Sunday, December 6, 2009

Reviewer Time: Joe Sherry [Adventures in Reading]

We’ve officially crossed into December “Reviewer Time” waters [ignore the out-of-schedule Mark & Liz episode] and we do so with another old dog in the blogosphere, who’s been working on his blog since 2004. I am talking about Joe Sherry from “Adventures in Reading”.

Sadly, I haven’t been a regular visitor to “Adventures in Reading”, so a great insight and a lot of commentary I can’t provide about the blog and the blogger, so I am as much as new visitor to his work as you guys are. So let’s explore his website together in greater detail. I certainly knew the blog before the current layout and have to say that in design it certainly has evolved for the better, because with the last template it resembled too much other blogs, including my own, which is why I also switched, but let’s not sidetrack too much.

Let’s get down to business now shall we. As far as reviews go, Joe opposed to what he says about his activity does provide a healthy monthly amount of posts that keep the interest alive and he is quite the reader with a lot of books finished each month, an amount which certainly makes me motivated to devote more time to my reading. The titles he covers are more in the fantasy department than science fiction, but he doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two genres as he is hooked on covering the awards every year.

Basically what Joe does is not only cover the results from the Awards along with the nominee lists, but he also goes on to comment on the nominees, posts comprehensive reviews and pays the necessary coverage of these events, the likes of which I haven’t seen done and for me certainly counts as good reading material.


HM: Hey Joe, welcome, make yourself comfortable and let's get cracking. First up, who is Joe Sherry, when he logs off from "Adventures in Reading"?

JS: I don't know, man. I'm just a guy. 30 years old. Live in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I think Minnesota is absolutely delightful and a beautiful place to live. I've got a day job, but there's some stuff that I don't talk about in public. I don't know how to talk about myself, so I think we're going to move right along here.

HM: The basic duo questions here are once more applied. What sparked your passion for reading and what brought you into speculative fiction?

JS: I can't answer what sparked my passion for reading. I've been reading something since I was three years old and I can't remember a time when I wasn't reading. What I can answer is why spec fic.

When I was in seventh grade I overheard a couple of kids in my class talking about this great new series of books that was so adult and that the other kids in the class weren't mature enough for. Those books were funny and fun and full of adventure and did I mention adult?

They were talking about the Xanth novels from Piers Anthony.

After that school year my parents moved from New York to Minnesota and I had a small town library with a librarian who supported SFF and I was hooked. I loved those early Xanth novels, moved into David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Raymond Feist and I never looked back.

HM: What prompted you start "Adventures in Reading" and where do you see yourself taking your blog right now?

JS: For the start, a couple of things really. I've been blogging since late 2001, originally back on Diary-X back when it still existed. That was a more personal blog, though I posted the occasional review there. My reviewing life started on Amazon April 2000 when I posted a review of Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty, but the reviewing didn't pick up a year or two later.

The blog, though? The first post was June 18, 2004. I wrote about various books, some movies, just random stuff. At the time I called it "This Reading Life".

I started it because I was becoming tired of posting reviews on Amazon, though that would continue for a while. I wanted something more interactive, something more personal. I had no focus. It wasn't until later when I switched the name that I decided I wanted it to be a book blog. Only a book blog. When I started the blog I didn't know anything about this "blogosphere" or other blogs of the ilk. I just wanted to write about the stuff that I liked. I knew a bit more later, though I don't think I really feel like I'm part of a particular "community", at least not that one. It seems like the bloggers I read all knew each other from the same forum(s) and I'm not part of that. Which is fine.

Where do I see the blog going? All things being equal, more of the same. Hopefully just more of it. I enjoy writing about the various awards and catching up on those short stories. If anything, I'd like to be more consistent in reading and writing about short fiction. I'd like to be more consistent, I guess. Focused. I'm not. That's okay, too.

I take this blogging thing as it comes, do the best I can on any given day for whatever that means. Right now I'm content with it. When I'm not, I'll change things as needed.

HM: I am also on an organizational buzz and while I am figuring how to create a schedule to accommodate responsibilities and my interest, I want to know how other people cope with time deficiency. How do you find your reading time?

