My friends ask me if I am happy to be back in New York City. I am not.
My U.K. visa expires in January, but I fly home a week before Christmas, frustrated and anxious about rebuilding a life in New York. In the new year I take a short-term sublet a few blocks from a Superfund site in northeast Brooklyn, across from a tow impound lot and next to an enormous industrial complex. I can’t figure out which industry exactly. I spend much of the month working from the apartment, which belongs to a puppet artist, hunkering down because when it’s not snowing, it’s staggeringly cold, the temperature hovering somewhere near zero. I watch snow pile up on the rusted-out old cars that line the edge of the industrial lot; I count a dozen cats, maybe more, slipping in and out between the tires. I am trapped, physically and metaphorically.
At some point the year prior, I’d struck up an online friendship with the writer Katie Coyle. It began with little mutual hearts across the Internet; soon it was a series of emails that snowballed in length, the sort that took us both months to reply to. I bought her debut novel, Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, and its sequel, Vivian Versus America, at a convention in the height of the English summer, one of those rare days of unbroken blue sky. I’m bad with friends’ books: I psych myself out, worried I will be called upon to give constructive feedback, or worried I will give constructive feedback when it’s not called for. So I avoided Vivian for six months, placing her carefully on the shelf. In December, I packed her up in a huge shoddy box, held together by an entire roll of packing tape and hopeful desperation, and mailed her back across the Atlantic.
Holed up during my month of icy stagnation, I devour both Vivian books. They were published as Vivan Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle in the U.S., some worry about readers’ apocalypse fatigue, I guess. The first one begins the day before the rapture, as predicted by a Christian cult gone mainstream, and tells the story of Vivian and her best friend, Harp, who drive across the country kicking ass as they try to figure out what’s really happened — and how to survive. The books make me cry a little and laugh a lot; they’re perfect. The winter drags on and I still find myself restless and boxed in, but for a few days, Vivian sets me free.
The ice takes an extraordinarily long time to melt. I take a job that very quickly doesn’t work out, so by April I find myself holed up working again, this time in my new apartment, a fifth floor walk-up with high ceilings and a skylight. When I’m not hauling cat litter up those four flights, and when the light hits the right way, I feel like I’m living up in the clouds. I am assigned Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God Among Ruins, an intertextual sequel of sorts to Life After Life, which I have not read. They’re only paying me to review one book, but I decide to read the two, and Life After Life is miraculous, not least if publishers think we have apocalypse fatigue, I certainly have Blitz fatigue. Atkinson brings the period into the sharpest focus I can remember encountering in a while. A God Among Ruins is harder, full of characters you want to shake by the shoulders, and poor Teddy, once peripheral and now fully fleshed out, the quiet tragedy of his life made plain. I read them both sitting out on the Promenade, even though it’s still a little too chilly when the wind picks up, and I watch the Staten Island Ferry trundling across the bay.
But the book that sticks with me most in the spring is Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which I begin reading when ice is still collecting on the East River. I worked with Mary for five years at The New Yorker, deciphering her handwriting on proofs at all hours during my interminable years on the night shift. I find the same quiet brilliance and wry humor in the pages of her book, as well as a strange, almost unwanted nostalgia for my years spent making the magazine, as she describes her own decades there.
And then, somehow, I start working for The New Yorker again. Just projects this time, mostly in the archives, spared from the grind of the weekly magazine. It’s more than a little strange to be back at the magazine. The World Trade Center is sterile and foreign and people seem confused about where I’ve been for the past few years. I don’t tell them about all the things I’ve learned, or about how my entire worldview has shifted. I complain about restrictive British visa laws, or how Brooklyn rents skyrocketed in my absence; my small talk shrinks even smaller. Other freelance work starts to trickle in — and then out of nowhere, it’s a flood. I take every project that comes my way, and the bills get paid. My mother says it seems like I’m struggling to stay afloat, which I strenuously deny, but on a deep level I know that she’s right. I’m treading water, as quickly as I can manage.
I have learned my lesson from past New York summers. This year, when given the opportunity, I leave. I work a few weekends up at the racetrack, slow Saturday afternoons on a $50 window. I sit next to a joyful woman one day who tells me a customer recently gave her the perfect line: “Put a hundred dollar bill in the toilet and flush,” he told her. “If you reach for it, you’re not ready for the racetrack.” This was a new one, and a delight, because I’ve been taking bets so long that most lines feel scripted. “Good luck,” I say, and they smile ruefully and reply, “I need it.”
