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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Readalike Authors Reviewing Each Other

Anyone who has read this blog for even a few days knows that the RA's bread and butter is trying to boil down the main appeal of an author for a specific reader and then try to match the "why" that specific reader likes a book with another book.  You cannot match subjects headings.  You need to match the feel of the book.  The reason that a specific patron likes that specific book or author needs to be matched with another specific book or author. [For more on appeal, click here for one of my early blog posts where I define appeal and how the RA uses it.]

This is not easy to do.  I basically spend the entire semester trying to reinforce this point to the graduate students.  By the end, 99% get it.  But it takes practice and work.  You not only have to read a lot of books, but you have to read a lot ABOUT books and why people like them (or don't like them).  Even after 10.5 years of being a readers' advisor, I can tell you there are days when I am not sure I am succeeding.  I make a suggestion to a patron and then wonder if I made the right suggestion.  It is not a science, but an art.  There is no right answer.

And then there are days like yesterday, when I felt like a rock star.  I subscribe to the Washington Post's RSS feed for their book coverage.  Upon reading through the posts yesterday I found this review of Kevin Brockmeier's Illumination by Keith Donohue.  In his review, Donohue also mentions that Brockmeier's work is reminiscent of Steven Millhauser.

I was giddy with joy.  I literally cheered out loud.  Why?  These are three authors I always link and often suggest as readalikes to my patrons.  Full disclosure though, they also happen to be three of my favorite authors, and not just because Donohue has commented on this blog before.  Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead, is one of my all-time favorite books.  I still find myself thinking about this book, 4 years later.  And you can see my long standing Millhauser love by clicking here.

Why I was particularly happy to see Donohue's review is that authors like Brockmeier, Donohue, and Millhauser, are very hard to suggest readalikes for.  It is because they do not write traditional genre fiction.  You could categorize them all as literary fiction, but that would not hit at their appeal.  They all have a level of fantasy in their work.  It is a bit more speculative than magical realism, but not really straight fantasy.  They also all use their speculative elements to raise thought provoking questions about our world and the choices we make.  If you laid out the plot summaries of they work side-by-side, however, you would not be able to see any similarity between their books.  Their similarity lies in the tone, mood, characterizations, and style of their work.  Things that are harder to assess.

I was happy to see Donohue reviewing one of his readlaikes author and mentioning Steven Millhauser.  It made me feel like my work was validated.  So, this leads me to share one of my secret weapons on finding readalikes.  When you are stumped, look for author blurbs.  As seen with the Donohue review of Brockmeier, authors often review or offer official sound bite blurbs to others who write similarly.  The point is to draw interest in their own work (in this case, Donohue wants to remind fans of Brockmeier that Donohue himself has a new book, Centuries of June, coming out in May), and to point their own readers to another good writer who they may also enjoy.

Using the author blurb as a readalike resource is not mainstream RA practice, but I have never claimed to be in the mainstream.  Over the years, I have found it to be a great option and have passed this opinion on to 13 semesters worth of library students and hundreds of librarians throughout the Midwest who have attended my training sessions.

But where can you find these author blurbs?  I have three main resources.

  1. The books themselves:  When a reader really likes an author or a specific book, get the physical book in your hand and look at who gave blurbs to it on the back.  In this Internet driven age, even librarians often forget that there is a lot to be gained by holding a physical book in our hands.
  2. Fantastic Fiction:  This is one of my favorite resources in general, but particularly, they catalog author blurbs at the end of an author's entry.  Click here for Michael Chabon's entry and scroll to "Michael Chabon Recommends" at the end.
  3. Amazon:  Many Amazon fiction entries now come with reviews by other authors (for the same reasons I mentioned Donohue wrote the one above).  Also, many times you can read the blurbs from the back of the physical book on Amazon by clicking on "See all  Editorial Reviews.  Click here to see what I mean on the entry for The Passage by Justin Cronin, and click here for the blurbs.
So, go on out there and suggest a book based on an author blurb and let me know how it goes.

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