JS: Honestly, I think I have less pull on my time than other people my age do. I don't have kids, and that's a big one. Reading is one of my primary forms of entertainment and it is a priority for me. I make time to read, whether just before bed or on my lunch break or a bit when I don't feel like watching television. I'm also a fairly fast reader for most books.

HM: Let's hit the nostalgia button and transport you back to the very first review you've ever written. What was the book that prompted you to review it and what drove you to take up review blogging in the first place?

JS: My first review was on Amazon and it was a very, very short review of Fiona Apple's second album When the Pawn..., but the first book review was Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty. I read it my junior year of college and I don't know, I just appreciated Shalit's thoughtful take on Modesty as something that can and should be taken as a point of pride and not an object of scorn. I thought it was a beautiful book and as far as I know, I just wanted to say *something*.

I'd like to say I was off to the races, by next review didn't appear on Amazon for nearly a year, and unlike Shalit's book, I wrote out of disappointment in Don DeLillo's The Body Artist. After Underworld, man, The Body Artist was a huge disappointment. Still don't have the heart to re-read it. I didn't have much style back then, and the reviews certainly weren't very long, but the more I did it the more interested I was in writing about books. Otherwise, origin story up
on #3.

HM: What do you like best about reviewing and what is the worst aspect
from being a review blogger?

JS: Is there a worst aspect? This is supposed to be fun, man.

The best? Did you know that writers are people? Seriously. It's not that on an intellectual level I thought there were these plug-and-play book machines just cranking out awesomeness-by-the-book-full, but like actors or professional athletes, writers were these distant and mythical creatures. They probably had sparkly unicorn horns for all I knew.

The best part is that because of some e-mails with authors, some initiated by the writer, I realized that they were people like you or me. Now, grant that I don't really know how to talk to people in general, but that was still cool. Because of this I went to my first convention a couple years ago (Fourth Street Fantasy) and met some of the people who made the words appear and they're pretty awesome people. I mean, besides making the words appear awesome. One hooked me on Criminal Minds and now that's one of my favorite shows on television.

The best part is that it opened my world in a way that I wouldn't have expected in 2000 when I wrote about A Return to Modesty or in 2004 when I first started That-Which-Became-a-Blog. I'm never going to call it that again. That's just horrendous. I don't know how Jo Rowling pulled off not naming Voldemort (and she did).

HM: What is the essential method for you to create a review? Do you finish it up all at once or do you write it in segments, how often do you revise, etc.?

JS: Umm...I start at the top of the page and write until I get to the bottom? I don't really have one. Generally I'll write from start to finish, glance it over to catch anything extra-stupid, and release it. Sometimes I'll think of a point I want to make when I'm not working on the review that fits near the end, so I just drop it in there.

It really depends, though. Certain books require a bit more attention than others. I've tried to be more thoughtful in reviewing L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan novels because Duchamp's writing demands that time and thought. Others I can crank out nearly fully formed in my head.

I'm not a big reviser, though. Never have been. I have some editorial oversight at Fantasy Magazine that has helped me make fewer bald statements without explanation, but I think this also goes back to college.

Drs. Westerholm and De Jong team taught my first college English course and they explained to the class that we could take any position we wanted on a book so long as the text supported the position and we could back it up. They also required that any question be answered with at least five supporting sentences and preferably an example from the text. The text trumps all.

I don't always (or often) live up to their teaching and their example in my reviews, but it has definitely shaped me. It's the reason why a yes / no question is never a question with a one-word answer. Say "yes" and not provide five supporting sentences? Blasphemy.

Plus, I'm just a wordy bastard.

HM: Have you ever felt like abandoning it whole, because the world pressed you on reading and blogging time?

JS: Note my lack of consistency in updating every day. I frequently want to do more than I do, but I'm either uninspired or too busy and sometimes I just don't get around to it. That's okay, I think. I do best when I get on a roll and can build up several days worth of posts in one day and can stagger them out. That way I can take time off and the posts keep rolling out.

