What About the Boy?

A Father's Pledge to His Disabled Son

by Stephen Gallup

And now a few words from the professor

Although I’d much prefer not to single out anyone’s writing in this way, the following bit of promotional copy for a self-published novel illustrates a problem that’s doing a lot of damage. I found this on a nicely printed postcard next to a display copy of the book in question, and the first paragraph grabbed my attention. Apparently, the book it describes is a somewhat cerebral thriller tied in with recent history. Reading it, I felt a tug of interest. This book might be good!

Then came the second paragraph on the card, which begins:

Struggling with his own disillusionments and staying out of danger, _____’s search for the original treaty is complicated by his intense attraction to a Spanish dancer while at the same time being pulled closer to the woman who’s been in his life…

I reacted to that sentence as if it were badly played music. It destroyed the interest that the first paragraph had created.

Surely I’m not the only one who’ll respond this way. There’s a time for overlooking flaws in execution. (A children’s music recital comes to mind.) But someone offering work for sale to the public is held to a higher standard. And a writer’s ad copy for it is supposed to represent his very best efforts. Given the enormous number of competing books available to read, it must shine. If it doesn’t, readers have little incentive to venture further. I felt disappointed. I’d been in the mood to discover something new and exciting.

In view of the preference that that the mainstream publishing industry has for the tried-and-true (e.g., clones of the last bestseller, writers who already have an established fan base), we can’t count on it for anything new and exciting. More so than in the past, indie authors have an important role to fill.

Actually, just a few moments earlier that evening, I’d been discussing this very problem. My friend Lynda (author of Writing for the Web) and I were discussing books with a new acquaintance at a reception. I mentioned that many indie writers have wonderful imaginations, original stories, engaging points of view—and I admire that, since I don’t view my own writing as being particularly creative—but they blow it all by failing to pay attention to basic questions of grammar and delivery. I know I’m not alone here. In the blog post cited below, Mary Kay Shanley observes that “most self-published books would be wonderful first drafts.” No doubt, that’s why the San Diego County Library does not accept self-published books for its collection, even as gifts.

In other words, there’s a tendency to generalize and make assumptions, even without reading a book’s promotional copy or opening pages. Poor quality is not confined to self-published works. However, that’s where the world is learning to expect it.

The lady with whom I shared my feelings about this agreed politely, and then pinned my ears back by saying, “Too bad they can’t all be like us.”

I don’t mean to hold up my own writing as some kind of standard. If you want deathless prose (the stuff Alexander Pope described as being “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”), look elsewhere. The point is just that the simple communication of ideas, feelings, moods, and experiences is at risk when, to use the above example, a writer doesn’t seem to know what the subject of her sentence is.

Having an audience with whom to communicate is then also at risk.

And since WATB was the book the above library declined for this reason, I can’t avoid taking this personally.

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3 Responses to “And now a few words from the professor”

  1. Gravatar of Marcela Marcela
    22. February 2012 at 04:58

    I was not aware that libraries didn’t carry self-published books until Steve made me aware of this and I think it’s real pity. There are great books that are self-published, just like “What About the Boy?” This book is very well written, carefully edited, with impeccable cover art. It’s a book that won the San Diego Book Award for Memoirs/Non-fiction. I can understand that with so many independently published books, libraries cannot read and catalog all of them, but at least those books that have received a good review or a recognized award, should be allowed in the public library system. I hope that in time, I can one day walk into my local library and find “What About The Boy?” and other deserving independently published books proudly displayed on its shelves.

  2. Gravatar of steve steve
    22. February 2012 at 18:10

    Just to clarify, I’m aware of at least four public libraries around the country that do have WATB in their collections. So the policy is not universal.

  3. Gravatar of Marcela Marcela
    23. February 2012 at 04:34

    Thank you for the clarification, my misunderstanding. I’m glad I hadn’t started picketing outside my local library 🙂