The Blogger Chronicles, Part 3: Critic Michael Dirda and Novelists D. J. Taylor & Sherry Jones Speak Out on Blogs

Roman woman writingThis is the third in a series of “featurettes” about blogging.  Today, meet Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at the Washington Post; D. J. Taylor, an award-winning biographer, novelist, and critic; and Sherry Jones, an award-winning author of historical novels.

In a scene in D. E. Stevenson’s light, humorous novel, The Two Mrs. Abbots (1943), Janetta Walters, a romantic novelist, meets an air force pilot who dislikes her books.

She was aware that the English-speaking world contained people who did not care for her work, but never before had she met one of these people in the flesh–not so far as she knew.  Reviewers were sometimes unkind, but reviewers were different…

Novelists, reviewers, and bloggers often have confusing encounters.  Everybody is a click away by email (two or three clicks if you go through PR people), and bloggers can happily chat with famous writers, or, in this case, interview them.

Because so many of the bloggers I recently interviewed like to read classics and older books, I approached Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning critic at The Washington Post and author of Readings, Bound to Please, and Classics for Pleasure. Not only is he an outstanding writer, but he sometimes reviews classics, reissued editions of out-of-print novels, reference books, poetry, science fiction, and other less well-known books. * (see note)

He kindly agreed to an email interview on the subject of critics and bloggers.

Although he does not read blogs regularly, he enjoys “specialized sites about everything from the classic ghost story (All-Hallows) to the Golden Age Mystery (The Passing Tramp) to the course of popular fiction over the past 100 or so years (the restricted discussion group called fictionmags).”

He is happy with the quality of some blogs, not so happy with others.

He writes:

“China’s Cultural Revolution proclaimed: “Let a thousand flowers blossom”–and, while I’m no Maoist, I do think the proliferation of reader comment and discussion online is to be welcome. Besides, it’s inevitable, even if there are losses. My own caveats are pretty familiar by now.  People gravitate to specialized blogs or tailor their data consumption–to use the lingo–to a narrow band of material. Common knowledge–the stuff that everyone knew about because it came to you in the daily paper or from big-name magazines and book reviews–is being eroded. We can now learn an incredible amount about quite specialized areas of interest: Unfortunately, more and more people  know everything about the strategy of League of Legends yet are unable to name the Secretary of State. And not care.”

He cautions readers about believing everything they read online, since few sites have fact checkers and copy editors.  He can identify bloggers who know their stuff, but thinks “the flashy and the crowd-pleasing sites are often the ones that receive all the hits and make the big numbers.”

He says that when critics and journalists talk about bloggers, it is “mainly to lament their own loss of power and influence.” There is no equivalent of the supportive community of bloggers or online book groups among critics.  They spend a lot of time alone.

He writes, “To read a book well or appreciate a work of art requires a focused act of attention. You need quiet and minimal interruption, both of which are hard to achieve if you’re constantly updating your Facebook page. Addictive twittering is even worse. Personally, I prefer to talk with my friends, truly face to face, over dinner and a glass of Guinness.”

D. J. Taylor is a critic, biographer, and Man Booker Prize-nominated author of the novel, Derby Day.  His brilliant new novel, The Windsor Faction, was one of my favorite books of 2013 (I wrote about it here) and I very much enjoyed his non-fiction book, Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age (I wrote about it here; It can also be used as a reference book about such Bright Young People as Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and  Cecil Beaton).

Like all writers, he has had good and bad experiences online.  He said by e-mail:

Blogs are like every other form of reader response in the publishing process, from newspaper reviews to Amazon critiques – helpful and instructive if well done (and by this I don’t merely mean favourable to the author), a waste of time if not. My instinctive feeling is that the Americans are better at this than the Brits. I have been very impressed in recent years by specialist non-fiction sites which have been useful for promoting my own stuff –  a blog called Cocktails with Elvira was particularly helpful with my Bright Young People book. With The Windsor Faction blogs such as The Common Reader and your own site have offered a welcome counterblast to various on-line reviewers who will insist that an alternative history novel set in World War II has to be full of stampeding Nazis and derring do.

