RARA-AVIS: Spirited discussions, critical reviews, and numerical arguments

From: hardcasecrime ( editor@hardcasecrime.com)
Date: 25 Jul 2005

Brian Thornton wrote:

> No offense, Charles, and if I'm out of line here,
> feel free to disregard this missive, but I find
> this passage somewhat troubling:
> "I can tell you, though, that many people don't
> agree with you. Literally every week I get e-mail
> messages from people complimenting TWO FOR THE
> MONEY and asking us to reprint more of the novels
> in the Nolan series -- and we certainly don't get
> messages like that in response to every title we
> publish."
> It just doesn't sound like a discussion we ought
> to be having on RARA AVIS. I have two Hard Case
> Crime editions in my massive TBR list, Al
> Guthrie's KISS HER GOODBYE and Stansberry's
> CONFESSION, and I was considering commenting on
> one or both of them here once I had finished them,
> since RARA AVIS is the place for discussing
> HB/Noir fiction. Now I'm not so sure.

I hope you will read those books and will feel free to comment on them -- here or elsewhere -- whether you like the books or not. I apologize if my comments made it sound like I was trying to stifle discussion. All I wanted to do was balance a set of negative statements that I believe to represent an atypical reaction to the book with information on the other side -- entirely in the spirit of the sort of spirited discussion that you endorsed later in your original message.

In a subsequent message, you clarified that you were making a slightly different point, which is that it's awkward when an author defends his own book (not what happened here) or when a publisher defends its own book (precisely what happened here), since critics might then feel uncomfortable speaking out. I think this point has merit, and I'm sorry it didn't occur to me before I sent my message. For the record, let me say this: I welcome comments on any book we publish (or for that matter any book I write), positive or negative. In the last month, I've gotten mail from people saying that PLUNDER OF THE SUN is the worst book we've published and that PLUNDER OF THE SUN is the best book we've published; same with BRANDED WOMAN, which one correspondent called "very underwhelming" while other correspondents called it everything ranging from "fun" to "brilliant." I welcome all of these comments. Obviously I'm happier when I learn that our work has pleased a reader than when someone tells me he or she was disappointed, but I want to know what people honestly think. How will we ever improve if we don't welcome criticism?

Another point you made is that it's inappropriate to refer to the
*number* of people who have written in to tell us they liked TWO FOR THE MONEY, asking (very reasonably) whether the huge number of people who like a given book (for instance, THE DA VINCI CODE) means you should read it or shouldn't criticize it. Clearly the answer is no. But at the same time, is it really meaningless for me to point out that, for instance, of the dozen or so people who have written to us about BRANDED WOMAN all but one have enjoyed the book and only one has not? I would think that this is a useful piece of information for someone to know if he's trying to decide whether or not to read the book. Note that I did not say "A lot of people have bought this book; therefore it is good" -- what I said was something more like "A lot of people have told us this book has given them pleasure, so your comment that it did not give you pleasure seems atypical rather than typical." The former strikes me as the sort of argument-from-the- numbers that you rightly despise; the latter, though, strikes me as perfectly reasonable for a literary discussion list, seeing as how it's basically just a more efficient version of, say, a dozen separate messages saying "Well, you may not have though this book was much good, but I did."

Modulo, of course, the question of trustworthiness. While I would never misrepresent the facts of a case like this, the fact that I have an obvious bias makes a certain amount of cynicism on this point entirely understandable. For this reason I agree it's better to let the dozen supporters write in one by one if they will than for me to report their comments to you in aggregate form.

Bottom line: If you read one of our books and hate it, by all means say so -- and if you want to try to persuade other people that it's bad, more power to you. That's the stuff of good debates, and I'm delighted to see it. To the extent that I disagree, I will feel free to voice my opinions -- but I'll try to confine my comments to my own opinions and to matters of literary, rather that economic, merit.

Which brings us to the question of whether "popular" equals "good." While I do know some businesspeople who would say yes and mount a spirited defense of their point of view, my answer is no. Popularity and quality sometimes coincide, but more often they don't and they're certainly not the same thing.

At Hard Case Crime, our goal is to publish good books. We would like these good books also to become popular -- but we will never publish a book we don't believe is good solely because we believe it is likely to be popular. Life's too short and integrity too dear.

With this in mind, I hereby note that the following comment from a message earlier in this thread misstates our motives:

> Not that I'm blaming HardCase for reprinting
> them, I understand Collins's draw as a name.

We didn't reprint BAIT MONEY and BLOOD MONEY as TWO FOR THE MONEY because Collins's name is "a draw." We reprinted them because I love them and wanted to share that pleasure with other readers. It's as simple as that.

In one of the last messages in the thread (so far) Mark asked, "So how are they chosen?...For instance, the cover of Branded Woman
(which I am currently enjoying) notes that it's by the same author as Touch of Evil and Plunder of the Sun (which I also enjoyed immensely) is blurbed as from the author of To Catch a Thief. So why those two books and not the ones the movies were based on? Or why that Al Colby book by David Dodge and not the first in the series?"

The answer is that I didn't like the other Al Colby books when I read them; PLUNDER OF THE SUN is the only one I felt holds up well after more than half a century. As for why we didn't reprint TOUCH OF EVIL and TO CATCH A THIEF, I thought that, other things being equal, it would be more fun to introduce readers to books they'd never heard of than to re-introduce them to stories they thought they knew.

Best, Charles

RARA-AVIS home page: http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/
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