner, is an adult novel, kind of a mystery, kind of a romance, kind of an elegy, about a female private eye in 1929 London. She takes a case whose roots are in the battlefields of France during the Great War. The book has some triteness in both plot and character, but there is so much good about the thinking Maisie does as she pursues her case, and the way the author constructs her story, with a hefty section in the middle devoted to a flashback that illuminates both the opening and closing sections. It shouldn't work but it does.

Anyway, the book has nothing to do with Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe, but a review quote on the back cover from the AP calls it the "British counterpart" to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The two books are completely dissimilar, and besides, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is already the British counterpart to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. (I'm reminded of Florence King's rejoinder to a critic finding King's "fascination for machines rather than people" the "most disturbing and extreme form of necrophilia." King retorted, "When will feminists learn to think before they write? The most disturbing and extreme form of necrophilia is necrophilia.")

Still, as Elizabeth pointed out to me, no publicist worth his or her salt would let the McCall Smith reference go by unblurbed. (We both cherish the memory of a money-spinning review quote for a YA novel whose memory need not be sullied by identification: "gives new meaning to the word 'art.'")

More irritating--almost fatally so, at least to me--is the stupid "Readers Guide" appended to Maisie Dobbs. Way back before the rise of the reading group craze, I remember Delacorte appending questions to Don Gallo's groundbreaking short story anthology Sixteen, and the collective Best Books committee roasting then-publisher George Nicholson for putting homework assignments into a trade anthology. Who needs it? Who needs prompts (props?) for a recreational book discussion? What threatened to kill Maisie Dobbs for me was when, in the appended interview with the author, Winspear is asked "How were you able to create such a humanly sensitive private investigator?" (calling Jeff Gannon: I think we might have found a job for you) and Winspear, in part, responds, "as far as what enabled me to create such a character, I think my own life experiences together with my training and work as a personal/life coach have helped." Crap. So what all the while I've been reading as an exceedingly beguiling assay of the nature of knowledge and its interrogation by experience has in fact been just a pile of New Age hooey? Phooey. I'll know better next time to stop at The End.

16 comments:

Trish said...

I enjoyed your take on these books. Very insightful.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

This is how too much book talk and interviewing can ruin your direct experience of a book. Your assay of the workings of the book informed by the automatic interrogation of your experience led you to conclude something which well may have been true but one lousy interview answer given in response to some idiotic interview put enough of a different spin on it to sully the ground for you forever. Authors don't write with the same part of their brains they use for answering interview questions and it isn't fair to insist they do. I think you were perhaps a touch crabby about the food.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

When Kurt Vonnegut was interviewed he said he looks at the pile of books he has written and it astounds him. He has not a clue how he did it. It all seems so impossible. Similarly Bob Dylan in a recent Sixty Minutes interview said that he can't write as he once did. That lines he wrote whenhe was young astonish him. Where did they come from? It's a kind of incarnational magic that escapes him now. All authors should answer all questions with I don't know. I realize that if these people hadn't been interviewed I wouldn't be able to use these examples and I am proceeding to decimate my own argument. But it still makes a point. You have to come to the book directly without any intervening garbage.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Or Kathleen Norris who says that she hates to be asked questions about her work because she never knows the answer and it makes her feel stupid. And if you've read her essays you know she may be many things but stupid isn't one of them. If Winspear had known at the outset that she was going to do a beguiling assay of the nature of knowledge and its interrogation by experience it would not have been helpful to her. Au contraire. What would be the point of going on? All writing, like all reading, like all blogs is discovery.

Roger Sutton said...

You're right, She. It probably would have read like Ayn Rand.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Yeah, all we need is more Ayn Rand.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Or Ayn Rand, if she was so lucky to be apprised of the fact that she was going to do a beguiling assay before starting work, might read like Winspear. It serves neither.

Elizabeth said...

