Back in the early 1980s, John Updike walked into the Book Exchange where I worked on Beacon Hill in Boston and told me he needed to read all of Ursula Le Guin’s books for a New York Times Book Review feature article he had been assigned. His review was due next week.
A few weeks later, when the front-page review appeared, I remember how awestruck I was in reading one writer’s in-depth critique of another who worked in such a different style. Updike’s review could only have been written by someone who had studied and practiced the craft for many years.
Updike told me when he next came into the store (he a famous author and I a recent English major nobody, which tells you something about the kind of person he was), that he had skimmed Le Guin’s ten or so backlist titles to understand where she had been, and then read the new novel twice. All in one week. Lots of sleepless nights I supposed.
Ursula Le Guin’s work warranted this level of intelligent analysis from a practicing peer. As a novelist himself, Updike felt the weight of the assignment. There is so much noise in our modern lives what with television, Facebook, Twitter, blog posts like this – even satellite GPS communication from the middle of nowhere – that the quiet quality involved in creating excellent fiction and evaluating it stands out.
Not simple platitudes that say nothing such as “riveting” or “compelling” but serious literary criticism. Book engineering for you engineers out there. Blueprints. Foundations. Framing. Reverse engineering and rebuilding. Finishing. Knowledge. Experience. Plus the magical ingredient called art.
My goal in starting Publerati was to help excellent fiction thrive in a time when everyone can pretty much do anything in every artistic format available. Yes, every child may be a winner but some still excel well beyond the norms. Ultimately, I am the sole decider (channelling a former president here hopefully with different results) of what we publish based upon my own tastes, and this can be lonely work in much the same way as creating novels. Nothing makes me prouder of what I am doing than when our authors receive thoughtful reviews from their peers.
This week Susan Sterling’s novel Dancing in the Kitchen received reviews from two terrific contemporary writers, these in addition to the one already received from Richard Russo, plus nothing but 5-star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. (In fact, all the Publerati books are getting great reviews.)
I want to sincerely thank each of them for the time they spent reading her novel and for generously offering insightful critiques, the sort of praise a fellow practitioner can articulate. There have been many writers kind enough to offer advance reviews for the titles we are publishing next fall, so thanks to all of you, knowing how busy you are with your own work. I sincerely believe we owe our collective support to each other, to literary fiction traditions, and to future John Updikes. Here are the new quotes:
“Susan Sterling writes with the intelligence and psychological complexity of Virginia Woolf, and her characters will quickly take up residence in your mind. With deceptive ease and remarkable assurance Sterling explores issues of love and commitment, families, secrets, denial, and betrayal. The result is a richly textured and suspenseful book that I found impossible to put down. Above all, Sterling reminds us how exhilarating good writing can be.”
Author of the Holocaust memoir (and national bestseller), After Long Silence
“A superb evocation of place, family, and love, Dancing in the Kitchen vividly describes the lives of two struggling, kind siblings and their partners and parents. Ranging from New England to Old England and back, the novel concerns the competing claims of morality and emotional honesty. How should one behave? How does one most wish to behave? And what difference does the answer make, given the complications of an individual life? A warm-hearted, perceptive story about how adults weather compromise and consider change.”
Author of Coconuts for the Saints, Good for the Jews, and The Pretty Girl
“What a smart elegant writer Susan Sterling is. Dancing in the Kitchen, her finely observed first novel, is a moving exploration of betrayal, not just of others but ourselves.”
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