Book Reviews - US Review of Books

Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

by Kristin Hersh
University of Texas Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Hope’ has always stuck in my head. You hated hope, said it was misguided.”

If your introduction to Vic Chesnutt was the benefit album Sweet Relief II, you quickly moved past the great celebrity performances and asked: Who is this songwriter and why haven’t I heard of him before? If you still haven’t heard of Chesnutt—or the author of this book for that matter—you’d better go record shopping this afternoon before someone spots your musical blind spot. Regardless, in this haunting, poetic, musical road show memoir, singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh takes us inside her friendship with Chesnutt. Her experience is as insightful to a musician’s life as it is to the human existence—constantly probing and reevaluating self-understanding along with her footing on the planet.

Chesnutt, paralyzed since eighteen years of age, is a songwriter’s songwriter, whose catalogue has been rerecorded and admired for decades. He passed away on Christmas 2009 after an apparent self-induced overdose. He would likely find the sentimentality of that date to be nauseating. There was very little he wouldn’t poke fun of, including himself. He came across as somewhat twisted by life’s cruel blows and ironies, but he was beautiful as well, like a modern sculpture that acknowledges the past but rearranges it in a compelling way. As Hersh says, “he was broken in all the right places.” Listening to his songs, you had the feeling that you were always hearing the real Vic Chesnutt.

Much of this book covers a shared tour when Chesnutt was a decade or more into a brilliant career launch and Hersh was composing one of her best solo albums. You’ll understand Hersh’s must-have Sunny Border Blue better after reading this book. The line between Chesnutt’s everyday discourse and songs will be blurred. From town to town and stop to stop, as their vigilant spouses watch and occasionally mop up after them, Chesnutt and Hersh bounce off each other intellectually and emotionally, achieving spare equilibrium in one of the truly unique musical relationships.

The ending is the curtain fall you expected, although the author fights hard to meter her words while the songwriter fights just as hard to mute her sound regarding the event. Grief doesn’t get processed in a minute, a day, a year. Grief puts a new song in your head, one you never wanted to hear. Hersh sketches the loss, that song.

While a smidge more orientation would have been appreciated in general, this narrative isn’t about place and time. The writing is a lot like Hersh’s songs—focusing on moments, reflections, and the stray-dog objects that compose life. There are lines you’ll never forget, and you can’t help but love the adorable, self-sabotaging, curmudgeon Chesnutt revealed in these pages. You’ll wish you’d been there to absorb his flak backstage or in the southern sun. On balance, this book stands as a testament to the sincerity of his songwriting.

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Create a Feedback Loop for Book Marketing

For sixty millenniums, civilization has exchanged information by word of mouth. Ideas rise and fall in discussion where messages are repeated again and again with others until a generally held belief is developed. Little has changed, except the method of talk. Whether you are promoting a book or tube of toothpaste, the name and message must be repeated, and if you control a small group of messages about your book, you can build a feedback loop that will drive its popularity.

Any experienced author knows that few members of the media provide original book coverage. For a variety of reasons, reporters digest the media kit and whatever information is available on the newsfeeds and repackage the existing information as a fresh offering for their audience. They are echoing the available feedback and, most specifically, the message your media kit presents. When fresh material appears, you get to choose what to incorporate into your ongoing campaign.

Readers behave this way as well. When they visit the major Internet stopping points for reader-generated book feedback, such as Amazon or GoodReads. they will not only decide to read a favorably reviewed book, but they will likely post similar experiences. This works for negative feedback as well. Whether accurate or not, a negative feedback loop is almost impossible to defeat. Just ask Monica Lewinski. The cycle of negativity launched against her did not occur organically. It was generated for political purposes and has been nurtured for twenty years. Again, the key is to control your own message.

When building talking points for a publicity campaign, first decide if your book is timely or timeless. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, timely books can be attached to current and relevant subjects. Each day, the news media drives people through specific topics and trends. Just saying your book is related will garner media attention. If your book is lucky enough to relate to the topic du jour or you are a topical expert, make the messaging about only that issue until the news cycle burns out.

If your book is a timeless read, identify the genre or subject matter that best identifies your book and highlight the many ways that your book is different or better than what exists on the shelves. As the author, your experience should enter the discussion. Remember, first the reader comes to the author, and then the reader notices the book. Like the book, there should be a singular description about you that helps pique interest and focus the message.

With the recent saturation of Twitter and Facebook promotional pages, publishers admit that social media isn’t what it once was, and they are returning emphasis to the three tier media approach: local, regional, and national, where each level builds on the other until a large feedback loop is underway. This fact likely makes veteran authors chuckle. For years, they’ve worked news clippings within their media kits to focus the discussion regarding their books. These clippings, by the way, are easily reintroduced and reposted on social media platforms. So again, not a lot has changed since the dawn of civilization. A few standout facts, placed in front of an interested audience, will be repeated, and the positive feedback will pile up.

The US Review of Books seeds feedback loops with professional reviews sent to 15,000 monthly subscribers, including additional followers on GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter.