This is the first in an occasional series on BiblioBuffet’s contributors. You’ll get to know a bit about who they are and how they came to be part of BiblioBuffet.
I am the luckiest editor-in-chief in the world, and the reason I feel that way is due in large part to Nicki Leone, Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet.
Nicki and I were both members of a now-defunct book discussion group called Readerville. Though I had long admired her erudite and informative posts, I never corresponded privately with her. Then in mid-2005, Nicki posted a comment that made me take special note: the bookstore she had managed for fifteen years was going to close.
Such news is never good when it means the loss of a job, especially a job one loves. Fortunately, Nicki was immediately snapped up by SIBA or the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance to do marketing, programming, and whatever else might need doing. (She also has an alternate persona there as Lady Banks.) Faster even than SIBA was me. I e-mailed her the moment I read her post to ask if she would consider coming aboard the soon-to-be launched BiblioBuffet. She agreed, and six months later began “A Reading Life,” her bi-weekly column which has continued since then.
Somewhere around the early summer of 2007, an opportunity—otherwise known as an internal crisis—arose that created the need for additional editorial controls, and Nicki accepted my offer to become Managing Editor. As such, she has become my confidante, my partner, my mentor, and the other half of the heart-and-soul of BiblioBuffet.
I find myself impressed and occasionally awed by her critiques of the writers’ submissions. She doesn’t mince words, nor does she patronize or criticize. Rather, Nicki has the ability to combine a critique, additional information, probing questions, thoughts, humor, and resources into one letter that ends up in the writer producing “writing worth reading.” How does she do that?
There are a couple of guiding principles I seem to have organically developed. I don’t, for example, like it when writers excuse themselves by claiming ignorance . . . I think I almost always make writers revise when they take that tack in their pieces. I’m a great believer in “owning” your opinions!
I also have learned to watch that every statement or opinion is backed up or justified. So no saying “this is a really great book” without saying why. And I’ll occasionally—very occasionally—offer the columnist my opinion if I think they misinterpreted what they read.
Finally, I try to make sure that all three perspectives are given a fair shake—the reviewer’s, the author’s, and the book’s. Especially that last, since ultimately I assume that BiblioBuffet’s readers want to know about the book.
Nicki and David gave me permission to quote from the critique she sent him on his current column, a review of Shambling Towards Hiroshima. David’s initial submission had some problems, which Nicki diagnosed while offering suggestions of the best kind:
I had real trouble with this paragraph, because your initial angle, that you just “don’t get” satire, immediately undercuts your authority in reviewing the book. I find myself wondering if it is really true? Do you not understand satire? Can you think of no satire that you found effective? Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind, as does the television show (and movie) M*A*S*H.
Here is what Webster’s says [about satire]:
1 : a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
2 : trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly
In both those definitions, the key is that “wit, irony and sarcasm” are being used to EXPOSE folly. That is a very specific form of attack. In general, I think, satire does this by exaggerating something to the point of absurdity to show its folly or hubris. It sounds like, in the case of Morrow—and I’m extrapolating here from what you’ve written—he’s commenting on the idea of weapons of mass destruction being somehow for the greater good. We’re used to the fact of nuclear weapons. We’ve assimilated their existence into our daily lives. But replace them with, say, giant lizards, and it is obvious how crazy it is to live with such a thing.
The problem with your approach is not that you didn’t like the book, but that you say the reason you didn’t like the book is because you are too dumb to get satire. (Which I’m sure isn’t true!) The only conclusion a reader can draw from such a statement is that if you don’t understand satire, then your opinion about the book isn’t valid—you’ve admitted that you aren’t capable of understanding the basic premise of the entire story.
Since I am quite positive that isn’t the case, I think what you should be asking yourself is simply whether Morrow’s satire is equal to the task the author set himself—critiquing an event as horrific as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you look at it in this light, you can decide whether his satire is able to overcome all our usual horrified reactions to the bombs in order to make his point. I’m guessing that in your opinion, it isn’t. That the book is only readable when you are “…not thinking about the deeper significance of what [you are] reading.”
That’s a pretty damning statement on the success of the book, and what I think should be your focal point of your review.
It is possible, of course to read a book and find it just doesn’t “click.” But when that happens, as a reviewer you have to stop and tell your readers why, and you have to be specific. There is always a reason a book doesn’t work, and it’s your job to figure out what that is, even if you suspect the issue is your own preferences, not the writer’s talent.
Tell me what you think. I’d like to see you revise your approach somewhat so that its clear to your readers that the problem you had with the book isn’t that you “don’t get” satire, but that in your opinion, Morrow’s satirical approach didn’t overcome your own natural gravity on the subject.
You can see the result here. Her intent and her success at eliciting “writing worth reading” without interjecting her own voice makes her editing, for all of us at BiblioBuffet, “worth listening to.”
Though she has no formal training in content editing, her managerial experience, extensive reading, instinctive people skills, overriding passion for literary excellence, and high ethical standards has imbued our publication with style and elegance because all of us strive to meet her standards.
Not long ago, Lauren Baratz-Logsted called BiblioBuffet the “New Yorker of the Internet,” and Nicki and I both want to live up to that honorable title. It’s our work together along with the contributors that helps us achieve that. I owe more than I can say to Nicki, whose words you will never see except in her column, but whose spirit infuses the site as much as my own.
Note: I sent this off to Nicki for comment prior to posting it. Her response is worth posting too: You say lots of nice things—thank you! And really, thank you because you gave me the opportunity to try my hand at editing and you’ve been so supportive. So really most of the credit is due to you for being the kind of publisher who allows your employees to find their best level.