On Reviewing

As a writer, I take reviewing another author’s book seriously. Let me preface this by stating I only read manuscripts I like. There are too many good books and too few hours, so if a piece hasn’t hooked me within the first hundred pages I quietly place it in the box destined for my local used bookstore. Because I don’t waste my time or energy on bad novels, the reviews I give tend to be highly positive. Is that wrong?

Frankly, I enjoy connecting with fellow writers and reviewing their work. Writers have done that forever. Hemingway reviewed Fitzgerald and visa-versa. Ezra Pound helped launch Robert Frost’s career with one of his reviews. Walt Whitman, showing perhaps the brassiest literary balls, anonymously reviewed himself. Three times. And he proclaimed himself “a new type of character . . . for the present and future of American letters.” Nonetheless, writers like to help when they appreciate the other’s work. I freely admit this is my attitude toward reviewing as well.

Kelley Harrell asserts “online review sites are the slush piles of feedback.” Any generality tends to be unfair, yet at the same time there is a hint of truth. Somerset Maugham said, “People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.” Along those lines, one knock against online reviews is that writers solicit five star ratings from friends and family. The danger there is an overabundance of watered down recommendations that cause honest readers to distrust them. After all, who wants to download a five star book only to discover two star writing? Blind praise can be as misleading as the poison pen.

While I don’t bother reading and reviewing books I don’t like, I realize I’m in the minority. Bad reviews are part of a writer’s life. If they are given honestly I can accept it. Not only have I been writing and receiving criticism for over thirty years, as I’ve mentioned before I also teach adolescents. I have a thick hide. I know my work isn’t for everyone. To my amazement, some people don’t like sci-fi or cli-fi novels with a dark dystopian edge. Yet when someone reads my novel and gives me a thoughtful critique on what he or she didn’t care for, I’m fine with that.

A pet peeve of mine is the reviewer who begins, “I don’t usually read (insert genre: e.g. science fiction/ fantasy/romance) and really couldn’t get into this book . . .”—come on, if it’s not your cup of tea, why drink it? What bothers me more is a poor review from someone who obviously hasn’t even read the book and for whatever reason feels the need to be nasty. They remind me of that angry teenager who destroys school property in order to gain attention. I suppose there’s little to be done about online haters who hand out hack reviews—other than to ignore them. Chalk it up to the dark side of Harrell’s statement.

I for one will continue to read thoughtfully and attempt to write intelligent reviews. After all, isn’t that what sincere readers look for and what serious writers want?

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The Creative Mind Part II

A good friend of mine gave a presentation this week on the value of the fine arts in public education. She pointed out a creative mind is an active mind where the brain is firing on all cylinders. She also drew from a number of studies showing that people who work in the arts are more empathetic than people who don’t. Many companies encourage the arts because they’ve discovered that employees who have a fine arts background work well with their colleagues. I believe it. Those who paint, sing, play an instrument, sculpt, and write are aware of their feelings, which in turn makes them sensitive to the feelings of others.

Allow me to shift gears a moment. Last night I read an online article concerning the mercury level in fish. The number of different types of fish affected and the rise of toxicity are alarming. Air born pollutants are the culprits. They go up in the atmosphere, get blown out to sea, and are consumed by the creatures that live there. It’s fixable. After all it was Nixon’s EPA that took the lead out of gas before we all ended up as crazy as Roman emperors. Surely if we can do that we can take pollutants out of our air and excessive mercury out of fish.

So why talk about poisoning the world in a blog titled The Creative Mind? First because I believe it’ll take creative minds to clean up our mess. I don’t know if the politicians get it, but most sane people realize we can’t keep treating our world like a rental car. Besides, politicians don’t lead; they follow. Frank Herbert said, “Bureaucracy destroys initiative.” Innovation and the will to make a difference traditionally emerge from the private sector.

The common misconception that people have is that they can’t make a difference. This is understandable, given for instance that recent political discussion in the U.S. appears to be dictated by a couple of billionaire brothers. On the other hand, as the Dalai Lama says, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” I prefer to think of myself as a lone voice in the wilderness, but I’m okay with mosquito if I can raise awareness.

Maybe I like doom and gloom. After all, I wrote a dystopian novel. Yet I truly believe we should be the never-ending story—the longest running drama in history where only the characters change but the setting holds steady. When I say setting I’m not talking landscape. Landscapes such as towns and cities and countries do change. The setting is this big crazy beautiful world. I am a part of her story as she is a part of mine. The world is my muse, and I love learning from her and about her. To paraphrase Eric Hoffer, it’s the learners who shall inherit the world while the learned find themselves fit for a world that no longer exists. The creative mind craves learning so it can refashion knowledge and truths in a way that touch people down to their souls.

Embracing Cli-Fi

Ultra-runner great Rob Krar, winner of this year’s Western States 100, says he doesn’t focus on his competitors but instead on that spot he calls “the Cave.” Or as he explains, “I love going to that dark place . . . I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else, because it’s suffering, but when I race, I sink hard in the hole, and I want to be there” (Running Times, August 2014). Yes, the dark place. The what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger place (No, I tell my students, Kelly Clarkson didn’t say that first, a guy named Nietzsche did). And yet I agree with the Dalai Lama: “I find hope in the darkest of days.”

While I think the world is in a dark place right now, I am not preaching doom and gloom. I have too much Anne Frank in me and believe that people are basically good at heart. At least until they obtain political office or work their way high up the corporate ladder. Something strange starts to happen then. Maybe it’s a lack of oxygen that accounts for the loss of common sense.

Case in point, on Meet the Press this past February Representative Marsha Blackburn, in a heated discussion with Bill Nye, spoke repeatedly of cost benefit analysis concerning climate change. Like anyone, I am very conscious about costs and benefits in my own personal finances as well as the country’s economy. However, I don’t see any benefit to stonewalling the discussion about climate change but do see an enormous cost in the future if we continue on this path. In his New York Times article Shattering Myths to Help the Climate (Aug. 2, 2014), Robert H. Frank points out, “In other domains, uncertainty doesn’t counsel inaction.” For example, doubt about being invaded doesn’t mean we recommend disbanding the military. The only thing uncertain about climate change, Frank adds, is how much worse it will get.

I suppose the effects might not turn out as badly as predicted, but what if they do? Even George W. Bush spoke of adaptability when it came to climate change. Furthermore, evangelical Christians, the majority of which have long dismissed global warming as real, are beginning to speak up. For instance, climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe asks, “What’s more conservative than conserving our natural resources, making sure we have enough for the future, and not wasting them like we are today?” Again, in the words of Dr. Jonas Salk, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”

As a trail runner, a fly-fisherman and a lover of the outdoors, I admit to being a certified tree hugger and believe it’s my duty to be a good ancestor. That is why I wrote The Wastelanders. That is why I write Cli-Fi. Cli-Fi is a term coined by Danny Bloom. As Bloom states, “This is about climate change and global warming and using a new genre to help wake up the world.” You will be hearing more about this burgeoning genre from the likes of Hamish MacDonald of Scotland, Lisa Devaney of the UK, and Mindy McGinnis and Paolo Bacigalupi of the US, to name a few. Oh, and I intend to keep my name in there too because I believe it is a subject worth writing about.