You may have noticed that near the middle of next week, a post appeared on this blog called “Judging a Book by its Jacket Cover” which took aim at the jacket photos of two authors, Jesse Ball and Peter Hessler. Just as quickly, the post disappeared. Written while in a rotten mood and posted immediately without time for contemplation or revision, it was, to put it nicely, not the best thing I’ve ever written. Here are two things I learned from it:
1. My grammar sucks.
Kathy, from Kathy Loves to Read, pointed out to me in a message that my title “Judging a Book By It’s Jacket Cover” was like ‘having a bit of spinach’ in my teeth. The improper use of the contraction it’s rather than the possessive its is a middle school mistake, one that I berate my ESL learners about regularly. It is embarrassing that it slipped through, and in the title no less.
And, more importantly…
2. The post was a little mean.
A day or so after putting the post up, I received the following comment:
I would disagree that an author photo is a “planned image designed to convey a particular message.” In this case, the publisher commissioned a picture, so my photographer friend Mark Leong came over and we took a few shots on the street behind my apartment in Beijing. It probably took five minutes, a relatively easy way for Mark to make a little money, although I think he took no pleasure in the assignment. Like many shy people, I do not enjoy being photographed and my discomfort usually shows. I know a lot of writers who fall into this category. So if we absolutely must find a message in this image, I would describe it as, “I’m not thrilled that I’m doing this, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not very important. I assume that most people will not make sweeping generalizations based on my appearance, and hopefully they will understand that a writer should be judged for his writing, not his face.” I think it’s fine to make jokes about a picture, but the tone here seems a little presumptuous and mean-spirited.
“River Town” is a nonfiction book. I’m not sure what you mean by “realistically dubious” and “misleading,” but it sounds as if you are accusing me of some kind of dishonesty. It’s a serious charge and should not be made without evidence or reason.
Mr. Hessler is absolutely right. In retrospect, the post came across as a bit “mean-spirited” and “presumptuous.” While I was trying to make a serious point while being kinda funny, my intentions did not translate that well. My point, that author photos can affect the reader’s experience is a valid one. However, my execution of said point, while being at times amusing, sacrificed well reasoned arguments for quick laughs when it could have had both.
Also, my glib comments about his book, River Town, were very poorly chosen. While I have personal issues with his book, I did not mean to impugn the author’s integrity. In the future, there will be a more detailed look at River Town where I can examine it, and my personal feelings and prejudices, a bit more thoroughly and fairly.
I don’t make a mea culpa lightly but a blogger has a responsibility to support his/her argument when attacking an author or book. While my choice of words about the author photos might be justifiable (if not altogether kind), accusing a book of being “misleading” is much more serious and needs reasonable justification – which I did not give.
The purpose of this blog has always been the serious discussion of books and reading. The last post missed its mark in this regard and, thus, has no place here. So, my apologies to Peter Hessler and, to a lesser extent, Jesse Ball for my comments.