2007 was the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls, but you might not have guessed that from reading that year’s literary fiction, which included novel debuts from the likes of Junot Díaz, Joshua Ferris, and Dinaw Mengsetu, as well as new work from more established authors like Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, and Philip Roth. Although some of these books were set in a modern era, the authors did not choose to show their characters texting or even engaging very much with cell phones. Given the slow pace of publishing, this is only logical: a novel published in 2007 was likely completed in 2005 or 2006, and even if the setting of the novel was up-to-the-minute contemporary, it likely did not include events past 2005.
In the mid-aughts, texting and social media were on the rise, but they weren’t yet knit into daily life. Twitter, (which was originally conceived as a platform for group texts), did not appear until 2006; Facebook was still restricted to college dorm rooms; and the iPhone, with its now-iconic speech bubble texting application, had not yet been unleashed. Looking back at the books I read in those years, I don’t remember noticing the lack of cell phones or texting, probably because I wasn’t doing a lot of texting in my own life. I had a flip phone and the only text messages I received were from my service provider, reminding me to pay my bill.
At some point, though, probably 2011 or 2012 (when The Millions last published a piece on this problem), I began to feel the absence of modern technology from contemporary fiction, and of text messaging in particular. By then, I had a smart phone and in an irony that all smartphone users have accepted—and in fact no longer perceive as ironic—I stopped receiving phone calls. Instead, I got texts, usually redundant bits of logistical information: I’m here! Running late! On my way home! See ya soon! I was a reluctant texter, uncertain of how to reply to banal messages that seemed written in response to an undercurrent of anxiety that I wasn’t actually feeling. But soon enough, I was thumbing out the same blips of communication and feeling nervous when I didn’t receive them in return. These mosquito-like messages, often bearing links to the Internet, quickly changed the texture of my days. But the fiction I was reading did not reflect this.
The problem of representing text messages is related to the problem of representing the Internet in general, an overwhelming subject that can be portrayed as a social phenomenon, an addiction, a public square, a place of employment, a repository of secret lives, or a den of procrastination—to name just a few possibilities. Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, Emily Gould’s Friendship, and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, all do a good job of portraying characters who have moved portions of their lives online, often with a certain amount of regret. I’m sympathetic to that storyline, but I’m also curious about the more subtle ways that technology is reshaping us. What intrigues me most about text messages—as opposed to social media platforms in general—is that they are so immediately recognizable as a piece of a larger narrative. I think this is what makes text messages so irresistible; anything that seems to speak directly to the story of our lives is hard for us to ignore. (And if you doubt the irresistibility of text messaging, consider the fact that there are laws in many states, banning people from checking text messages while driving.) And yet, for all their dramatic potential, I haven’t come across many contemporary novels that have been able to communicate their unusual immediacy and power.
I reached out to my Millions colleagues to see if they’d noticed a similar absence of technology in American fiction. Edan Lepucki shared her theory that a lot of contemporary fiction has been set in the 1990s because it’s a way for writers to avoid dealing with the potentially plot-killing presence of cell phones. But she has noticed that, recently, writers have started to reckon with modern technology. It’s something she has begun to incorporate more into her own fiction, including her most recent novel, Woman No. 17, which takes place in our iPhone era, and includes a number of text and Twitter exchanges. “I wanted to show all these different ways of communicating or not communicating.”
Nick Moran cites 2010’s Skippy Dies as one of the first books he noticed in which text messaging was used well. “It was especially impressive because the subjects are teens, the most avid texters of all.” But that same year, he was disappointed that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom did not include any texting, even when the narrative focused on younger, college-aged son. Anne Yoder wrote to me to recommend Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying To Reach You, “as a book that incorporated texting rather brilliantly,” as well as Tao Lin’s novels Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), Richard Yates (2010), and Taipei (2013). Taipei was notable for being hated as much as it was loved for its accurate-to-the-point-of-boring portrayal of lives lived on computers and phones. Zadie Smith cut to the heart of the debate by comparing Lin’s Taipei to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in her essay “Man Vs. Corpse”:
Lin’s work can be confounding, but isn’t it a bit perverse to be angry at artists who deliver back to us the local details of our local reality? What’s intolerable in Taipei is not the sentences (which are rather fine), it’s the life Paul makes us live with him as we read. Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here, in the real. It might not be pretty—but this is life.
I have to admit that reviews of Lin’s fiction have not stoked my curiosity, even as I am ostensibly seeking books that give an accurate portrayal of modern life. I dread the boredom that so many critics mention. (A strange dread, when you think of it, and probably one that novelists are right to evoke, in our age of entertainment.) I have, though, read the first two volumes of My Struggle, which at least had young children and a traumatic family death to temper the monotonous description of daily life—stakes, as the screenwriters like to say.
I wonder if my conventional appetite for drama has something to do with novelists’ reluctance to incorporate texting and online life into narrative. (Another factor might be the age of novelists, which I’ll get to later on.) There’s something about the ease of communication and information-gathering in our era that feels less dramatic, even if it is potentially more so. One example of this occurs in the recent film Lion, which tells the story of a four-year-old Indian boy who is accidentally boards an out of service train that takes him to Calcutta. He wanders the city for weeks, unable to accurately communicate his address or identity. Eventually he is sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. When the boy grows up, he finds his birth mother and his hometown, thanks to the extensive global mapping of Google Earth. But the part of the movie that depicts his incredible discovery is pretty boring, especially when compared with the first half of the movie, when he’s lost in a huge city. Of course, the resolution of a plot is always less interesting than the ensuing complications, but it’s especially unsatisfying to watch someone solve a mystery by squinting at a computer screen as he opens new tabs on his web browser.
