I am a dreadful reader. Let’s just get that out of the way. For someone who writes books, I’ve always been ashamed of the fact that I don’t seem to read anywhere near as much or as speedily as I should. To make myself feel better, I tell myself that the books I do get around to reading are read well and deeply. This is, of course, bullshit. I’m a slow reader, distracted by everything flashing and bleeping, who tends to read three books at a time, none of them in a proper fashion. It can take me weeks, even months to get through a single book. (Unless I’m researching something for one of my own books, in which case, I can zip through something pretty quickly.) The best time for me to read would probably be the morning, which is exactly the time when I’m writing. As the day passes, it is nothing but eroding attention spans and diminishing returns. Still I manage to find and read books that I love every year. Here’s a few of them.
Perforated Heart by Eric Bogosian was one of my much-loved (though still slowly consumed) books of the year. Richard Morris, the protagonist, is a real piece of work. A selfish, narcissistic novelist, a Rothian literary-lion figure, except for the fact that his novels are regularly outshined by his very first book, a slim volume of short stories that took the literary world by storm, resulting in a hit motion picture. The book takes the form of journal entries: those from his present-day journal (during recuperation from heart surgery) alternate with recently unearthed diary entries from the ’70s (when he was a raw and ambitious bootstrapper first arrived in New York City). The earlier journals prompt the ailing, suddenly vulnerable older writer to seek out the important characters from his youth, present colliding with past, resulting in many unwanted revelations. I’d never read Bogosian before, but I’ve already picked up his other novels.
God, I love John O’Brien’s work, even though the man finished only one book in his lifetime. He committed suicide in 1994, shortly after finding out that his gritty gem Leaving Las Vegas was to be made into a motion picture. Still, his three unfinished books are all great (kudos to his sister, Erin O’Brien for superbly completing them): Stripper Lessons, The Assault on Tony’s, and the book I discovered this year, Better. It’s the story of Double Felix, a rich, solitary, enigmatic alcoholic, who occupies a mansion in the Hollywood hills. He surrounds himself with a revolving door of misfits, fuckups, and denizens of the underbelly of L.A., creating an unlikely surrogate family, of which Double Felix is the perpetually intoxicated paterfamilias. Various conflagrations, hook-ups, Morning Vodka, and emotional double crosses ensue until, as Sherwood Anderson would say, things go to smash.
Sally Franson’s A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out won me over quickly for a number of reasons, particularly because it takes place in the realm of advertising and marketing, a world that subsidized my fiction writing for many decades. When I saw that the narrator, Casey Pendergast, shared much of the same ambivalence about the business that I did, I was totally on board with this smart and charming book. It was a treat to watch Casey, trapped in the weedy bardo between literature and commerce, try her best to succeed in business with her integrity still intact. You can imagine how that works out.
I’m always reading books about music and one of them really floored me this year. Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist by Steve Lowenthal is the life story of one of the most talented, damaged, and self-sabotaging artists of the 20 century. A man so supremely talented and so dedicated to the guitar that he is considered godlike in many musical circles, but who also managed to blow up pretty much every other aspect of his life. It’s a painful journey in many ways, but Lowenthal deftly explains how this consummately gifted man was able to leave all that exquisite music in the process.
I’m a sucker for reading about radio, which is probably the literary equivalent of dancing about architecture, but I loved the story of Ohio’s legendary rock ‘n’ roll station in The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio by John Gorman with Tom Ferran. Starting in the ’70s in the early days of progressive FM radio, Gorman, who was there spearheading the aural attack as bloodthirsty program director, tells how WMMS went from being a “Find Me” FM station to one of the most influential radio stations in the country, breaking acts like Bruce Springsteen, Rush, and David Bowie. It’s amazing to read how one station in one broken city could totally change how people listened to radio.
Along with music, I never get tired of reading about Detroit. Though I’ve lived here all my life and all my novels are set around here, this place still never ceases to fascinate me. So it was thrilling to read Leo Early’s excellent history, The Grande Ballroom: Detroit’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Palace. For the uninformed, the Grande was Detroit’s Fillmore, a 1920s-era dancehall that became a rock ‘n’ roll mecca for a white-hot moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Grande is where proto-punk gods the MC5 first screamed “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”—not only as ideology, but as admonition to other bands, who dared not to bring their best when they came to Detroit. As exemplified by the steamy July night in 1968 when the 5s explosive set blew a little band named The Cream right off the stage. Gotta love that Dee-troit attitude.
