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John Cotter on John Cotter.

June 18, 2010 \am\30 10:43 am

John Cotter, author of Under the Small Lights
reviews Under the Small Lights by John Cotter

The longer you toil at a calling, the better you’ll become – and it’s like that with book reviewing. One of the pleasures of watching these dozens of hundreds of books clop at your doorstop and crowd your shelves is that after a while – and it doesn’t really take that long – you’re able to make most of a review – a real review – before you turn a page.

Let’s say the new Aleksandar Hemon shows up at the door. What a boon! Before you crack the spine you can fill at least half of your review space by explaining how, as we all know, Aleksandar is not native to our country, how like Nabokov and Conrad, he has chosen to adopt our severe but lovely tongue as his own, how it is very likely that his foreign perspective (he’s from Serbia or Bosnia– you can talk about the war for a hundred words or more) renders us natives satirical and fresh. You can talk about his brooding looks and his deep, [adj] voice … With all this at your disposal, the gift he and his publishers have provided you is, in essence, a pre-written profile/think piece. The dust jacket and the online reviewers who’ve gone before you supply the rest. And the book – in this case Love and Obstacles, say – remains in splendid shape to either display on your bookcase (‘oh yeah, I read a lot of modern stuff’) or sell for a handy buck or half-buck at the nearest shop.

And even when a review cannot be slapped together – when not enough is publicly known, let’s say, about the actual book itself, the internet still affords a mighty opportunity for fudge. Let’s say Justin Taylor writes a new book. We can talk about HTML Giant – they have a posse – or the fact the writer is so young, or so well-connected (which we applaud, for in these dark days, connections are how a book is made), or that it’s rare for a collection of short stories to be reviewed so widely, etc. How many of the stories will we actually have to read to cap our work here – one? Two?

But catastrophe sometimes befalls even the most technique-steeped among us and it has done so for this reviewer in the case of John Cotter’s debut novel Under the Small Lights. What do we know of John Cotter in advance? Almost nothing. An online search reveals him as the author of some poems and some poetry reviews, but no major school or movement suggests itself (he does not seem to be imitating or promoting any kind of clique). His website features still photos from a couple of South Asian plays he directed, but he himself seems not to be in any way South Asian (we longed, for an instant, to drop the name Arundhati Roy, but now it cannot happen). He seems not to be from the American South – so what does it matter how like Faulkner he writes? He is young, but not so young that publication equals any kind of a coup.

Worse than this, worse than everything, his book has come out on a university press. What does that even mean? A big press will mean lots of copies everywhere, and maybe we can get our review picked up by The New York Times; a small press would give us a chance to talk about the small-press explosion in America, what advantages do they offer over the larger presses, etc.  

The book looks good – the cover is nice and it’s blurbed by writers we could talk about (but we can’t talk about them together! What do Ron Carlson and Laura Van Den Berg have in common? No shared movement, they don’t contribute to the same website, nothing … ). We know straight-off this is not a ‘major’ novel because it is only 200 pages long. And we know it won’t be widely reviewed because our copy came from the author himself and not some big publicity department that’s able to send out gift kits to reviewers and underwrite placement in the chains.

So the above may be good enough for Under the Small Light’s likes. I expect we can quote a bit – any bit – and call this piece a contribution to the conversation. Here goes:

Cotter, John, 1976-
p. cm.
ISBN 970-1-4507-0091-7
I. Young men—Fiction. 2. Walden Pond (Middlesex County, Mass.,)—Fiction. 3. Man-woman relationships—Fiction. 4. Psychological fiction.

PS3603,O86848U63 2010

Printed on acid-free paper
in the United States of America

  1. June 18, 2010 \am\30 10:58 am 10:58 am

    I just bought the book on the strength of this review.

  2. Jae Klaas permalink
    June 18, 2010 \am\30 11:48 am 11:48 am

    so, um, are you gonna, like, read the book? or is the point that you are one of the shallow, self-absorbed reviewers you parody? here’s a chance to think for yourself! don’t let it pass you by!

  3. June 18, 2010 \pm\30 12:04 pm 12:04 pm

    Jae, perhaps you missed the title of the post, and the re-title below:

    John Cotter, author of Under the Small Lights
    reviews Under the Small Lights by John Cotter

  4. June 18, 2010 \pm\30 12:32 pm 12:32 pm

    Well done, Mr. Cotter.

    “And we know it won’t be widely reviewed because our copy came from the author himself and not some big publicity department that’s able to send out gift kits to reviewers and underwrite placement in the chains.”

    Love it.

    • June 18, 2010 \pm\30 12:37 pm 12:37 pm

      I considered sending my book to reviewers with a 24k pimp cup monogrammed “Mother”

  5. June 18, 2010 \pm\30 1:04 pm 1:04 pm

    Melissa — it is not too late to send me one of those cups, please reconsider ( none of my cups have brass gold knuckles attached, which leads me to suspect I have been living all wrong) …

    Jae — so sorry for the confusion, man! I wrote the above post, “Melissa Broder” is just one of my many pseudonyms (I save it for my most excellent poetry).

    Adam & Joseph — thanks!

    • June 18, 2010 \pm\30 4:53 pm 4:53 pm

      Sorry John. Ended up rockin the promotional pinky ring instead.

  6. Keith S. Wilson permalink
    June 18, 2010 \pm\30 5:22 pm 5:22 pm

    This is, without a doubt, my favorite book review of the year.

    If I get a copy, I’ll put it on the Walden Pond shelf of my bookshelf. If I can make room for it.



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