In general, though, film and TV have done a better job of incorporating new technology into narrative. House of Cards, which premiered in the winter of 2013, used text messages to build suspense, especially in the first season, as the corrupt and ruthless Senator Francis Underwood used his texting app to manipulate underlings or to leak sensitive information to a young reporter. Tensions were built so effectively that you felt yourself sighing, with relief, when you watched a character delete a series of compromising messages.
House of Cards came up several times when I interviewed writers about their use of text messages in fiction. Dan Chaon, whose recent novel, Ill Will, incorporates some incredibly chilling text exchanges, told me that he had looked to House of Cards when considering how to format his manuscript. His characters’ text messages appear in grey text boxes and are usually right- and left-aligned but sometimes are placed in the middle of the page, interrupting paragraphs.
“I liked the way House of Cards played with it,” Chaon said, “with the text bubbles on screen, and the sound. I did a lot of experimenting with where to place the text boxes on the page. I found there was something very interesting about the way you could manipulate the field of the page, and play with how they appear for the reader.”
Like Chaon, I also found myself drawn in by the formatting of the text messages in House of Cards. I like the way they are superimposed over the scene, like a kind of caption or title card. Something about the artifice of this presentation makes the storytelling more exciting to me, and is a welcome departure from the more realistic shot of a smart phone or computer screen. After House of Cards, I began to notice how other TV shows used this captioning strategy. Text messages are particularly effective in sitcoms dealing with the etiquette of modern dating and relationships: Master of None, Insecure, The Mindy Project, and Love. They seem to have solved certain narrative problems for screenwriters, who can now have a character type something they would like to say but can’t bring themselves to actually say—the never-sent text—or to provide logistical details that previously would have been revealed with title cards or awkward dialogue. It’s a new way to convey internal thought without breaking the fourth wall or relying on voiceover.
But what narrative problems can text messaging solve for novelists? This is a question I’ve been asking, as a writer as well as a reader. My first novel, obeying Lepucki’s Theorum, was set in 1996, in part because I wanted to depict certain aspects of ’90s culture, but also because my characters were in high school, and I wasn’t confident that I could convey a modern young person’s social life, informed by social media and cell phones. However, the novel I’m working on now is set in our current era, and I’ve found myself incorporating texts into the storyline, even as I’m not exactly sure what purpose they serve. They aren’t an efficient way to advance plot, and although they can reveal character, I’m not sure if they are bringing anything to the table that dialogue and internal thought aren’t already providing with greater emotion. I can’t decide if text messages are more like dialogue, documents, internal thought, or if they are something else entirely. Also, how on earth should they be formatted?
The Chicago Manual of Style says that text messages should be treated like a quotation: “A message is a message, whether it comes from a book, an interview, lipstick on a mirror, or your phone. Use quotation marks to quote.” This seems like a sensible approach, one I’ve encountered in many novels, but I have personally resisted it, because quotation marks suggest something has been said out loud, and the particular syntax of text messages are shaped by the fact that they aren’t spoken and would be written differently—or perhaps not at all—if they were. Jennifer Acker, a fiction editor at The Common, told me over email that she treats text messages like a kind of document: “To me, they are just briefer and more immediate versions of emails. I don’t think of them as dialogue, like a phone conversation. There is a particular style, and sets of abbreviations, and a curtness to them that is written, not spoken.”
Margaux Weisman, an editor at Vintage/Anchor (and my former editor, at William Morrow), thinks text messages have the potential to be more powerful than dialogue. “A single obnoxious text could tell you so much about a character. They seem to me more potent because they are dropped and diffuse like bombs and the recipient can’t always respond the way they’d like.”
Chaon told me that one reason he decided to use text bubbles in his novel was that he was trying to get at the experience of receiving a text, which to him is something different than rendered dialogue. I asked him if he saw text messages as a kind of document. “I see it as a homunculus. As a little genie that pops up, that’s not quite a document, because it feel like it’s a document in three dimensions, because it announces its presence and it requires immediate attention—for most people. I swear to god, I’ve seen people during a wedding, texting. So it’s more important than a ceremony, for example. It has an addictive quality for people.”
As someone who stayed up for several nights in a row to finish Ill Will, I can attest to the addictiveness of his messages: they jump out on the page and force you to keep reading. They often bring bad news or reveal a worrisome absence. They’re not fun. Chaon is the first to admit that his use of text messaging is colored by a feeling of trepidation: “I’m the father of a 25- and 27-year-old and saw the texting phenomenon from the beginning and watched as it took over everyone’s life, in particular of that age and younger. I was resistant to taking it up myself, but I was also really aware of how it affected people’s daily lives. I wanted to get at that in a way that felt true to the effect of it and the sense of the way it plays such a large role in our vision and attention.”
For younger writers, text messages are perhaps not so fraught. Lepucki told me she didn’t give a lot of thought to formatting when she was drafting. When typing texts, she used simple tags like, “he typed” or “I texted.” She found text messages to be useful in showing the growing emotional distance between two characters, with one character texting more frequently and the other character barely replying. For extended exchanges between characters, she formatted it more like a play or interview, with the character’s name, followed by their text. She assumed that her publisher’s production team would reformat everything but the only change they made was to use a sans serif font for texts, tweets, and emails. Ultimately, she preferred this low-key approach, because her characters are generally casual in their texting. “Text is fun in because it’s neither external nor internal. It’s a cool register for feelings.”
