Monday, July 7, 2014

Write What You're Willing To Find Out

Yesterday I reviewed a book I disliked. I review for Kirkus, a national company whose slogan is, "the toughest critics on earth." I've blogged before about why I love them, and love writing for them: it's mostly because people, including very small libraries with limited budgets, deserve to know when a book is glorious (even if it's by someone you've never heard of) and when it's appalling (even if it's by John Grisham  someone famous). Yesterday's book, which will remain anonymous as all my reviews are, was a stunning example of exactly that: a really poor book by someone whose work I nearly always admire. I don't usually give my reviews a second thought once I've emailed them in (other than to check my version against the printed version, to see what changes my editor makes). I don't mind if I've been pretty scathing, because I always have what I feel are solid reasons behind my scath.

Once, years ago, I wrote a review so blistering it nearly melted the internet. I couldn't help it: the book was appallingly racist as well as being historically incorrect and poorly written. My editor read my review and emailed, "Really, Kim?" "Read it," I said. She read it. She printed my review as written, but only after personally calling the book's editor and asking them to rescind publication.

Anyway, yesterday's book wasn't that bad, but it was bad in a thousand small ways, in all sorts of blundering errors. The people who tell you to write what you know are dead wrong, I hope you understand that. If we only write about what we already know we'd all be pretty limited, and there'd be no hope for fantasy or science fiction or any of the glorious flights that started back before Shakespeare and Oberon.

What we need to do--and this is where, I think, yesterday's book fell to pieces--is write about what we care deeply for. We need to write about things that so engage us that we will pursue every small detail, so that in Elizabeth Gilbert's recent novel she can tell us about varieties of moss, among many other things. It's why I know how much a child would get paid picking potatoes in England in World War II; it's why Hogwarts is so vividly imagined that if you landed there you'd know immediately where you were. You've got to care enough to get the details right. Nothing chaps my hinny more than a writer who has an 18th-century girl get out of bed, remove her nightgown, change into fresh underwear, pull a clean dress over her head, and button it up, and if you don't know why it's because you don't know how girls dressed in the 18th century, which is fine so long as you're not writing a book set in the 18th century.

If you don't know about the background of your novel, for the love of all of us, find out before I do. Because you're not gonna like the review I write.