This is the only time I have ever commented publicly about a reader review. My book appeals to some, turns off others. That’s the way it goes. And so it went with one reader review until I read the final criticism, one about inaccurately permitting a Greek character to bear a Slavic surname. Huh? Here, too?
I note in the preface that Cooperative Lives was written in 2013, before the present “global contagion of anti-immigrant nationalism.” No surprise, then, that the contagion spread to Online Book Club and infected one of its reviews.
It isn’t a favorable review, 2 out of 4, but that’s not uncommon. What is uncommon is the tacit nationalism of the criticism:
“Last but not least, the author struck a chord with a geographical inaccuracy I'm sensitive about. He did so by mistaking Macedonia with Greece and giving a character a Slavic Macedonian surname but a Greek passport.”
To be clear, the character in question is a Greek Cypriot national with a Slavic surname. The novel never mentions the respective land masses of Greece and the Republic of North Macedonia, and certainly doesn’t get them confused. But that is evidently not what annoyed the reviewer. In his post-Brexit, nationalist world, Greek characters must bear Greek surnames. Deviations are an “inaccuracy” or, worse, something that strikes a chord they’re sensitive about.
I’m sensitive about this subject, too, but in a different way. Back in 1982, when I was interviewing in law school, an attorney from Sidley & Austin conducted interviews on campus. There were twelve or thirteen pre-selected candidates, 30 minutes per interview, a call-back for one or two. When my turn came, he glanced at my résumé, observed me skeptically, then grilled me on “why I chose the name Finegan.” “You’re obviously not Irish,” he insisted. “What were you seeking to gain?” I was stunned. This was 1982. This was America. I explained that my father was Caucasian, that my mother was not. Explained this to … a lawyer. It’s the only interview I ever walked out on.
A close friend of mine hails from Iceland. His parents were natural born citizens of Iceland. All but one of his grandparents were from Iceland. My friend’s name is Moeller – a Swedish or German name, perhaps, but not Icelandic. I befriended him when he was still head of the Reykjavik Chamber of Commerce, back in 1990. He’s still a prominent civic figure in Reykjavik. I assure you; no one ever questioned the validity of his Icelandic passport.
Last I checked, Greece does not restrict the surnames of its citizens. Anyone who reads the news knows that the 2019 national Hellenic parliament includes members of non-Hellenic descent, including, quite prominently, Ilchan Achmet and Chousein Zeimpek. Yet they are Greek citizens with Greek passports. Imagine that; in this day and age!
The reader chose a German moniker, Herbstlicht. Apropos. Today’s New York Times ran a feature, “‘I Will Never Be German’: Immigrants and Mixed-Race Families in Germany on the Struggle to Belong.” It begins, “Thirty years after Germany’s unification, nearly 500 readers shared with us what it means to be German.” Five hundred respondents! I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts some had Slavic surnames.
There are plenty of gaffes in my novel, but the only chord this reviewer’s criticism struck was D-flat.