Who Will Buy Your Book?

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“Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”  

 She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.  

Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice? 

I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life.

I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.  

Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.  

I have a handful of friends and family members—people I consider close to me, people I see regularly—who have never come to any of my dozens of book events. I don’t know if they own any of my books because I haven’t asked, but I have a pretty good guess. After my first book came out, I would peruse friends’ bookshelves, trying to determine their organizational system (if it’s not alphabetical, then where is my book? Maybe they have some special hidden shelf for books they truly cherish?). On a few occasions, I called them out for not having it. This accomplished nothing, besides making both of us feel bad.   

The point of this piece is not to shame those people or to complain about not getting enough support. It’s just to say: whatever you think it’s like after you publish a book, it’s actually harder than that.  

During the entire process of producing a book, the writer becomes a swirling vortex of neediness. First you’re begging for time to write, then you’re asking people to read and edit, then you’re querying agents, then you’re asking (oh god) for blurbs, then you’re contacting reviewers, then you’re emailing everyone you’ve ever met, then you’re posting on Facebook (again and again), and then you’re asking people to show up to some bookstore on a Wednesday night to listen to you read words at them. Later, you’ll ask them to write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Every day, you are making demands on people’s time and money. It’s terrible.

For most of these people, the only appealing aspect of the book is that your name is on the cover. Maybe they’re not readers. Maybe they like gritty mysteries and you’re writing literary fiction about a divorced Brooklyn couple. Maybe they like reading but don’t have time, due to career, kids, community activism, or something else. Relative to the amount of time and anxiety you devote to the project, you’re really not asking for much. But it’s important to remember: nobody in the world will ever care about your book as much as you do. Very few will ever understand exactly what it means to you. 

People will like your Facebook statuses and retweet your tweets and they’ll even leave very nice comments. These likes and comments do not translate to sales. It’s the most passive way for anyone to show support. Over time, the novelty wears off. It’s exciting for non-writers to say they know an author, or for writer friends to remember back when you were starting out and working on your first, bad stories. Very little can sustain that enthusiasm over the six (or more) months during which you’re posting about the book.  

I admit to having felt betrayed by my friends’ indifference, especially after the first book, but I remind myself that I do the same thing all the time. I have friends in bands that I haven’t seen live in years. I’ve never been to any friends’ improv shows. I skip a lot of readings, even when I know the readers. I have friends with books I haven’t bought or read. I have explicitly lied to colleagues about having read and enjoyed their books. The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.  

At a family party recently, a cousin asked why I didn’t bring copies of my newest book to sell. I don’t like the idea of showing up to family parties like a cotton candy vendor wandering from table to table looking for handouts. I’ve done this before (at my mom’s wedding, I sold two books, including one to the pastor), and it has always felt cheap and more than a little passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that the misery of haggling over prices with a cousin is not worth the benefit of one more sale. When the cousin said he wasn’t sure where to get the book, I told him he could probably order it with one click on his phone. I did not close the deal.

The event I did at the Philly Library started late, as every reading does, as we hoped for that sudden influx of people. For the first time in my life, a (small) busload of people actually did show up. The library partners with a local retirement home, and so about a dozen people filled in the seats. Then a colleague arrived, followed by a writer friend. Then a friend from college, who I only see now at these events. Then a childhood friend, who always shows up even though he works long hours in the suburbs and has four young kids. Two people even bought books.

An hour earlier, I’d been drowning myself in self-pity, vowing to never put myself through this again. But then, in front of a modest crowd in the modest basement of a local library, I thought about how lucky I am to have any of these opportunities. I felt incredibly grateful to everyone who showed up, even the woman who made the upsetting phone call (she sat in the front row and listened intently and asked three questions). As always, I felt incredible gratitude to my wife, who has sat through so many more of these events than any person could ever be expected to endure. I felt fortunate to have friends who still keep showing up, sometimes making an hour commute to get there, even when all they’re getting out of it is fifteen minutes of me reading from a book, and maybe my signature. Some people couldn’t make it, but some did. That counts.  

