Showing posts with label this is the place. Show all posts
Showing posts with label this is the place. Show all posts

On Toni Morrison, Reviewers, and Other Sad Tales

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, multi award-winning writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry
(This is a reprint from a column I once wrote for a review website which is no longer living on the web, in part because of Covid. When I ran across it, I was reminiscing through the list of my columns. I took a minute to read it again because Toni Morrison is in the news…again! She is a target of another book-banning effort apparently because she tells the truth about slavery. This column isn’t about being “woke”—the word didn’t exist in its newer form back then. But generally speaking it is about bias and telling the truth and, in some sense, about how writers are keepers of truths. I thought it time to let its little light shine. The BEA breakfast was probably about 2004-ish. Maybe it’s time to read from Morrison’s trove of wisdom once again. And maybe to pass whatever book—or books—you choose along to anyone who is unfortunate enough to have never read one of her books which is now being attacked for being too “woke!”)
Right after Toni Morrison's book, Love, was published, I heard her speak at Book Expo America (BEA). I paid $25 for the privilege of hearing her and other book luminaries speak before a packed house of booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and publishers who certainly weren’t there for the very light breakfast. I remember—and this may not be an exact quote—she said that her new book Love is a great book. Bravo! She is unashamed to acknowledge her own art just as she has taught her students to do over the decades.
Later that year, I was stunned to read Lev Grossman’s review of Love in Time magazine. He indirectly accuses it of not being much “fun,” as if that is the direction all novels should take. He makes a couple of snide comments about how difficult it is to read and accuses her of being drawn to ugly people. I know he that he knows literature, that he knows great characters (and characterizations) are not necessarily pretty. And, get this! He says she gave way to some embarrassingly maudlin emotions. I asked myself, like what? Love?
That was when I started asking myself why Mr. Grossman had turned from reviewer extraordinaire into The Shredder. The answer did not come to me until yesterday. My fellow author, Leora G. Krygier, author of a newly minted memoir, sent me a clip from the alternative newspaper, Village Voice. It spotlighted a Brown University study that surveyed The New York Times Book Review. The inquiry found:
•      72% of all the books reviewed by the New York Times Book Review were by men.
•      66 percent of the reviews were written by men.
The editor of The NY Times Book Review, Chip McGrath, showed less contrition than Pete Rose. He said, “we don’t have any plans at the moment for changing how we review books,” and “I’m not convinced that we are guilty of a male bias—either consciously or un-.”  He went on to explain that the reviews staff has more women than men. So why more reviews by men? Could it be that when he used the word “staff” the term included support personnel rather than anyone allowed to write reviews?
McGrath also said that The Times has been trying to use their women reviewers on more publicity-prone books. Really why would that be?
And here’s the trigger: He says, “more books are written by men than women.”
I’d like to know where he came up with that zinger. Is he including all those romances and erotica (probably mostly written by women unless names like Kristie Leigh Maguire are pseudonyms for more masculine types)? Does he actually have a count of all those books that are subsidy- and self-published lying around in his slush pile? It’s highly unlikely. If there is any such study that is reliable, I’d like to know just where they (and he) got that information?
Naturally, that got me to wondering what Time magazine’s review of Morrison’s book would have been like if they had assigned a female reviewer.
After my award-winning novel This is the Place (now out of print) was published, a review of it was posted on This reviewer strenuously objected to what another reviewer had said, that my book was as surely part of the cultural past of Utah as Gone with the Wind was of the South. His objection was prompted by his belief that subtle discrimination and prejudices don’t count for much; they’re only important if they balloon to the dimensions of slavery or the holocausts. “Insensitive man,” I thought, practicing a little prejudice of my own. Two days later another reviewer, one of Amazon’s top reviewers—took him to task for his insensitivity, praised my book and lambasted Gone With the Wind. He, too, was a man.
Which brings me full circle to how the possible, even probable, imbalance between feminine and masculine perspectives at the New York Times Book Review affects their coverage. Do I believe that disparity exists? Yep.(Do I believe it still exists? Yep!) Do I think it is warranted because it reflects the existing inequality in the publishing world? No. Do I think there really are more men writing than women? I’m not so sure. It may be.

And therein lies the saddest tale of all.
PS from 2021: I also believe that in many ways discrimination of many kinds is worse today than it was when I wrote this column. Or maybe it’s simply that these days we aren’t trying quite as hard to avoid it.

 Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning author of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her HowToDoItFrugally series of books has helped writers and retailers worldwide. Her newest book of poetry, Imperfect Echoes, ( was honored by Writer’s Digest. Learn more at

Breaking Old Reading Habits: Modern Classics for Genre Readers

Breaking Old Reading Habits: Ten Literary Works That Might Convince You to Love Literary  

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Multi award-winning writer of fiction, poetry and author of
the much-honored #HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers

Because I so often hear, "I don't read literary novels," or even, "What's a literary novel?" when I taught at UCLA Extension’s esteemed Writers’ Program or when I’m talking to clients or writers a conferences, I've compiled a list that I hope might convince those who think they hate literary to try reading them--at least every so often. Those of you who already love literary, will find at least one or two books that aren’t already in your library.

None of these books are real classics--the kind you may have detested in high school. You know, a little hard to read (though perhaps worth the trouble!) Most have been popular in relatively recent history and a couple are books that Oprah should have picked if she had been doing that when these books were released.

Why not give one or all a try?  Sandwich them in somewhere between the romance, crime, and psycho-stuff that we tend to keep on our nightstands.

Here goes:

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. This is one of my favorites of all time.

"A Painted House" by John Grisham. A recent favorite that few called "literary" but got blasted by Grisham’s fans anyway because, I think, they were all expecting his specialty, legal thrillers.

