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22 June 2009

Word Of Mouth

The novel THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett is on my “What I Have Read” list. A good friend told me that I had to read it. I bought a copy and was so engrossed in the story that I did not even resent the two hour departure delay on a recent flight.

While finally waiting in line to board a fellow passenger asked me if the book was good, that everyone at a dinner party had said it was a must-read. While I was waiting for the next event at the family wedding (which is why we sat in DC waiting out a thunder storm in Milwaukee) another guest commented on how engrossed I was in my book. When she saw the title she said, “Oh my deacon at church recommended it.”

Don’t we, as writers and readers, love word-of-mouth? Not Oprah-size promotion or even the “what our booksellers are reading” post-its at the bookstore. But the honest-to-God type where the title and the story are on everyone’s heart and mind and lips.

I have seen this happen with rousing success a few times in my career as reader and writer. With Waller’s BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and more recently in the romance community with Joanna Bourne’s THE SPYMASTER’S LADY.

Who knows why it happens? I welcome all opinions. Here is my theory: that these books strike a chord with readers, that the characters are so real and so endearing that it is hard to let them go so we pass them on.

There is something else on my mind in regards to THE HELP and its distant relative THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. The idea of a public statement that “I wish I had done better,” the writing as a way to say “I wish this is what I had done.” The writer is admitting, in these two cases as regards the way blacks were treated in the south in the 60’s, that “I understand not what was happening them and this book is making it up to you the best way I can.”

They are not writing revisionist history, which was my first thought, but a heartfelt wish that they had been able to see more clearly. I know this because I am part of that world. I amreminded of the women who shaped my young life in Washington DC when it was still very much a southern town. (That's me at about age eight)

My grandmothers’ maids Sally and Ellen and our own maid, Alice, who walked me to kindergarten and listened to me chatter endlessly the whole way. Alice who walked me home from kindergarten and was there when I cried because a boy said that my drawing was the only ugly one. Alice said just the right thing (That boy liked you best of all and he say it by being mean. That’s what boys do before they’re too old to know about kissing’.) Alice and Sally and Ellen were a significant part of my life and I do not even know their last names.

So like Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd I am taking a moment to acknowledge them and say that I wish I had understood more of what their lives were like.

What word-of-mouth books do you remember best? And what recent reading experience brought your world into clearer focus?

I am posting this from the Milwaukee airport as we head back to DC and will respond when I am home later this evening.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Word of mouth is so fascinating, Mary, and so elusive in terms of understanding why it works for a particular book. I know I'm always thrilled whenever anyone mentions they read one of my books because someone else recommended it. "Spymaster's Lady" is probably the last book I read that had a lot of word of mouth, though I probably would have read it anyway because I love books about spies.

Your story about Alice and Sally and Ellen is lovely and heartbreaking. I can't think of books that have resonated specifically with the circumstances of my childhood (probably because I mostly read historical fiction). But I saw a wonderful production of "The Three Sisters" over the weekend. One of my favorite plays, and every time I see it, I see new resonances between the characters and people I know. I think Chekhov gets more real and heartbreaking as one gets older.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I heard of SPYMASTER'S LADY from Janet Mullany, my official word-of-mouth maven -- I ignore her recommendations at my peril, as I always learn later when I get to the book.

My mom simply hands me whatever the book is she'd have me read when I visit her. Resistance is futile.

I'll read just about anything my son recommends, and lots from my husband too (though I still haven't gotten to Henry Roth or Isaac Babel, and it's more than 40 years now -- Hmmm... I think I'll read CALL IT SLEEP and RED CAVALRY as an annivesary present, for the both of us, before next October). And when the critic Laura Miller loves something, I take note as well.

But those are smallscale recommendations -- from the Panel of Experts I've constituted for myself, and not the same thing as largescale word-of-mouth buzz. Which, I believe, is more like a kind of low-frequency meta-conversation within a reading community that helps define the ongoing construction of that community's identity. THE SPYMASTER'S LADY seems to have played that role; its heroine and its ongoing cast of characters in some way constitutive of one direction of historical romance, a new sort of Thing We Like that slightly redefines What We Know and Who We Are... (well, that's my stab at it anyway).

8:33 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I haven't had the best of luck with books that got huge buzz . . . I almost always find myself underwhelmed and wondering what the fuss is about (if not downright mystified and shocked). The last one I was handed turned to be ripoff of another friend's book (I swear the whole plot was lifted and transferred to a slightly different era).

1:45 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam said that word-or-mouth "is a kind of low-frequency meta-conversation within a reading community that helps define the ongoing construction of that community's identity."

Oh yes -- so intellectually put and exactly right.

Thanks as always....

1:48 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

whew -- glad that made any sense whatsoever, Mary ;-)

2:55 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And I forgot to say how much I enjoyed that picture of you at 8.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Spymaster's Lady was certainly worth the hype. I will always at least try a book if it is recommended by someone whose opinion I respect. Nor do I hesitate to recommend a book that has, as you say, Mary "struck a chord" with me.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is such a book. Another that our local librarian recommended was Red Leaves by Thomas Cooke. That was an incredible book!

I went to an all girls college in Marion, Alabama. It was and is very Old South, very much like a finishing school and has also produced some of the finest women in the fields of medicine, law, education, and the fine arts.

This was 30 years ago, mind you, and in Marion time tended to move even more slowly. Each dorm had a pair of maids, local ladies, who took great pride in taking care of "the Judson girls." I was a scholarship girl and also worked in the kitchens to help pay my tuition. I knew all of "the help" at the college, many of whom served for 50 or more years, and many who came from a long line of Judson help - I'm talking pre Civil War.

I even got married at the college chapel because of one thing - the brand new Flentrop organ. And I was the first Judson girl to send a wedding invitation to the two maids at our dorm - Miss Mary and Miss Ruth. They were very uncertain about attending, but the got dressed up and stood in the foyer outside the chapel to watch as the bridesmaids went in one by one - many of them Judson girls. They watched me come down the stairs from the room where I dressed and were so sweet to me. I don't think they would have actually gone inside except my Dad called my brothers over (they were ushers) and insisted Miss Mary and Miss Ruth be seated by them.

I don't remember these ladies last names. They were older ladies when I was in college and have in all likeliness passed on. But I still have the quilt they made me as a wedding gift. And I still have the memory of those proud smiles as they went down that aisle on the arms of my brothers.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Oh Lousia, that is a fabulous story. Thanks.

Kalen, are you by any chance a contrarian? That would explain why you are so often "underwhelmed" by word-of-mouth books. ( please be advised that some of my best friends are contrarians)

Pam, I knew you, if anyone, would like that picture. One secret I will let out is the reason I am not smiling -- I was just old enough to realize I had awful buck teeth and was doing my best not to let them show.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Kalen, are you by any chance a contrarian?

Not by nature, I just don't tend to find that my tastes align with the masses all that often . . . as evidenced by the fact that most of my *MUST READ GLOM GLOM GLOM* authors are all out of contract right now. *sigh*

8:13 AM  

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