In today's guest post, BookPage contributor Carla Jean Whitley discusses what it's like to go from critic to critiqued on the eve of the publication of her first book.
I was recently part of a group of readers who were assessing recent reads and recommending a variety of books. A dozen people curled themselves around cups of coffee in the second-story nook of my local bookstore, eager to hear what upcoming books the booksellers would suggest.
Some of those gathered—including me—were equally excited to share the best books we’d read lately. But as the conversation grew more analytical, I was taken aback by a realization: Soon, readers could be assessing my book.
I’ve grown accustomed to reviewing other people’s work. Review writing was my favorite course in grad school, and my first writing paycheck was for a book review. I’ve reviewed books and music for much of the 10 years since that first piece was published. I try to consider the reader or listener, not the author or musician, when I write a review; even so, I’m keenly aware that there’s nothing to be gained in beating up on an artist. Even when I’m editing at my full-time magazine job or grading the work of college students, I’m quick to offer criticism coupled with praise.
Will reviewers be so kind when they read my work?
My first book, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music, goes on sale today. It’s a history of a tiny recording studio in northwest Alabama and how it became a destination for artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, The Black Keys and the Rolling Stones. Eleven-and-a-half months lapsed between the day I received a signed book contract and the moment I hit send on an email containing my manuscript. I spent those days buried in research, poring over album reviews and old interviews, watching documentaries and searching for mentions of the historic Alabama recording studio. And as I did, I battled the voices in my head, which were quick to assess every stroke of the keyboard.
As I wrote, I often returned to my writing mantra, care of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: shitty first drafts. I practice this daily as a magazine editor, but writing a book amplified every insecurity I’ve got. Rather than obsessing about whether people would like the book, if it would sell well or what I might write in the future, I labored to redirect my attention to the thing I know best: Writing.
After months of questioning myself—but never the story of this remarkable recording studio—I’m ready to hold the finished product in my hands.
Carla Jean Whitley is a writer, editor and teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is managing editor of Birmingham magazine. She is a regular BookPage contributor, and is still talking about her favorite book of 2013, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Carla Jean volunteers with literacy organizations and teaches journalism at the University of Alabama and Samford University. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.com.
Author photo by Cheryl Joy Miner.
Today on the Book Case, we're featuring a post by music writer—and Nick Hornby reader—Carla Jean Whitley, who gave the new album from Hornby and Nashville musician Ben Folds a spin. How do the lyrics of Lonely Avenue compare to Hornby's novels and short stories? Find out.
Nick Hornby has practically made a career of being a music fan. Though he’s written a number of novels and books of essays, the success of High Fidelity (and its mark as required reading in the libraries of most 20- and 30-something men) cast him as the listener, the man who takes as much comfort in his CD collection (or vinyl, or mp3—whatever it is you listen to these days) as he does in anything else. Last year’s Juliet, Naked only solidified Hornby’s reputation as a writer who loves to write about music.
But last month, Hornby also stepped into the limelight as a writer who also writes for music. On Sept. 28, Ben Folds’ Lonely Avenue, for which Hornby wrote the lyrics, was released by Nonesuch Records.
It’s an interesting twist of fate for a novelist who once wrote, upon hearing the soundtrack to the film adaptation of his book About a Boy, “Seeing one’s words converted into Hollywood cash is gratifying in all sorts of ways, but it really cannot compare to the experience of hearing them converted into music: for someone who has to write books because he cannot write songs, the idea that a book might somehow produce a song is embarrassingly thrilling.”
Better yet, an essay earlier in the book from which that line was taken—Songbook, a collection of 31 essays about songs—centered on a Ben Folds song.
Hornby analyzed “Smoke,” declaring Folds “a proper songwriter, although he doesn’t seem to get much credit for it, possibly because rock critics are less impressed by sophisticated simplicity than by sub-Dylanesque obfuscation: his words wouldn’t look so good written down, but he has range.” Now, Hornby has become precisely that kind of lyricist.
