I woke up this morning to this online review of 600 Hours of Edward.
The salient bit:
If not for the swearing it would have received five stars and been one of the best books I’ve read lately hands down. As it is I don’t feel I can recommend it to my children or friends…unfortunate.
I don’t hear this often, but I do hear it. And I feel bad every time. First, it’s a missed opportunity to bring a reader fully into my work. More than that, I hate it when my own reading experiences pull me in two irreconcilable directions, so I have no wish to leave others with that feeling. It might have been more satisfying for this reader to have hated everything about the book. It certainly would have left things less muddled.
I have a policy about not responding directly to critics in an online forum, a stance that—so far—has kept me from gaining notoriety for all the wrong reasons. That policy goes hand in hand with a general sense of gratitude I have toward those who spend time with what I’ve written and take the initiative to share their thoughts. This is walk-the-talk stuff. You can’t bask in the five-star reviews and take them as confirmation of your literary genius and then turn a blind eye to those who find flaws in your work and present their case in a coherent way.
So instead of rebutting this review—because it’s a well-presented, well-spoken opinion and thus needs no rebuttal—I’d like to instead talk about why blue language appears in my novels and why, even if I wanted to, I cannot keep it out.
The stories I write are given birth by my imagination, but the characters inhabiting them are dumped out into a world that’s very real to me. Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours of Edward and its followup, Edward Adrift, in particular inhabits a place I know well. He lives in Billings, Montana, where I live, and shops at the Albertsons on 13th and Grand, where I shop. His house is modeled on a dwelling I once lived in, and it’s situated at an address (a made-up number on a very real street) a block away.
And in this world, bad things happen and intemperate things are said. I have an intellectual responsibility, when I write of this place, to reflect it as I find it. This isn’t something I think about overtly—there’s not a message above my computer that says “remember your intellectual responsibility.” Instead, it’s an interior compass that guides me as I go, that assesses each paragraph and each quotation and asks this fundamental question: Is this true to the story? If it is, it stays.
And let me be clear: Even gratuitousness can be true. I once spoke to a library group about my second novel, The Summer Son, and was challenged on both the language and the violence in it. The reader asked why I felt compelled to present it in such a graphic way. That novel took place against the backdrop of another world I once knew well, that of oil rig workers and their itinerant lives. My response was that I presented that world as it presented itself to me. Impasses were addressed not with the high language of a diplomat but with the raw anger of hardened men. Where language wouldn’t do, fists would. I said I couldn’t see any other way to show it. And I can’t. And I won’t. This is where differing sensibilities have to be given respect. And sometimes, as in this case, the author and the reader simply can’t find a way across the street to one another.
One last thing: The balancing factors of ugliness and crudity are grace and elegance. Just as it would be irresponsible of me to present a world where no one curses or kills someone, so, too, would it be irresponsible to show a place where the light never gets in. I’m fundamentally a hopeful guy, and so the work I do bends toward that hope. In the end, I have to think that carries more weight in the work than the battered world in which the characters live.
My second novel, THE SUMMER SON, is the subject of a cool promotion today: It’s the Kindle Daily Deal, priced to move at just 99 cents.
It’s a one-day-only thing, so if you’ve wanted to read the book but haven’t, you’ll probably never see a better price. And please, let your friends (Facebook or otherwise) and Twitter followers know. I’d really appreciate it.
Here’s what Booklist had to say about THE SUMMER SON when it was released in January 2011: “A classic western tale of rough lives and gruff, dangerous men, of innocence betrayed and long, stumbling journeys to love.”
This is an odd bit of news to tag onto a post about a Kindle book, as it’s a casualty of the sea change marked by the emergence of e-readers like the Kindle: Thomas Books in Billings, Montana, where I live, is closing its doors in August.
It’s fair to say that I have mixed feelings about this. In the abstract, the closure saddens me greatly. I like Susan Thomas and her store, she’s always been a strong supporter of my books, and I hate like hell to see my town lose an independent bookstore. I’ve supported Susan’s store with my time and my money, and I would happily go on doing so. The same holds true for the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Fact & Fiction in Missoula, The Bookstore in Dillon, and on and on.
And yet, e-reading has changed everything for people who love books, and not necessarily in a way that’s a net loss. I’ve said before that buying a Kindle made me a better book consumer. I’ve gone on buying as many print books as I ever did (many of them at Thomas Books), and I’ve added dozens of electronic titles as well.
Obviously, that’s not true for everyone. As Susan notes in the story linked above, after building her revenue back up after the big-box bookstores came to town, she was swamped first by the recession and then by the incredible migration to electronic books.
(It’s also worth noting, as Susan does, that Borders (RIP) and Barnes & Noble were indie killers before Amazon came along, so it’s a little odd to see B&N now hailed in some quarters as the potential savior of bookstores.)
What’s really happening here is disruptive technology. And if you remove emotion from the equation–which, I’ll concede, is tough to do–you realize that this is a very old story. Disruptive technology is why you don’t see many horses and buggies clogging your downtown streets. Why your television set is an inch thick and weighs a tenth of what it did in 1975. Why nobody (except me) carries CDs anymore. Why there there are no record stores in shopping malls. Why newspapers, which once seemingly printed money, are being pared back to nothingness. The printing press that makes these wonderful books we all love — that, too, was disruptive technology. Rock carvers everywhere had to find a new line of work.
Disruptive technology sucks, especially in the moment when it’s being, well, disruptive.
It’s also the way we move from today to tomorrow.