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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Reader as Reviewer

The egaletarian nature of the internet has been known for some time: we all have a voice, and, we can express our opinions to the world. Whether someone is listening, or even knows your voice is out there, well, that’s another subject altogether.

In a recent post on getting no reviews for “What Beauty” from the establishment reviewers (ie., newspapers, magazines, and popular websites), I lamented the small-press lockout that the reviewers play. One commenter on this essay-lament said that BigPublishing has created a scare throughout the reviewing world because of the advertising dollars spent in the dying print journalism publications, and therefore some payback is expected: review our books only, or else!

This situation doesn’t exist among readers. Book readers have had the chance to review books online since 1999, at least, and in some print venues, for at least a hundred years. They — these non-professional reviewers — sometimes wax eloquently, and other times give “book reports.” Nevertheless, they are the common voice that disseminate LIKES and DIS-LIKES in such an idiosyncratic manner that, outside the professional review journals (NYRB, TLS, London Review of Books, and BOOKFORUM), you can find some refreshing voices talking about good literature.

Some readers don’t know how to review a book. Others have a take-no-prisoners approach to their reviews, spewing damnation and invective with no moticum of evidence presented. Many seem to go counter to what John Updike wrote eruditely about the reviewer’s responsibility: (1) don’t give away the ending or spoil important moments; (2) “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” (I got one of these, for my first novel, The Village Wit); and, most importantly, (3) “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?” (Amazon reviewers relish in this inequity.)

Yes, idiosyncracies.

Then, of course, there is the reader who sees more of what the writer intended than even the writer thought was done. I have had just such a review recently, from a Smashwords reader of my latest novel. He wrote:

By the time his protagonist, sculptor Minus Orth, has decided to base his latest series of works on characters from classic lore, Beyer has already given his reader enough clues about the importance of the ancient Greek epics to his modern-day vision. There are chariots rolling down the streets of Manhattan, wars of wits with inscrutable fathers, aloof gods playing games with us mortals, wounded warriors waking to visions of beautiful temptresses, and a fascinating hero-in-disguise plot that unravels with amazing expertise. Orth’s ambition to succeed in the art world is a Herculean fight in our secular age, and he does battle with adversaries as dangerous in their way as anything Odysseus faced: critics, rivals, and a mentor he’s not sure he can trust.

Thanks for the accolade, Steve Farrell (himself a writer, if you hadn’t guessed; you can read the entire review here). Essentially, I hadn’t planned Minus Orth’s father to be a mythic figure, or the FaceCards (a quartet of card-playing arristocrats) as Gods-on-High messing with the pavement-bound mortals. But, within the realm of reason, as the Greek gods were themselves invented by mortals to describe life on Earth against the heavens they, lowly mortals, didn’t understand, it’s easy to see how regular, everyday life can be seen as bits of an epic.

While I’ll take good music from whichever direction I hear it, I’m humble enough to understand that I mustn’t take this review too seriously. Whom do I really believe — the reviewer who loves me, or the reviewer who says “he doesn’t have what it takes”? I have to believe in myself, and my writing, and, naturally, in the characters I create for the stories I write.

From the readers’ perspective, they are only reflecting their tastes, their knowledge, their likes & dislikes, and their way of judging good writing from bad, strong characters from weak, or even too-long-a-story from the-beach-book. I know this, and also I’m part of this, both as a professional reviewer, and as a non-professional blogger.

Ultimately, what I find is that readers are looking at the books they read and see something of themselves in them, or something of the world in which they live. Or they see nothing that they recognize. Both are mirrors, but, where one is looked at into the light of day, another is looked at into a prism, where all that dissected color glosses the true palate.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Seeing in the Mind

I often write & talk about metaphorical ways of seeing. Ostensibly, metaphor includes one’s senses, but I haven’t focus on the senses. It’s high time to change that:

The very senses that let us get through the day help us writers create metaphor: smell, taste, heard sounds, the visual antidote to basic life — these all generate associations that get us to use one thing to describe another.
Do any of us focus on our senses more than normally? Perhaps not often, anyway. Yogis, sure; and when you’re about to eat, or while drinking a good glass of red wine. We take for granted our senses’ at-the-ready use-ness they provide. I certainly do too often. This is not the case for the blind, deaf, and I suppose mute … even those mildly so. I can’t comment on their experiences, only my subtle renditions of those afflictions when I walk around in the dark, or my ears get plugged with wax (a strange affliction that just hangs on from childhood), and perhaps also when I’m set speechless at the sight of something that boggles my mind.