But I am a fan culture journalist now, and summer is “con season.” I am invited to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so I fly across the country in early July. En route I read The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs, billed as “A Handbook for Girl Geeks,” which is equal parts charming and empowering. I needlessly packed another three books for San Diego, as I do for every trip, and they remain buried under clothes and toiletries as I spend four long SDCC days confused and eager and oscillating between caffeinated and intoxicated. One night I crash a Playboy party, replete with half-assed nods to science (beakers and test tubes!) and mostly-naked women dropping from ropes on the ceiling; another night I trek across the length of San Diego to see the band that played the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe two dozen of us waving foam glow sticks as they launch into the familiar guitar riff for the third time.
As the racing season comes to a close, I get my hands on a copy of Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and a guy assigned to the window next to me tries to fake-geek-girl me by proxy, with a line of weirdly aggressive questions about what exactly Felicia Day had done beyond a gaming series he’s seen on YouTube — essentially, whether she was even qualified to write a memoir. This only makes me like the book more. And leaves me a little disheartened — the racetrack has always been my place for sexism from the past, sort of a “Nice tits, babydoll” kind of clientele, and now I’m stuck here defending Felicia Day’s right to be into video games.
The world has changed — and my world has changed. American Pharoah loses the big race and the town deflates, and I head back down the Hudson. This year has been an exercise in putting off the big projects until fall, which is fast approaching. I’ve got an essay to write, a proposal to rework, a life to stabilize. Spoiler alert: a change in season doesn’t make this stuff any easier.
In the last week of September, my copy of Carry On arrives in the mail. It is thick and beautiful and I clutch it to my chest the way I can only really remember doing with Harry Potter books in the past. It is a similar size and shape, and similarly magical. In the following weeks, I will go on to spill a ton of pixels about the nature of Rainbow Rowell’s newest book, and the seminal point, in my friend Connor’s words, that intertextuality ≠ fanfiction. But before all that, on the first chilly weekend of the year, I light a fire and curl up and read in a way I rarely do these days, the kind of reading where you look up and realize 200 pages have gone by, and the fire’s down to a few smoldering embers, and you can’t imagine this book ending. Of course, it will.
I decide to spend October with Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, partly because it’s interesting and beautifully written, and partly because I’m trying to understand why certain texts grab us and drag us under. I read other books this year, books I won’t name because I thought they failed in some way, or in certain cases, many ways, but it’s the stuff that works — more than works, the stuff that you want to slow down for fear of finishing too soon — that intrigues me. I write about fans, after all.
After Thanksgiving, I put neat bows on my projects through the end of the year, and I start to pack to go back across the ocean. It’s just for a few weeks, not a few years, and I have a tall stack of books to be read, maybe to be packed and remain buried under clothes and toiletries. The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, or the copy of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird I borrowed from a coworker, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I should’ve read a year ago, or When We Are No More, by Abby Smith Rumsey, out in the early months of next year, about one of my favorite topics, cultural memory in the age of digital technologies. But this trip to England is not about the realities of living there, but the pleasure of visiting, so a friend and I will take a trip up to the Peak District, to see Chatsworth and presumably cross paths with Mr. Darcy. I’ve read it before but I can read it again: without a second thought, I toss Pride and Prejudice into my suitcase.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
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Books I Read in One Day (or in One or Two Multi-Hundred Page Chunks)
Best Depiction of Rural Indiana
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
Joe Meno’s latest novel is an incredible modern myth involving horses, a dying agrarian economy, and the idea of American masculinity, and it also happens to be the most spot-on depiction of north central Indiana in the mid-’90s I’ve ever read. See, I myself grew up in north central Indiana in the mid-’90s, and it’s not like I’ve spent the intervening years clamoring for its place in literature. “Will no one plumb the depths of Steuben County during the Clinton years?” was never the cry of my heart. But when I found it in the pages of this book, I was surprised by how deeply it affected me. Is this how New Yorkers feel every day of their lives? I met Joe Meno at a reading and we talked about Indiana, found out where the other person was from, and then said nice things to each other for five minutes because Hoosiers are raised to be pleasant.