Author Katherine Hill took a similar approach. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, did not include any texting, but she’s found herself at ease with it in her second novel, which takes place in our current era. She generally views texting as a kind of written dialogue, but doesn’t use quotation marks, because it isn’t spoken. Instead, she uses italics, with line breaks for extended exchanges and dialogue tags—i.e. “so-and-so texted”—as necessary. She said she has resisted formatting that mimics screen captures because she feels it draws too much attention to the texts. “For my character, texting is a somewhat seamless experience. I don’t think he makes a huge distinction between texting and speaking and I wanted the formatting to suggest that.”
Like everyone I spoke to, Hill didn’t think there should be any hard and fast rules. In some situations, she thought more intrusive formatting was preferable: “I once had a student who wrote his entire short story in text. He formatted it aggressively (left and right aligned, in text boxes) but that was pleasurable to read because it was an entire story in messages.”
The idea of formatting entire stories via text is not new. Some readers may remember Japan’s “cell phone novel” craze, which began more than a decade ago and was especially popular with younger writers, who would compose entire novels within text messaging apps. It was a mode of self-publishing that quickly crossed over to mainstream publishing. By 2007, half of Japan’s bestsellers originated as cell phone novels. In 2008, The New Yorker described it as “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age,” citing ways that the limitations of text messages affect language, chapter lengths, and narrative structure. But the trend has not really taken off in the U.S., despite a brief flirtation with “Twitter novels.”
There’s a significant difference between using text messages as a publishing platform and incorporating text messages into a traditional narrative format, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to blend the two genres. I spoke to a writer, Mitchell Maddox, who is attempting this kind of innovation in his first novel. Maddox, who describes himself as “totally new to fiction writing,” is a former high school English teacher who is now working as a project manager for a mobile app developer. As an experiment, he decided to write a portion of his book in text message bubbles. Maddox didn’t grow up with texting, but found himself interested in the ways that text messages reveal aspects of personality that other forms of communication might not show as readily. At first he crafted his fictional messages as an exchange between two characters, but then decided it was more dramatic to make the exchange one-sided, so that the reader feels a kind of urgency, as if they are receiving the messages.
“I actually don’t like to talk to people over text message,” Maddox told me, over the phone. “But it became a way of creating a voice. The text messages are a kind of monologue. That sounds kind of simplistic, but the format gives it a different energy, a different feeling. It’s a break from the rest of the narrative, which can be a bit heavy, rich in detail, very cerebral and is intended to sound intellectual and then the text messages are much more light, flippant—though they still drive the narrative. I think the energy is immediate and I hope that the reader is like, ‘Oh, these are just text messages.’”
Maddox hopes to publish the book with a QR code that readers could type into to their phones, so that the text message portion of the book would arrive directly on their smartphones. An even more sophisticated version of this would be to scan a code that would provide readers with a new contact. To receive the text-message portion of the novel, readers would send an actual text to the contact. The fictional contact would then respond with a series of texts, so that the reader would feel as if they were receiving correspondence from an actual person.
Five years ago, the idea of receiving a portion of a novel over text message probably would have struck me as gimmicky, but my relationship with my phone has changed, and now I do quite a bit of reading via my phone’s browser. I also send and receive a lot more text messages. I can see the appeal of switching to my phone for extended sections of texting, and how it might create an enhanced feeling of intimacy. (There’s a convenience factor, too, especially while commuting.) As with any piece of literature, whether or not it transcends gimmickry depends on the quality of the writing itself.
When writers incorporate new technology into their novels, they run the risk of dating themselves by writing about something that will soon become obsolete. This, I would argue, is a risk that applies to almost any subject (witness the irrelevance of some of the books published shortly after the election) but seems particularly anxiety-provoking when it comes to writing about technology. Almost every writer and editor I contacted asked me how long I thought text messages would even be relevant. Would they soon be relics, a particular communication that we used only for a brief period of time? What about Facebook? Twitter? All the myriad places we post online?
Novelist Lara Vapynyar took on this question in a direct way in her most recent novel, Still Here, which follows a group of Russian expats living in New York City. Her characters are all strivers; naturally, one of them is working on an app. The novel opens with a painfully funny scene, in which her character tries to sell his app, Virtual Grave, a service that preserves a person’s online presence after death. (His idea is shot down by a wealthy investor friend, who tells him that Americans prefer not to think about death.)
Virtual Grave struck me as perfectly ridiculous when I read Vapnyar’s novel this spring. But last month, I heard a radio story about a grieving son who invented an app to allow him to text and speak with his father by drawing on an archive of digitized recordings and texts.
Vapnyar invented several fictional apps for Still Here, and told me that after the book’s publication, she was surprised to learn that similar apps were in development. Writing to me via email, Vapnyar said she simply tried to come up with ideas that showed how immersive online life has become: “I thought I’d push it a little, make them seem plausible and yet not quite real.”
I appreciated the way Vapnyar’s novel pushed technology into an existential realm, because I thought it showed how technology might be changing the shape of our thoughts—our particular illusions, delusions, and the relationship that the living have with the dead. If you view social media primarily as a way of socializing, and see text messages functioning in basically the same way that dialogue functions in a social novel—something that reveals class, character, and status—then you probably think I’ve gone a little nuts with all this formatting analysis, and maybe with this essay in general. But if you experience text messages as something more destabilizing, then maybe you see what novelists have to wrestle with. It’s not just our social lives that are being shaped by the Internet, and it’s not just our politics: it’s our consciousness and our sense of time—the two things that the novel is pretty much in the business of excavating.
Image Credit: Flickr/William Hook.