Sherry Jones, a former journalist and the author of two historical novels, Four Sisters All Queens and The Jewel of Medina, has had good and bad experiences, too.  (I wrote  here about Four Sisters All Queens, a well-researched, fascinating novel about the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy in Provence.)  She said in an email interview:

“How readers find out about new books is a mystery to me. As an historical fiction author, I’m very grateful to the bloggers who’ve taken the time to read and review the novels I’ve written, but I’m also aware that their impact on my readership is very limited. Most bloggers have only a few hundred followers at most — a drop in the proverbial bucket. Some, alas, can barely spell. And yet they offer us exposure, both on their blogs and on the social media where they promote their posts…”

She appreciates reviews online, but says they can be helpful or harmful.

“My only concern about blog reviewers is that, too often, they write authoritatively as literary critics despite having no schooling or even basic knowledge of the art of criticism. In the online world, anyone can post whatever they desire about a book and be taken seriously, even if the person writing is no “serious” critic or even educated in literature and literary history (a must for context, if for nothing else).”

She belongs to two book groups, and says word of mouth or the review of a trusted blogger are often the best ways to learn about good books.  When her new book, THE SHARP HOOK OF LOVE, is released in October, she will be “writing to as many bloggers as I can find, soliciting reviews and interviews, and offering to write guest posts….  Bloggers, unlike critics, tend to be unpretentious, and quite approachable.”

She thanks bloggers for writing.  “Believe me when I say that we’re all infinitely grateful for what you and other book bloggers do. Please don’t stop!”

Thank you, Michael, David, and Sherry for agreeing to be interviewed!

* Note:  In recent years, Dirda has written about a reissue of Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds (a kind of predecessor to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds), Persian poetry, an annotated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a fantasy novel by Gavriel Guy Kay, an appreciation of Ray Bradbury on the occasion of his death, and a reissue of H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr. Polly.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Emma Tennant, Hilma Wolitzer, Angela Huth, Sherry Jones, and Jo-Ann Mapson

“Mirabile Does Middlebrow” is a new bimonthly feature here.

Mirabile in 2000

I’d rather be reading middlebrow!

I  am a fan of middlebrow women’s fiction, and though I rarely write about it, I certainly read my share of popular novels.  With a cup of tea in the middle of the night and none of the men awake to tease me, I curl up with the novels of Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Gaskell, Monica Dickens, or Mary Stewart.

I also try lots of contemporary women’s fiction.

Sometimes middlebrow contemporary fiction is a good fit for me, sometimes not.  I can’t for the life of me read Jennifer Weiner or Joshlyn Jackson.

I intend to be honest, and hope you will find some good books here, some by famous people, some barely known.

And so here’s the round-up of middlebrow novels for January:

Confessions of a Sugar Mummy1.  Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy.  This delightful “chick lit” novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age.  The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man.   She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain, and immediately wants to sleep with him.

But she gives us very good advice.

“On no account rush to the loo and apply Touche Eclat or whatever the ruinously expensive foundation is called, the one that claims to remove your wrinkles and fill in the vertical lines down to your mouth, the result of a fifty-year nicotine habit.  You will look strangely different, it’s true, but not for the better, as they claim.”

She considers trying Botox, settles for a new facial creme, and then resolves to interest Alain by making  a fortune selling her flat in her gentrified neighborhood.  She thinks she can buy a house for herself, Alain, and possibly his wife.  He is very interested.

Yes, she’s out of control, but she’s very, very funny.  B+

An Available Man wolitzer2.  Hilma Wolitzer’s An Available Man.  You might think it is no coincidence that I  read a novel about a man in his sixties after reading a novel about a woman in her sixties, but I assure you I’m still clinging to my spry half century.   Hilma Wolitzer is the mother of Meg Wolitzer, one of my favorite writers, and Hilma’s  light, romantic novels are usually quite good, so I picked up a copy.

When retired science teacher Edward’s children place a personal ad for him in NYR under the name Science Guy, he is annoyed, because he has not gotten over Bee, his late wife, and he doesn’t want to date.  But he goes ahead with it, and meets several women who are not quite right for him, among them a teacher who jilted him years ago; a beautiful older blonde whose extensive plastic surgery repulses him; and a widow whose insistence on showing him photos of her dead husband makes him feel he is at a bereavement brunch.

