12 February 2014

The Shameful Marketing of a Literary Atrocity: No One Can Know by Adrienne LaCava

Beware: This self-published, self-described “historical/literary/coming-of-age/political thriller” by first-time novelist Adrienne LaCava is a bad book—awful through and through—in fact the most worthless book I have ever read in my thirty-plus years in the book business.

I know whereof I speak. During my stints as a reader in the editorial departments of Doubleday, Avon, Ballantine/Fawcett, and Macmillan; in the marketing department of Simon & Schuster where I wrote copy for their romance line Silhouette; as a panelist, then moderator, at the much-esteemed New York Round Table Writers Conference; as owner and acquisitions editor of a small literary press; as co-founder and moderator of writing groups in Paris and San Francisco; and as a reviewer of mysteries and thrillers for Publishers Weekly, I have read a sizable share of good books and manuscripts, a handful that were flawed but good, and many, many, many that were boringly mediocre. But never, never in my entire experience in reading for business or pleasure have I encountered such a poorly conceived, incompetently written novel in which the author displays such a cynical attitude towards her own subject.

And when that subject is the volatile social and political climate of the early 1960s, which includes the struggle for racial equality, I really do feel obliged to call this woman to accounts for more than her rotten syntax.

Let’s start with the book itself before we get into the murky waters of LaCava’s marketing strategy.

This novel fails in every respect. It is agonizing to read. The plot is incoherent, the characters preposterous. Although LaCava calls it a “thriller”, the book contains no scenes of action, violence, intrigue, or suspense that would justify that claim. The stunningly bad prose will grate on your sensibilities. The frequent errors in historical facts and real-life locations will make your eyes glaze over, while the anachronistic phrases she uses will make you wince. The story seems to have been cobbled together from buzz topics on the internet—JFK Assassination, Conspiracy Theories, Civil Rights Movement, CIA Covert Operations, even Abortion—topics for which LaCava quite clearly has no understanding.

The following are some examples of the characters, plot, and style of No One Can Know, which is set chiefly in the American south in 1963 and 1964.

The main character, according to LaCava, is Haines, who has been a CIA agent since the end of World War II. Haines is big, half-black, and has great dimples, a feature which is frequently mentioned throughout the book. LaCava tells us “Haine’s heritage was hard to detect... His mother was a full-blooded Negro and best guess on his father’s side was Italian, according to his grandfather. The resulting skin color and cranial features were ambiguous, and interesting.” Yet later in the book one of the characters, a teenage girl no less, calls Haines “colored” the minute she lays eyes on him. How a black American man could have been a member of the CIA in the racist 40s and 50s, when the CIA was a one-hundred-percent Ivy League white boys club is not explained. Was he passing for white? Hardly likely. Additionally, the description of his being in the CIA since the end of the war is woefully off the mark, as that intelligence agency was not established until 1947.

The assassination of JFK occurs early in the book, and for some contrived reason Haines is right there in Dealey Plaza when the shots ring out:

“...he fought any acknowledgment of disaster, though apprehension pushed against his breastplate. The schoolgirls wailed and their heartfelt terror gripped Haines with dread.”

This is the first indication I have ever read of the CIA issuing suits of armor to its agents.

Then, sadly, after this sketchily depicted scene, the assassination, and JFK, are quickly dispensed with. As Kennedy’s face is emblazoned on the cover of the book, this is the biggest cheat perpetrated by LaCava. The president’s murder, we quickly learn, is totally gratuitous to the rest of the story. The vast remainder of the book, in fact, concerns itself with a diary which may or may not contain hints pointing to a conspiracy, a cattle ranch that seems more like a health spa of which Haines inexplicably becomes foreman, a rich man’s mistress who needs an abortion, a couple of adolescent girls who experiment with foul language and marijuana, and an unconvincing investigation into the violence perpetrated on Civil Rights workers in the deep south. None of these storylines, I hasten to add, seem to have anything to do with each other, much less with the assassination of the president.

But what concerns me most is the section of the book which deals with the Civil Rights Movement.

About one-third of No One Can Know focuses the exploits of Tucker, another of LaCava’s preposterous characters. Tucker is a white Texas lawyer with a tenuous connection to LBJ who is sent by the new president to Philadelphia, Mississippi—a place Martin Luther King once described as “a terrible town, the worst I’ve seen, [where there is] a complete reign of terror”—in order to infiltrate the most dangerous faction of the KKK, the White Knights. LaCava describes the situation thusly:

“Mississippians up and down the food chain in state government, local government, and law enforcement sheltered a secret club of extremists who made the ordinary Ku Klux Klan and their version of threat look like Elmer Fudd.”