Andrew Durbin is the director of the 2000 thriller drama The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton. Midway through the film’s premiere, Durbin cradles Leo as the multimillionaire actor sobs on the floor of the theater’s bathroom, totally unmoored by his own performance in the film. Then Durbin stands on a sidewalk with Tilda Swinton, watching the distraught Leo pull away in a towncar. Earlier, Durbin was standing on a sidewalk, watching a grievously-offended Katy Perry pull away in a Bentley. Earlier, he was being jerked off by his friend while watching Clueless, just a few pages after pitching the film The Canyons to a television producer. Later, he will be at the Frieze Art Fair, but only briefly. Then he will buy a Multistrada 1200 for Ciara.
With company like this, you may be surprised that you don’t know of Andrew Durbin. Don’t be. Firstly, he’s young—in his mid-20s. Secondly, most of this isn’t true. Danny Boyle directed The Beach; Durbin has almost certainly never met Ciara, let alone bought her a motorcycle. Lastly, it doesn’t particularly seem like he wants to be known. His first full length book—Mature Themes, a collection of prose, poetry, and essays—doesn’t draw a cohesive biographical character so much as barrage its reader with an array of technicolor scenes, replete with camera flashes, expensive art, and totally fictional anecdotes about celebrities. It can seem, at first, a little overwhelming. So let’s start with what we do know.
Durbin was raised in South Carolina. In 2008, he moved to the Hudson Valley to attend Bard College, where he studied poetry and the classics. During the end of his time at Bard, he began spending less time in the Hudson Valley and more time in New York City, two hours south of the college.
In October of 2011, a few months after graduating, Durbin and the poet Ben Fama began to put together something they were calling “Wonder.” It was first conceived as a series of “crush parties”: Invitees would be asked to email Durbin and Fama with the names of their crushes. The crushes would then be invited, and their names posted on Wonder’s tumblr. Once they’d been invited, they could invite crushes of their own. Soon, there’d be a full party roster of people brought together by desire, nervousness, and implicit, anonymous propositions.
They threw the first crush party in January of 2012. It was an immediate success—and not just as a party. As Jeff Nagy wrote in the fourth issue of online poetry journal The Claudius App (under the pseudonym “Jacqueline Rigaut”):
This at a time when perhaps the most perversely clever reading of poetry involved no reading whatsoever, when Wonder Books’ pair of “Crush Parties,” by physically aggregating the same social networks that would typically aggregated be by [sic] a reading, but by releasing those networks from the tedious need for poetry as a social lubricant, created perhaps the first pure works of Poetry 2.0, catching the reading up to the opening, as a social space in which the less one says about the art (there to perform its lubricating function and be ignored) the better–at last.
Despite the acerbic undertone of Nagy’s bad-faith endorsement, it shouldn’t be mistaken for a condemnation of the parties themselves. The scene that Nagy is satirizing, in which culture vultures collect around art and poetry as an occasion for schmoozing rather than as catalyst for serious discussion and serious thought, isn’t a tradition to which the Crush Parties were blindly submitting. On the contrary, by creating an occasion explicitly geared to romance, sex, and social climbing, Fama and Durbin were effectively instantiating the way these desires were encoded in contemporary poetry (and at the readings thereof). Think of it as a sort of “de-theorization,” the transmutation of a supposedly-base subtext into a democratized good time.
Concurrent with the planning of the first Crush Party, Durbin began working with the poet Paul Legault on a full-length work which would later be published by Wonder under the name Mall Witch. (On the Wonder site, Ben Fama is accredited as the author of Mall Witch; Durbin, Legault, and the poet/designer Joseph Kaplan as “producers.” However, at a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop in the fall of 2013, Durbin said that he was the book’s real author, and that Fama had “nothing to do with it.” The truth is neither clear nor terribly important.) Around that time, Durbin and Fama also co-wrote “♥ This Will End In Tears ♥,” a chapbook-length “weird translation of Rimbaud,” which was distributed to the first fifty guests at the second Crush Party in April of 2012. For the third party, they published “The Story of a Stolen Kiss,” a chapbook by Bay Area poet Kevin Killian.
These initial publications marked Wonder’s transition from party series into the full-fledged press it is today. Over the three-odd years of its existence, it’s been responsible for a number of chapbook and full-length books, and has organized and facilitated a number of readings in New York. In 2013, the Wonder editors publicly declared that they’d be relocating to Los Angeles in 2015. In 2021, Wonder will, apparently, disband—they’re giving themselves 10 years. But to do what?
Ambiguity—perhaps even duplicity—plays as large a part in Durbin’s biography as it does in his writing. Is Wonder actually going to move to Los Angeles in 2015? Or is it just the protracted set-up to a punchline that will, in all likelihood, never come? Did Durbin actually do any of the things he describes in the confessional prose-poetry-essays that make up Mature Themes, or is the entire thing a fabrication?
This distinction could very easily be frustrating—or, even worse, boring. In Mature Themes, it is neither. Durbin breezes right past the temptation to coyly stimulate the ambiguity of his anecdotes, thereby preventing his writing from getting bogged down in dull questions of fact versus fiction. As the narrator for each of the episodes depicted in the book, he comes across as an earnest, articulate friend, someone warm and known, thrilled to be enthusing, never stumbling into cynicism or lazy conclusions. This hyper-engaged flâneur is our Virgil for the cavalcade of top 40 pop, Food Network détournement, and Baudelaire recastings that make up the meat of Mature Themes, keeping us calm and informed. A lesser book moving through the same territory would stake its worth on the frisson that results from reading about tabloid-cover names in dinner-party situations. Durbin uses that, but only as grist for his seductively comprehensive theorizing on the forces circulating underneath each strip of celluloid.
