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01 November 2009 @ 02:33 am
Blurbs, Subjects and Great Lakes fishes  
You know you’ve moved up a notch in the author hierarchy when your publisher tries to get blurbs for your new book. My first book was a copy-edited version of what had been a print-on-demand self-published novel. There wasn’t any point in trying to get blurbs for that. But as you’ve probably noticed (since I’m not shy about mentioning these things) my second book, Pride/Prejudice, got three really great blurbs.

Recently, I moved up yet another notch: I was asked to blurb someone else’s book! I mean, how cool is that!?! Now the way this works, the editor tries to find authors who write similar types of books to blurb each other, although naturally, if they can get a bestselling author or someone really famous, they’ll stretch the meaning of “similar” quite a bit. Unfortunately for me, I’m not a bestseller, or even remotely famous, so you have to figure my work and this author’s work are very much alike. Or are they?

Here’s the book: The Lunatic the Lover and the Poet, by Merlyn A. Hermes (real name, parents were hippies). http://www.myrlinahermes.com/
My editor (and hers) described it as a bisexual version of Hamlet—to which my response was, naturally, “You mean Hamlet isn’t already a bisexual story?” But I digress. And of course, a normal person would be worrying about things like: What if I hate the book? or what if I can’t think of a clever blurb? But not me. I was just so thrilled to be asked.

As it turned out, I loved the book, and I wrote a blurb, although I think, looking at it now, I probably used too many ten-dollar words when I should have stuck to the simple, unfussy “page turner,” “couldn’t put it down,” “laugh-out-loud funny”—all of which are true, but I wanted to say something more specific to the particular book. And this book was very, very particular.

Is it a “bisexual version of Hamlet?” Well, sort of. Is there, as Ms. Hermes’s website promises, a “bisexual love triangle” and “bed tricks”? Definitely the former, but as to the latter—now we’re getting in a little too deep for me. What’s a “trick” and what’s just messing around? All I can say for sure is that Ms. Hermes knows her Shakespeare backwards and forwards, and she has a lot of fun with it here. Her book doesn’t just postulate a gay Hamlet; it throws the sonnets, references to the major plays, and the whole, glorious, slew of dingbat “who really wrote Shakespeare” theories into one big mish-mash of wordplay, famous lines and comic situations, leaves the lid off, turns the blender on to frappe and--oops! It’s a little like Shakespeare in Love but with less “Shakespeare” the man and more Shakespeare, the Complete Works, as told to Horatio by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Fortunately the Dark Lady of the sonnets has the last word.

So, why was I asked to blurb this book? Probably because they couldn’t get Tom Stoppard. But seriously, folks, does this mean Ms. Hermes’s book is a “bisexual historical romance”? Hardly. It means that I was lucky enough to get published for real because my editor liked my style of comedy that he also sees in Ms. Hermes’s work. And yes, there is that bisexual thing...

And it left me with one more profound thought about my day job. Yeah, that “classification” stuff again. This time it’s a little more mature, I hope, than my last puerile effort. You see, most of the works we classify don’t really fit under just one subject heading. Yes, we get the easy ones occasionally, the work that’s about this one species of spider or snake. But most of it is open to interpretation, or rather, it’s about a bunch of things, or something that can’t be neatly encapsulated by a one- or two-word heading like “Paleontology” or “Evolution (Biology).”

There’s nothing wrong with assigning more than one subject heading to a work. Most works get at least three, and with online catalogs, no longer limited by what will fit on an index card, many works get as many as twelve. The problem is, a book can only occupy one place on the shelves. Multiple subject headings are fine, but one of them has to be the “primary” SH, the one that comes closest to defining the book’s topic and determines its location. Similar-sounding subjects aren’t always contiguous. A work that’s about, for example, government environmental policy for, and sustainable management of, protected areas can theoretically go in four places: GE170 (environmental policy); HD75.6 (sustainable development); QH75 (conservation of natural resources); or S944.5.P78 (protected areas).

One of the hardest works I ever had to classify was “Application of a dichotomous key to the classification of sea lamprey marks on Great Lakes fish,” a “Miscellaneous publication” from 2006 of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. I know what you’re thinking: a real page-turner, laugh-out-loud funny, couldn’t put it down, etc. File it under Fishes—Great Lakes, and be done with it. In fact, that was the way it was classified by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission itself. But my job is to determine what’s most useful to the scientists and curators of this museum in NYC. This work isn’t simply about fishes in the Great Lakes (QL626.5). Another choice is: Fishes—Wounds and injuries. Yes, that’s an actual subject heading, but it wouldn’t limit the call number by type of fish, and the title shows that it’s about sea lampreys (eels). A third, better choice, was under the biological class for those lampreys (QL638.2) that are making the marks (i.e., biting) on those Great Lakes fish. But that doesn’t quite get it, either. So where did I put it? In SH177.L3, which is specifically about the pests and predators (SH177) that affect fishes, and specifically, lampreys (.L3). But of course, I included all those other subject headings in the record.

OK, but how does this relate to me and blurbs and that “bisexual-Hamlet” book? Only in the sense that my work, and Ms. Hermes’s, can be thought of as hard-to-classify items that require multiple subject headings. I’ve said before that most non-genre fiction isn’t classified and isn’t assigned much in the way of subject headings from a national cataloging agency like the Library of Congress. And even though I’ve received some recognition from the romance community, Phyllida wasn’t published by HarperCollins as “romance” and wasn’t shelved in the Romance section of bookstores. Fiction is almost always treated differently than nonfiction. In our natural history museum library, with almost all nonfiction, we solve the difficult cases by throwing a lot of subject headings at them and trying to pick the best one for the shelf location, the call number. But with fiction, libraries and bookstores are happier going with alphabetical-by-author and hoping that reviews, word of mouth and maybe the title will gives readers the clues they need to identify the books that appeal to them.

So if you think a wonderful mélange of Shakespeare’s work, especially Hamlet and the sonnets, with a bisexual m/m/f love triangle, wordplay, and an especially clever take on what it means to be writer in the deepest sense sounds like your cup of tea—but you really don’t want to read a “bisexual historical romance”—then don’t let the fact that I’ve blurbed it put you off. It’s only the third or fourth subject heading here. But if you like my style of comedy, you might very well like The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet, because that’s the reason Ms. Hermes and I are being published at all, and on the same release date—the comic style. It’s our primary subject heading, if you will, or as you like it, or much ado about nothing, or th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame…oh, for pity’s sake will you shut up? Good night, sweet prince…
martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on November 1st, 2009 08:19 am (UTC)
bisexual lampreys putting hickeys on fish in the Great Lakes while reading each other Shakespeare..
ann_amalieann_amalie on November 2nd, 2009 01:28 am (UTC)
Yeah, but where are you going to put that on the shelf? :D
martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on November 2nd, 2009 04:48 am (UTC)
on the front dump by checkout touting NEW BOOKS! of course .. grin.