In the 1946 essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”, George Orwell writes that “the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job … until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.”
Orwell believed that the best practice is to simply ignore the great majority of books on the foregone conclusion that nine out of ten of them aren’t worth the paper and glue that hold their hopeless pages together “and to give very long reviews to the few that seem to matter.”
At The Deconstruction Zone we have always exercised prudence in selecting titles for our monthly Lit-Fic post-mortem, choosing books that we are predisposed to enjoy on the basis of the author’s previous work or the history of the publishing house; it’s a form of mental archery, yet proficiency with a bow and arrow doesn’t always guarantee a sure aim against an easy target—even Robin Hood had days when his arrows veered off course and Little John has the scars to prove it.
For the 11th installment of The Deconstruction Zone we blindly reached into our bag of arrows (otherwise known as the Books Available for Review List sent ‘round to PopMatters writers) and extracted a rough-hewn arrowhead from a usually reliable independent press (Melville House) that simply stunned in its inability to fit comfortably in the bow, let alone accurately strike a target.
Amplified: Fiction from Leading Alt-Country, Indy Rock, Blues and Folk Musicians
(Melville House; US: May 2009)
In approaching this review, the goal was to never attack the archers but rather the manufacturer of the haphazard slings and arrows that make up Amplified: Fiction from Leading Alt-Country, Indie Rock, Blues and Folk Musicians, a vanity project cleverly disguised as a fiction anthology that is so shockingly bad even Mr. Orwell would agree it deserves some intense scrutiny.
The problem begins with the mission statement by co-editors Julie Schaper and Steven Horwitz: “Amplified started with a question: Would the songwriter performers we listen to (alternative, alt country, Americana, roots, blues folk) be interested in writing short fiction?” In a perfect world that question would never have left the kitchen table or the confines of a comfy sofa at Starbucks or wherever the editors cooked up the idea that their personal taste in contemporary music would naturally correspond to a winning fiction anthology.
There’s a reason that the annual Best American Short Stories series has been edited by the likes of John Updike, Salman Rushdie, E.L. Doctorow, Walter Mosley, Alice Sebold, and Garrison Keillor; we know the works of these authors and we trust their judgment and instincts. According to their joint biography, Schaper and Horwitz co-edited Twin Cities Noir and “both have worked in publishing in one capacity or another for 20 years.”
Well, there you have it. They “worked in publishing” and they “listened to a lot of music and made a lot of lists, went on a year-long CD buying spree, downloaded, and spent a lot of time on musicians’ websites” so they must have their finger squarely on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist, right? Wrong.
The conceit that Shaper and Horwitz have scouted out “some of the most important and innovative songwriters working today” is highly personal and subjective; using the same standard of measurement we can safely assume that the janitor at the Hollywood Bowl can put together one hell of a classical music playlist and the usher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts is qualified to write a biography of Shakespeare, forgetting the fact that the janitor is tone deaf and the usher is dyslexic.
The jacket copy for Amplified boasts that “the same craftsmanship and narrative verve that drives these writers’ songs is on display here in each of these wonderfully varied stories”, yet this is a maiden voyage into short fiction form for all but two of the 16 writers handpicked by the editors; implying that there is craft in the final product makes about as much sense as declaring oneself a rock star after a karaoke night at a beer bar in South Fork, Tennessee.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking the author focuses his thesis on the concept – first pioneered by the influential American social scientist Herbert Simon in the ‘70s – that it takes 10,000 hours (or ten years) of deliberate practice to truly acquire mastery of a skill; after the 10,000 hour mark has been passed the artist must constantly strive to improve their skill. The bar for mastery of craft in fiction is a fairly high one; perhaps the editors believed that their inductees were advanced placement students.
In “Holiday Inn Again”, the story of an adolescent girl stuck in the mire of constantly feuding parents (written by Louisiana-based singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier), the last sentence of the first paragraph hits the reader over the head like a blow from a plank: “I’m trying to figure out what the hell I’m gonna to do next.”