"The Chinchilla Farm" by Judith Freeman. It’s been around awhile but it one of the few good pieces of fiction set in Utah where I set my first novel.

"Dear Corpus Christi" by Eve Caram. This is a lovely little piece by my first writing teacher at UCLA. It deserves wider readership.

" A Child of Alcatraz" by Tara Ison who is relatively unknown because no one ever gives screenwriters much credit so very few are famous regardless of the fact that their talent or the lack thereof can make or break a movie. She has taught writing at UCLA and at Antioch University.

"The Sixteen Pleasures" by Robert Hellenga. Apart from an occasional lapse in drawing his female characters truly, this book, set in Florence during the Arno’s infamous destruction, is a winner.

"Angle of Repose" by Wallace Stegner. You can’t go wrong with this one or any other title written by this novelist and journalist.

"The Wedding" by Dorothy West. This was West's first and only novel because she didn’t get around to storytelling until she was in her last decade. She breaks rules and makes it work. She also makes us understand a portion of black history and black intolerance that many of us didn’t know existed.

"Travels with Charlie” by John Steinbeck is not fiction but it is literary. You might enjoy seeing nonfiction written with passion and style and artistry. Charlie was the last book Steinbeck wrote, the culmination of years of honing his craft.

"Dandelion Wine" by Ray Bradbury is a touching novel that will be loved by those who consider themselves science fiction fans. He is my ideal author of literary cross-genre.

"Dr. Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak. This book is worth the struggle required to sort out the Russian names. Hundreds of thousands of readers did it a few decades ago when we weren’t all so spoiled by authors who too often now cater to short attention spans and formulaic writing.

Okay.  So that's 11. I'll make it a baker’s dozen. 

“Anna Karinina” by Leo Tolstoy. This is a novel that holds up over the decades, especially for women (and men) who still suffer from gender prejudices.

And a little brag. My "This Is the Place" is no longer in print. I get no royalties so that fact  A review is always a lovely gift to give an author and it sure doesn’t get as many as any of those listed above. But, assuages my conscience a little to mention it. It is still available with Amazon’s new and used feature, usually for less than $1. Set in Utah and New York City, it's a little romantic, a little memoirish, a little historical, a little women's. They're all good categories but I prefer “a little literary.” If I didn’t include this book among my favorites, I wouldn’t be giving you the truest list possible. Maybe my next novel should examine the mirror image twins of false pride and false modesty as its premise. If you love it, feel free to review it on Amazon at

Readers' Tip: A nonfiction book, West of Kabul, East of New York, is much like the world’s best literature. The author is Tamin Ansary.  The publisher is Farrar, Straus and Giroux.



Carolyn Howard-Johnson is was named first Woman of the Year  in Arts and Entertainment by members of California’s legislature.  Rolf Gompertz, UCLA professor and Author of “Abraham, The Dreamer” says, “Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a magnificent writer.  Her book is a joy to read. It is a work of literary art.  It is an important book. It is a book that touches the heart, mind, and soul.” 

Learn more about her work at her new website,

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"The Secret" to Great Book Promotion

This is from my Sharing with Writers newsletter. I thought it was worth a repeat for those of you who don't get that newsletter with its tons of writing and promotion tips in your e-mail box. (-:


The Secret [by Rhonda Byrne] says that one reason people's dreams don't come true is that they give up just before they are about to succeed. I am ready to give up. Just call me Peggy, WannaBeWriter


I believe that people do give up too soon, especially when it comes to promotion. It's one reason I talk about persistence so much. And The Secret also talks about positive energy. That's what promotion is. It's your best shot being put out into the universe and that sometimes (not always) takes time.

That's not to say that at times it's not natural to feel like giving up. Putting aside having a well-written book that hits the market at the right time, the speed of an author's success is usually strongly influenced by its genre. That's one of the reasons I shared all the stuff I learned when I was promoting my first novel, This Is the Place, by writing my first how-to book, The Frugal Book Promoter. Fiction--especially nonspeculative fiction--is one of the hardest genres of all to promote and I wanted others to know it could be done.

This Is the Place won its publisher's Mille Award for marketing and sales the first year it was published but only after it almost failed for lack of promotion by the publisher and by me! And not until after I lost a really big wad of money hiring a publicist who didn't understand using the themes and other elements in a novel to promote it!

This Is the Place is a literary novel published in 2001 (though it's still available in the new and used book section on Amazon for about $1). I think I sold about 2,000 and even that relatively small number was probably sold because it was set in Salt Lake City and was released just before the Winter Olympics in that city.

But that fortuitous timing wouldn't have helped had I not figured out that I needed to promote it and that I was the only one with the passion to do it right. The Secret also talks about passion--only they call it bliss or joy. Once I got started I even got my novel into a couple of airport book stores.

In fact, one of the reasons that The Frugal Book Promoter sells well is that it isn't general. It's personal and passionate. It's full of ideas based on my personal experience selling the hardest of all genres--poetry, short story collections, and literary fiction. I could add memoir (my next book) to that list.

The point here is that none of the three was a huge success by publishing standards. But they were by my standards. They sold well enough, I learned from writing them and promoting them, and I really relished the little successes when they came. When I couldn't trace great results from the promotion I was doing, I kept doing it and kept adding more ways to do it.

What if I'd given up on one of those dark days when nothing seemed to be working? My world--not just my writing world but my entire world--would be a different place. Am I bragging? Damn tootin’. I knew The Secret long before it was written. And I'm still practicing it.

I hope you will, too.

The blogger today is Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and two how to books for writers, The Frugal Book Promoter: How To Do What Your Publisher Won't and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. Her FRUGAL book for retailers is A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor blog.

How to Sell Your Book in Bulk

  by Suzanne Lieurance Did you know that studies have shown that most self-published authors sell fewer than 200 copies of their book?   Tha...