Edward is a kind, sensible, “nice” character, and this short entertaining novel is very “nicely” written. Occasionally an unpredictable moment redeems this novel as we see Edward change and grab life again.     B+.

Invitation to the Married Life huth3.  Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life.  This novel was compared to Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and though it was nothing like it, I very much enjoyed Huth’s shrewd observations of her characters’ rocky marriages and realignments of love.  My favorite character is Rachel, a charming woman who spends her days sleeping on 300+ count sheets in a beautifully redecorated bedroom, because there are certainly days when I, too, would like to dream all day.  Her husband, Thomas, who is quite nasty to her, has affairs with younger women and falls in love with an artist’s work and schemes to seduce her. Rachel embarrasses herself at a party making a pass at a man, but that is not the end of the world.

We meet other characters, among them unhappy Frances Farthingoe, who gives a lot of parties and decides she needs a custom-made gray awning at her ball, while her quiet husband takes refuge in studying badgers at night.

Marriage is not the end-all when you’re ill-suited, and that is what Huth shows us so charmingly.  Grade:  A-

Sherry Jones four sisters4.  Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens.  Sherry, a Friend of Our Blog , was kind enough to send me a copy of her historical novel, Four Sisters, All Queens.  As a  fan of Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, and  Philippa Gregory, I knew  I’d enjoy this novel set in the 13th century about four queens.

I enjoy historical novels about queens to the point that I once considered spending a year reading only historical novels…but I did something else!

And I ended up racing through Sherry’s well-researched, deftly-written novel.  She spins the story of  the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy, the countess of Provence, who raised and educated her daughters as sons, ensuring that they would learn Latin, French,  history, and other subjects that would help them participate in the political process..  She was the “queen maker” though she would have preferred to make kings, and her four daughters were expected to make political marriages.  Indeed, Beatrice married them so well that it should have strengthened Provence.

The four sisters grew up to be Queen Marguerite of France, Queen Elenore of England, Queen Sanchia of Germany, and Queen Beatrice of Sicily.  Marguerite’s husband, Louis IX of France, is impotent.  His mother has a way of showing up in the garden as they are kissing.  Marguerite also has to contend with this evil queen politically, as she tries to edge Marguerite out of  meetings and sends Marguerite’s uncles home.

My favorite character, Eleanore, has to walk a treacherous path:  her coronation is crashed by a madman who claims the coronation is illegal because Henry is betrothed to his daughter. Henry was engaged to her, and broke it off, saying she was too closely related:  The Pope is  reviewing the document.   Marguerite tries to stay cool, and is astonishingly smart, managing to attract all the attention back to herself.

The other two queens, too, have problems, and as they grow older, the politics are even more complicated.

This novel is fascinating, great vacation reading, take it to the Caribbean (in my case the couch).  Sherry, a former journalist,  is an excellent writer.

Finding Casey

Grade:  B+

5.  Jo-Ann Mapson was kind enough to send me a copy of Finding Casey, the well-written sequel to her  award-winning novel, Solomon’s Oak. In Solomon’s Oak,  Mapson tells the story of Glory, a grieving widow who bakes pirate cakes and plans weddings to support her farm; Joseph, a retired wounded cop with pain management problems; and Juniper, a rebellious adolescent whose sister disappeared some years ago.  In Finding Casey, Glory and Joseph have married and adopted Juniper and moved to Santa Fe, and there isn’t at first much tension in their happy family life.  Glory is pregnant, Joseph volunteers on the board of a women’s shelter, and Juniper is in college.

But a new character is introduced, Laurel, a brainwashed young woman who has been horribly abused by a cult leader at “the Farm,”  and  when she secretly brings her daughter to a hospital against the wishes of the sadistic Seth, she finds help from a social worker.

Mapson has a calm voice and a simple, poetic style.  She understands suffering and describes it quietly.  I did figure out the plot almost immediately, but that isn’t a bad thing.  Though there is suspense, you know she will help her characters.

Finding Casey continues the story without much ado, and perhaps doesn’t quite stand alone.  Is is more loosely plotted, because we already know the characters.

So read Solomon’s Oak first. It’s just better to read them in a row.

Grade:  B+