Although the use of celebrities in fiction has been a popular trope in alt-lit-associated writing over the past few years (thanks largely to Tao Lin’s novella Richard Yates), Durbin’s writing bears little resemblance to that of those poets. Instead, his clearest influences come from the art worlds of New York and Los Angeles, and the poetry and prose that’s made a space for itself in systems that are historically more sympathetic to visual or conceptual art than to writing. For instance, he’s frequently cited the poet Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland as being “central to [his] understanding of critical writing’s possibilities.” The lineage is visible: Durbin’s wry, inconspicuous humor and canny-outsider affect is very much of a type with Myles. The poet and artist Etel Adnan is another figure whom Durbin has frequently cited and occasionally written on; although her influence on his writing is less explicit than that of Myles’s, there are times (most notably in “Landscapes Without End” and “Sir Drone”) when Durbin moves into a descriptive register that’s reminiscent of Adnan’s work. And I’d be remiss not to mention the art-pop musician Ariel Pink, whom Durbin explicitly namechecks in “Monica Majoli.” Much like Durbin’s writing, Pink’s lyrics flit quickly between glitz, braggadocio, self-deprecation, and pained confessionalism, never firmly forming a knowable person. (It’s also worth noting that Ariel Pink released an album in 2012 that shares a title with Durbin’s book.) There are also a number of younger poets with whom Durbin shares a sensibility—for instance, Trisha Low, Juliana Huxtable, Kate Durbin, Lonely Christopher, and Lucy Ives, many of whom have published or read through Wonder.
In Mature Themes, Durbin has caught something dazzling, even bewildering. But readers who are willing to admit that it might be on their side will find it to be a warm, thoughtful escort through a world populated chiefly by cold objects. Katy and Leo might desert us at the end of the night, our favorite records might start skipping, and we might be left feeling a little tweaky once the lights come up in the theater. It’s even possible that we’ll never make it to L.A., or that there might someday be a final party, or even a final crush. But Durbin has found, for us, a sustainable optimism with which to navigate these tragedies; one which requires only that we think, remain, attend, and care. He has composed the most accurate portrayal that I can imagine of a life spent earnestly cathecting with everyone from Paula Deen to Joe Brainard, a life spent feeling enormously about all the things that will never feel about us. He makes it look awfully good, whoever he may be.
Six months ago, I rounded up a list of my favorite literary Tumblr accounts. Half a year later, I’m pleased to see those blogs still going strong. I’m also pleased to see that a pile of the names on my Wish List came around to the land of likes and reblogs. In that regard, some shout outs are in order: Picador Book Room (and its “Sunday Sontags”) has become a favorite of The Millions’ social media team; The Strand made its way onto the blogging platform and we’re all better because of it; Poetry Magazine continues to draw from its enviable archives to bring some really exciting content to our Dashboard; and — whether it’s due to my friendly dig or their own volition — The Paris Review’s presence has been especially awesome of late. Indeed, the literary community on Tumblr is growing stronger by the day, and it has to be noted that a lot of that growth is due to Rachel Fershleiser’s evangelism and infectious enthusiasm. (An example of Rachel’s work was recapped recently by Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling as part of our own Emily M. Keeler’s Tumblr-centric #LitBeat column.)
Alas, six months in the real world is different from six months online, and Tumblr now has not only its own Storyboard curatorial system (run by the vaguely Soviet-sounding Department of Editorial), but it’s also grown by a few million blogs. The site boasts a growing number of blogs that have inked book deals. Rachel maintains a running tally of poets and writers who use the platform in exciting ways. This past week, Molly Templeton organized a blog, The How-To Issue, specifically aimed at countering the gender imbalance in the recent “How-To” installment of The New York Times Book Review. As a testament to the number of smart, engaged literary folks on the site, that blog has since received posts from a Salon writer, a former New Yorker staffer, and quite a few artists and freelancers.
So with all of that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for another list — a better list, a bigger list. This list aims not only to cover blogs I missed last time, but also new blogs that have been born only recently. To that end, my rubric has been simple: 1) I’ve chosen blogs I not only believe to be the best and most compelling accounts out there, but also blogs that were overlooked on the last list — in some cases, readers helped me out in the last post’s comment thread. 2) I’ve done my best to ensure that these blogs are active members of the Tumblr community. 3) I’ve tried to make sure that the content on these blogs is “safe for work,” however I am but mortal, and perhaps some NSFW material will slip in between now and when you read this list. For that reason I can only caution you to use your judgment as you proceed.
For your convenience, I’ve organized the list in a similar manner as last time. “Single-Servings” are blogs organized around one or two particular, ultra-specific themes. The rest of the categories should be self-explanatory.
Please feel free to comment and shout out the ones I omitted or did not cover in Part One.
0. Shameless Self-Promotion
The Millions: duh!
Book and Beer: The combination of everybody’s favorite duo will tease you from your office chair.
Match Book: Or is it, instead, that books and bikinis are an even better pair?
Movie Simpsons: An encyclopedic recap of every film reference in The Simpsons. Now open to submissions.
Underground NYPL: Pairs well with CoverSpy. I’ve yet to find a match, however.
The Unquotables: Brought to you by Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles, which is going to be a book!) and Robert Dean. The premise is simple: Gandhi didn’t say that.
Infinite Boston: A catalog of the locations mentioned in The Great Bandana’s Infinite Jest.
Write Place Write Time: Remember our WriteSpace project? (Which we Storify’d?) This is ongoing.
The Composites: Composite sketches of characters in famous literature. Creepy ones, at that.
Poets Touching Trees: Happy Arbor Day, poets!
