Susanna J. Sturgis    

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One Reviewer's Reflections on Her Work

As one involved in several capacities -- reader, writer, reviewer, and bookstore worker -- in the feminist print network, I have followed with great interest the exchange on lesbian publishing and reviewing in LesCon 9 and 10. These are issues I've been mulling over for years and discussing with store customers, other writers, and anyone else who shows signs of sharing my fascination with the subject. What I've tried to focus on this time is the role of the reviewer in feminist publishing.

As Barbara Grier of Naiad Press points out, "[G]ay publishers do not have nearly the advantages of a mainstream publisher, neither advertising budgets nor media exposure nor lavish author tours. We have only world of mouth -- and the powerful opinions of our gay publications." We also have a network of feminist, gay, and alternative bookstores, where customers can browse through books that are not backed by big ad budgets, author tours, or reviews in the New York Times. At the feminist bookstore where I have worked for four years, the overwhelming majority of the best sellers are titles that have had none of the advantages Barbara mentions.[1]

Our developing distribution channels work, but there are constant frustrations. The process takes time. Money is always a problem, both for the businesses involved and for the women who run them. There are countless women who aren't being reached by feminist and lesbian print; hardly a week goes by without at least one woman coming into the bookstore and asking, "Are you new?" I always smile and say, "No, we will have been here twelve years in August," and wonder how it might be different if we could afford large display ads in the Washington Post, or even the local gay newspaper.

So I think I can understand Barbara's anger at the silent treatment often accorded Naiad books in the feminist press, and her decision to "stop knocking my head against the wall repeatedly to obtain decent review coverage." I think I can understand what she would like from reviewers, and why it doesn't seem like that big a deal. But because I am a reviewer, and also a poet and a creative writer, I cannot go along. Our presses, our publications, and our writers all suffer for lack of public exposure, but it is not the reviewer's assigned task to redress the imbalance.

As part of my bookstore job, I write two- and three-line descriptions of books for mail-order lists, and for a new books column in the local women's center newsletter, and for a fantasy/science fiction column in the trade journal Feminist Bookstore News. Since I don't have time to read many of the books before I annotate them, I rely on publishers' promotional materials, advance reviews, and my own intuition to come up with a few words that will make a prospective buyer think, "Hey, this is a book for me." What I think of the book personally is secondary.

These are not reviews. A review is more than a synopsis or an annotation. At heart, a review is one reader's particular response to a book. What does or should go into that response is not within the scope of this short essay; that issue is being passionately discussed wherever women care deeply about feminist writing and publishing. A good reviewer will, I think, manage to tell her readers something about the book and something about her expectations of it. In any case, a review is more than a description of a book.

I am annoyed when I read reviews, as I occasionally do, that seem to have been lifted in whole or in part from publishers' press releases. I get nervous when I see authors published by one press reviewing books published by the same press; I wonder if the review I am reading was planted by the publisher. I assume that a lesbian or feminist publisher believes in the excellence of the book she has, against such odds, brought into print.[2] I read reviews to get an independent opinion.

LesCon, for example, highlights new publications in a regular, and unsigned, feature called "New and Recommended" As long as the headline contains the word "recommended", I assume that at least one LesCon editor believes that each book listed is worth my attention. Whatever unattributed superlatives are contained in the short descriptions, I take for the editor's opinion, not that of the publisher. Since LesCon has established a high level of credibility with me, its recommendation could make the difference between my buying a book and my letting it pass.

The reviewer's opinion does make a difference. Whether or not she decides to review a book, whether she reviews it with enthusiasm or disappointment, the reviewer's opinion can affect sales, both at the wholesale and the retail levels. A few sales, a new market: these can make a big difference in the tight budgets of most alternative publishers. The feminist reviewer should not be oblivious to this, but she must remember that she is under no obligation to promote a specific work, a genre, or the list of a particular publisher. If she feels that obligation, she should go into public relations.

"Who is out there among our intelligent critics to encourage our new writers, to perceive the promise in their first novels?" asks Barbara Grier. "Some writers, who have undertaken the enormous task of writing a novel only to receive miniscule financial reward and critical silence, will not write a second novel." Here, and elsewhere in her letter to LesCon, Barbara seems to hold reviewers responsible for encouraging new writers. Again, although the words we write may indeed encourage an author to keep at it, this is not the reviewer's primary purpose.

