Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hype: Commerce's Noisy Weapon Against Looking Inward - One Reader's Perspective

In late July, Edan Lepucki, author of the dystopian California, was on The Colbert Report, promoting it, and also calling attention to Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark.

A few nights later, at the end of his show, Colbert held up Sweetness #9, saying good night to the audience and then going back to reading it. As a reviewer for BookBrowse, I receive from the owner of the site a list of books to choose from for review, and Sweetness #9 was on that list, in fact on the same night that I had seen Colbert hold up that book (I hadn't seen the Lepucki interview). I was curious about it, because of the cover of a torn-open sugar packet spilling out pink crystals, so I looked it up on Amazon and was immediately taken by the potential of the story of a chemical flavorist wracked with guilt over his perceived part in the creation and marketing and gigantic success of Sweetness #9, an artificial sweetener on the level of Sweet'N Low. I decided to review it. I had been swept up by the hype, of which Colbert was one cog in that machine.

After I received it from the publisher, I read up to page 173 and stopped. The premise was fascinating, especially in how the artificial sweetener industry works, not entirely openly revealed, but just enough to make one wonder about exactly how these flavorists create these sweeteners and flavors. What's the process? What ingredients are used? All of this will likely never be fully revealed, because it's a very secretive industry. But in the hands of the shaky David Leveraux, the flavorist of the story, it becomes less and less interesting as the pages go on because it's constant hand-wringing, constant worry, constant whining. Is his son's inability to speak verbs caused by his constant ingestion of Sweetness #9? What about his wife's malaise? It's hard to get fully inside the story, to become more interested in it because Leveraux doesn't move emotionally. The same notes, the same tone.

This is also what I determined in a brief review I wrote to the owner of BookBrowse to explain why I wasn't going to review the book (we're given that option because as she says, if we're struggling through the book, it's likely that our readers will too). It didn't take me long to determine why I had fallen under the spell of the hype, besides seeing it on Colbert: It was the copy describing the book, making me wonder why the copywriters in charge of those descriptions don't write the books themselves, because they are clearly better writers. I understand hype's place in commerce, because otherwise, Dan Brown would not have become wildly popular, and there wouldn't be a third Robert Langdon movie on the way, again directed by Ron Howard, again starring Tom Hanks, this time based on Inferno. That is but one example (lots of fast-food examples come to mind), but it also made me take stock yet again in what I like, what I like to read. I hate hype, because I experienced it way too much in my years of writing movie reviews, and as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, especially during awards season. In fact, awards season hype was what made me take stock then. I had just finished writing my share of What If They Lived?, and I decided I was tired of the hamster wheel feeling of movie release schedules, knowing exactly what kind of movies would be released in January (Hollywood's embarrassments), in the summer (Are you ready for some budgeeeeeeet?!), and the last three months of the year (They will commit seppuku if it means they have a great chance of winning an Oscar). After 13 years, I was done reviewing movies.

I've also come to realize that if I'm having trouble coming up with a clear opinion about a book, then it's the book. If I love a book, or am disappointed with it, then I should be able to know right away either what's so right about it, or what's gone so wrong with it. When I wrote to the owner of BookBrowse, I was having exactly that trouble, and she blessedly boiled it down to this: Interesting premise, flat characters. Exactly. Literary pretensions might have been at play here, being that based on the New York Times review I had read of Sweetness #9, Clark, being such a lover of Vonnegut, might have been striving to emulate him, which would make more sense to that reviewer, since I haven't read Vonnegut extensively. I've read many of his speeches, but that's been about it so far. Not even Slaughterhouse-Five. Not yet.

What to do this time? Before I had received Sweetness #9, I picked another book for review from another list, Internal Medicine by Terrence Holt, being that the first book I reviewed for BookBrowse was the medically-based Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. I chose Internal Medicine to see now where I am as a reviewer, also because what seems to be Holt's sensitivity toward the grueling nature of humanity that one sees as a doctor, particularly Holt's experiences.

So it was time to go back to that kind of desire, unencumbered by hype. I should pick what I'm interested in and let nothing else sway me. Explore as I wish to explore, taking in new experiences as I bump into them, which happens often on Amazon when I'm pre-ordering books by favorite authors and find other books I just have to read.

In fact, that's what happened three months ago, with Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist. The book that I pre-ordered has been lost to time, and looking at my Amazon pre-orders, I wouldn't be able to identify which one was the catalyst. But it led to Empire of Sin, lighting up my interest in New Orleans again. It comes out October 28th, and I didn't pre-order it on the off-chance that maybe, just maybe, the owner of BookBrowse would have a place for it in one of her upcoming issues, and maybe it would appear on the review list I would receive after having given up on Sweetness #9, despite Internal Medicine still being in the pipeline for me to review. I'm trusted enough now to juggle two reviews at a time, which is fairly easy, with each review being up to 600 words. That is, until I start writing, of course. But with luck, I come up with the framework for the review while I'm reading, or even before, though I adjust as necessary if it doesn't match the book, or write an entirely new opening.

I have a thus far vaguely-defined interest in New Orleans, first stemming from the disappointment at the end of summer 2003 when my family and I moved cross-country from South Florida to Southern California in five days. We drove through Alabama, and Mississippi, and Louisiana, all the states you'd expect to hit in such a route, but there was no time to visit New Orleans. Not with two dogs and two birds in the car with us, not with my dad having to start his new job teaching business education at La Mesa Junior High in the Santa Clarita Valley not long after we got there. This was before Katrina, so it's all the more disappointing.

If I eventually visit, I want to try a beignet and visit Bourbon Street, but I want to explore more than that, such as the houses in New Orleans, the plant life, and naturally, the music and the charismatic personalities. Until that day comes, I seek out all I can about New Orleans in books, about its history, novels about it, short stories, anything. I've read some of Walker Percy's works, including The Moviegoer, but I haven't gotten through A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. To be fair, perhaps I should try it again. Maybe enough time has passed since the last aborted reading.

Empire of Sin fits right into that line of exploration, and I kept eyeing it for three months, hoping that the owner of BookBrowse was thinking the same way I was. Other books got in the way and it disappeared, until late last Thursday afternoon. Another review list dropped in my e-mail, to fill the Sweetness #9 hole. This was the first list in which after I looked at the first title, I didn't need to look at the rest. It was Empire of Sin.

Empire of Sin is all mine, decided by me, without any hype. I would like to write many more book reviews than I do now, and I suspect that if the workload grows, I'll be subjected to even more hype by the publishing industry. The only thing to do is hold strong against it, to remember what interests me, what I want to read about, what I would like to learn about. Interestingly enough, Empire of Sin will be the third Louisiana-based book I'll be reviewing, after Five Days at Memorial and What the River Washed Away by Muriel Mharie Macleod. That must be saying something indeed.