Tucker is glad to be in “a primo spot...while legitimate agency operatives were tending to race riots and sit-ins”, and after an incredibly gratuitous and tasteless passage in which he recalls hot “river sex” with his mistress, we proceed to the single example of violence (which is not directly depicted) LaCava chooses to focus on, the rape of a white Civil Rights worker. Philadelphia is the place where not too long ago black churches filled with women and children were set on fire, where black men were castrated, and where the young Civil Rights workers Goodman, Swerner, and Chaney were kidnaped by local police, taken out to the woods, and shot to death. These events have been well-documented through the years and are, or ought to be, well known by people my age and LaCava’s. In other words, there are many better examples she could have used to illuminate the violence of that time and place had it truly been her intention to do so. But LaCava is not only spineless when it comes to telling a story, she is odiously exploitative.

Her Philadelphia scenes serve only as an excuse for her “good guys”, Tucker and his CIA agent friends, not only to expound on the evils of “racial cleansing” (her fabricated phrase) but to demonstrate LaCava’s cluelessness when it comes to the actual story of the struggle for the rights of black citizens in the 1960s. There were no race riots in a small town like Philadelphia, Mississippi, although there were several in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Likewise in Philadelphia there were no sit-ins or similar peaceful demonstrations, which only tended to work in places where there was less overt intimidation and harassment of black people and sympathetic Civil Rights workers. And as for “legitimate agency operatives...tending” to said riots and demonstrations, the author is apparently referring to agents or operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency—which was formed solely to gather information from foreign countries—demonstrating her utter lack of the most basic knowledge of the actual discrete objectives of the CIA, the FBI, and local police. LaCava conflates them all, creating in her story an all-purpose law enforcement organization that is somehow authorized to fight racism, municipal corruption (there is a bewildering passage concerning Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was killed on the same day as the assassination, that never goes anywhere), and generally perform duties and functions that would be inconsistent with the job descriptions of a single law enforcement agency.

I could go on and on with more examples of LaCava’s storytelling ineptitude, including her inaccurate assertions of how intelligence operations were carried out in World War II, but I’ll close this synopsis by touching only on the last substantive part of the book: Ivy, one of the teenage girls, plaintively asks her father, “Why did Carla [the mistress] have do die? Will the police go after the butcher who killed her?” In response to which her father launches a long diatribe about the ethics and perils of illegal abortion. After that there is a brief bit of business about some mysterious men coming to the ranch to look for Haines, who has already departed—an apparent non sequitur, since the scene immediately following has to do with Ivy meeting a boy who has conveniently just moved in on the block(?). And this is where the novel ends.

Now to the marketing and promotion of No One Can Know.

As I mentioned before, I have had some experience in the marketing and promotion of books, from mass-market fiction to small press volumes of poetry. I have also had a passing acquaintance with the book marketing coach the author claims she “engaged”. So I have a very clear idea of the techniques the author is using—and misusing—to promote and market her self-described literary historical thriller.

Let’s start with her website, adriennelacava.com. It is, quite obviously, meant to be her author site. Now in general the purpose of such a site is for readers to become acquainted with an author’s reason for writing, her themes and concerns—a sort of mission statement if you will—and to be the online source of information about where you can find her work. But what if an author’s output consists of a single book written at the age of 62, and there is absolutely no evidence on display that she has ever written anything else of a serious literary nature, published or unpublished? Wouldn’t a little modesty be in order? But on her website LaCava posts her rather dreary bio as well as her thanks to all the people who have aided in the making of No One Can Know (fellow members of several Texas-based writers organizations; her extension school writing class; a Dallas-based book cover designer; Amazon’s do-it-yourself subsidiary CreateSpace; the aforementioned book marketing coach—whose participation I strongly suspect is a fiction, as LaCava seems to have paid no attention to this noted coach’s marketing fundamentals). She also posts a manufactured Q&A wherein she answers questions—posed by herself—about her thoughts and feelings: “Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?”; her favorite writers: “We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write?”; her writing technique: “Do you have a writing process? Can you please describe it?”; and, most obnoxiously of all, her advice to would-be writers: “Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?” (Indie in this case apparently meaning self-published). Her answer:

“If you are comfortable tackling the business side of book selling, I say definitely go for it. But commit to creating New York quality product. … Far too many books are slapped out there lacking that crucial polish. It’s like selling an undercooked chicken.”

