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Audio Only: On the Rise of the Literary Podcast

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In the current age of visual albums, the parade of comic book movies, and glossy cable television, it is — at first glance — strange that audiences have gravitated toward the less bombastic offerings of the spoken word. In particular, the huge growth in podcast listenership has led to a dazzling array of shows, professional and dilettante alike. Back in 2005 The Millions drew attention to the podcast craze and posted a list of literary-themed ones.

Most of those are no longer in operation.

Since then a second wave of literary podcasts has emerged. In total, millions of listeners — no doubt many of them writers, or aspiring practitioners — have sought out these repositories of craft-talks, MFA advice, lit-scene gossip, and book reviews. The low bar to entry has led to hundreds of podcasters (often white and male) to pontificate in the nicest possible way on literature, and you will find on iTunes such shows: Bookrageous, Drunk Booksellers, Books and Nachos, Dead Robots’ Society, and so on.

But only a handful of podcasts have transcended the limitations of the genre and broken through to find a wider audience.

The New York Times Book Review
Part of a cultural behemoth, and a hangover from those early days of podcasting, The New York Times weekly book podcast soldiers on even in the financial dire straits of the Internet news age. The host (for many years Sam Tanenhaus and now Pamela Paul) and guests-of-the-week wag about the major books on the newspaper’s bestseller list. A glimpse into the perhaps vanishing world of old-school book reviewing

Book Fight!
If there were an award for jokey banter and humorous digression, Book Fight! would win it. Hosted by two Iowa grads, Tom McAllister and Mike Ingram, the show mixes boyish wit with beer-fueled insight. In one particularly funny episode discussing a Flannery O’Connor story, Mike quips: “Great writer. Sorry about your lupus.” Moments like this pepper the 130 episodes, with each one delving into a piece of contemporary or classic literature, or striking off to ponder Himalayan salt blocks or the Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner feud. Perhaps most fun of all, the pair rate books on a wildly inconsistent star system, grading everything from Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed to Glenn Beck’s word-fluff of a book.

Otherppl with Brad Listi
Upbeat, honest, assertive. Otherppl is very L.A. Brad Listi’s rakishly smooth voice drives the show, lulling listeners with his wry sense of humor and knowledge of the lit-scene. Each week Listi sets out his stall delivering an off-the-cuff monologue that segues (eventually!) into an hour-long interview with a notable writer. His charm rubs off onto his guests and brings out the best of, say, Dana Spiotta, Melissa Broder, or Hanya Yanagihara. Listening in, there’s a feeling the warmth of ever-sunny L.A. promotes the idea that happiness and literature can co-exist and make us all better people.

A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment
The infectious laughter and all-round jolliness on A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment is unabashed. Although recorded infrequently, Sherman Alexie and Jess Walters’s podcast delights in having a good time, and handles listener questions with patience and sage advice. Upbeat, non-threatening music stitches together the sections of the show and provides handy interludes between the two hosts sharing polished works-in-progress or riffing on the lit-hipsters populating Spokane. Whatever the topic at hand, it’s dealt with in a good-natured fashion. Even Walters’s anecdotes of outperforming novice writers on the basketball court at writing conferences is remarked upon with genuine heart for his smote foes. Alexie — and us at home — can only laugh along.

The Drunken Odyssey
From within the nether regions of Central Florida, comes the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Writing Podcast™.” Once you get past the bizarre, mildly hypnotic introduction, John King — himself a Raëlian presence — quickly gets to the book under examination. Reminiscent of a grad school seminar, the podcast scrutinizes academic and esoteric texts, and you’ll often find King excavating the meanings of Wallace Stevens’s minor essays or celebrating Bloomsday. When King co-hosts with the delightful Vanessa Blakeslee or is imbibing red wine with David James Poissant, the show transcends the bounds of King’s academic baggage. Unafraid to intellectualize fiction and the craft, King draws such notables as Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill to his secret recording studio. Definitely a Raëlian — how else to explain King’s ardent followers?

Minorities in Publishing
Jennifer Baker and Bev Rivero (the latter no longer co-hosts) are industry professionals in New York advocating for change in publishing. More serious in tone than many podcasts, the show mixes interviews with editors, illustrators, publicists, writers, and agents of color, with bursts of warm laughter and an obsession with Whole Foods. The high caliber of guests — Ashley C. Ford, Ivan Lett, Linda Camacho — allows important coverage and analysis of the disparities in diversity and what can be done to manifest change.

Selected Shorts
Around in one form or another since 1985 (!), Selected Shorts has traversed the radio/podcast divide and embraced the digital age. With some 300,000 downloads per episode and a comparable number listening on the radio, the show is one of the most popular around. Fortunately, it is also one of the best. In each episode, famous (and not-so-famous) actors stage readings of classic and contemporary short fiction. It’s quite a post-post-modern mélange when we have Alec Baldwin read fellow ego-maniac John O’Hara and Anna Chlumsky take on 1980s bratpacker Tama Janowitz. Some may abhor the theatrical performances, but there’s no doubt the stories are first-rate.

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast
A world unto itself, The New Yorker Fiction Podcast has one New Yorker author read aloud the story of another. So we find such wonderful combinations as Allan Gurganus reading Grace Paley and Etgar Keret reading Donald Barthelme. The result is a special kind of magic, as though the baton of literature is being passed from writer to writer. Leading the discussion on this peculiar form of navel-gazing is Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor. Always insightful, Treisman offers context on the chosen story and speculates on the story’s moves and literary vision. Triesman’s soft-spoken voice creates a mood of candle-lit intimacy with her guests, and whether talking with Jonathan Franzen or Karl Ove Knausgaard, she coaxes the love for stories out of each one.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Ted Cruz’s freshman Princeton roommate, you’ll find him co-hosting a weekly podcast on screenwriting. Craig Mazin (the aforementioned roommate) along with John August present an insider’s view on the craft of screenwriting and the business of the industry. With noteworthy, if populist, writing credits (Mazin: The Hangover Trilogy [yes, all three!]; August: Go, Charlie’s Angels) both men know the ins-and-outs of Hollywood. Although not strictly literary, the show offers budding novelists a bevy of good advice on structure, pacing, conflict, plot, and character. And the co-hosts straightforwardness about money may tempt writers to switch genres, or at least ponder the absence of their own big paychecks.

The Guardian Books Podcast
Like your literary news delivered in a British accent? Want a hipper than BBC-made podcast? Enjoy tea-dunked biscuits and rainy days? Appreciate perfect enunciation and the Queen’s English? Then this show by the center-left British newspaper is for you. The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead and Richard Lea assume hosting duties, and each week deliver interviews with big-hitters: Don DeLillo, Marlon James, Colm Tóibín, and more. Yet the interviews are only the crumbs of the chocolate-encrusted digestive. For the show covers a wide-range of events and topics, from multicultural literature at the London Book Fair to a four-part series on forest appreciation to the championing of good old British libraries. This podcast has it all.

Image Credit: Flickr/Patrick Breitenbach.

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