Unless you’re an established author, it’s hard to get a book published. Even if you do get published, however, it’s very difficult to get a book noticed by reviewers. Acclaimed author Doris Lessing—bless her cunning heart—dramatized the difficulties faced by unknown writers by writing two novels under a pseudonym. Her ruse succeeded brilliantly: her novels suffered many rejections, sold poorly, and got almost no reviews. She said, ‘If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, ‘Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.’ As it is, there were almost no reviews, and the books sold about 1,500 copies here and scarcely 3,000 copies each in the United States.”
Reviews, even negative ones, can help publicize and sell books. (Oscar Wilde’s quip, that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, applies here.) Many authors, however, don’t just want reviews because we want to sell books. We want reviewers for the very reason we want readers: rightly or wrongly, authors must imagine they have something worth sharing with others. Isn’t this also what motivates many bloggers, Facebook users, and twitterers? Surely part of the pleasure of gaining followers, “likes”, comments, etc. is the recognition that others thought what you had to say was worthy of their attention.
The topic is on my mind because over the weekend I had the pleasure of reading a very favorable review of my book in The New Atlantis. I won’t deny that part of the pleasure is pride. Another part is this pleasure of sharing something with others and having it recognized as valuable. But reading political scientist Diana Schaub’s review of my book called to mind another and more fragile reason that led me to want to write a book in the first place, a reason that has little to do with pride in accomplishment or pleasure in sharing what I have to offer. One of the reasons I write is because of the pleasure I take in reading. Having been awakened, educated, and enchanted by authors, I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to be able to work this magic myself.
In one way of looking at it, finding readers is about finding friends. And finding readers isn’t the same as selling books. (Raise your hand if you’re one of the millions of people who bought but haven’t read A Brief History of Time or Walden or the Bible.) Four decades of reading later, I still find it an exhilarating, magical experience to be reading a book and recognize that I’ve found a kindred spirit, even a friend. Books can speak to you, reach you, in ways that perhaps no one you meet in the flesh ever will. I remember what it was like to read Tolkien for the first time, to discover Nietzsche and Austen and Aristotle, to name just a few old friends. It really is a kind of magic, the way the souls of author and reader can commune with each other through the medium of the word, across space and time.
Or not. My book doesn’t shy away from controversy and so, inevitably, some readers will not feel the love, not to mention the likemindedness that friends share. I even set one reader’s hair on fire. (As Wilde would say, that’s better than nothing!) I’ve also had some very positive responses, from the more sensible and discriminating of my readers, of course! Speaking of such readers, Schaub’s review is framed in terms of a larger, very interesting reflection on the general issue of our authority over animals. It’s worth reading in its own right. And who knows? It may even inspire you to read a book and make a new friend.