Favorite Learned Tidbit of Presidential History
Woodrow Wilson had chronic digestive problems, which he referred to as “trouble in Central America.”
Convincing Proof that I’m the Center of the Universe
Sarah Vowell and David Mitchell are my two favorite living authors. Guns N’ Roses are my favorite band. Both Vowell and Mitchell published new books in October 2015. Both of those books mention Guns N’ Roses.
Annual Reminder that Geoff Dyer Is a Genius
It’s no secret around these parts that I love Geoff Dyer. Here’s a passage from But Beautiful that provided my most breathless two minutes of reading in 2015:
The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work till going on, the city repairing itself.
At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike have “Seven Millions Questions with Katie Coyle,” author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle.
Discussed in this episode: doomsday religions, the Rapture, Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, juvenile delinquency as it pertains to flying car theft, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Julia Stiles, 10 Things I Hate About You (dir. Gil Junger), Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, awesome hair, Lorde, Taylor Swift, airplane etiquette.
Not discussed in this episode: Whatever happened to Julia Stiles? Oh yeah! She was in the movie with Robert De Niro. And football. The Best Exotic Silver Playbook. Right? Something like that.
Dear Writing Teacher,
We met at the University of Tampa this past week and you gave me your email address in order to get book suggestions from you. I’m working on a young adult novel in close third person with a decent amount of world building involved in the narrative. I’ve found it difficult to find contemporary novels (and short stories) that aren’t written in first person so any suggestions you have, I would really appreciate.
Thanks in advance for your help.
I have to admit that your question, initially, made me giggle. My in-house statistician hasn’t crunched the numbers yet (Nate Silver wasn’t available so I hired my dog, Omar Little, and, quite frankly, he sucks at the job), but I’m pretty sure the proportion of contemporary novels narrated in the third person is equal to those narrated in the first. Or at least it feels that way. I have so many good third-person novels to recommend to you! Stoner by John Williams. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Off Course by Michelle Huneven. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
(I’m basically walking through my house, calling out titles. I could do it all day. The Fever by Megan Abbott!)
Some of these books limit themselves to one character’s consciousness, like Stoner or Off Course. Others, like The Vacationers and The Fever, shift between multiple characters from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene. In these novels, the distance between the reader and the events of the narrator, or “the psychic distance” as John Gardner puts it, is fairly close. These narratives reflect what James Wood calls, in How Fiction Works, the free indirect style:
“As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.”
(If you haven’t read Wood’s book, you can read the first chapter here. And you can read Jonathan Russell Clark’s clever and helpful essay on close third here.)
The Thin Place is told in a more elevated, all-knowing third-person point of view that skips from one small town resident to the next, including a dog, which is fitting since the book is about the thin scrim between the cosmic and the mundane, and the connection between all things. Everything I Never Told You also shifts its third person perspective, between family members, and its narrator has more knowledge than anyone; the book’s first sentence, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet…” makes that clear, and it emphasizes just how little this family understands about itself. In both these novels, perspective reflects theme especially well.
If you’re trying for this more elevated perspective, I also suggest you read Edward P. Jones along with 19th-century masters like George Eliot. These writers alight on one perspective and then another and another, deftly providing access to a character’s most intimate motives in one passage only to gracefully move away to comment on the scene in the next. They drop Wisdom-with-a-capital-W and it’s great fun to read. (And write, I hope!) An omniscient third person narrator feels like a bodiless character who shapes our understanding of the narrative’s events.
One of my writing teachers declared on multiple occasions that the third person point of view was easier than the first person. I disagree; each is easy and difficult in different ways. The first person has always come more naturally to me. Its performative qualities are revealing; I discover who my character is via language use and voice tics, confession and truth-dodging. Most importantly, there isn’t the elasticity of psychic distance that exists in the third person, which requires control and intention so that the reader doesn’t feel like she’s riding a narrative tilt-a-whirl. It’s disconcerting to be deep inside a character’s psyche and then, suddenly, to see him from afar. I bet many first drafts of third-person narrations struggle with finding the best distance from which to tell the story.