You Chose Wrong: The tragic fates of mistaken “Choose Your Own Adventure” readers. It’s like reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
Doodling on Famous Writers: Those warped lines beneath Proust’s eyes really suit him.
Old Book Illustrations: A visual treat for nostalgic book nerds.
Visual Poetry: Exactly what it says it is, yet also much more.
PBS’ This Day in History: So much better to get this stuff on your Dashboard than in your inbox.
Historical Nonfiction: This blog pairs well with the one above. Follow both and you’ll rival Howard Zinn in no time.
Writers and Kitties: I have often wondered about that particular feline-author bond.
Page Twenty Seven: The text from one reader’s collection of twenty seventh pages.
Book Storey: Eye candy for lovers of book design.
2. Requisite “F*** Yeah!” Blogs
3. Foundations, Organizations and Writing Centers
826 Valencia: Dispatches and success stories from the California writing center focused on kids aged six to eighteen. It was co-founded by Dave Eggers.
The National Book Foundation: They’ll announce finalists for their big awards in October, so you’ve got some time to get acquainted with the foundation.
The Moth: Fabulous stuff from the story gurus. I’ll let Kevin Hartnett take it from here.
The Poetry Society of America: Nice to see the nation’s oldest poetry non-profit embrace one of the newest mediums for storytelling.
Harry Ransom Center: They have more than David Foster Wallace’s papers, you know.
The Academy of American Poets: The organizers of National Poetry Month deliver some excellent Tumblr material, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super relieved when they finally found Rob.
PEN Live: A great example of a fresh, exciting way to use the blogging platform. PEN Live covers events put on by the PEN American Center.
Poets & Writers: A great source of guidance for creative writers.
Button Poetry: Performance poetry delivered straight to your Dashboard from the Twin Cities.
VIDA Community: The creators of publishing’s annual gender-imbalance list curate a really interesting list of updates on women, culture, and writing.
Sh*t My Students Write: Proof positive that more MFA graduates should be teaching in secondary schools.
The Monkeys You Ordered: These literal New Yorker cartoon captions are topped only by this one comment applicable to all of them.
What Should We Call Poets: Based on the grandmother that started them all. This is the GIF blog poets deserve, but not the one they need right now.
Title 2 Come: You can never follow too many GIF blogs. This one is for for writers of every stripe.
News Cat GIFs: Same as above. Last but not least, this one is for journalists. (Who like cats.)
Least Helpful: The worst of the worst reviews from the annals of the internet.
Hey, Author: It’s like a Regina George’s Burn Book for the literati.
Alt Lit Gossip (Can be NSFW): HTMLGiant is leaking.
5. Literary, Cultural and Art Magazines or Blogs
Recommended Reading: Home of the marvelous ongoing fiction series run by Electric Literature.
Words Without Borders: Spreading the gospel of international and translated literature one Tumblr post at a time.
Tin House: You (should) know the magazine. Now you should know their blog.
VQR: The brand new companion to the invaluable source for great long-form and narrative journalism.
n+1: They recently decided to kill off their Personals blog, so perhaps this one will become more active.
New York Review of Books: Need I introduce them? Also, not to be missed, check out the NYRB Classics blog, A Different Stripe.
Granta: Follow these guys for updates on the magazine’s new releases and competitions.
Guernica: Hey, you’re spilling your art into my politics!
Full Stop: Who else would recommend Errol Flynn’s memoir, posit an alternate Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then review the work of Victor Serge?
Vol. 1 Brooklyn: As their banner says, “If you’re smart, you’ll like us.”
Rusty Toque: An online literary and arts journal backed by Ontario’s Western University.
Book Riot: How can you help loving the kind of people who reblog photos of Faulkner’s oeuvre alongside galleries of literary tattoos?
Berfrois: Some highbrow curiosities for that eager, eager brain of yours.
Literalab: Dispatches from Central and Eastern Europe, which as anybody who knows me knows to be my favorite parts of Europe.
Triple Canopy: The online magazine embraces yet another means of communicating.
fwriction review: Finally an honest banner: “specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles.” (See also: fwriction)
Little Brother: The latest project from our own Emily M. Keeler.
Asymptote: Dedicated to works in translation and world literature.
Glitterwolf Magazine: Devoted to highlighting UK writers and writers from LGBT communities.
The Essayist: Aggregated long-form writing from all over the place.
6. Major, General and More Well-Known Magazines
Smithsonian Magazine: “Retina” consists of the best visual content from Smithsonian Magazine.
The American Scholar: Follow them. You’ll be more fun to talk to at cocktail parties.
Boston Globe: News and photos, and we all know they’ve got plenty of both.
Salon: Finally! We get to read Salon without actually having to go to Salon.com!
The Morning News: Our friends who host the annual Tournament of Books have a Tumblr presence, too.
Mother Jones: Politics and current events, ahoy!
Tomorrow Mag: Ann Friedman & Co.’s new venture.
Lively Morgue: Typically awesome photos from The New York Times archives.
Bonus: This article covers the ways in which twelve news outlets are using Tumblr in innovative, fresh ways.
7. Publishers (Big Six) — Note: Many of these blogs are used by the imprint or publisher’s marketing team, but you’ll find that some of the most successful publisher Tumblrs are getting more focused and specific. This is an interesting development, and I encourage more of the same. Also: This list is only a small sampling of the publisher Tumblrs on the site — just naming all the ones from Penguin would amount to its own post!
Random House Digital: Dispatches from the Random House digital team.
Vintage Books Design: As they say, “vintage design from Vintage designers.”
Harper Books: The publisher’s flagship imprint sets up shop on Tumblr.
The Penguin Press: They publish Zadie Smith, in case you need validation of their taste.