Writing has its own mythology. The word author stems from the Latin auctoreum, which literally means “one who causes to grow.” And whatever the reasons may be—our media representations, our educational system, or our star-struck awe at famous writers—we tend to emphasize the “one” in that equation. From Shakespeare in Love to questions for authors at events, our culture often celebrates the tortured soul, the rugged individual, the solo genius.
For the past three years, I’ve worked on Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication. The book traces the life history of 11 widely different contemporary debut books. Their books were self, indie, and big-house published. They were travel memoirs, paranormal romances, post-apocalyptic domestic dramas, children’s picture books, short story collections, young adult fantasies, and literary fiction. When I started the project, the only thing that unified these books in my mind was that they’d found some level of success, loosely defined somewhere between runaway bestseller and finding a strong connection to a niche audience. But in all my in-depth interviews, two other unifying factors emerged.
The first shared trait among the 11 authors was perseverance. I’ll leave that topic less explored here, but it’s enough to say they each encountered roadblocks and barriers significant enough to sabotage their entire project. Some quit for a time. But each writer returned to the work.
The second trait each writer shared revolved around the need to develop community. This theme overshadowed even perseverance. So much so, that I felt it deserved more exploration beyond what I cover in my book. I conducted interviews in Minneapolis and in Tampa at AWP 2018 to capture many writers’ thoughts and advice about literary community.
I’m grateful to the following authors for recently taking the time to speak with me: Joanna Demkiewicz (Milkweed Editions Publicist and co-founder of The Riveter), Rachel Fershleiser (Senior Director of Marketing at Knopf), Sally Franson (author of the forthcoming debut novel, A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out), V.V. Ganeshananthan (author of Love Marriage), Ada Limón (author of 5 books of poetry including the National Book Award Finalist Bright Dead Things), Bao Phi (author of two poetry collections and the 2017 Caldecott Honor Book A Different Pond), Kaethe Schwehn (author of The Rending and the Nest), 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin (author of 3 poetry collections and editor of the bestselling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota), and Analicia Sotelo (author of Virgin, the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize).
Why is Community Important?
In 2015, an Atlantic article questioned the purpose and pressures of literary community. It’s a compelling read, and as someone who shares a deep level of introversion, I found my head nodding several times. The author argues that the pressure for literary community is overwhelming, and that it forces “every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them.”
I wholeheartedly agree that community should never feel forced or mandatory. But I disagree with that characterization of literary community. Based on my experience and my interviews with numerous authors, this definition needs to be broader.
To me, it’s not exclusively about going to book readings or networking at literary events, as the article suggests. It’s admirable and awesome if people want to write just for themselves, but if writers strive to be published, then they have already committed a public act. That act is a powerful choice, and yes, sometimes entirely based in ego, but it almost always requires some act of humility and community building as well. Literary community is then less a narrow set of predefined acts and more about finding a personal and meaningful way to connect through writing, however that comes about and feels comfortable.
신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin explains that the simple feeling of belonging can have powerful effects. She points out that in her community in Minnesota, it took a few community leaders to plant seeds and lead the way, and now the Twin Cities area has a vibrant and supportive community for writers of color. That community has helped her “keep at something that is not always easy to justify in terms of the amount of time and money invested.”
Sally Franson, whose debut novel comes out in April, says it wouldn’t exist without the people around her. This echoes many of the sentiments I heard in Behind the Book. “My novel, for example, didn’t get off the ground until an editor friend took me out for coffee and said, ‘you’re funny, you should write something funny’ and a beloved poet mentor, months later, said more of the same,” says Sally. “I honestly don’t think I would have started it without their nudging!”
Poet Ada Limón goes one step further and says that literary community is her lifeline. Twenty years after graduate school, she still emails the first drafts of poems to her close friends from the program. They are her touchstones and keep her grounded. She says it’s especially important in a climate and time when the arts don’t feel valued. Her sense of literary community “inspires me, protects me, and makes me feel like I can actually make a living and a life out of the arts.”
For Analicia Sotelo, writing can never be a solitary act because it’s something we do together. “Writing is not just about the individual artist, but that it is rather something that is generated from our communication, from our rhetoric, from our language and how that changes. Once we acknowledge that, I think we can be much more giving to each other.”