The Baton Rouge Holiday Inn, the regular refuge for mother and daughters from the husband’s frequent spells of tyranny, begins as a “motel” on page 85 and then on page 87 it is a “hotel” at the top of the page and is magically transformed into a “motel” again in the next paragraph where we also encounter this sentence: “My sister and I used fight over who gets the most chocolate ones.” But for sheer editorial ineptitude nothing beats this beauty from Gauthier’s story:
“Goddamn it,” he said. “What is this shit?
“I work all day and come home and get served breakfast for dinner?”
Did Gauthier’s carriage ‘return’ tab go haywire? or did the editors fall asleep at the switch, the same switch that should have alerted them to “gonna to do next” and the absent preposition “to” in “used fight over” or the ever-shifting hotel-motel? In the case of “Holiday Inn Again” – as is the case in almost every story in this collection – there is absolutely little or no editorial guidance on display; it is difficult to divine if the editors held their authors in such esteem that they were intimidated by the prospect of editing them or, more likely, Schaper and Horwitz were simply unqualified for the task they took upon themselves as the end result abundantly proves.
David Olney’s short fiction contribution, “A Sign from God”, introduces us to a young American seminary student, Thomas, “in the year of Our Lord 1928” who encounters a loss of spiritual faith when “the ideas of Darwin had crept into even the most isolated areas of the world.” Olney chronicles Thomas’ spiritual struggle in two comprehensive paragraphs but in a third graph the writer redundantly informs the reader: “For that is what it was: a loss of faith.”
Olney’s narrative faux pas is akin to turning over a fortune cookie message to see the words “You have just read a fortune cookie message” on the other side. Further, young Thomas’ father runs the family with an iron patriarchal fist – this is 1928, after all, when the father was still the head of the household in America and all decisions flowed through him – but Olney, in a moment of unintentional hilarity, forgets social history and instead attributes patriarchal authority to “some secret power of his personality”, not unlike describing the Joad family’s migration in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as a restless itch to wander and take in the splendors of the open road.
In the opening “liner notes” the editors assure us that Chris Smithers’ Larry Brown-inspired short story “Leroy Purcell” “is as accomplished and assured as his guitar playing.” That’s not saying much for the author’s skills with a fretted fingerboard.
The narrator of “Leroy Purcell”, an itinerant musician traveling from Houston to Dallas, Texas, for a gig, is clocked going 71 in a 55MPH zone by the titular officer of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The narrator is ticketed for the infraction – there’s no disputing he violated the speed limit – and when he asks how much the moving violation is going to cost him, Purcell says that he “doesn’t have the foggiest notion.”—nor should he because Purcell is a traffic cop, not a court clerk.
Later in the tale, when Purcell asks the musician to render his professional opinion on a demo tape by an unknown musician, the narrator tells the hayseed cop that the analysis will cost him $237 – the cost of the moving violation – because he “would like to think that the next time someone asks you how much a ticket costs you’ll remember.” This goes beyond hubris and into the arena of sheer stupidity, sort of like getting miffed and stiffing the waitress for a tip when she cannot tell you the exact recipe for the soup she just served you.
George Orwell believed in writer C.K. Chesterson’s concept of the “good bad book”, the “kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.” Amplified does not fit into the “good bad book” mold; it is a bad book through and through with hardly a redeeming quality to recommend. Yes, there are flashes of great imagination in quite a few of the stories but the cruise ship was navigated by two blind captains who capsized the vessel before leaving shore; the gods of paradox must be chuckling over the fact that Schaper and Horwitz’s submerged ship would find a safe port at Melville House.
A few days before submitting this column, I had a long conversation with a colleague over what approach I was going to take with my review of Amplified. Unlike the “down-trodden, nerve-racked creature” in Orwell’s “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”, I have no desire to invent “reactions toward books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” Composing harsh reviews is far more difficult for me than writing glowing praise but, as Orwell points out, they are two sides of the same coin: “Nearly every book is capable of arousing passionate feeling, even if it is only a passionate dislike.”
“Whether good or bad, literature can often serve as a social barometer for how people lived and thought about the world at a certain time,’ my colleague said. “You could draw a parallel in your review between the social realism (writing) of the Depression-era which focused on the lives of working stiffs and the modern era and how the public is seemingly obsessed with the lives of celebrities. This probably goes a long way toward explaining why Amplified got picked up by a publisher – obviously someone thought even bad writing by well-known musicians would pique the public’s curiosity.”