Even in this shorter form of writing, Hornby exhibits the same wit, sarcasm and character development as in his novels. And just as in his fiction, the characters aren’t always likable at first glance. But Hornby provides a glimpse into each person’s motivation and character. In the opening track, “A Working Day,” the narrator vacillates from being his own biggest fan to his own worst critic, neatly capturing the artist’s struggle.
“Levi Johnston’s Blues,” the chorus of which was inspired by Bristol Palin’s now-ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile, is the story of an 18-year-old boy who finds himself surrounded by the paparazzi and sorting through what matters to him after impregnating the vice presidential candidate’s daughter. It’s a tale we’ve heard plenty of over the past several years, but Hornby’s lyrics offer insight into what Johnston may have thought as he faced both the media and fatherhood.
From start to finish, the songs on Lonely Avenue are often every bit as quotable and sarcastic—and with Folds’ music, even more infectious—as Hornby’s literary work.
It's always a thrill to see one of our contributors publish works of their own. The most recent BookPage writer to add something to the bookshelves of the world is Michael Alec Rose, a Vanderbilt professor and composer whose collection of essays on music, Audible Signs, has just been published by Continuum. Below, Rose explains the inspiration behind his collection.
I wrote Audible Signs for anybody who loves music, for everybody who feels passionately that this love can be investigated but never fully explained, for all who seek (like me) new ways of conversing intelligently about music, new strategies to honor both its exceptional clarity of feeling and its irreducible mystery.
The impetus to compose these “Essays from a Musical Ground” goes back to 1991, when I launched a newsletter called Musings, my way of keeping in musical touch with far-flung friends, some of whom play an active role in Audible Signs (I couldn’t have written the book without them). Musings ran to a single issue: Marriage, commissions for new musical works, parenthood, all intervened. But that essay—Vol. 1, No. 1—haunted me down the years and led to further essays, some for my students at Vanderbilt University, others for concertgoers in Nashville who enjoy grand opera at least as much as the Grand Old Opry. The lone issue of Musings now serves its turn in Audible Signs: it has been revised, expanded and mounted as one piece of artillery in my fourfold assault (Chapter 4) on Alex Ross’ best-selling book on 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise.
The co-mingling of “Hey Jude,” Beethoven’s Ninth, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet #8 (in Chapters 2 and 3) springs from ongoing conversations over the years with students in my Beethoven and the Beatles course. I started “ Letter to My Daughter” a few years ago, but it was only last winter—as I was finishing the book—that Regina Spektor came into view as an ally of Rembrandt. The other essays in Audible Signs—including one on Springsteen and Brahms as spiritual cohorts—are newly minted, struck with the hot iron of all the great music reverberating between its two covers.
A further word about my argument with Ross, for those readers who (I hope) will have fun reading Chapter 4. First things first: just as there is no need to have listened to the music I write about in Audible Signs before reading it, it’s not required to read Ross’ book before diving into my disputation with him. I could easily have written at length about the things I enjoy in The Rest Is Noise. Why, then, in Audible Signs have I lodged such a litany of grievances against a book I generally admire? What’s at stake here is a principle that drives everything in my book—an idea that motivates all my work, all the more so the music I compose:
We show our love for people and things by paying close attention to them, by putting them at the center of our imaginative regard and celebrating them in all their complexity. My goal in cataloguing the shortcomings of Ross’ The Rest Is Noise is to encourage both his readers and mine to love more richly the difficult musical repertory he and I are both tackling. Perhaps I have taken my notion of “tackling” a bit too far in my pugnacious attitude towards Ross. Therefore, I’m grateful to have this opportunity to say once again that I remain a faithful—i.e., disputatious—fan of Ross’ writings on music.
I hope you will enjoy Audible Signs in the same spirit!
You can find out more about Rose and Audible Signs on his website, where you can also listen to some of his music. Read all of Michael Rose's reviews for BookPage. Curious about The Rest Is Noise? Visit Alex Ross' website.