Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On a Book Returned

Today I did something I’ve never done before: I returned a brand new hardcover book.

Like every author, I adore books. Like most authors I know, my budget is tight. Between travel and book-buying, I’ve already spent a few thousand dollars on research for Wealth Woman. Before I decide I have to own a particular resource, I weigh other options, mostly library and internet.

But sometimes those options are limited, or a particular book proves so valuable that I have to own it, so I can get my hands on it whenever I need it. That’s what happened with My Old People Say. Through interlibrary loan, I borrowed Catherine McClellan’s important but obscure ethnographic study, published in 1975 by the National Museums of Canada. Though McClellan has since consolidated some of her work into cheaper and more accessible formats, the information compiled in her full study illustrates the worldview and way of life of Kate Carmack’s Tagish band in such authentic detail that I decided I had to have the set no matter the cost, which turned out to be almost $100 from Abe Books.

Then there are books too new for the library, like the one I’m returning to the bookseller, a biography of another wealthy woman who lived during Kate Carmack’s era. I got excited when I found the title, certain the parallel stories of these two women would be fascinating. I’d already discovered one such gem when I picked up from Jeff Brady’s Skaguay News and Books, more or less on a whim, a nice firsthand account called Two Women in the Klondike. Though I already owned two shelves of Klondike histories and knew more trivia about the gold rush than anyone has a right to, I absorbed every word Mary Hitchcock’s engaging firsthand account, first published in 1899 and re-released by the University of Alaska Press.

A wealthy East Coast heiress, Hitchcock went to the Klondike on a whim, bringing with her a bowling alley, portable movie theater, and a flock of pigeons. I couldn’t have invented a more interesting counterpart for the newly wealthy Kate Carmack, who as it happened traveled out of the Klondike on exactly the same river route as Hitchcock on almost exactly the same dates, so that I was able to draw from her account specifics even on weather. Since Kate never learned to read or write, I relied Hitchcock’s account of her river journey to draft passages like this one, helping to set the scene along with the cultural context for my book:

Hitchcock disembarked when the boat stopped, which was often, sternwheelers having large appetites for wood. While fighting off gnats and mosquitoes and horseflies, she gathered wild roses, mulberries, currants, and raspberries, along with groundsel, which delighted her canaries. She was forever photographing the Indians along the river, though for fear of vermin she refused to descend into a traditional community house to capture the dancing, and she writes with indignation of a group of Indian women who covered their heads with shawls, demanding a sitting fee. The tundra she mistook for prairie, lauding its potential for agricultural development. As the river narrowed, there were mountains and rapids and gorges, all wild and picturesque.

Pleased with Two Women in the Klondike, I got greedy. I found the book I’m returning, a new release. Certain it would offer up even more gems I could use, I bought it. I know book research isn’t a treasure hunt, but sometimes it feels that way. The rewards you find here and there spur you toward others, or so you hope.

If that were the only flaw of the book I’m returning, that it didn’t yield anything I could use in my project, I’d take all the blame for my bad judgment and trade it in at the local used book store. But this new book is so bad that I didn’t want anyone else wasting their money on it, which is why I decided I had to return it. Return numbers tell authors, editors, and publishing houses that books didn’t pass the muster.

I feel obligated to be generous with fellow authors whenever I can. The work we do is tough. It often goes unrewarded. As hard as we try, I’ve yet to meet an author – and I certainly count myself among them – who hasn’t turned out something subpar. For these reasons, I won’t mention here the title or the author of the book I’m returning, but I will say that I’ve seen this pattern before: an author with an established track record in nonfiction writes a book that gets a few rave reviews, and then under pressure churns out another that she must at some level realize she isn’t proud of. A team of assistants do most of the research, which the author cobbles together using a few narrative tricks: long descriptive lists of settings that are only peripheral to the people who matter, embellishment of facts to create pseudo-scenes, and broad strokes to summarize character traits, delivered in language sloppy with purpled prose and clichés.

In this book I’m returning, the transitions between the broader context of US history and individual narrative are so clunky, transparent, ludicrous that they’re laughable; I couldn’t help reading them out loud, interrupting my partner from the book he was reading, which happened to be a recent but well-crafted narrative from roughly the same era. From a summary of pre-Civil War slavery that might have come from a tenth-grade textbook, the author of my soon-to-be-returned book segues by saying that the main character’s mother is enslaved by her psyche. A few paragraphs on the woman’s inheritance follow, and then we’re returned to the broader context with, “Money may have ruled discussions in the ….households, but it was the demands of the South that inundated conversations around the rest of the country.” Really, author? That’s the best you could do? After several of these forced transitions, I couldn’t take any more. I had to quit reading.

From the book I did learn one thing. Whatever my project’s flaws, they will not be these. I refuse to make a lazy pass of the hard work that goes into crafting an engaging historical narrative – or any narrative, for that matter. My project must be more than worth the reader’s time. To honor Kate Carmack, to honor the reader, the book must be authentic and memorable and true.

$27.95 for a sloppy product, when authors and editors and publishers are scrambling fiendishly to assure the public that books are worth buying? No thanks.