But quit the blog?

Dude, this is *fun*. I don't get paid, it's not an obligation. I do it because I want to.

HM: Thanksgiving has passed recently and since I don't live in the country, I am curious to hear about the holiday. Did you induce a food coma and even if it's a holiday dedicated to family did your reading addiction manage to snatch a time slot in the house?

JS: There's *always* time for books.

HM: While we are on the Holiday season vibe December is here and guess that means Christmas can't be very far. What's your wish list and also how many books do you estimate you will get from it?

JS: Aww, man, I'm 30. The wish list works very differently these days, though the parents insist on receiving a list. Because I'm such good friends with my library card and can buy the books I really, really need to own (assuming I don't receive them to review), I don't do much with books on the Christmas list. At least, not in genre.

But there's this awesome winter coat I want to get from J. Crew...

HM: Have you had the idea to sit down and take a stab at writing?

JS: Writing fiction, you mean? I've written a small handful of stories and have proudly collected my rejections, but not seriously. I'm not all that interested in writing fiction.

I did do NaNoWriMo a couple years back and completed my first novel which NOBODY will ever see. See #14 for why. It's just not good, man. There were vampires. They didn't sparkle, but still.

Nah, man. I don't have the drive nor the discipline to really try my hand at fiction of any length.

HM: It's undeniable that sadly we have less and less time on our hands, which means that as reviewers we have a fattening of the TBR piles. What does your TBR list look like?

JS: I've got two answers to this.

First, my TBR pile consists of everything which I've heard of and want to read and also everything I haven't yet heard of but would surely want to read. It will never end.

If I ignore the books I have purchased and haven't read or have on hold at the library, and only consider the books on my To Read and Review pile...


I don't imagine I'll get to all of that, but I've got some awesomness in there which I'd like to read *anyway*

HM: As social networks grow, countless new sites that measure ranks pop up and more of us show at the blogging party have you officially entered the web hits war? I know there is one, even if it is silent, since we all want to be taken seriously and counted as reliable sources for information and critique and numbers prove that. Where do you stand on this subject matter?

JS: Eh...

I want to say that I don't care a lick about that, but let's be honest here. It would be pretty damn cool if I had a million hits a day and folks thought I was THE authority. Shoot, even AN authority.

I'm also a fairly realistic person, though. THAT is never going to happen and if it did, it would be a pure fluke and not because I'm inherently more awesome than everyone else out there. I'm well aware of my limitations and I can't do what Larry Nolan does. I respect the intelligence and critical thoughtfulness to his reviews. He's done some really cool stuff over at OF Blog of the Fallen. That's not the question, but I think Larry does some of the best work of our fellow bloggers.

But actually, that IS the question. The cream rises to the top. Mostly. If you're a smart blogger with something to say, people are going to notice. Forget about the million hits for a moment. I think this goes for anything in life, actually, but if you do a good job people are going to notice. Maybe not a million people, but smart people who value other smart people are going to notice and THOSE are the people who will be taken seriously and counted as a reliable source of information. It'll be the people who ARE reliable sources of information and SHOULD be taken seriously. They will be.

Of course we all want to be taken seriously, but I think we have to be honest about what we're doing. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm not doing this for the hits. I'm doing this because I enjoy it, because it is something that is just *me*. It's mine. Yeah I check my stats and yeah I check to see if anyone is linking to me, but given my daily numbers, after five years I better not be doing this just for the hits.

HM: Publishing is evolving and changing. Conventional publication makes a few inches space for new forms to arise and one of them is self-publishing. Do you estimate that it will evolve into a reputable form with well regarded titles in the future and what is your opinion of it now?

JS: I don't have an inherent issue with self-publishing per se, because I think it can be valuable for people looking to produce a small number of copies of their manuscripts for whatever reason. Shoot, John Scalzi will self publish early copies of his manuscripts for personal and family use.

As a reader, though, I have a deep seated prejudice against self-published books put out to market. There will always be an exception to every rule, and there will always be the story of the writer who self-published and became a successful author. But what you will almost always find out about those rare stories is that they led to traditional publication and that the writer did not go back to self-publishing.