When I go to sleep each night, I place a glass of water on a side table for that middle-night thirst attack. Once set on the night-table, I turn off the lights and there disappears one sense. Or does it fully disappear? Ray Charles spoke of remembering colors, mostly, before he went blind at age four or five. He told also how his boyhood home had a wood chopping block, a washtub in the yard, and pine trees. These are memories, of course, but they are also seeing — seeing in the mind — a way we recall the past, but also how we can invent story as well. In fact, without seeing in the mind, we often could not perform everyday tasks, and certainly not center our character(s) in a place for the reader to see, nor move them through the story with action, gesture, or reaction.

That glass of water on my night stand, in the middle of the night, with darkness around me, I reach out to grasp, but I’m unsure of its distance. I have to feel for the night-stand’s edge, and in that movement, at that moment, I see in my mind the shape of the edge, beveled, approximate distance from my already reaching hand, inches, and where on its surface I placed the glass, a hand’s-length behind the edge. The memory of putting that glass on the table before sleep and turning out the light was enough, I suppose, to link the thought with the action.

This seems almost too obvious to care about, but think of one seeing-in-the-mind act you perform often, even daily. Let’s stay with the idea of a darkened room, a room of your choice, a room you know well. You’re already seeing this room, aren’t you? With the lights off, then, you need to get across the room, maneuver through furniture, find a light switch or doorknob, just to get to the bathroom, or to the refrigerator, or the closet door. So you make your way through the room, knowing somewhat where your couch is in relation to your body, how many steps to the end of the couch, the turn through the space between couch and table, then across a stretch of carpet or floor (onto a rug?), close now to the light switch, feel the wall at the edge, the correct height, and … click … you’ve got lighted vision again. Easy, right? Sure.

Now think about that one time where you needed to walk in the dark, but through a completely unfamiliar room. You step like a baby, your arms stretched out — or one stretched out while the other guards your eyes and head — feeling, groping for a chair or sofa back, something that’s familiar in shape anyway; you knock things over, stub a toe, even walk into a wall. Here lies the difference between seeing in the mind without promptings or memory, and what we experience every day in our own homes.

Most people call this, I guess, “visualization.” What does that really mean, though? Try saying it: “I ‘visualized’ the car.” Huh? No, no! We say, “I see” when someone is explaining an event, telling a story, or working through a thought. “Seeing” is the word; “seeing in the mind” the concept behind the words. This phrase is at our fingertips, and it was used in the methodology within the writing program at Columbia College Chicago, where I earned my MFA and also taught for several years.

Seeing in the mind is, likewise, the way writers write, painters paint, and even how photographers “see” a shot (or set it up in their minds) before finding the moment to release the shutter. Perhaps, even, seeing in the mind is one way musicians put together a tune. Well … can they only hear the notes in their heads? Guitarists, pianists, flutists, violinists, all must place their fingers on the instrument before anything auditory happens.

Perhaps then, seeing in the mind is our way to structure the world. Our first world, of course, is our minds. All those thoughts bring so many sights that we have to somehow organize them, even as one quickly jumps (or melds) into another.

Memory. Seeing. Speech. Aroma. Associative elements. Metaphor. These play integral roles in many of the creative minds’ lives. Philosophers have spoken about one from another.

As a last thought, I’d like to say something to the legacy of that famous philosopher who asked the question, “When I leave a room where a chair sits, is that chair still in the room?”

Here’s my answer: If you leave the room, you no longer see the chair, and therefore cannot prove that the chair exists. Well then, if you turn out the lights, you have just as much ability to question the chair’s existence. So turn out the lights, walk across the room, and when you kick that chair and fracture a toe, your scream will tell you the truth about that chair’s existence.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.