Simon Books: Straight from Rockefeller Center to your Dashboard!
Pantheon: News and miscellany from Random House’s literary fiction and serious nonfiction imprint.
Penguin English Library: Celebrating the Classic Penguins we all love so much. Plus, get a load of that animated masthead!
Back Bay Books: Little, Brown’s paperback pals. Their list of authors is incredible.
Mulholland Books: This group fully embraces Tumblr’s multimedia capabilities. A solid A+ in my book.
Penguin Teen: Excellent content for younger readers.
Free Press Books: Let’s just say these folks enjoyed the week Michael Phelps had at the Olympics.
HMH Books: Be sure to check out their Translation and Poetry blogs, too.
Riverhead: Of all the publisher Tumblrs, they boast the cutest mascot.
Little, Brown: Their Daily First Line posts are tantalizing.
8. Publishers (University Presses)
Duke: Hate the basketball team, love the press. (And their blog.)
Chicago: Their posts are excellent. Continually substantial and interesting.
McGill-Queens: Fun Fact: some folks up North would have it that Harvard is “America’s McGill.”
Cambridge Exhibitions: Alerts and updates on the myriad academic conferences and events attended by the CUP staff.
9. Publishers (Indies and Little Ones)
Chronicle: These folks have been known to turn Tumblr blogs into books, so of course they know their way around the platform.
Grove Atlantic: I’m not a tough sell, but giving away books related to The Wire is my kryptonite.
Open Road Media: Worth a follow for their YouTube discoveries alone.
Two Dollar Radio: They published Grace Krilanovich’s book (the one I recommended), so you know they’re good.
Timaş Publishing Group: These Turkish publishers are so generous, they give away eBook credits on a bi-weekly basis.
Quirk Books: These Philadelphia-based publishers sure find a lot of pretty bookshelves to reblog.
The Feminist Press: The important indie operating out of NYC delivers some really interesting, innovative stuff in addition to the classics they “rescue.”
The Lit Pub: Recommendations from The Lit Pub‘s staff.
Muumuu House: No doubt this account is run by Tao Lin’s legion of interns.
Overlook Press: Their About page even features a TL;DR version. They get Tumblr.
Arte Público Press: Your dashboard destination for U.S. Hispanic literature.
Coffee House Press Interns: Bonus “little” points because it’s run by their interns.
Unmanned Press: They just joined Tumblr, but their “Sunday Rejections” posts seem promising.
10. Authors (Direct Involvement) — The Tumblr “Spotlight” list can be found here; it’s not comprehensive, but it lists accounts you’re sure to enjoy. I’ve listed one of each author’s books alongside their names. Additionally: YA Highway, an excellent resource for fans of Young Adult books, maintains a great directory of YA Authors.
Emily St. John Mandel: Millions staffer whose most recent book is The Lola Quartet.
Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer whose most recent book is If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Patrick Somerville: This Bright River.
Neil Gaiman: American Gods.
Roxane Gay: Ayiti.
Sheila Heti: How Should a Person Be?
Emma Straub: Other People We Married.
Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins. Bonus: check out her advice, too.
Nathan Englander: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
Matthew Gallaway: The Metropolis Case.
Miles Klee: Ivyland.
John Green: Looking for Alaska.
Alexander Chee: Edinburgh.
Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow.
Rosencrans Baldwin: Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.
Tao Lin: Richard Yates.
Dan Chaon: Stay Awake.
Christopher Dickey: Securing the City.
11. Authors (Indirect Involvement)
Reading Ardor: Two readers go through Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
Chuck Palahniuk: Don’t forward this blog to any Turkish publishing houses.
John Banville Spectates Tennis: Serving up some observations on tennis. (I’ll excuse myself now.)
Martin Amis Drinking: This should really just be a livestream video feed of Amis at all times.
A. O. Scott Zingers: The film critic’s best one-liners.
Fitzgerald Quotes: F. Scott’s got lines for days.
Reading Markson Reading: Brainchild of Millions contributor, Tyler Malone.
12. Poets — As with the authors list, Tumblr’s poetry “Spotlight” can be found here.
Leigh Stein: Dispatch From the Future.
Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator.
Paolo Javier: The Feeling Is Actual. Full disclosure: Paolo was one of my college professors.
Zachary Schomburg: Fjords Vol. 1. He’s also one of the founders of Octopus Magazine.
Saeed Jones: When the Only Light is Fire. This blog is really cool. It’s like the poet’s global travelogue.
13. Bookstores — I’ll list the location of each one.
Unabridged: Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood.
Community Bookstore: Park Slope, Brooklyn.
McNally Kids: Manhattan.
Skylight Books: Los Angeles.
Open Books: Chicago.
Emily Books: The Internet.
Mercer Island Books: Seattle.
Luminous Books: East London.
Politics & Prose: Washington D.C.
Micawber’s: St. Paul.
City Lights: San Francisco.
57th Street Books: Chicago’s Hyde Park.
The Little Book Room: Melbourne, Australia.
Tattered Cover: Denver.
Uncharted Books: Chicago.
Green Apple Books: San Francisco.
Taylor Books: Charleston, WV.
Darien Library: Excellent posts from one of the best libraries in the nation.
Looks Like Library Science: “Challenging the librarian stereotype.”
Live From the NYPL: Events and goings-on at the NYPL.
Library Journal: The editors of LJ share what they’re reading.
School Library Journal: Ditto for their scholastic counterparts.
Espresso Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Public Library has an espresso on-demand book printing machine. How cool is it that it has its own blog, too?
15. BONUS SECTION DEVOTED TO @Horse_ebooks — Everybody’s favorite Dadaist Twitter handle has a devoted following on the blogging platform.