The next night I did a reading in my adopted hometown in New Jersey and eight people showed up. I gave them the best performance I could. What other option is there?  

Most of the writing life is disappointment. Publishing a book, which should be your most triumphant moment, is an anticlimax. There are no fireworks and no awards, no parades down Main Street. Many people close to you will disappoint you. But there are people who will come through, and they will keep coming through, and sometimes you’ll be surprised who falls into which category. I’ve learned to cherish those friends and family members who are always there, or even sometimes there. It takes real sacrifice on their part to support this weird thing I do. It takes money and time for them to seek the book out, to ask their local shops and libraries to carry it, to share it on social media.  

People will read your book. Almost certainly not as many people as you wish. But sometimes a friend from high school or a former teacher will surprise you by showing up to a reading, or posting a review online. Sometimes a stranger will email you out of the blue and say they loved it, and in those moments it will feel like you’ve accomplished something impossible. It will feel better than you ever thought it could.  

I don’t think there is any way to convince all the people in your life to buy your book, let alone care about it half as much as you do. Though their validation feels great, it’s important to remember that it’s also not the point. As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself, and everything that happens once it’s in the world is out of your control. Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it. You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got. Most of the time, it’s all you need.  

Everything I Don’t Know About Swords: On Teaching Creative Writing

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One evening in grad school, half-drunk and Googling my own name, I found a blog run by one of my fiction students. I shouldn’t have read it, but of course I read it. “I already hate this class,” she wrote. “My teacher is a stuck-up snob who won’t even let us write the things we want to write.” She wanted to be a romance novelist, but my syllabus had forbidden a long list of plots and genres: romance, detective stories, space adventures, dying grandparents, breakups, and so on. Why even enroll in a creative writing course if you didn’t want to make great art?

When I started teaching creative writing in 2005, my syllabus assigned almost exclusively white male authors of realist short fiction. I had no theories on what fiction should look like and had never even heard the term “pedagogy” before. I was 23 and in grad school and just trying to survive.

I was not a serious reader as a college student, and so most of my reading was either assigned to me, or randomly pulled from anthologies. My college courses were heavily focused on dead American men like Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, and Raymond Carver, with perhaps a single story by Jhumpa Lahiri or an excerpt from Beloved. A few professors pushed me outside this zone, but mostly I was reading a narrow slice of “the canon” and nothing else.

In my class, the only acceptable genre was the one I had learned to associate with so-called serious fiction: sad middle-aged men trying to reclaim their youthful glory, preferably while drunk on cheap whiskey. Maybe include a scene where he’s digging a ditch, or thinking about when he was good at baseball. Everything is subtext and nobody ever says what they mean. These were not the kinds of stories I was writing or even identified with, but I was in the business of creating Literature.

Before they walk into your classroom, many undergraduates have never written fiction seriously before. Some have dabbled, and occasionally you meet a preternaturally driven young person, but the average student brings some talents to the room with little idea of how to shape them into something meaningful.

You will very likely be the only creative writing teacher they ever have.

Running a passable fiction workshop is pretty easy. You assign some short stories for the first month, and after that everyone writes two stories of their own. The assigned readings don’t have to relate in any way to the student stories; they’re just there as exemplars of what good fiction might look like. When you workshop the students’ pieces, you can follow a script:

Name one thing you loved about the story and one thing you would change
Which characters or moments would you like to know more about?
Did anything in here confuse you?
Evaluate the dialogue.
Any sentences you loved? Any you want to edit?
What did you think of the ending?

During discussion, drop the names of a couple authors they probably haven’t read. End by offering your own critique, and include a writing aphorism, something that sounds very wise but you also know to be not totally true, something like: the choices a character makes must always be tied to a mistake in his past. People will write this down. They will have had a few laughs. When they leave, they will have learned almost nothing. You’ll get great student evaluations at the end of the semester.