Unless we are talking about an instance where a previously published author did not sell enough copies of the previous book that she was able to sell her next to a reputable publisher and only then turned to self-publishing (take Charles Saunders and his Imaro books for an example of this), my view of writers trying to pass their
self-published work off as legitimate is this:

Publishing has a number of filters to keep the crap away from the books I really want to read. First is the agent. If you cannot get an agent to represent you, you may be unlucky, but it probably means that your fiction is not good enough yet. Second is the publisher. If you cannot get a publisher to give you money to publish your book, I can only assume that it means that your book was not good enough. Write another one and try again. If that fails, write another one and try again. Yes, maybe just maybe the agent and publisher did not recognize your genius, but if you really are a genius, you'll sell your next book. Or the next one.

I WANT those filters in place. If you think that some published authors are just no good and that anybody can write a better book, imagine what is sitting in the slush pile of life and thank your lucky stars that that those publishing filters are there and that you don't have to slog through even more dreck to find the good stuff.

That's not to mention the hard work the publishers put in to make the manuscript a writer turns in even better.

HM: Speaking of changes in the industry, you must have heard about the Harlequin fiasco with the launch of their own vanity press and the strategy behind utilizing it to make profits. This has got to be a very interesting situation to watch unwind since so many organizations are rapidly reacting like RAW removing Harlequin from its list eligible publishers to the MWA and SFWA, who are taking similar actions. What do you feel about the whole situation?

JS: I'm aware of the situation and I have an opinion, but you know what they say about opinions...everybody has one. I don't feel like I know enough about this particular situation to be able to speak intelligently about it.

In general, though, I'm not a fan of vanity presses. I think it's a sucker's game to leech money away from people who haven't done their homework and think they are getting far more than they are. Money should flow to the writer, not away from.

HM: And as technology creeps in and the physical book is fought for dominance by the electronic copies, what do you think of the new e-book phenomenon?

JS: I'm old school, man. I like having a physical copy in my hand, I love the smell of my public library, and I love browsing my local SFF used bookstore Uncle Hugo's. That said, if I had an affordable and quality e-book reader, I might feel differently. It's just not a priority, though.

The marketplace hasn't figured out what the proper price point is for e-books and Amazon seems to be artificially setting a number that has nothing to do with the non-printing costs of putting out a quality product.

Not sure I have a real thought here. What's going to happen is going to happen. I just hope that my favorite authors will be able to make money at it if the marketplace changes.

HM: Also I have been drowning in genres that keeping sprouting everywhere and all definitions cause my brain to melt down. Truth is that to me the lines between genres are blurring into obscurity. Could this mean a possible post-genre future?

JS: Post genre future? Never happen. What I mean is that while I don't know if there will be a blurring of what happens between the covers of a book, genre is ultimately a publishing and a sales category. Genre categorization is good for booksellers to group books into sort-of-kind-of-similar sections, and that's good for the "average reader" (or the average reader's mom) to walk into a bookstore and know where to find what they are looking for.

Now, grouping China Mieville, Elizabeth Bear, and David Eddings under the same heading of "fantasy" is ludicrous, but at least you know that this is where the impossible is shelved. Except when Audrey Niffenegger is shelved under General Fiction / Literature because it'll sell better there.

Which is all to say that while I think that there is a chance that some of the categories of genre will change; I don't think that genre itself will disappear. It's a useful method of talking about and identifying books in the simplest of terms. You want a Mystery or a Western or a Science Fiction novel? You know where to look.

HM: Please finish with your own words.

JS: Thanks, man. It was fun.


Ben said...

Great interview Harry, as usual. And as a former Minneapolis resident myself I have to second Joe's love for Minneapolis; best city in the States IMHO.

Val said...

One of my favourite book blogs. Keep up the good work Joe!

Harry Markov said...

Thanks for stopping by guys and yeah, Joe is a nice guy. Persistent and I certainly hope to reach the longevity of his blog. :)

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