Her idea of “New York quality product” evidently refers only to the packaging of the product, meaning the book, and not to its contents. And here is the most blatant example of LaCava’s wrongheadedness. Because “New York quality” in the publishing world does not and has never referred to the slickness of a book’s cover or the glibness of its advertising, it refers to the contents of the book itself.

LaCava’s cynical attitude towards her potential audience extends far beyond the contents of her website, penetrating into her social network which is where I first encountered her. Because I’m somewhat known as the author of a screenplay about Kennedy’s Secret Service, she found and friended me on Facebook, and for months before her book was released I was treated to a steady stream of photos from her collection of JPGs depicting JFK and the First Family culled from the internet (“I’m smitten with the 1960s! Endless personal stories were affected while the nation came apart…” she gushed). At this time she seemed to be promoting two opposite views of herself as an author of a book on Kennedy and the 60s—either she was an amateur enthusiast, or she was an expert who based her writing on ten years of meticulous research. At any rate, when her book was released and I received several none too gentle proddings to order it (“Heads up, team NOCK!” was one of her salutations) I had become intrigued enough to acquiesce. Imagine my dismay when I discovered how completely LaCava had misrepresented not only her book, but the extent of her expertise about the 1960s.

This is an example taken from one of her synopses of how badly she misrepresents the characters and events of her book:

No One Can Know is a literary political thriller and poignant coming of age story, set against historical events. The families of two estranged brothers come together one weekend with all their personal baggage in tow. A deadly case of mistaken identity follows one of them, adding national political tensions, and when the mistress of one of the brothers appears unannounced, it sets off a time bomb of dysfunction.”

Almost none of this corresponds to the story I read. “Thriller”? What is thrilling in this book? As I stated above, there are no scenes of action, violence, intrigue, or suspense. At least one or more of these elements is necessary to make a thriller. “Deadly case of mistaken identity”? Neither of the brothers in the story is mistaken for anybody else, nor do they mistake anybody for anybody else. As for deadly, the only death in the book is the death of the mistress from an illegal abortion. “Adding national political tensions”? Obviously if there is no mistaken identity it cannot add to national tensions. “Sets off a time bomb of dysfunction”? To “set off” means to initiate. Since the brother’s wife and daughter knew he had mistresses, this merely confirms or continues any existing dysfunction. “Time bomb” refers to something that will cause an explosion at some specified time in the future. And as we have noted, any dysfunction is not only continuous but immediate.

But it’s not enough to deconstruct this short synopsis, because it is only one of three available on LaCava’s website, none of which agrees with the others. This is certainly true of the second synopsis, which appears on the back cover of her book (which she erroneously calls the “black flap”). The synopsis ends with this teaser:

“Now, killers have tracked Haines to the ranch, getting the entire family involved in something very adult and very worrisome. When the weekend turns deadly, Haines and Ivy Jean become allies and they’re the first to agree that secrets, especially those devised and perpetuated ‘for the good of us all,’ can break down a family—or a nation—in the blink of an eye.”

All of which would lead a prospective reader to assume that there is a thriller-type climax to the book which, I pointed out above, is nowhere to be found.

LaCava’s third synopsis is even more bewildering, because it appears to be the exact two-page, double-spaced synopsis, complete with word count and genre categorization, that she had sent to a number of agents. As she writes equivocatingly, “My pitch and query package worked well enough to earn some favorable feedback, but there is a certain stigma attached to the backbone topic, JFK; the subject is perceived as cultish. There’s something like 1,300 nonfiction titles, and unfortunately, the scholarly research gets lumped in with poorly written rants. And even though my fiction hook is unique, and my characters deal metaphorically with the danger of ‘necessary secrets,’ it didn’t get picked up.” I say this synopsis is bewildering because almost none of the story as she describes herein agrees with the book’s contents. For example: “Though Haines enjoys Ivy Jean’s company, he’s discovered evidence in the hills of the JFK cleanup crew’s surveillance and has a tough decision to make. Does he stay and try to keep the danger from invading the ranch or flee to hiding?” I’m confused. I thought I’d read in an early chapter that Haines fled to the ranch because he had bumped into a known mob assassin in Dealey Plaza…or was it because he feared that his presence in Dealey Plaza as a CIA man would cast suspicion on the agency, as LaCava wrote in one of her own descriptions? The author supplies conflicting motivations for her protagonist to flee to the ranch and begin the story.

