Newspaper article International New York Times

How Does an Author's Reputation Shape Your Response to a Book?

Newspaper article International New York Times

How Does an Author's Reputation Shape Your Response to a Book?

Article excerpt

When deprived of contextual clues, students ended up making embarrassingly "wrong" judgments about what was good and bad.

When deprived of contextual clues, students ended up making embarrassingly "wrong" judgments about what was good and bad.

My 16-year-old goddaughter tells me that whenever she hears that a book is "a classic" or "a great work," she assumes that it's going to be dull. I shake my head and express dismay, but secretly, I am rather impressed. I was often bored by the World's Best Books at her age, but I was far too much of a suck-up -- far too eager to be thought of as clever -- to ever have admitted it. In high school English class, when everyone else was complaining about the longueurs in "Paradise Lost," I was the lone creep who refused to acknowledge the tedium. I thought that doing so would be tantamount to declaring my philistinism, that it would result in my being blackballed from the great club of Cultured People to which I desperately aspired.

This craven deference to received literary opinion lasted well into adulthood. In my 20s, I worked for a brief period as an editorial assistant at a publishing house in London, where my duties included overseeing "the slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts. The task entailed glancing over each submission and either returning it to the author with a snotty form letter regretting that the work was "not right for us," or (if I detected a glimmer of something remotely publishable) sending it upstairs for further consideration by one of the in-house readers. The important thing was to send back manuscripts at a steady rate and to keep the slush pile low. But I didn't. I couldn't. Under my supervision, the slush pile grew and grew until it became several tottering ziggurats of slush. I'd like to say that it was the thought of dashing writers' hopes that paralyzed me. …

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