Archive for August 2013

On Literary Empathy

printersrowFor the last three years I’ve participated as a panel moderator for the Printers Row Literary Festival in Chicago. It happens right on the heels of the end of the school year, and it’s one of the literary highlights of the year for me. I’m given a topic, sent three or four brand new books to read, and I get to help shape a literary conversation for an audience of anywhere between 20 and 50.

I read the books I’m assigned closely, often for the errors that will make me feel a little bit better as a struggling writer. I found a lot of errors in one of the books I read, written by a man I did not know who was about to fly out from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago, on his dime, to share in the revelry of books and authors and a huge potential audience.

I just didn’t like his book. I thought it needed a lot of rewriting — re-envisioning of the text. I thought it rambled, but not in the way that appeals to me in literary fiction, where you get an acute sense that the writer is struggling to get somewhere, and he might never arrive there, but he’s moving forward, at least. This text just seemed to struggle a lot of the time and stand still.

As a result of all of this, I did the dumbest thing I could think of: I posted a two star rating on Goodreads four days before the literary festival.

I received this almost instantaneously

Hi Frank,
Perhaps a little bold to write you but you have caused a little stir […] I am informed of your role as moderator this weekend and was curious of your 2 star rating. […] I do not claim to know a good book from a bad but we try to put out great books. This weekend at Printer’s Row is a big deal to [him] and I realize playing with big boys and girls is daunting but I am simply curious if your opinion was part being a product of a small publisher? You won’t hurt anyone’s feelings for being honest. I simply enjoy feedback.

We ended up having a nice exchange by email, and I removed the rating.

I don’t know if I should have removed the rating, but I know that, after meeting this writer in Chicago, I shouldn’t have posted it in the first place. I didn’t tell the publisher this in our email exchange, but I think I gave it a two-star rating four days before the author was scheduled to appear with me because I simply didn’t think anyone would read it. I know that sounds stupid, considering that if I published my book, I’d probably check Goodreads and Amazon every five fucking minutes, but I just didn’t think I was important enough to make a stir like this, didn’t think I was one of the “big boys.”

It’s not self-deprecation — not in the way that I’ve seen self-deprecation exhibited by people who were doing so intentionally, falsely. I have felt invisible most of my life, and most of it has been self-inflicted. To compensate for this, I imagine that I have done things outside of normal, courteous human behavior in order not to feel invisible.

I sat at the table with the three writers in front of an audience of about twenty people. We had a nice conversation, and toward the end of the session, this author talked about his characters and empathy, and it triggered thoughts of my own lack of empathy sometimes. This man wrote a book and he was sitting with two other writers who wrote books in front of an audience who loved books and wished they wrote books. He was articulate and enthusiastic, his excitement building as he became more comfortable, and I imagine it all culminated in the dissolving of that pit of anxiety he may have felt when he saw that his moderator hated his book, publicly, four days before he was to fly to Chicago to show it to everyone.