In many ways, an act of community is really an act of generosity. It can be notes from one trusted early reader to another, attending a reading, giving a reading, telling someone else to attend a reading, taking a loved one out for donuts after a tough rejection, posting an online book recommendation, offering to watch the kids for a few hours so your partner can write, writing a review for a writer you love, or speed-networking your way through a 10,000-person conference event. It can be big or small. It can be public or private. But if there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over, it really can’t be avoided, and we shouldn’t want to avoid it. It helps us, and it’s part of what you sign up for as a writer.
Most of the time, even for the most introverted, it doesn’t even need to be painful. “Everyone is the person who thinks that they don’t belong at one point or another. So it’s really important to remember that everyone feels that way. I mean I often felt that I was the mistake. Everyone feels at some point like they are the mistake,” explains V.V. Ganeshananthan. “But if you start to think of it like a whole room full of mistakes, it starts to sound pretty fun.”
How to Find Connection
So, that’s great, but how do you actually find, establish, and foster literary community and connection? In my interviews, there seemed to be four common pieces of advice: Be active, be present, be kind, and be giving.
1. Be Active
Start by being active, however you define that, says Bao Phi. Bao’s way of interacting and participating has changed as his life has changed, but he continues to try to stay as active as he can. When he was younger, he “went to as many literary readings, open mics, and slams as I could. Trying to absorb, listen, think, and learn.” Now as parenting, writing, and work have soaked up more of his time, he still tries to stay active, but in different ways. “I use social media a lot, and I might be the only person who’s still emailing folks like it’s 1998. I send poems or essays I like out to people who I think might enjoy them, have conversations electronically, and buy a lot of books.”
Joanna Demkiewicz says it takes some work to be active. “You’re going to have to do some research and hit the keys a little bit,” she argues. “The literary community is a friendly community despite this impenetrable mystique. And it’s definitely not all happening in New York. So the first step is just to show up and take part.”
2. Be Present
Demkiewicz says the easiest way to take part is to follow our second common piece of advice: be present and start local. Rachel Fershleiser agrees. She says, “No matter what, I think it’s about starting local. Find one or two people who you know and like, or even reach out to people via social media that you’ve never met before, and say you’re going to this reading and will they join you. A lot of times if you start with that one-on-one connection—and it just takes one—then that person might introduce you to someone they know.”
Furthermore, Fershleiser says don’t just start local, start small. When you’re starting out, “don’t just go to the big events with the big name authors and crowded rooms. Go to the smaller, more obscure events. Then people will introduce themselves more freely. They’ll be so happy that you took the time and effort to come, and you’ll be part of something.”
It also pays to be genuine, notes V.V. Ganeshananthan. “If someone is being Machiavellian about wanting to get something out of a conversation, people pick up on it pretty fast. So just be real, just be human. Ask other people what they are working on, try to connect with them rather than figure out how to get something from them. If you’re faking it to get someone to introduce you to their agent, that tends to be the kind of thing that people can tell. But if you’re interested in another person or their writing, that also comes through loud and clear.”
3. Be Kind
When I asked 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin for her advice, she listed kindness first. Try to include others, and reach out to them. This extends to “being a fierce advocate for free expression from underrepresented communities.”
Kaethe Schwehn agrees, noting that kindness goes a long way in the arts. In some ways, writing is a competitive enterprise, but it’s healthier when practiced with kindness. “Cheer loudly and sincerely when a writer friend accomplishes something,” says Kaethe. “Madeline L’Engle has a great quote about how each artistic act is a stream that feeds this greater ocean of art. Believing that we’re all on the same team is crucial.”
4. Be Giving
Perhaps most of all, the group of people I interviewed challenged anyone seeking community to start with generosity. Ada Limon says to start with service before anything else. “Reach out and write the poets that you love, the poets that are undercelebrated and underrepresented. Do interviews, ask questions, help promote books that you love. It can mean the world to those writers and build a connection for you.”
Sally Franson says that literary community is ultimately about generosity and help. “It’s folly, this myth of the tortured genius working in her room for years and coming out wild-eyed with a sheaf of papers that will change the world. No one can create alone. Great ideas are a confluence of five to 100 other great ideas. And so you’ve got to listen and pay attention to what the world is telling you. You’ve got to ask the world for help. And you’ve got to let the world help you, too.”
Image Credit: Flickr/hiimniko.