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It’s no use getting mad – The pact between reader and writer

You Don’t Look Your Age – And Other Fairy Tales, by Sheila Nevins (Hardcover; 272 pages; Flatiron Books; Second Printing edition (May 2 2017)

On principle, I never respond when authors write to me to either complain about or say thank you for my review of their book, and here’s why. When authors write, they write to be read. And every reader interprets what they read differently. They hate it, they love it, they don’t care for it, or they do, they forget it, or not. Therefore, usually an author just writes what they feel they have to write, and sits tight while the results come out. What goes for the author of a novel, also goes for the author of a review. I think what I think, and I pay no mind to whether anyone agrees or disagrees with me. If they make a useful observation I will take it to heart and learn from it. Otherwise, I make like a duck and let it all roll off me. Reviewing is not a book club discussion. Nor do I want to participate in a heated e-mail debate.

I received two e-mails from Sheila Nevins on Sept. 18, 2017, regarding my review of her book, You Don’t Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales. Ms. Nevins objected to my criticism of her word usage in the book – though I had actually commented that her editors should’ve been more rigorous.

E-mails and responses

1. E-mail #1: “ The word was properly used in my piece. I have looked for mothy Where did you find it?”

I had called her use of the word “lo” a typo because apart from being a very old, now uncommon word, “lo” is mostly used as an exclamation at the start of a sentence, not in the middle of a non-declamatory sentence, as she had used it; “No matter how many dime-store pairs of glasses I’ve bought lo these many years…”

“Mothy” was used twice in the book and I noticed it because it is also an unusual word, “moth-eaten” being more common: “Should Trudie succumb to this size fourteen or struggle to regain her lost size eight mothy jeans waiting patiently for the good ole days…” (Trudie Foodie, p.97); “Elaine Zeckendorf’s mothy closet.” (First Kiss, p.116).

Maybe “mothy” is just a word Ms. Nevins likes, like Qiu Xiaolong, writer of the “Inspector Chen” mysteries, likes “lambent”.

2. E-mail #2: “I believe you may have read the Galley. There is no mothy in my book.”

I pre-ordered and then bought the e-book of You Don’t Look Your Age from the Apple iBook Store, on May 01, 2017, for the amount of $13.64. It was not a galley – it is a Flatiron Books edition, ISBN 978-1-250-11132-6. And, as quoted above, it contains the word “mothy” twice.

Authors’s expectations

But none of this argumentation is important, relevant or useful. The point is that when an author writes to the faceless public out there, they write to be read and the reception by readers will differ from person to person. As much as one tries, a review of a book, particularly if it is autobiographical, does reflect on the person of the author because people are what they write to a large extent – so it does become a little bit personal. Even so, an author should just write what they feel they have to write, and sit tight while the results come in. As murder mystery author Craig Robinson says:

“You should dance as if no one’s watching, and I think you should write as if no one’s going to read it. It’s a difficult thing to have to do, because you have to be conscious of how it’s going to be read, but to be true to it you have to write it the way you want.”

(Quoted in The Crime Interviews: Volume Three: The Bloody Scotland Edition, by Len Wanner, p. 180)

Many authors and literary theorists have explained that a reader becomes the “creative accomplice” to the writer. Jean-Paul Sartre called this relationship more kindly, the “pact of generosity” (pacte de générosité). It acknowledges that writing and reading are;

“…two inter-dependent acts requiring two differently-active people. The combined efforts of author and reader bring into being the concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. Art exists only through and for other people.”

(Quoted in Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches, by Amanda Boulter, p. 70)

Therefore, I neither acknowledged nor replied to Ms. Nevins’s emails. I have received emails from authors before, but because of the “pact of generosity” I have never responded to the senders. I am responding this time because when a cat (me) looks at a king (an author), the cat is easy to swat at but is just doing what cats do, and the king needs to be above all that.

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