|The First Twenty
reasons still obscure to your correspondent, I have always reviewed books. In certain
years, it gave me a résumé cover indicating that I'd done SOMETHING during a lean period
other than working as a typesetter or a cab driver.
On December the second, 1996 -- A.D. or C.E., according to current superstition -- I received e-mail from Amsterdam that informed me I'd won the last Gold Medal for my pavilion in the 1996 Internet World Exposition. The medal was virtual, of course, but it included approximately US$1000 in prizes. They arrived the day after Christmas. I was interviewed by the University of Oregon's DAILY EMERALD, and found my son on the Internet.
These were wonderful Christmas presents from the muse, but then I remembered that December 1996 marked my 20th year as a professional.
Long ago, at Santa Fe High School, Marge Carr brought Tony Hillerman to our junior English class. That was back when Hillerman was just a once-published novelist, and you knew that you were on Canyon Road when the blast of hot air from the glass works furnace hit you rounding the first curve. Hillerman was the first author I ever met.
Five years later, I dropped out of University to become one.
I chose to be a writer for what I thought were all the right reasons: freedom to learn, freedom of travel, freedom of thought. No one in the admonishing claque (in-laws, parents, family, friends and teachers) dead set against this career choice knew enough about writing to tell me the vital piece of information that might have saved me from folly: writing, as a rule, doesn't pay well. And so, I set out for California and poverty in 1976.
I was given my first assignment in December of that year, to review a book called THE GOD CELL, by a former TIME/LIFE editor named Will Bradbury. The assigned length was five hundred words, and I got to keep the book. The book was bad but the review was worse. It appeared in DELAP'S F&SF REVIEW, along with a special section on British writer J.G. Ballard, whom I would find myself reviewing again and again, for the Los Angeles TIMES, for the LA HERALD-EXAMINER (RIP), for the ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER, and for others.
I did not particularly see myself as a book critic (whom, I thought from my brief association, were generally tedious perfectionists, given to weighting the wings of inspiration down with a lead ballast of trivia). But, for reasons still obscure to your correspondent, I have always reviewed books. In certain years, it gave me a résumé cover indicating that I'd done SOMETHING during a lean period other than working as a typesetter or a cab driver.
In other times, I have found myself saddled with reviewing when more lucrative sources of writing money were available for the typing. But somehow I have been, for two decades, a "reviewer of novelists."
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" came out in December, reminding America of HUSTLER Magazine, and for a time, I reviewed for, and edited the book section of THAT magazine, as well. Fortunately, our book critic at the time was Theodore Sturgeon, and he reviewed for the NY TIMES, and William F. Buckley's NATIONAL REVIEW, and he taught me as much about the craft as I have learned before or since. It is an odd stroke of luck, at 23, to be given free access to pick the brains of a master, and I availed myself of the opportunity.
I managed to stumble into the HERALD-EXAMINER, because the LA TIMES could only afford about a column-inch of space every six weeks to three months for a "capsule review" from me. The HERALD editor said: "Funny. No one's ever asked before."
But, while I hoped that such exposure might "help my career," in fact, I never got a single writing gig from it. I edited magazines, I interviewed rock musicians, I wrote humor columns, I wrote and doctored and rewrote screenplays, I wrote novels on contract under "house" names. I wrote articles for slick magazines, and for cheesy men's magazines. I wrote advertising brochures and resumes and business promotion letters. I wrote record album liner notes. I attended screenings and wrote movie and video reviews. But not once did book criticism help me.
Financially, that is.
It is very easy, when you're making a living writing, to lose track of WHY you became a writer in the first place. There were amazing highs and lows (and sometimes both): walking the streets of Hollywood with $1000 of writing money in my pocket and unable to find an apartment, or having seven magazines on the newsstand in one month, and being unable to afford ONE of them.
But the act of criticism has been a salvation. It has kept my "career" on track more than once, and it has illuminated my writing, as some amazing new author slips in a jiffy bag through the mail slot in my door and into a special place in my life.
I became a writer because I was a reader, and it is the special joy of sharing those peak experiences, that astonishing book, that amazing passage that makes criticism worthwhile.
The past twenty years have been a difficult time for writing and for books. Movies and visual media have taken up much of our time formerly spent in reading. And yet, while a CD-ROM or a movie is filled with new visions and wonders, it is still through our written language that we make sense of experience. When I read a book, I bring MY life to it. I fill the characters' hearts and souls with my longing and my love. I weave together thoughts I only had fragments of before.
If anything, twenty years as a book critic has made me into a better reader than I should have been. But occasionally I receive a letter from a reader who discovered something that they might not have otherwise, because of a review. And that's why I do it.
In the first twenty years I learned that, while writers are not always well paid in gold, there are riches that I would not trade for gold. Reviewing is among these.