For those who want to make a living as writers, the situation grows more dire every day. There are increasingly fewer publications that review books, and space in the ones that remain is reserved mainly for celebrity and political bios and big-name novelists whose works are supported by large advertising budgets. Funny how that works out.
But you’ve got to believe in yourself before anyone else will. If you can’t get somebody else to review your book, why not review it yourself?
Mark Twain did. So did Samuel Langhorne Clemens, so that’s two Famous Writers right there.
Twain was a master of the literary hoax, passing off invented characters as real in squibs written for seat-of-the-pants newspapers that sprang up like mushrooms after a rain—and lived about as long–in the mid-19th century following advances in printing technology. Those publications were desperate for copy and less interested in fact-checking than making a splash, and Twain wrote more than one review of his own work that he palmed off on such papers, often generously waiving his freelance fee. As a critic, he found his writing to be exceptional, well worth the reader’s time and money. In this regard, Twain was ahead of his time and other, less perceptive critics.
But, you say, the frontier closed long ago, stealing a line from Frederick Jackson Turner, and he’d like it back, please. Where am I going to find a similar wide-open space in the 21st century where lawlessness reigns and the only rule is what you can get away with?
As the man said to his wife when she caught him looking at porn websites—“Duh, that’s what the internet is for!” Every major on-line bookstore accepts, nay encourages readers to submit anonymous reviews. And who better to remain anonymous about than yourself?
Of course you’ll need an assumed name or your ruse will be too transparent. Twain had a large collection, including “Sergeant Fathom” and “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins.” Where can one find a dependable, low-mileage, one-owner nommes de plume these days, after so many reviewers were retired as part of the Obama administration’s “Cash-for-Critics” buy-back program.
I don’t know about you, but I find the roll of former U.S. Secretaries of Commerce to be a mother lode of potential book reviewers’ names. Start at the beginning of the list with William C. Redfield, or “mix and match” pairs such as Daniel C. Roper and Roy D. Chapin, SECCOMMUS nos. 5 and 6. If you find when you get to Wikipedia they’re all taken, there’s a veritable cornucopia of current and former members of the Federal Communications Commission to choose from.
If you prefer a less WASPy-sounding name, I suggest borrowing from menus at Middle Eastern restaurants. “Sojok Ghanough” will give you an air of diversity, although there are 90 calories in just one bite.
A position as a fictitious reviewer is not open to just anyone, however. Amazon.com, for example, requires Edmund Wilson-wannabes to make a purchase, then wait 4 to 5 days before penning their first critique. While you’re cooling your heels, you can spend your free time shopping for handguns, for which the waiting period is somewhat shorter.
As a reviewer, you will be inclined to be harsh on your subject in order to establish your objectivity in the reader’s mind; this is a temptation you should resist. Come down too hard on yourself and you may be discouraged from ever writing again. Instead, note your reservations primly and diplomatically near the end of the review, right before you resume your unstinting praise of the author’s vision and the “evident merit” of his work. I borrowed that last phrase from the form email rejection that The New Yorker sends in response to “Shouts & Murmurs” submissions; I find that it never grows tiresome, no matter how many times I read it.
One frontier newspaper that Twain did not write for was the Sedalia Bazoo, published in my home town in Missouri. Its masthead bore the motto “If you don’t blow your own bazoo, no one will blow it for you.”
You can find me blowing my own bazoo on the internet. Just don’t look under my real name.