Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Getting Reviewed in The New York Times

In 1986, one of my books, the first complete English language translation La Fanfarlo, an early and relatively obscure novella by French poet Charles Baudelaire, had the good fortune to turn up in the "Noted with Pleasure" section of The New York Times Book Review. At the time I was teaching writing and literature at California State University, Northridge, and publishing poems, short stories, reviews, and literary journalism at a frantic pace. Rather naively, I thought such recognition would impress my peers and raise my professional and academic stock. To my surprise, about the only real result of my success was that two or three other translations of the Baudelaire novella appeared within the next two years, published by major academic presses such as Oxford University Press. Nevertheless, I continued to believe that a parade of my latest books glowingly reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Choice, Library Journal, The Los Angeles Times, NY Newsday, The Washington Times, and dozens of other big city newspapers would somehow positively impact my career. 

By 2004, when my own novella was reviewed favorably in The New York Times Book Review, I'd learned not to expect anything as a result. In the end, good reviews, even in the most highly regarded and most widely read journals and newspapers, don't sell books by unknown authors unsupported by the financial clout of major publishers. Nor do they attract editors who work for those publishers to consider a writer's new work. As I've sometimes whined on my worst days, my success with the critics and the stack of reviews touting my genius has never amounted to much, aside from bragging rights. On the other hand, I've been reminded often enough that I'm one of a small number of authors of non-mainstream literary work whose books have been consistently reviewed and well received. I suppose that makes me "a writer's writer," which seems like a backhanded compliment, a polite way of saying an author who is read, but only by critics bored with mainstream writing, other writers, and people with an overwhelming compulsion to seek out what's new and original. A friend of mine, who now teaches wealthy customers how to fly their new private jets, struggled financially for years as the conductor of a small city symphony orchestra. He and I used to joke about what we called our "wonderful careers."  No doubt about it: the arts is just the place for those with a taste for irony.

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