Once upon a time, messengers were killed for bearing bad news. In a similar manner, Barbara seems to hold reviewers responsible for causing the bad news that, in fact, they only deliver. I hate reviewing bad novels by lesbian writers. By "bad" I don't mean "novels that I disagree with" or "novels that I don't like" or "novels that I don't understand". By "bad" I mean novels that are so poorly written, so unfinished, that the only conceivable reason for publishing them is that the scarcity of lesbian novels demands that every likely manuscript be rushed into print as quickly as possible.

When I hold a bad book in my hands, I know that in the not-too-distant past, a publisher has let a writer down. As a writer, I can't help but identify strongly with the author of the book I would like to avoid. As an editor, I am helpless. It is too late to make a better book. I shiver. A publisher has sent this vulnerable work out into the world without clothing suitable for the season. The only tactful, the least hurtful, thing to do, it seems, is to avert my eyes and let the book be forgotten as soon as possible.

It is the publisher's job, not the reviewer's, to encourage the new writer, not by releasing a book before it is ready and expecting reviewers to promote it simply because it is the work of a lesbian, but by helping the writer to produce the best book that she can. Possibly the most important encouragement a publisher can provide is competent editorial assistance. Whenever two or more writers gather together, one subject that is sure to come up is how difficult it is to find useful criticism, either from friends or in writers' groups. The editor may well be the first woman a writer encounters who gives the work her undivided critical attention. If a book is worth publishing, it is worth editing.

A book worth publishing is also worth promoting intelligently. During my four years in a feminist bookstore, I have encountered numerous instances of unintelligent -- though not necessarily inexpensive -- promotion, such as the mainstream publisher who generously sends me gay male books to review, but never any of the feminist or lesbian material I ask for. I have also watched, and sometimes had the privilege of working with, feminist publishers who have done their authors proud by using their meager promotion budget creatively and to great effect.

Barbara Grier of Naiad Press assumes that "serious" nonfiction books will inevitably lose money; Sherry Thomas of Spinsters Ink counters (in LesCon 10) with the observation that her company's "sales grew 300% last year on the strength of Look Me in the Eye and Out From Under" and suggests that Naiad's experience might be different if it chose different books. I wonder if Naiad's experience might be different if it selected all nonfiction/literary manuscripts with its current audience in mind (Did Sapphistry lose money???), and/or if it promoted appropriate new titles in a way that would expand the Naiad audience to include more readers of "serious" lesbian fiction and nonfiction.

This summer, I am leaving my bookstore job and my free-lance editing work to go away and be a writer for a while.[3] This impending shift, and the fact that I'm on the verge of completing my first book-length manuscript, has me thinking a lot about what I need in order to feel encouraged as a writer. A publisher, for one thing, whether that turns out to be me or an established press. Either way, an editor, someone who cares about what I am doing and is strong enough to tell me when she thinks something might be better.

And, yes, I want to see this book, the absolute best I could do with the resources at hand, reviewed in the pages of some of the journals I have been reading since I came out. I expect that some reviewers will like it and some will not; I hope that all of them will tell me something that wasn't in the press release. I hope that each will feel that reviewing my book has been worth her while, because there's very little chance that she will receive more tangible compensation than this.

In truth, I will be well encouraged with a good deal less. But working within the feminist print network, where the impossible comes to pass with a regularity that could become routine, I've learned to aim high.

NOTES



[1] Alice Walker's The Color Purple is the conspicuous exception.

[2] Nearly three years ago, I did have the somewhat bizarre experience of having a publisher, who shall remain nameless, tell me that she agreed with the very negative review I had written of one of her books.

[3] SJS note, January 2006: "For a while"? Right. Make that twenty years and counting. Seventeen years later I did finish a novel, but it wasn't the one I was working on when I left Washington. And most of the journals I wrote for and read in those days don't exist anymore. But that's a whole other story -- several other stories, in fact.

Published in Lesbian Contradiction, Summer 1985.

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