Monday, January 4, 2010

Sarah Crichton Explains Why the Twist in Blame was (and yet was not) Revealed

Three of my favorite novels of 2009 had twists. They are:

Little Bee
Await Your Reply

Don't try to figure out what the twists arebefore reading them--you're only hurting your reading experience. However, it is an irony that the only book where I don't feel that knowing the twist really changes the read (Little Bee) was also the only book where the publisher took great lengths to keep it a secret. In Await Your Reply, the publisher just kept quiet. In Blame, in at least the advanced copies to booksellers and reviewers, the twist was revealed.

I sort of put out the challenge to Michelle Huneven's editor, Sarah Crichton, to explain why the twist was exposed to advance readers. Wonderfully enough, she replied. Here are her thoughts on the matter:

First off, you've got to make a basic distinction between the copy that appears on the Advance Reading Copy (the galley), and the copy that appears on the actual published book.

The galley copy that bothered some advance readers is written with a very specific audience in mind. It's not copy on the published book, written for the general consumer. It's copy written for that one second when I have a potential reviewer's eye, or that nanosecond when a bookstore owner flips through a catalogue and decides whether or not to order copies of the book.

This was such a hard year for books--to get reviewed, stocked, sold-- and I so loved Blame, I needed to do what I could to get it into position before publication. I needed to intrigue people; I needed to shake up their expectations, and to do it quickly.

I've been a reviewer; I've edited book sections. I know how quickly these decisions get made. I did not want reviewers or bookstore owners to shrug it off, thinking, Oh, I get it, it's a novel by a woman about a recovering alcoholic.* I wanted them to know there was a LOT more to it than that, and I wanted them to sense that it was not only brilliant, but a blast to read.

Did we reveal too much? Maybe. Maybe I could have been a shade more subtle. But at the same time, this isn't a thriller, where the point of buying it and reading it is to savor the twist that invariably comes. And we didn't mislead anyone, or mis-represent the book.

And in the end, in a difficult year, a wonderful novel emerged from the September pack. Blame was widely reviewed, and stocked, and sold-- and, best of all, read by a broad audience.

First of all, thank you to Ms. Crichton.

As a bookseller, I don't think about the difficulties in getting books reviewed, what with shrinking sections and limited attention spans. And I can see the problems of having books cast off into the land of women's fiction genre writing without that twist. And as I once said, I did learn the secret in Blame before finishing, and I still loved the book.

Did reviewers take this knowledge and let the cat out of the bag to the general public? It seems that most critics kept the secret. Here are some links to reviews:

O Magazine. One of their favorite books of the year. Not revealed in copy, but spoilers in the reading group guide.

New York Times includes in Fiction Chronicle. No revelation. Compares to a hummingbird--I like that.

Carolyn See reviews Blame in The Washington Post. No spoilers at all, and indicates that she thought that one of Huneven's books wasn't that good. I hope it wasn't Jamesland!

The San Francisco Chronicle used the Associated Press review from M. L. Johnson, which pretty much revealed the twist. So I say here, spoiler alert.

A short review in the Los Angeles Times. Very short, considering this is Huneven's home paper.

The Wall Street Journal review from Gabriella Stern. No spoiler. I kind of like the no-quotation marks dialogue, by the way. Adam Langer uses it in his novels. Yeeks, how did I not pay attention to his recent memoir, My Father's Bonus March? On the pile it goes.

More links on Huneven's website. And really, my main point is to keep hammering home that you (the reader) should read this novel.

*A fellow bookseller chaffed when I made to much of the recovery angle. She said (and I pretty much quote) "Who wants to read a book about that?"

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