Hunting the Snark (updated!)

Whenever I see my writer friends react to reviews, I’m reminded of a certain Gary Larson cartoon:

Owner says to dog: “Get the stick, Rusty! Come on, get the stick! Good dog, Rusty! Isn’t Rusty a good boy!”

Dog hears: ” – – – – – Rusty! – – – – – – – – – – Rusty! – – – – Rusty! – – -.”

But it’s not our names that we writers get all hyper-aware about in reviews. It’s the snark.

Here’s an example: I once wrote to congratulate a friend of mine whose new novel had just received a fabulous, glowing review in Publisher’s Weekly. She wrote me back a one-word email: “Overwrought?!?!?!”

Oops. I hadn’t noticed that one bit of snark among all the praise. I had read the following words, “This extraordinary and accomplished novel, while overwrought in places, is hands-down one of the best books written this year, maybe of all time!” But my friend had seen only, “- – – – – – – – – overwrought – – – -!”

This Rusty-dog-like vision is why when writers see emails from their publishers with the subject header KIRKUS REVIEW, we flinch a bit. Okay, we flinch a lot. Kirkus must have some sort of snark-inclusion rule in their guidelines, and their anonymous reviewers follow this rule with relish. Even in their most positive reviews, there is always at least one damn phrase guaranteed to gets up the author’s nose.

Being as Rusty-dog-like as the next writer, I remember exactly two words from the Kirkus School Library Journal review of Uglies: “although lengthy.” (Gads. It’s that “although” that kills me. Like “lengthy” things are such a trial. “Although lengthy, my vacation was very enjoyable.” “Although lengthy, our marriage is a true union of two souls.” “Although lengthy, World War II defeated facism and saved democracy.” Argh.)

So when my upcoming Kirkus review of Peeps appeared in my in-box, I braced myself. (Plot purists take note, mild spoilers.)
(STARRED) Both medical thriller and science fiction, this fast-paced, captivating modern vampire story is enriched with biology and history. Nineteen-year-old Cal is a hunter. He works for the Night Watch, New York City’s clandestine organization to capture “peeps,” “parasite positive” people infected with an ancient disease that causes vampirism. They’re cannibalistic, violent and wildly strong. Cal tracks his line of contagion: an exgirlfriend, whom he unwittingly infected, and then his progenitor, the girl who gave it to him. Yes, Cal has the parasite, but he’s a carrier rather than a full-blown peep. Forced into secrecy and celibacy but possessing peeplike superhuman senses and strength, Cal simmers with adrenaline. He succeeds at his job in the dank, oppressive urban undergrounds, but he discloses secrets to an unauthorized, uninfected girl his age who becomes inextricably involved. Conspiracy issues arise; the parasite’s centuries-long history holds a profound revelation. Westerfeld intersperses relevant chapters on how various real-life parasites operate in nature. Entrancing throughout–but squeamish readers beware. (afterword, bibliography) (Science fiction. YA) (Aug 1 issue)

Rusty says: Not much snark here at all! In fact, it seems that the snark-quota was entirely expended in the phrase, “but squeamish readers beware.”

But this is good snark, because it will bring the non-squeamish running in droves! So when I performed my second writerly duty (after snark hunting) and cut the review down to a jacket blurb, here’s what I came up with:

This fast-paced, captivating modern vampire story is enriched with biology and history. Entrancing throughout–but squeamish readers beware.

See? The snark is in the jacket quote! Hah! Snark on that, anonymous Kirkus-oid!

My only regret is that they didn’t put an exclamation point after the word “beware.” That would have been much cooler. Maybe I’ll just, you know, add one. Who would notice?

ONE MORE THING: The release date for Peeps has been moved up to August 25. That’s four weeks and three days from now!

ONE OTHER MORE THING: Kirkus reviewers are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings in the whole world. Any implied disrespect was for humorous purposes only. ‘Nuff said.

UPDATE! (in the sense of humiliating retraction)

OMG! I just got an email from my no-longer-anonymous Kirkus reviewer. (Not anonymous to me, anyway. I shall name no names.) She informs me that those haunting words “although lengthy” are actually . . . not from Kirkus! That review was from School Library Journal.

Mea culpa, oh, quasi-anonymous one!

It just goes to show you that although memories can be haunting, they don’t have to be, you know, accurate. So, like I said, Kirkus reviewers are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings in the whole world. And this time, it is meant without the Manchurian Candidate vibe.

13 thoughts on “Hunting the Snark (updated!)

  1. Since when is Lengthy a bad thing? I imagine that the reviewers are just toying with the authers, very cat and mouse, no?

    How long till Pretties comes out? You’re killing me here! [It comes out November 1 – Scott]

    WOW. I just googled Karen Finley (like you said to on the music page). I regret that now. WOW…and…EEEEEWWWWWWW!

    [Not recommended for the weak of heart. -Scott ]

  2. I am really looking forward to this book. A friend of mine, John Joseph Adams, received a review copy and he sent me his review (which was entirely positive, I believe). I don’t think he wrote the Kirkus one though–I’m not sure who he was reviewing it for, maybe SFWeekly.

