Friday, June 9, 2017

When writers write back

Authors seem to be of two minds about those who review their books. On the one hand they realize that a good review, or even any review, can spur sales of a book. It's like free advertising. Yet critics can often be critical, failing to appreciate the work these authors may have invested years of their lives in producing. Negative reviews have to hurt.

When I reviewed books for The News Journal of Mansfield, Ohio, from 1972 to 2010, the standard practice was to send two copies of each review to the publisher. One of these copies would then be sent on to the book's author. Rarely did an author ever acknowledge my reviews, but on rare occasions that did happen, and I have kept most of these letters. I will share some of them.

Among the earliest letters I received was from Jack Douglas in March, 1973. Douglas had been a comedy writer for the likes of Bob Hope, George Gobel, Laugh-In and a variety of other radio and TV shows. He was a frequent guest on The Jack Parr Show, which is where I first heard about him. He also wrote humorous memoirs, one of which, The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves, is the book I reviewed. He had married a Japanese woman, Reiko, which helps explain the title. He said my review "helped to make my year" and went on to say that he and Reiko had purchased a hotel in Maine. "I'll either get a good book out of it or burn it down for the insurance," he added. That book he later called Benedict Arnold Slept Here.

Three years later I received one of the most generous responses to a review ever sent to me. It came from Rene Jordan, author of an early Barbra Streisand biography called The Greatest Star. His first order of business was to apologize for that title, which he said was his publisher's idea. He wanted to call it A Portrait of Barbra. Jordan said that most of the reviews of his book had focused on its juicy gossip, or lack of same. "When I read your review," he wrote, "I felt someone had at last understood what I basically had set out to create: a critical analysis of a specific performance at a particular point in her life." This surprised me, for I didn't think my review had been all that positive. He concluded, "And when you find that kind of insightful and responsive review, you should let him know."

Evan H. Rhodes, author of a fine novel called The Prince of Central Park, sent a hand-written note in which he said, "I know of no greater reward for a writer than to be so beautifully interpreted by a peer."

Robert R. McCammon
I am not a fan of horror novels, but I did review Robert R. McCammon's Usher Passing. I don't recall what I said about it, but I know I didn't like the novel well enough to keep it. (Although I enjoyed his Boy's Life and Gone South very much.) His letter, dated May 14, 1985, simply expressed his appreciation for my review and apologized for his late acknowledgement of that review.

After retiring from auto racing, Sam Posey became interested in model railroads and wrote a terrific book about his new passion called Playing with Trains in 2004. I interviewed him by phone and packaged that interview with my review of the book. "I'm flattered and thrilled," he wrote in an email. I had mentioned that Posey had raced at Mid-Ohio, a track near Mansfield. He said, "Your mention of Mid Ohio brought back happy memories. I won there in 1972 when I beat David Hobbs in a Formula 500 race."

Perhaps the longest letter from an author I ever received was from Edward Frey, who wrote a somewhat obscure book called To Please a Chinese Wife. He dissected my review in detail, taking exception to just one point I made. The most surprising thing he wrote was that three readers had sent him copies of my review.

Don't get the idea that authors have always received my reviews with grace and thanksgiving. I will mention some notable exceptions next time.

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