I'll risk putting a toe in the water here. First, I'm going to assume the edition of Maisie Dobbs you read was a paperback. Publishers do distinguish between what's appropriate for a hardcover and for a paperback. For instance, in a trend I first noticed with Elizabeth George, the first chapter or two of an upcoming novel is often included in the back of a paperback. Reading guides for schools, which let's face it are often fairly uninspired, still help those books be bought by teachers and used in schools. Teachers are swamped and need some help, we provide it to them by providing reading guides on our website--not in the book, where it would surely turn off a kid. But Maisie Dobbs is (according to Roger) a very enjoyable book, trying to get noticed, bought and read in the competitive world of mystery fiction. Since the adult reader can easily ignore the back of the book, is it so bad to offer it for those who would actually like it? Having only been in one reading group, for U of Chicago alumni where we read the Great Books, I've often wondered how groups like my mother's, with less meaty works to discuss, manage to fill their time. Maybe some of them find those comments helpful, while others of us roll their eyes? And again, can't we just skip the back matter, but be glad that maybe the series will get to stay around because it's selling more copies thanks to the guide?

Of course, the guide could be such a turn off that it won't appear in more books about Maisie. It will be interesting to keep a watch.

Liz Bicknell said...

I've been disappointed many times by A) thinking I have another glorious chapter to read, but no, it turns out to be a whole signature of advertising filler! Or B), I've checked the end of the book ahead of reading it in order to avert A), and have caught a glimpse of some apparently innocent last line like "'Yes,' whispered Jim," only to discover that the central plot of the whole novel is whether "Jim" survives. And now I already know that. Infuriating.

I might feel differently about readers guides if I had ever read one that actually enhanced my experience of reading the book, but they just make me feel as if I am taking a test.

For me, the readers guide is more a violation of my experience than anything else.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Well, clearly book selling and book reviewing are a different world from book writing and never the twain shall meet. I hope nobody ever tells Jaqueline Winspear about this blog. It was a cheap shot.

rindambyers said...

Reading guides, to me, are kind of like sitting down to a lovely meal and having a nutritionist inform with every bite, exactly what I'm eating and how good it is for me....it sort of insults my own ability to think and to experience...after all I chose the chef and picked the items I wanted off the menus... in the first place. Ooops, sorry, Roger, I didn't mean to get back on the food thing again, it's just that it's okay, isn't it to eat for pleasure and to read for pleasure....sometimes????

Andy Laties said...

For the ultimate in misguided "helpful" interpretation of a literary text, nothing beats Vladimir Nabokov's character Charles Kinbote, analyzing the poem of his neighbor, the late poet John Shade, in PALE FIRE. I'd think that every author of a reader's guide bound in with the original text being analyzed should be wary of engaging in self-parody a la Kinbote.

Andy

Jen Robinson said...

I just hope that you won't let the reading guide issue turn you off from the remaining books in the series. I just reviewed the third book, Pardonable Lies, and thought that it was the best of the series (I had a bit more trouble getting into the second book, but loved the first). Either the edition that I read of the first book didn't have the reading guide, or I just ignored it.

Roger Sutton said...

Jen, I can't get enough Maisie, so I know I'll be back!

Elizabeth said...

I'm so glad you brought up PALE FIRE, Andy! I'm going to get down my copy and reread it. It's the funniest book for adults I've ever read. Ok, we all detest readers' guides, but somebody somewhere must use them or publishers would stop creating them.

But I'm not going to come out against teaser chapters in the ends of paperbacks. The point I keep trying to make, for the authors and booksellers who read this blog, is don't you want more people to read and/or buy your book? I for one don't read teaser chapters because I want the whole thing or nothing. But they do not hurt sales, and we wouldn't put them in the end of an author's book if he or she objected. Again, I draw a distinction between a hardcover book and a paperback. I wouldn't want it in a hardcover I'd paid a lot of money for, but the paperback often leads a reader to a soon-to-be-released hardcover in the same way HBO reruns old episodes of the Sopranos just before the new episodes air.

Andy Laties said...

That's so fascinating about different sales channels (paperback/mass-market versus hardcover/trade) carry differen emotional weight. You know, this correlates to my feelings about the coming "digital revolution". I sell children's picture books -- including miniature, pop-up, board, lift-the-flap, oversize -- and so the constant chatter about the future bookless society seems so silly to me. Obviously books are attractive as physical objects. Your comment that the contents of a mass market paperback are logically different from the contents of a full-priced hardcover similarly make it clear that people will NOT halt their purchase of nice hardcover books merely because these are available as digital downloads! People LIKE the heft of a nicely made, well designed physical book. But the mass-market edition, with extras (teaser chapter; reader's guide) in taking on qualities now often associated with digital delivery (enchanced DVDs; websites).

My brain just flickered off and I have no brilliant conclusion to this insightful bit of drivel.

Andy