>When It’s Time to Keep Quiet

>In yesterday’s Huffington Post, author Leslie Bennetts complains about a New York Times piece, which, using Bennetts’ new book The Feminine Mistake as an example, speculated that the sales of hot-button books have been compromised by their authors’ endless talk show rounds: readers figure they already have enough of a gist for their purposes. This is a valuable argument, but Bennetts says that the article’s real point was to attack her; she also works in a rather impressive amount of self-congratulation and glowing quotes from reviews, which I suspect is her real point.

From my own one skirmish with trade book publication (Hearing Us Out, Little, Brown, 1994) but also from conversation with writer-friends, I’d have to say that Bennetts is exhibiting the classic signs of an author with a new book. It’s the best high in the world. But: no amount of attention is enough, no criticism can be taken lightly, the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have Read My Book and Loved It, and ignorant pigs. Anne Lamott writes funnily about this phenomenon in Bird by Bird: when publication date arrives she expects flowers and candy and congratulations; she practices modestly digging her toe into the dirt in expectation of all the compliments and attention she’s about to receive. Nothing happens.

I think it’s a completely understandable and forgivable attitude. For so long, your whole world has necessarily been that book and it becomes natural that you believe others will feel the same. It passes, thank God, or we would all be insufferable, but I wish somebody had told Bennetts that no matter how valid her point is (not, in my opinion), now is not the time to complain about being attacked. When the only response you will find truly acceptable is “you are wonderful,” you can’t win. Don’t play.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    >I have a special perspective here — I’m both a stay-at-home-mom and a soon-to-be-published-for-the-first-time author. My assessment of Bennets’ piece: Yuck.

  2. Alkelda the Gleeful says:

    >For the “You are wonderful” responses, I’ve got my unofficial fan club (husband, friends who claim that they are objective and think I’m lovely anyway). For everything else, there’s the rest of the world… or rather, whomever bothers to react.

  3. >Wow. That was one defensive, over-the-top response. I can’t help but think she’s going to regret writing that one day.

    I found a couple of interesting points about the NYTimes article, though. 1. A lot of media coverage doesn’t sell books (meaning what will work?) 2. Books are now like movies–you have to open big or you’re considered a flop.

    Of course, the fact that these are Mommy War books may mean that their situation doesn’t have anything to say about book selling in general. The Mommy War thing has been going on for a quarter of a century at least and there just may not be anything new to say.

  4. >Also I truly believe that most mothers could care less about the media-driven mommy wars at this point. I know I don’t. I am a mother, but chose to live my life the way I want to. I could care less what anyone on either side of the supposed aisle (which I doubt exists, except for the position occupied by everyone’s friend Dr. Laura)

    And, why in the world would I waste my time on a mommy book when there are novels to read. Just to know “I’m right” or to become offended by “the other side”? Seriously! I’ll be a much better mother and, more important to me–person, if I read the new Ian McEwan or Kate Atkinson.

    Note to NYT: WE DON’T CARE ABOUT THE MOMMY WARS ANYMORE. Take it somewhere else.

    As for Bennets…because of this lame media coverage, her publisher must have assured her she’d open big because of the “controversy.” Bummer for her.

  5. >Oops: add a “thinks” after “Dr. Laura)”

  6. rindawriter says:

    >Well, Roger, I have always supposed, irksome as it all truly is, that an author’s first-bookitis is a stage, like puppy love or tantrums…annoying and embarrassing but usually unavoidable…hopefully, most don’t stay in it for very long. Although some certainly go through it more spectacularly than others!

  7. rindawriter says:

    >P.S. I’m a little weary of all the mommy wars stuff though.. wonder when anyone is going to get to the daddy wars stuff?

  8. Anonymous says:

    >Yes indeed–I haven’t read a single article about the challenges of being a stay-at-home dad. Many times I’ve seen people roll their eyes and say, “Oh, he stays home with the kids while she works,” like he is actually using his children as a front to drink beer and play video gamess all day while the kids run around the house in dirty diapers.

    As I (an unoppressed stay-at-home mom) was telling a friend the other day, it’s shameful that “feminism” has sunk so low as to be focused on the mommy wars. Of all the issues that women face (domestic violence, sexual harrassment, discrimination) why is this issue, which often is focused only on the elite, getting so much attention?

    Rose

  9. Susan Higginbotham says:

    >Bennetts’ latest post and her equally whiny, egotistical one before it have only served to convince me that I would be a fool to pay good money for her book, if its tone is anything like that in her posts.

    I thought the Times article was quite favorable to her. It pointed out that her most hostile critics haven’t even read the book and gave her the chance to pat herself on the back a bit by telling about all the people who had complimented her privately on her book. Evidently, that wasn’t enough. Perhaps she expected to be hailed by the Times as the savior of modern womanhood.

