Friday, March 09, 2012

Memo to History: Please Treat Me Kinder Than the Circus Historical Society

Update, 3/22: I'm afraid I have misrepresented slightly the reviews for Big Top Boss as being "universally affirmative." In fact, checking back, although the book drew a wide array of gratifying notices, there were two or three unfavorable ones, the most prominent being from the Village Voice.

Strange eerie feeling going willfully into this, as if I were composing in advance a counter-point summation of my work by imaging what might be written about me in an epitaph -- that is, were it crafted by the Circus Historical Society. But I am, shamelessly conceding, already having fun.

I am basing this upon my recent discovery on the CHS website of a listing of books they have posted, apparently their recommendations of what to read in a number of generalized categories.

Stay with me, please, when I tell you I am fairly astonished -- to the point of amusement -- call it Ego, if you wish, when I compare the almost total absence of anything I have written to the reviews, both good and bad, that some of my work has received from professionally neutral sources, including the American Library Association (Booklist and Choice) and Publisher's Weekly, as well as from various circus magazines both here and abroad.

Okay, to be fair, yes, a review can be ignorant, no matter the source. It can be lopsidedly favorable. It can be a hit piece. I've been around long enough to pretty well know when I lucked out, and when somebody was likely trashing me, working a hidden agenda.

Were it not for my latest work, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide, I would be totally missing from the Circus Historical Society's list of books to read. This list includes a large number of CHS writers, as well as most of the obvious titles -- Circus Kings, etc. I have no idea what any of the CHS members think of Inside the Changing Circus. But it's hard to imagine that they would place it above my book, Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus, which received universally affirmative notices. A few were flat-out raves. Some were good though closer to luke warm, even the Amazon reviewer who gave it four stars. Currently, it holds a 4-1/2 star rating on Amazon. Booklist and Publisher's Weekly, among the highest respected professional review sources, both gave it a solid thumbs up.

Okay, Behind the Big Top (my personal favorite) did get raves and did get some justly critical reviews, one from famed English circus authority and author Antony Hippisley Coxe (did I finally spell his name right?) Mr. Coxe, whose work I much admire, had every right to his well founded reservations; the book is rife with not just typos, but some errors of fact. And yet, it, too, was warmly received by Booklist and Publisher's Weekly. From many raves to a few pans, the notices rained down upon me; those were the days, my friend.

In the CHS listing of Inside the Changing Circus, they mention that I am also the author of Behind the Big Top and Circus Rings Around Russia. Well, thank you, CHS, for granting me that.

Beyond the rather puzzling (oh, did I put they nicely) absence of my books on the CHS website, here are some comments I have about other strange inclusions and/or omissions:

I am hoping to get a copy of one of the books written by Stuart Thayer, who is the God Historian among CHS members, it appears. I must tell you, there is something fundamentally wrong when such a scribe as Thayer can't get a publisher, even though, humbly I tell you, they are nearly impossible to get. It is a miracle any of my books ever got published, and I am not being coy or melodramatic. I know the hell University of Illinois Press put me through in the tortuously long "review process" for Big Top Boss, during which time, three of the four "expert readings" were done by CHS members, and they weren't exactly singing, "You must publish this!" Two of them, in fact, tended to favor Ernest Albrecht's A Ringling by Any Other Name. One of them found it clearly superior to mine, which only gave the most cowardly editor with whom I have ever worked more reason to wish she had never taken on my book. She kept me on edge, always implicitly holding out the possibility that they might jump ship at any time.

I will someday have a lively time turning out a book about my adventures through the circus worlds and the publishing houses when I was writing those books.

Back to the CHS listing: Not sure why Gene Plowden's Those Amazing Ringlings did not make the cut. I regard it as containing possibly the best biography of John Ringling -- if only Plowden had focused more relentlessly on John.

Why not Jerry Apps excellent study of the Ringling brothers, Ringlingville USA?

Or Robert Lewis Taylor's Center Ring? Yes, it contains some troubling errors, but so, too, does Fred Bradna's The Big Top, which did make the list.

I am sorry my Circus Rings Around Russia did not make the grade. I have drawn some deeper satisfaction from a few more serious souls, such as circus directors Larry Pisoni and Raffaele De Ritis, telling me how much they valued the book.

I'm inclined to believe, for the above impressions, that many fine circus books have been overlooked if not purposely left off the CHS list. But then again, all lists, like all award shows, are to a degree beauty pageants.

I will trust History, at least harbor the illusion that History will be kinder to me than the Circus Historical Society. And perhaps History will note, if it remembers Big Top Boss, that upon its publication, one reviewer called it "one of the best researched and written circus books ever, and a great contribution to the documented history of America's twentieth century circus scene."

That reviewer was Jerry Digney, whose notice was printed in Bandwagon, a publication of the Circus Historical Society.

Now, wasn't that fun?

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