    Thanks for news about the release date!

  3. The review makes Peeps sound an awful lot like Blade…

    Well, except for the parasites, and the NYC setting, and the clandestine organization (Blade’s a loner, isn’t he?), and the sexually transmitted disease part, and the non-fiction elements. And does Blade ever have a girlfriend? I don’t know the comics, only the movies. Not to sound defensive . . . 😉

    The main difference in genre elements (probably not evident in this review) is that Blade is about “magic” vampires, like blood gods and stuff. My vamps are much more science-y. No morphing or instant healing or flying. They just got a crazy disease, so they’re not all custom-suit-wearing and high-rise owning like Blade’s euro-trash vampires.

    Anyway, how’s that for snark?

    JeremyT: Glad JJA liked it. John Joseph Adams reviews for pretty much everybody, including Kirkus. I like his Slush God site.

  4. Blade hunts alone, but has Whistler to handle transportation, weapons, intelligence, etc. He carries a blood infection that causes vampirism, which is only controlled by a special serum that Whistler created. The disease confers special strength and agility to Blade.

    Not trying to say your book is a knockoff of Blade, just that the review may leave that impression to anyone who might have seen the movies or read the comic books.

    If it’s as good as So Yesterday I will certainly look forward to reading it…

  5. John H: No offense taken. But since the post was about snark, I thought I’d be, you know, snarky.

    You could write a whole treatise about the secret baddy-hunting organization genre, and how big and complicated those organizations are. Everything from the federal government (Men in Black or Hellboy), to the world-spanning NGO (like Buffy’s Watchers’ Council), to the Vancouver Police Department (Forever Knight, sort of). But Blade definitely is at the organizational minimum, having only a sidekick–although a particularly well supplied one. The main difference in having no large ogranization behind him is that Blade isn’t taking orders from anyone (can you imagine?), whereas the MIBs are, and Buffy is more or less supposed to be.

    I think all these organization get invented by writers because we realize that baddy-hunting requires an infrastructure. As Buffy found out, you don’t want to be holding down a day job while you deal with the forces of evil. You don’t even want to have to make your own bed. (In many genre films, there’s that uncomfortable bit where the protag–who’s been sucked into saving the world–just stops going to work.)

    Mild spoilers for Peeps follow:

    When contemplating an infrastructure for Cal, I decided that it would make more sense if the Night Watch was a municipal organization, descended from the night watches of colonial times. After all, the New York City government is much older than the federal government, so of course they’d know more about vampires and history and stuff.

    Having dealt with this city’s government a lot, and the feds relatively little, I felt I could do a more realistic job of portaying NYC services, which have a very distinctive tone and feel (and smell). In fact, that texture is much more interesting (to me) than the giant underground high-tech bunker that we all know and love from Men in Black or James Bond or whoever.

    In other words, there are ceiling fans.

    (Enough spoilage. I’ll stop now.)

  6. That’s so true. The phrases which stand out most for me from my reviews are “a narrative choice which slows the pace” and “though extensive on the depictions of Baba.”

    I just finished PEEPS today. You’re batting four for four– I really enjoyed it. I’m not really that squeamish but parasites freak me out, so I had to read the parasite chapters peeking through my fingers, more or less. (Is that thing about toxoplasma for real, by the way? That’s really bizarre and hard to fathom and existentially disturbing.) Were you inspired by that interview on “This American Life” with the “Parasite Rex” author, where Ira Glass accuses him of rooting for the parasites?

    Also, best explanation ever of the necessity for secrecy when running a vampire-hunting organization.

    PS. Guinea worm was endemic where I lived. You forgot to mention that it causes or is related to elephantiasis, where the affected limb can swell to ten times its normal size.

  7. Much that had been mysterious to me about Kirkus became clear when someone explained to me that its core audience is acquiring librarians and its central function is to let them know what they can safely skip.

    Congratulations on having a book they can’t skip!

  8. Is that thing about toxoplasma for real, by the way? That’s really bizarre and hard to fathom and existentially disturbing.)

    Yes. The research is for real, though scientifically contentious.

    Were you inspired by that interview on “This American Life” with the “Parasite Rex” author . . . ?

    I didn’t catch that one. Oddly, Carl Zimmer is a friend of a friend of mine, but I haven’t called him up or sent him the book. It was way late to the publisher, and I was terrified he’d get all expert on my ass and find a bunch of mistakes. But I lifted from Parasite Rex so closely, it’s probably pretty accurate.

    And Peeps is in first person, after all. And in first person, authors don’t make mistakes; characters make mistakes.

    [Kirkus’] core audience is acquiring librarians and its central function is to let them know what they can safely skip

    Hmm, I always thought that was ALA Booklist.

    Mind you, acquiring librarians really are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings in the whole world. Along with bookstore employees and reading teachers. Oh, and cover designers.

  9. I’d already been looking forward it, but now I can’t WAIT to read Peeps.

    Teaching evaluations are possibly even worse than reviews, you can read 50 good ones and 2 bad ones and all you remember afterwards are the bad ones…

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