Most stories turned in for workshop are bad. As a novice teacher, I took these bad stories personally, as if the students had written them just to spite me.

My syllabi resulted in scattershot work and a sense among the students that no choices really mattered. Nobody was writing anything good. Even the obviously talented students were flailing. The best you could hope for, most times, were glimmers of great ideas. Novice writers tend to imitate what they see, rather than being driven by some innate idea of great art, so a poorly-conceived syllabus will lead to poorly-conceived stories.

I’m not saying you can’t teach creative writing; I’m saying I couldn’t teach creative writing. I survived for a few years on the strength of my enthusiasm and my ability to make undergrads laugh. Syllabi like the one I used when I started have become the default approach for many professors, though they’re so limited in their effectiveness that any good work you get is an accident. It’s both prescriptive and not; it sets rigid boundaries but with no clear rationale. It reinforces the traditional notion that white male American realism is the only valuable kind of writing, and then passively says, “Just write me some stories like this,” with no other guidelines.

Syllabi like mine have become the default for novice creative writing professors. I think this development is partly a product of the growth of MFA programs. Increasingly, English departments are assigning intro Creative Writing courses to grad students, who receive minimal training and may be required to use a standard syllabus. The standard syllabi are designed to be simple, so that anybody can be plugged in to the class at the last minute and run it smoothly. They’re designed by a well-intentioned person in the department who needs to endure several rounds of approvals from higher-ranking faculty, at least some of whom don’t believe Creative Writing is a serious academic pursuit. A system like this is bound to produce stale, myopic syllabi that offer as limited a view of what it means to be a writer as possible.

Five years ago, I was teaching a course called Creative Acts, which is a basic intro to creative writing, and is open to all majors. A lot of students take this class because they assume it will be an easy elective. The quality of the work I had been receiving was poor, and nobody in the room cared. After we workshopped one student’s story and everyone handed her their critiques, she pointedly stood, walked to the front of the room, and dropped them all in the trash can next to my desk. In the next class period, we were discussing yet another student story about a college kid who wants to get drunk and does, eventually, get drunk, and I was despairing as I tried to drag us into some conversation besides whether or not people found the main character “relatable.” An alarm sounded on a phone in the back room, and suddenly half the class stood and started doing the Macarena. You don’t realize how long a single minute can last until you endure a spectacle like this, realizing nobody in the room respects you or your work, and further realizing you’ve given them no reason to do so. When they finished, I ended class, announcing that I needed some time to reevaluate all of my life choices.

It was too late to salvage that course, but before the next semester, I trashed my syllabus and rewrote it from scratch. I borrowed heavily from my friend Matthew Vollmer, a professor at Virginia Tech, and designed a course that required the completion of eight specific short exercises written within various formal and content-based constraints: a story in the collective first person, one about a monster, one in the form of instructions, one driven by a single magical element, and so on. Each assignment was paired with published stories that modeled these techniques, which forced me to open my reading list to a much broader range of authors and genres. With specific tasks to accomplish, the students turned in dramatically better work. They hated some of the assignments, but there wasn’t as much pressure on each one to be perfect, because there was something new to do every week. It made writing fun, but it also gave us some grounding principles to discuss, besides, “did you like this story?” And it implicitly opened up the idea of writing itself, of what it could contain and who could make it.

The best thing I read that semester was a story titled, “The Anxious Boy’s Guide to Piecing Your Mother Back Together.” It was written in the form of a manual, complete with Table of Contents and Index, and it told the heartbreaking, clearly autobiographical, story of a gay, Latinx college student trying to survive college while also caring for his chronically ill mother. He read parts of it aloud in class and a few people cried. It wasn’t a perfect story, by any means, but it was the realest, most exciting work I’d ever gotten in a creative writing course. And then it kept happening: every week, they turned in stories like this, with students putting themselves on the line and investing themselves emotionally in the work in a way they never had before. On a course evaluation, one student wrote, “This class changed everything I ever thought about writing.”