  10. >I’m the husband, and I’m biased, but both your post and these comments sadden me. The problem with the Times pieces was not that it was critical of Leslie’s book, but that it offered a thesis about this category of books — more people talk about them than buy them — pegged to the publication of The Feminine Mistake. It speculated that while it “may be too early” to tell (two weeks!), it would probably fail like all the others. Where’s the fairness in that? It’s particularly galing because Leslie and I spent major chunks of our careers laboring in the fields of the New York Times.

    Just as important, however, is the lazy need to put The Feminine Mistake in the “mommy wars” category at all. Bad enough that so many bloggers post opinions after proudly declairing they haven’t read the book (particularly in Amazon.com’s “reader reviews.”

    The book is not a polemic, it’s a work of research about the consequences of certain choices women make, and about the way the media has distorted this important subject. It’s an argument for informed choice.

    But you are right about this: Authors are as protective of their work as parents are of their kids. Being both parent and author will make one pretty darned fierce.

  11. >fierce, not to mention too fast on the keyboard. That’s “GALLING,” and “DECLARED.”

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >Not to mention husbands. ;-) I just think it was a tactical error on Bennett’s part to complain about the Times article, particularly as she conflated too much–quotes from favorable reviews, complaint about not being reviewed by the Times yet, fussing about going on and off the Times extended list–so that any non-self-serving point was lost.

    I think it is a problem that zeitgeist books are now accompanied by extensive and intentionally early media buzz. People then feel as if they’ve heard what the author has to say. There’s a lot to read out there, and people are parceling out less of their reading time to books.

    I also confess I’ve been burned. After hearing tons about both Wolf’s Beauty Myth and Klein’s No Logo, I bought those books and found nothing else but more examples of the points the authors had already raised in media appearances. I can’t speak to Bennett’s book because I haven’t read it, but I would suggest that her book might be suffering fallout fatigue from books with a similar target. It’s, unfortunately, not too soon to tell in today’s fast-track publishing cycle, and I’m guessing that the publisher would tell you (well, maybe not you, but themselves) they are disappointed with the numbers.

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >And now my turn: Bennetts’. Sorry.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >I think finally if the sales are disappointing it is because the premise is one that depresses women and they don’t want to read about it. After all, many bestsellers become so because people know exactly what they are going to get. Anne Lamott’s new book went straight to the top of the list because people knew essays about faith in funny, irreverant smart prose. Like last time. Anyone getting a Judith Krantz knows just what’s in there. And even books with quasi startling new points of views to sway our current way of thinking have to say something that people either want to hear or find new and fascinating enough to be worth the cover price. But this book is neither. I would guess. I haven’t read it. AHA, you say. But that’s just the point. I hear about it and shrug and move on. But we don’t do that for every book that comes down the chute. Buzz can help books enormously. But buzz doesnt help all books and that’s what really makes an author cry because then there’s no hope for that book. Write another.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    >Oh God, where to begin? I guess I’ll just nibble on a few corners of the arguments.

    First of all, I do agree that with a book as hyped as The Feminine Mistake, if it fell to the euphemistic “extended list” after only a few weeks (and it’s not on the at all list now, less than a month after pub), a publisher would have hoped for better sales. I’m not Yes, Gail is right–publishers pay a lot of attention to early sales of a book, especially when pieces are being written about it in Time magazine, the author is getting on talk shows, etc. Let’s face it, that’s when a reader is most likely to buy it.

    Secondly, I remember Judith Regan on some TV show discussing “the death of book buying” because an article that had been a very hot discussion starter, about women who were postponing parenting and then having trouble conceiving, had bombed when it was turned into a book. Regan argued “What woman wants to read that depressing book? Why would that mean anything about the state of publishing?” I don’t have any idea why Ms Bennett’s book isn’t selling at the level the publisher might hope for–I would think that working Moms would be grateful for the moral support! But I do know that, to the Times’ original point, I never read Bob Woodward’s book about Deep Throat because I read Woodward’s article in the Washington Post when the news of Felt’s secret identity broke. The article told about how Woodward first met Mark Felt, how he got a sign (flower pots on the balcony) when he was supposed to have a meeting, what Felt did and did not tell him, etc. By the time I had finished the article, my curiosity was sated.

  16. Anonymous says:

    >It’s all China town, Jake. But i agree with Roger that the way to go is exile, silence and cunning.

  17. Anonymous says:

    >The average American woman doesn’t care anymore what anyone thinks about whether she works, stays home, or jumps in a lake. The conversation ended years ago (at least in the suburbs). We are where we are and we have our own reasons for being there. It matters not what anyone else thinks about it, which is why we don’t buy these books.

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