I recommend you decide what your novel’s psychic distance is, and stick to it. If you’re after a closer third person perspective, keep in mind Wood’s image of the narrative bending around the character’s mind so that the language and observations reflect and imply that particular consciousness. Also, avoid using “seeing” verbs; instead of, for instance, “She saw the cup on the table,” just say something like, “The cup was on the table.” Since it’s a close third person, you don’t need to tell the reader who is doing the seeing — that’s already implied. It’s also easy to forget the body when writing in third person (just as it’s easy to forget the external world when writing in first person). One way to lessen the psychic distance between reader and story is to include physical experience: not what others see of the narrator, but how it feels, internally, to be this self: how it feels to be tired, to be restless, to be nauseated, and so on. (One of my pet peeves as a reader is when we learn about the hair of a protagonist from a (supposedly) close third person narration; people have very specific relationships to their hair, and they don’t view it, can’t experience it, from afar. If you’re gonna talk about a character’s hair, make sure it expresses the experience of having said hair, rather than something like, “She ran a hand through her shoulder-length straight auburn hair…” which puts me outside the character and her experience. In that example, I’m looking at the character, rather than seeing the world with her.)
Since your novel requires world building, I also recommend you read the last story/chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Pure Language,” which seamlessly depicts a future New York City and a music industry that caters to toddlers — or “pointers” as they’re known — from the third person perspective of a guy named Alex. As you read, mark the moments where Egan is providing the reader with expository information about the world. Where does Egan fit it in, and how? Perhaps more importantly, how do these passages reflect Alex’s psyche and and shape our understanding of him? For example, look at this passage, where he’s describing a woman he’s meeting for the first time:
Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie’s full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new “handset employee”: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps. The photos on her page had not done justice to the arresting, wide-eyed symmetry of her face, the radiant shine of her hair. She was “clean”: no piercings, tattoos, or scarifications. All the kids were now. And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses?
I’m interested in how “handset employees” and “clean” are in quotation marks, which allows Egan to not only straight-up define these terms for the reader, but to show that Alex is apart from these communities. The phrasing of “All the kids” shows that Alex isn’t as young as Lulu. Overall, the description of her reveals that Alex is attracted to her — and also intimidated, I think. Egan could have left out the “Alex thought” in the last line — the sentence would still work without it — but its inclusion adds a few inches to the psychic distance, which perhaps gives Egan some flexibility of tone when describing this particular future.
Part of your quandary, of course, is that you’re writing a young adult novel, and I’m no longer giggling because, you’re right, there are far fewer third person examples in that genre. Why is that? My friend Cecil Castellucci, who will publish her 12th (!) young adult novel, Stone in the Sky, in late February, has her own litmus test for categorizing a book as YA. Her definition sheds light on why so many are told in first person:
For me, a book is YA when it has a young protagonist and the action is happening right now or has just happened. If a book has a young protagonist, but it is nostalgic or self-aware, then it is an adult book.
Castellucci argues that a YA book feels like it’s happening “in the now,” and that this sense of urgency allows the reader to feel as if she’s “on the journey with the character as they clue in and grow.” The first person, and in particular the first person present, provides the kind of immediacy that the YA genre so excels at. In the third person, a sense of “nostalgia and awareness,” which Castellucci says is usually present in adult books with young protagonists, might creep in.
Castellucci says there are beautiful examples of third person YA books, so I asked my friend Katie Coyle, who recently published her first YA novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, for her suggestions. She recommended Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress. The first two are examples of realism, the third is historical fiction, and Lo’s are fantasies.
Now that you have these recommendations, I suggest you ban the first person for at least six months. Read only novels written in the third person. Furthermore, try to read third person novels that have the same psychic distance you’re aiming for, be it close third, or an elevated omniscience, or something in between.
When I’m struggling with a technical challenge in writing, I bang my head against the wall, write and rewrite and write again, and seek out books that have mastered said challenge. It’s useful if the book’s content is wildly different from mine — that way, I don’t feel like I will accidentally crib its ideas. For instance, if you’re writing an epigrammatic novel about, say, the workplace, it would be helpful to read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell for its succinct and perfect short chapters. (See also: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.) You’ll be wise to avoid books that share your subject matter. It’s form you’re after, not content.