Last November, close to midnight, I sat in the dark staring at my laptop. I was well into my second hour of watching sword fights on YouTube. I switched between samurai movies, anime, medieval battle scenes, and pirate duels. Two of my students just kept writing about sword fights, and I was trying to be a better teacher. If I was going to critique the battle scenes in their novels-in-progress, I needed to understand what made a good sword fight. When I spoke to one of these students, I discussed the usual things—characterization, precision, pacing—and he nodded and listened and took notes. Then he said, “But what about the battles? Were they exciting?” And I wasn’t sure. So I had to do my homework. For two consecutive nights, I watched the videos. I even read the comments.

The next day, I used the term “saber,” and a student immediately corrected me: “It’s actually a claymore,” he said. “There’s a pretty big difference.” We discussed katana, cutlasses, and something they called, “a horse-killing sword,” a thing that, I assure you, actually exists. Somehow this led to an anime discussion, in which I vaguely recognized the names of some Yu-Gi-Oh! characters and somebody named Goku. There is so much I don’t know and my students do. I was drowning in this conversation, but I think we made some progress. It was one of the best teaching days of my life.

This past fall, I taught the Capstone, the final course our fiction students take in the major. I wanted it to feel like something important and difficult.

At this point, I was working with experienced, smart, and driven students who had a sense of what they wanted to write. They designed their own final project, in consultation, and I didn’t restrict them in any way. Instead of conducting short formal experiments, we split our time between reading criticism (about genre, aesthetics, cultural appropriation, and gender issues in publishing) and short stories that helped to illustrate or inform these debates (some authors we read: Ken Liu, Danielle Evans, J. Robert Lennon, Cristina Henríquez, Paul Beatty, Aimee Bender, Lesley Nneka Arimah). The constraint imposed on them was a philosophical one: they were forced to think about the way their work would interact with the world outside our classroom. I encouraged them to go wild with their stories, as long as they could explain themselves.

Which meant I read: sword fights, an epic novel-in-progress featuring no fewer than 10 fantasy races, a collection of erotica stories, a chapbook of stories in experimental forms, some batches of conventionally literary stories, one historical novel that involved a lesbian ghost, and more than a few interdimensional travel stories. There was also a series of realist literary stories in which every now and then a monster or a talking lizard would appear.

I do not enjoy all of these. I’ve learned that I find sword fights, even the very best of them, boring. I was often struggling to keep up in our discussions, no matter how much time I spent on Tumblr reading about the differences between goblins and orcs. And yet: I never enjoyed a semester more. I know it was the best teaching I’ve ever done.

It was the rising energy of the students putting something new and weird and daring into the world, and me straining to connect with it and help them find a shape for it—that’s when I felt most like I was doing a job that mattered.

My job is not to define literature for them, but to give them the vocabulary and tools—and the inspiration—to define it for themselves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Space Ripe for Experimentation: The Future of Print Literary Journals


Most writers I know submit to online journals first, and, in some cases, exclusively. Online publication often happens significantly faster than print, can reach a much wider audience, and the pay is — sometimes — competitive. Thanks to the innovative designs of some journals — like Paper Darts and Diagram — the days of online lit looking like endless variations on Blogspot templates are long gone. And yet, people continue to print literary journals. Even though they’re cumbersome, labor-intensive, and more expensive. Even though it’s not clear whether anybody actually reads them. Even though some back issues of Barrelhouse (the journal where I’m non-fiction editor) have been piling up in various editors’ basements for years.

In February, I joined thousands of other writers at the annual AWP Conference, at which several hundred exhibitors were selling books and literary journals, and many people were happily stuffing their tote bags. Among writers and editors, there is clearly still a demand for print. If we accept the premise that editors will continue printing, then the question isn’t “Is print dead?” but rather: what should print do to distinguish itself from digital? How can we justify the existence of this product in the face of cheaper, more accessible alternatives?