I must also point out that in none of these synopses is there a mention of the scenes concerning the Civil Rights Movement set in Mississippi which, as I said earlier, constitute a large part of the book.

No One Can Know garnered two professional reviews, both favorable. One appeared in a weekly newspaper serving the small Texas town where LaCava was promoting her book.

The other review was purchased from Kirkus Indie. Kirkus Reviews is a venerable decades-old publication, best known in the publishing industry as a resource for librarians. A few years ago they created a subsidiary called Kirkus Indie. Upon receipt of a finished book or manuscript and a fee of $425-575, Kirkus Indie will send to a self-published author a professional 250-350 word review. A favorable review is “not guaranteed”, although considering the amount of money they ask for I suspect that the vast majority of their reviews are, in fact, favorable. They certainly gave No One Can Know a good review. They began with a general outline of the various elements in the book, calling the author’s historical research “impressive” and her portrayal of a world-weary spy “realistic”. The review ends with the final one-sentence paragraph, “A riveting historical novel, featuring brisk plotting and engaging characters.” This is, I suspect, what the author is really paying for—that one glowing phrase that can be used as a blurb on the front of the book, which is precisely how LaCava used it.

As No One Can Know is offered for sale on Amazon it has of course its own web page, on which customers/readers are encouraged to include their own “product reviews” and ratings on a scale of 1-5 stars. The Amazon ratings system is, in my opinion, the most pernicious development since this corporation co-opted the Do-It-Yourself movement in publishing and moviemaking (as well as Goodreads, Amazon also owns the Internet Movie Database; all their subsidiaries use the 1-5 star rating system). It is the means by which even the most casually interested audience member may register the degree of her enjoyment of a book simply by selecting the number of stars that reflect her opinion. The overall average rating is readily available on the site. At this time on Goodreads, No One Can Know has an average rating of 3.8 stars, while on Amazon it has an average of 3.98 stars. The majority of the 5-star ratings were posted immediately after the book was made available for sale by Amazon,  many of them emanating from the Texas area where LaCava resides. What this indicates to me is that she managed to get a fair number of her personal friends and writing chums to, as it were, stuff the ballot box. As Amazon’s policy is that a customer cannot rate a product without posting at least a line or two of comment (Goodreads does not require this), LaCava was also able to accumulate such encomiums as:

     “From the first word until the very last (and all points in between), this book...screams make me into a movie—please!”
     “I usually yawn at assassination-related literary attempts (Stephen King comes to mind), but t[h]is one is the exception to the rule.”

The vast majority of these “product reviews”, particularly the 5-star, were so generally laudatory in nature that one gets no sense of anything specific to this book. In fact, they could adequately describe the readers’ reaction to any book that proclaims itself to be a “political historical thriller”. The 1- and 2-star reviews, however, which came later, seem to be comments that are much more specific to the book’s contents, indicating the probability that these reviewers actually bought and read No One Can Know. To wit:

     “I had a hard time deciding what was going on and never knew what the diaries, thugs and Haines had in common.”
     “There were far too many errors—by the time I got to ‘Fort Bliss, Alabama’ I just stopped.” (Fort Bliss, by the way, is in Texas, LaCava’s home state, making this error almost hilarious.)

But enough of this pathetic case study in self-publishing.

About eight years ago I wrote an essay for an online literary magazine entitled “Writing in the New Publishing Paradigm” which was reprinted and circulated among the participants at the New York Round Table Writers Conference. In it I stated:

     The world we’re living in these days isn’t big enough to encompass the current explosion in human activity. We need to enlarge the world, not narrow it. We need more ideas, not fewer.
     In response to an intellectually refined, Russian-born acquaintance who recently remarked with disdain, Now anybody can write a book, I say, Yes! Isn’t it fantastic?
     Because we need more books, not fewer. And we need them now.

I admit now the naivete of those sentiments, but those were the days before the widespread use of Facebook, Goodreads, CreateSpace; before publishing became literally as easy as clicking a button; before neophyte authors were told that they needed to care more about the marketplace and their image than the quality of their work.

To be self-published is no longer a stigma to a writer. Offhand I could give you the titles of about a dozen books self-published in the last five years that would compare favorably in quality to those traditionally published. But the authors of these books were already veteran writers with good reputations. A literary reputation cannot be manufactured and it cannot be bought, not even for a little while. The public will forgive an author for a bad book if that book has been presented to them with a little modesty, and keep an open mind when reading her next work. But a bad first book self-published with the obvious aim of giving an author the image of literary respectability damns that author forever.

~ Cantara Christopher

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