Aside from all that, I’d recommend writing, to yourself, your reasons for choosing the third person. Why does the story need to be told this way? It’s useful for me to articulate and defend my choices when I’m about halfway through a first draft. This lets me move partly (but never wholly!) out of intuition and into intention. Intention feels powerful.
“Good luck, Tiffany!” she typed as she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her ear.
The Writing Teacher
The Tumblr reblog holds a special kind of power. It’s the way that posts are shared on the platform — if, for example, I like your photograph, or link, or video, or 5,000-word analysis of our favorite TV show, I can re-post it on my own Tumblr, with or without additions, your original post fully intact. It will appear on my blog and on my followers’ dashboard feeds; if one of them reblogs it, and a few of her friends do the same, your post will gain momentum — it might even snowball to popularity. Posts on Facebook can slip into the ether, the whims of finicky algorithms; on Twitter, arguably the most temporal social network, your 140 characters have a matter of minutes, even seconds, before they drop out of sight down the infinite stream. On Tumblr, posts spread outward in networks of webs. They have drastically longer shelf lives than their counterparts on other social media outlets — reblogs, which make up 90% of Tumblr content, can make the rounds for weeks, months, even years, and with a tag search and a reblog or two, they can spring to life long after they’re published. In other corners of the Internet, you broadcast and consume information; on Tumblr, a platform built on mutual interests and passions, all that sustained sharing helps build real digital communities, one reblog at a time.
Book lovers will be pleased to know that the Tumblr book community is thriving. The Millions has its own popular Tumblr and our own Nick Moran has done a few great round-ups of literary Tumblrs, and the community has only grown since the last installment. Book Tumblr is a space where basically everyone who regularly has their hands (or, I suppose in the digital age, their eyes) on books can gather: writers, artists, editors, publishers, lit mags, booksellers and their bookstores, librarians and their libraries, and, most important of all, readers. The Tumblr book fandom is as committed to the written word as they are to the platform’s creative and transformative slant: when they finish a book, they’re ready to pull the most thought-provoking quotes or draw fanart or bake the cake they read about in chapter 12. There’s equal space for criticism and celebration, and it’s the kind of community that forces me to talk sappily about the power of the web, how people thousands of miles apart can find each other and build friendships based on a single book, or a love of books generally.
At the heart of Tumblr book fandom is books.tumblr.com and the woman who runs it, Rachel Fershleiser, once described by Lydia Kiesling here at The Millions as “an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology.” Nicole Cliffe at The Toast recently took things a delightful step further by saying Fershleiser “represents for books on the Internet like an avenging angel who is also very nice.” Fershleiser (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve met many times in bookish internet circles over the years) is a former book publicist who came to Tumblr from Housing Works, where she ran events — and got the bookstore onto Tumblr, one of the first institutions to create an analogous physical-to-digital space for readers to gather around books. At Tumblr, she encourages other organizations and writers onto the site; in a room full of publishers at the FutureBook conference in London a few months back, I seriously enjoyed watching her rep for Tumblr with enthusiastic and hyper-intelligent zeal. She curates a broad, book-positive discussion on Tumblr — and the Reblog Book Club, a year and a half old and now in its fifth round, is at the very center.
“I wanted to do a Tumblr book club from the day I started,” Fershleiser told me a recently when I stopped by Tumblr’s offices near Union Square in Manhattan (the address is one that loyal Tumblrites will recognize instantly from every email they get about new followers). “I love to talk about books — that’s what I’m doing here — and I love to talk about books on the Internet, and Tumblr is such a rich place for engaging with art in a creative way. My actual lifelong dream is to be the Oprah of the Internet. So this seemed like a good place to start.” She launched the Reblog Book Club in the fall of 2013, and the first title was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a book (that I happen to be obsessed with) about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-like Simon Snow novels. “I got really in my head about choosing a first book,” Fershleiser said. “There were no rules: is it YA or is it adult, is it serious, or dystopian, or funny, and how can I choose one book for a hundred million people? It’s a really big community.”