Last year, when I proposed to the other Barrelhouse editors that we go fully digital, I was unanimously outvoted. And then a week after I finished writing this essay, we started discussing it again; our poetry editor, Dan Brady, argued that we were running out of ways to innovate within the form of the print journal and had to move on to bigger challenges. We’re an independent literary journal and small press that is fundamentally opposed to raising funds via Kickstarter or submission fees, so half of our time is spent hustling to raise money, and most of the remaining energy is devoted to trying to get the print product together. Steven Seighman, founder of Monkeybicycle, which went fully digital in 2012, described the process of producing print issues as “overwhelming” and “unsustainable.” In every way, our lives would be easier if we stopped printing issues.

But if we’re going to continue making this thing, then we need to think about what we can do to make it distinct from online journals, and how to make it a viable enterprise.

To work through this problem, I talked with the editors of more than 20 literary journals, asking for their visions of the role and future of print issues.

Fetishizing the Physical

“For me, the print thing has to do with a desire for substance when fewer things are physical,” Barrelhouse co-founder Joe Killiany says. “I like the feel of books, I like the feel of albums.” Fiction editor Matt Perez adds, “People develop more of a relationship with a book…Having it around, on your coffee table, in your bag, on the back of your toilet, etc., feels a bit more like a relationship.” Most editors I spoke to offered some version of this answer first.

But, given all the drawbacks to production, acquisition, and storage of print journals, there has to be more to a print journal than fetishizing the physical artifact. There has to be more than the smell of the pages or the tactile pleasure of holding a book. I already own lots of books. Why do I need to feel or smell more of them?

Emphasizing Design

The design possibilities online are seemingly endless, but they are distinct from those in print. Using the physical object as a basis for creating a journal that is not only beautiful to look at, but interestingly laid out, editors can make their print issues into something that cannot, exactly, exist online. McSweeney’s is the obvious example here, but there are plenty of others. Andrew Mitchell, co-founder of Outlook Springs, describes the print journal as, “A space ripe for experimentation.” In discussing his relatively new journal’s aesthetic, he says:
I realized that if you’re going to create these beautiful, concrete objects, then you really need to think about them as their own separate thing; in other words, though the writing itself is most important…the Object, too, needs to be treated and considered as an ‘object.’ It can’t just be a container for the work.
Each issue follows the conventions of a literary journal, but also includes playful touches like advertisements from fake companies and fake MFA programs, all of which are located in a single fake town. They create a secondary text beyond the primary text. They, “treat it as an art object, with its own set of sensory experiences that we would play with.”

Nick Greer, editor of Territory, an online-only literary project about maps, adds that the print product should, “Explore the idioms of its medium, stuff that either isn’t easily replicated in/translated to other media, or stuff that enjoys and interprets the tropes and conventions of its medium.” Greer’s email included some especially ambitious suggestions, like bricolage, pastiche, and disappearing ink. He adds that the history of print is so rich that it has more potential than any other form to be self-referential, to toy with readers’ expectations and emphasize the evolution of the object itself.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until four years ago, we at Barrelhouse were devoting so much energy to reading submissions and shaping the contents that we’d neglected to think about what the actual issues looked like. Like many editors, we took for granted the most basic elements of printing: ink, binding, quality of print, etc. For years, Barrelhouse was printed at one size, with the same font, layout, and printer, and then one day, editor Dave Housley dropped a dozen new journals on the table in front of us. “These journals all look great,” he said. “And ours looks like shit.” We realized then that, although we’d been happy with the older issues, many of them now looked dated and boring. We changed printers, changed page sizes, added an art director, and reconsidered everything about the way our journal looked. If you’re asking someone to spend money and space on storing your magazine in their house, you have to give them as many compelling reasons as possible to want to hold on to it.