Horse_ Fan Fiction: Look no further than your Twitter timeline for the best writing prompts on earth.
Annotated Horse_: A valuable resource for the inevitable scholarly study of Horse_’s oeuvre.
33, Pyramid, and Dalton: Max Read’s impressive catalog of recurring Horse_ themes.
16. Wish List
Oxford American: Maybe not the best time for the magazine at the moment, but my wish from last time still stands.
Garden & Gun
Oxford University Press
More authors and poets!
Call it a sign of the times.
To compensate for dwindling sales, some bookstores are apparently starting to charge for readings. Though payment may seem antithetical to the open and accessible spirit of an event marking a book’s publication, the news should come as no surprise. Bookstores are in danger of extinction, and it only makes sense that if a writer’s habitat is in danger, readings will also struggle to survive.
Yet the shift goes beyond the economic changes precipitated by e-books and extends to the realm of author branding. Modern writers are advised to blog about their process, tweet the banal details of their lives and self-promote via book trailers. Lacking an online presence is bookselling suicide, but creating an online identity also lets authors broadcast a voice vastly different from the one that resonates on the printed (or e-reader) page. If I can “meet” an author online, why bother to go to a reading in the first place? It’s not like I can get my Kindle signed.
It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall. And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text? Considering that packaging and promotion are just as much part and parcel with being writer as creating content, why shouldn’t an author’s public appearances be monetized? Writers have increasingly become products in and of themselves while getting paid less and less for their literary artifacts.
The underlying problem with charging for readings isn’t the cost (though even a few bucks will deter the cash-strapped) but that the very notion of payment turns readings into something they are not: artistic commodities. Authors are not performers; their readings are not meant to be entertaining in a splashy musical sort of way. Readings exist to promote and sell books, but they also serve a more important function: they provide space for writers and readers to directly communicate and transmit ideas, taking the solitary slow drip of the reading process and infusing it directly into the bloodstream.
However, an economic transaction implies a different sort of exchange between writer and reader. Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned? Will they pass out cookies and break into song? Charging for readings problematically conflates books with how said books are marketed and presented, meaning that writers will feel pressure to cater to their (paying) audiences. We all want to get what we pay for, right?
Ever since my very first communication from an author — a purple form letter from Judy Blume — I’ve felt the need to connect with them. Exactly why I felt moved to write Blume I’m no longer sure, but I think it had something to do with Sally J. Freedman, Margaret and Blubber. How could a total stranger create characters that seemed to channel my most private feelings? After many years and countless books I no longer feel that authors are writing expressly for my validation, but the yearning to connect with those who intimately understand the landscape of my inner world hasn’t ceased.
A live reading is a crapshoot, but that’s the point. There’s always the possibility that a writer I revere will turn out to be stilted, less interesting in person than on the page, or just a total jerk. But I don’t really care. I want to know how writers who echo my experiences intone each sentence. I want to discover whether or not the cadence of their voices confirms the meaning of the text in my mind. In short, I want to know who they are, and that’s different from knowing their marketing plan.
Distinguishing between a writer and her brand becomes a challenge when Internet exposure reduces complex people to rough sketches. I like being intrigued by writers, and I like discovering them rather than being told how to think about their work. Tao Lin is one who knows how to remain elusive even while maintaining a strong online presence. When I went to hear Lin read, he mumbled his way through a short excerpt and made no eye contact. He spoke in a tumbling monotone that fit the terseness of his prose, and offered laconic responses to questions. The reserved demeanor stood in sharp contrast to his strong online presence. At the end, he drew a smiley face with feet in my copy of Richard Yates. I was in love, for a second.
I’m especially curious to hear writers with an unconventional prose voice read. When I went to hear Aimee Bender read from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the story felt like an extension of herself, as though she was recalling something from a psychedelic childhood rather than reading from a book. I spoke with her afterwards, and she mentioned that when her first book came out, someone asked her what her reading persona would be. “I felt nauseous,” she told me. “It feels disingenuous. What works best is what suits you,” she explained, acknowledging the pressure to brand oneself.
One of my all-time favorite readings was at Chicago’s Book Cellar, where five writers and critics paid homage to David Foster Wallace and The Pale King by reading their favorite selections from the late author’s body of work. A palpable intensity filled the room as the readers summoned Wallace’s voice through his text. I felt most connected to Wallace through Adam Levin, who seemed like he might be fun to grab a beer with, if I actually drank beer.
Yet I knew part of what made it special was that Wallace wasn’t there. Think Salinger, think Bolaño: their absence — online and in the flesh— makes them all the more captivating. It’s precisely the lack of accessibility that makes readers hunger for their work — and their presence.
I’m not quite sure what happens to writers — and readings — when social media self-promotion becomes not just a distraction, but part of the job description. What I do know is that being perpetually plugged in runs counter to the very nature of writing. I admire those who can disconnect and burrow inside long enough to untangle a thread of human experience with which to spin a story. It’s hard but satisfying, and that’s why I get annoyed with myself when I opt for the instant gratification of Facebook (or sometimes the refrigerator) over a sustained writing session.
I worry that having to pay for readings will make writers’ online personas more valuable than the content of their work. I don’t know if I’d trust an author who was packaged with the glossy cellophane usually reserved for pop stars. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy readings, and still believe in their importance: I want to see writers without a filter and know they are flawed and imperfect, and that they struggle to get words out too — yet still carry on. Perhaps in an age of e-readers, we’ve forgotten that tired cliché about not judging a book by its cover.
(Image: Podium in the screening room from spine’s photostream)