Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Rant

Regular readers probably know that I had a book project killed due to one bad review. One reviewer wrote very positive things about the project and another wrote nearly the opposite. The publisher decided to kill the project even though they admitted that the negative reviewer was probably wrong, but that if they fought him on the issue it probably would not end well. So they gave up the fight. I'm taking the project elsewhere and have been working on making corrections, even some of the corrections offered up by the very negative reviewer.

About a month ago I found out that the negative reviewer [I've never used his name and won't start now although there might be enough details in here for someone to figure it out] published a book a year ago that somehow passed everyone's radar. I got the book thru interlibrary loan mostly to see if he followed his own suggestions. The main suggestion that rankled me was that every time I mentioned a battle or a personality I needed to include at least a paragraph of background. For instance in an introductory chapter I was explaining that the war in early 1862 was going badly for the Confederates, and rattled off a list of defeats; Mill Springs in Kentucky, the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, Pea Ridge in Missouri and the advance of McClellan on the peninsula towards Richmond. According to this reviewer I needed a paragraph to explain the battles and leaders just mentioned. A simple sentence or two now morphed into like 6 paragraphs. If the intent of the book was to detail the war in 1862 that would make sense but the book was about Shiloh and bios of McClellan and Joe Johnston etc really had no place in the book.

So I was interested to see if he followed his own advice. And he did. And it was really cumbersome to read. Two of the worst examples of this sort; the author actually was editing a veteran's memoirs. The veteran mentioned the county farm, which is a rural poorhouse. For me a simple note that the county farm is a rural example of a poorhouse would have been sufficient. The editor proceeded to write nearly 200 words giving the history of poor houses in America and even mentioned the New Deal. Another time the veteran made a reference to Waterloo, the point being that every regiment eventually faces a supreme test of combat and this is their Waterloo. A note explaining that point would have been fine but the editor went on to explain the number of men involved in the battle of Waterloo, the countries represented, the leaders commanding the armies and the outcome. I didn't count the words this time but it again struck me as overkill. There are other times when he provided notes for things that did not seem to me to need notes. For instance the veteran said some cannons were shotted, and the editor added a note to explain that shotted meant loaded.

Another instance of overkill I actually can commend the editor for. The veteran often listed casualties for the big battles, and the names of the men he enlisted with. The editor went through and for each man gave as much info as the Iowa roster had, info such as age, occupation and location of enlistment and if he survived the war. It didn't add much to the story but if one of those soldiers had been a relative of mine I would have loved seeing that extra touch.

One thing about the notes that really bothered me was that they were at the end of the chapter. I would have preferred foot notes or end of book notes. Being at the end of the chapter really interrupted the flow of the book. I would have preferred foot notes and when a long list of casualties appeared a note directing the reader to a roster at the end of the book (since footnotes at that point would have simply filled the page). This is what the editor did when it came to the big name personalities. He simply had a note directing the reader to the biographical section at the end. In general I thought the notes were too lengthy and there were too many of them (the veteran had 190 pages and the editor added 95 pages of notes in a very small type).

The regiment in the book served under Sherman throughout the war. It was first engaged at Arkansas Post, then at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Atlanta campaign, the March to the Sea and through the Carolinas. The memoir was not too useful for battle descriptions. In one case the veteran wrote, after saying the regiment moved forward to the assault, "To describe that moment requires an abler pen than mine. The very earth trembled while the roar of artillery, screeching of shells, and zipping of minie balls, mingled with the sharp and heavy guns of the navy; the dense smoke that enveloped the field and the cries of the wounded and dying can better be imagined than described." Of course the editor added a 100 word note on the history of the creation of the minie ball. And while I understand that individual soldiers saw very little of a battlefield when I read the battle section of a memoir I want more than "I can't write the scene well enough, imagine it for yourself, it was loud and smoky."

A final complaint; there is no bibliography. The notes do offer a full citation so one could search out the editors sources but I thought including a bibliography was pretty standard stuff.

An oddity; this book was published by a small publisher in Helena, Montana that has published very little history and what they have published is on Montana's old west legacy. When I think about great Civil War publishers my mind quickly goes to Montana. Oh sure most people would think one of the big university presses (Tennessee, LSU, North Carolina, Texas A&M, even Nebraska's Bison Books) or one of the various independent publishers (Savas Beatie and Ironclad spring to mind), but somehow this editor went with a little publisher in Montana that has never published a Civil War book before. Why? Did he strike out at the other publishers I just named? As best I can tell the editor is not from Montana and the veteran apparently did not move to Montana after the war. I think going with this small publisher was a mistake because as best I can tell from searching the internet the book has not been reviewed by many people at all, I only found two reviews online and one of them was a simple paragraph that gave an overview that could have been obtained from the dust jacket.

If I did not have a beef against the editor would I buy this book? Yes if I wanted a book for the non battle moments in the life of a soldier. This book is good for that. If I wanted a book for great first hand accounts of battles this is not it. That is not fault of the editor, as stated earlier the veteran simply did not include them. Perhaps he was smart enough in his old age not to write battle scenes that he was not sure of. In my case I have enough books that simply tell the story of solider life so I do not need this one. But if I needed another one this one would be worthy of inclusion. Of course since I haven't told you the editor's name, the veteran's name or regiment, or the name of the publisher it will be kinda hard for you to add it to your bookshelf.


Drew W. said...

Yes, the clues make it very easy to find out who you are talking about..and google confirms it...LOL. Going back to your older email, I still find this whole situation very strange. If this is the chief complaint of the outside reader, it baffles me that it can be regarded as some point of major contention leading to a decision to not publish the book. Of course, we've only heard your side of the story, but if the feeble support given the prospective author is anyway typical of that publisher, I would be surprised anyone would go with them.

Nick said...

Plus you have extra info that no one else has, so its easier for you. I'd be interested to read your take on the book, from an un-interested third party. The only review I found online made it sound like a fantastic book. Not sure I'd go that far but I have some bias here.

dw said...

I had a similar thought as Drew -- manuscript readers will mention all kinds of things they see as shortcomings, but usually this would be presented as things the author can do to improve the manuscript. Which is to say, if those were the only hang-ups, and the Press wanted to move forward with it, they would ordinarily ask you to make those changes to the manuscript. Or even accept it contingent upon those changes.


Nick said...

The first reviewer,who read it twice, offered various corrections. The first time the changes were phrased as "make these before publishing," the second time the changes were phrased as "can publish with or without these changes." The second reviewer was of the opinion "don't publish with or without these changes." I'd have to dig up the paperwork for the actual wording but there are actually four options for reviewers to recommend. I'll do that this weekend and post that Monday.