The obvious counterpoint to all this design talk is to note the sustained success of a journal like One Story, the design of which is as simple as possible. It’s an intentional simplicity, though, an obvious aesthetic choice, which Territory’s Thomas Mira y Lopez describes as making you feel like, “you’re the recipient of this treasure meant just for you.” One Story editor-in-chief Patrick Ryan thinks the design is appealing to both writers and readers:
[We want to] showcase one outstanding short story all by itself. No bells or whistles. A physical object that comes to you in the mail, that you can carry around in your pocket, that you can read and collect, or pass on to friend, or leave for a stranger…To be an author and to have an issue of a magazine be solely dedicated to your story is pretty wonderful.
Focus and Depth 

Beyond the stripped-down design, One Story’s distinguishing feature is that each issue highlights a single, sometimes quite long, story. They create a space for longform storytelling that might otherwise not find a home online.

The clearest distinction between most print and online journals is the length of the pieces they’re able to run. With rare exceptions, you just can’t publish something longer than 2,000 words online and expect many people to read it. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but as an editor, I can assure you: an online story, no matter how masterful, begins losing eyes the moment the reader has to scroll down more than once. I have one friend who reads whole books on his phone, but most other people I know barely have the patience to read a full text message on their phones.

Print gives you space to develop a longer narrative. It lets a story breathe. Readers have fewer distractions, and they also open a book with the understanding that the book will demand their full attention. Please indulge me as I state something obvious: it is much less distracting to read from a book than it is to read online. Nate Brown, managing editor of American Short Fiction, says, “Printed works of fiction demand your sustained attention, and books are single-function machines: you open a book, you read it, you close it, you set it down, and you go to sleep.” ASF, like many print journals, also runs online issues. And while they do publish some shorter pieces in print, Brown argues that one of the primary functions of the print issue is to run these longer stories and essays.

As online publishing becomes the norm, the form of contemporary fiction and essay has changed to accommodate the needs of online readers. Flash fiction, once considered a niche genre, is published widely now. Writers are cutting their stories ruthlessly to meet strict word counts. This may well be an overall positive development; few things in this world are as intolerable as a bloated short story that goes on for 1,500 words too long. But I admit to often feeling unsatisfied by essays I read online, which read more like ideas of essays, written in very nice language but either underdeveloped or edited to the point of hollowness. Some stories just need more space. I’ve become convinced that print journals should be printing even longer stories and essays, giving homes to works of prose that otherwise can’t be published elsewhere. This is why in the next issue of Barrelhouse, we’re going to run a novella-length essay, inset in the issue itself with its own cover. If I wanted to, I could find three to four excellent essays to run in the same space, but why not exploit one of the strengths of print — people go to it to look away from the rest of the world — to showcase an essay that might otherwise never be published?

The Future of Print

When I asked Christine Gosnay, founding editor of The Cossack Review, what editors should do or change if they want to keep producing print issues, she gave me an answer that reframed the conversation for me:
If a magazine’s editors want to keep printing books, they should. It should be because they have a very clear editorial vision: they want to put this type of thing into this type of binding and show it to as many people as possible because they have a passion for what they’re selecting. That extremely ambitious and cohesive outlook is what can tie a book together into something different from an online issue, which is more likely to be shared piecemeal amongst different groups of people and possibly ignored.
There are more eyes online, but there’s even greater competition. The whole point of a print journal is to create a singular work that speaks for itself. The design matters, and the specific pieces you publish matter. Everything matters. But what matters most is that you believe deeply in the artwork you’re creating and that you’re proud to present it as a cohesive whole to your readers. They may not read it cover-to-cover (I rarely do that even for issues of Barrelhouse), but they can experience the issue as a single entity representing a particular aesthetic.

The heading for this section is overstated, because I’m not smart enough to predict the future of print. Most editors I spoke to said they were determined to keep printing issues, despite all the effort, time, and money. Each is taking a different approach, but the consensus is this: the biggest mistake any editor can make is to stop pushing to improve his or her journal, to produce print issues thoughtlessly and without trying to innovate to justify all the other inconveniences of physical media. As Greer says, “If you’re worried about evolving to keep up, it’s already too late. Those who evolve don’t see it as evolution or some kind of other painful but necessary metamorphosis, they’re just swimming in it, breathing it.”

Podcasts and Literary Criticism


If listening to your favorite podcast is like meeting your best friends at the bar, then reading a 500-word book review is like sharing an elevator with a casual acquaintance. There’s a chance both could be great experience, but it’s more likely the elevator ride will blend in with the hundreds of other forgettable interactions you have every day.
There was a time when the print book review was the definitive source on how to think and talk about new books. Even five years ago, the idea of an author going on a podcast to promote his or her book seemed laughable; most people didn’t even know what a podcast was, let alone how to download one. In some ways, print is still the dominant form, and every writer still dreams of getting that great New York Times review. But with new literary podcasts appearing every week, the world of book discussion has been fractured and reshaped. The podcast hasn’t killed the book review, but as traditional book reviews have become less dominant, podcasts have filled that void and changed the form.
In a recent episode of “Book Fight,” the podcast I co-host with Mike Ingram, our guest Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, a poet and music critic, argued that the era of the traditional music review is dying. You don’t need to read Spin or Pitchfork to find out how many stars they gave an album, because you can stream it yourself and then go to social media to read hundreds of reactions from your friends within an hour. There was a time when the point of most reviews was expressly to guide you in making one decision: do I buy this thing or not? Now, thanks to digital media, the engagement with the material is totally different, though still rooted in the same desire: to hear some music you’re going to love, and connect with other people who love it too.
Though the music and book industries aren’t quite analogous, there has been a similar shift in the way people want to talk about books. John King, host of “The Drunken Odyssey with John King,” describes podcasting as, “An elaborate extension of social media.” A good book podcast can graft the spontaneity, intimacy, and energy of talking with your friends onto the conventions of a book review. Though there is still an invaluable place for detailed criticism from writers like Zadie Smith and Daniel Mendelsohn, many book lovers are seeking out venues that seem less intimidating. It can be daunting for someone who feels like a literary outsider to pick up a 10,000-word piece on three translated works in The New York Review of Books, but not to download a couple episodes of a show you can listen to while you’re cleaning your apartment.
Book reviews have traditionally been written in an ostensibly objective voice, while podcasts provide a more personalized, idiosyncratic response to a given book. Listeners are less interested in where the book should be placed in the canon than they are in how the hosts of their favorite show were affected by it, and why. When asked how podcasting has changed her approach to criticism, Rebecca Schinsky, co-host of “Book Riot” and “All the Books,” says, “I care much less about criticism, about pretending that objective evaluation of a piece of literature is even possible, or about pronouncing whether a book ‘should’ be read or not.” Tod Goldberg, co-host of “Literary Disco,” echoes her view: “Our listeners come to our show not just to hear us review a book, but to talk about our lives, hear our stories, learn how literature plays a role in our real lives.”
You might argue that this emphasis on the hosts’ personal reactions is problematic, a sign of the self-obsessed times in which all opinions are treated as equal. There are, you might say, objective standards that make some books definitively better than other books, and that the increasing interest in podcasts is more proof of the decline of rigorous criticism in an era of moral relativism. While I concede both the value of the canon and the need for some baseline standards in evaluating books, I would argue that the shift toward more personal criticism is actually the opening to a more inclusive culture of book criticism. To record a podcast, you need a computer, a decent microphone, and a couple hundred dollars for web hosting; not everyone has these tools at their disposal, but it’s an increasingly accessible medium that allows for a more diverse range of opinions than you might find on the handful of influential book review sites. When you listen to a podcast, you’re not just getting a plot summary and a star rating for a book; you’re being invited to share in the deeply personal response that a real person, whom you’ve come to know and think of as a friend. There’s a greater empathy for the host, but also a greater burden on the host to articulate her thoughts on the book effectively.
Every episode, the hosts are forced to consistently define and redefine their personal aesthetic, defending their reaction to a book while trying to articulate why they love or hate a particular thing, particularly when listeners might have expected them to have the opposite reaction. This discussion can be rigorous and difficult, and over time can lead to the host’s views on literature evolving significantly. It can also compel listeners to pick up a book they never would have tried otherwise.
Sitting across the table from a friend whose opinion I respect, I’m forced to explain every week why I feel the way I do about the most recent thing we’ve read. In doing so, I acknowledge that I’m bringing a different set of experiences, expectations, biases, and values to the table, and hold no illusions of speaking on behalf of Literature as a whole. Schinsky adds, “We’re not thinking about reviewing in the traditional sense. Our goal is to talk about what worked for us about a book and help listeners determine if it’s then a book they want to try.”
Many of the most passionate arguments I’ve had about books have occurred in bars with my friends, where we were willing to be uncensored, strident, and occasionally irrational. Sometimes you want to defend a book you don’t really like just to get under a friend’s skin. Sometimes your friends will roast you for loving a book they can’t stand. It’s liberating to be with a group of people you trust, knowing you can argue that the canonical novel everyone loves is terrible. Or that the small press chapbook you’ve just finished is one of the most important things you’ve ever read. And beyond all else: it’s fun. It’s a reminder for those of us in academia that you can talk about books without losing your sense of humor. At their best, podcasts replicate this particular experience for readers.
There are now dozens of thriving literary podcasts (some profiled here and here), and though there is surely some overlap in audiences, each fills its own comfortable niche, the place where the listener has found some hosts they respect and like spending time with. As with all subcultures, book lovers are interested in the work itself, but they’re also interested in joining a community.
Longtime fans form intimate relationships with the hosts of the show and their fellow fans. “Books on the Nightstand,” one of the pioneers in the literary podcast genre, built a thriving community of nearly 6,000 fans on Goodreads, and many are still actively posting even though hosts Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness ended the show in July. These are people scattered across the world, reaching out to find others who also love books and enjoyed spending time once a week with Ann and Michael. What they had in common was a desire to connect, not just with the literature but the people behind it.
Though each listener has her own favorite episodes of a given podcast, the real depth of experience comes from living with the show over a long period of time, developing relationships with the host(s), and feeling included in the dialogue. It’s like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine. You can show up whenever you have time, do the reading or not, and leave when you’re ready. You can form a bond with the voices in your head. Traditional reviews are limited in their ability to meet these needs from a reader. Brad Listi, host of “Otherppl,” says he wants to avoid a “high-minded academic back and forth [because] that kind of talk feels limiting to me; it excludes too many listeners.” Though you can read your favorite critic’s work over the years, learning from them and seeing their tastes evolve (or calcify), you never really feel like you know them. There is a distancing effect created by the medium itself. You are there as a student, not as a guest in the author’s living room. This is a good and valuable thing, but it’s not the same thing as listening to two people you like discussing books every Monday on your drive to work.
A quick story: two nights after the recent election, while many of us were still reeling from the results, I went to a reading in Philadelphia. The atmosphere in the room was weird, unsettled, and anxious. I wasn’t sure if anyone would even show up, but it turned out to be a standing-room-only crowd. I got the sense that everyone was tired of sitting alone in their homes and fearing the worst. People cried while Paul Lisicky read about watching the inauguration of Barack Obama with his dying friend. People cried during every reading. Ingram, my “Book Fight” co-host, opened the night with a short speech about the value of community in a time of great anxiety. He said literature can’t save people’s lives, but it can help a little. It can be a small, good thing to use books to build community and make people feel loved, supported, and welcomed. Though he didn’t mean it in exactly this way, I think it was also a good summation of what makes podcasts great: they draw people in based on the common ground of literature, and then use it to create connections where there were none before. Goldberg says that when he and his co-hosts are recording “Literary Disco,” “we know that beyond the quality of the book, we are sharing with our audience something more profound: here is what great literature can do, here’s the empathetic bridge literature lets you cross, here’s us, experiencing it, live.” As our lives become more fragmented and diluted across various online streams, there’s something rare and valuable about knowing you can have this resource to build meaningful bonds with thousands of strangers.
Image Credit: Gavin Whitner