But Rowell proved to be a perfect choice. Her previous novel, Eleanor & Park, had come out earlier that year and had been a huge hit, and she was an active Tumblr user and unabashed fangirl — and, of course, she’d written a novel about loving books and celebrating them online. There weren’t a lot models for a massive-scale online book club — some sites set titles and interviewed the authors, and maybe opened up a comments section or discussion thread. But Tumblr is all about peer-to-peer exchange, and Fershleiser wanted to reflect that. She set a fairly loose schedule — dates by which chunks of the book would ideally be read — and an open format: all the tools of Tumblr, from gifsets to multimedia to chains of reblogged meta, were put to use. The ask box was always open, so Rowell could drop in and answer questions whenever was easiest (rather than the formally scheduled Q&A sessions we see with a lot of authors online).
This kind of thing is relatively new territory for authors — how many times have you cringed in the past decade seeing writers forced to start blogs or Twitter accounts or somehow engage with their readers online when it didn’t come naturally, or worse, when it clearly made them uncomfortable? But these days plenty of writers do shine in digital spaces, and Rowell is one of them — and when Tumblr called, her publisher embraced the opportunity. Stephanie Davis, the marketing manager at St Martin’s Press, told me, “Working with Rachel to launch the Reblog Book Club was really exciting because the community on Tumblr is so expressive, creative, and authentic.” Davis cited the fact that Rowell was on Tumblr, and enthusiastically so, that made her an ideal first choice. The club was an experiment — and it was a successful one. It showed off the very best of the Tumblr book community: “It was thrilling to be able to approach a traditional book club in a new way,” Davis said. “And to see how the Tumblr community jumped in and participated — I’m still blown away by how talented her Tumblr fans are!”
The conversations in the Reblog Book Club are nearly always civil, and usually pretty warm and engaged — something that’s particularly notable online. Perhaps it’s because Fershleiser is there to moderate, or perhaps it’s because the author is there, too, or perhaps it speaks to the kinds of readers attracted to the group. “This is my own little push-back against the idea that online conversation has to be mean and shallow,” Fershleiser said. “Not only are people kind and thoughtful, the conversation is nuanced and in-depth and we read complicated books about complicated characters and have complicated responses to them, and I think that’s wonderful. I want to smash it in the face of people who think that enjoying the Internet is the opposite of people enjoying real books.”
The titles that followed Fangirl transcended genre labels and age designations. In the book store they’d be classified as middle grade, YA, and adult, verse and prose; in reality, they’re more like a collection of books about complex female protagonists getting things done. There was Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, our own Edan Lepucki’s California, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, for which she won the National Book Award late last year. It felt fitting to get in touch with Edan for a Millions piece, and she told me, “The Reblog Book Club was one of the most satisfying parts of publishing my book this summer because I got to see readers interacting with my work in ways that I couldn’t elsewhere. (A writer should always avoid reading their Amazon reviews, for instance, unless she wants to feel like a pile of shit in three seconds flat.)” She continued,
On Tumblr, even if readers weren’t loving my novel, they were still engaging with it in these thoughtful ways, wrestling with how they felt about the characters, why I’d made certain choices, guessing about what was going to happen, etc. And when a reader loved my book — oh how they loved it! I feel like the internet has brought back sincerity and enthusiasm, made it acceptable, and that is refreshing. It’s not cool to be cool, it’s cool to get excited about stuff and to be a fan with a capital F…It truly made me feel like my book was alive for people in the way it had been for me, when I was writing it.
And now, to start 2015, there’s Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple at the End of the World. I’ve never met Coyle in person, but we followed each other on Tumblr about a year ago, and I feel like I know her deeply, from her enthusiasm for Doctor Who gifsets (it’s all about Peter Capaldi on that front) to her long, thoughtful essays, including a wonderful post last year in which she described the genesis of this book: Neil Gaiman had posted about the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize on his Tumblr, and she’d seen it, entered, and won — and eventually got to thank him in person. The book was published as Vivian Versus the Apocalypse in the U.K., and was released there along with a sequel, Vivian Versus America, last year; the newly-titled version came out in the U.S. this month. Coyle seems to like Tumblr as much as I do, if not more. “I feel like there’s really no better place on the internet to be loud about the things you love than Tumblr,” she told me. “I’ve used it for my personal blog for about six years now, and in that time I’ve really noticed that it’s helped change my tastes, and open my eyes to new things I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.”
It was pretty hard for me to keep from falling in love with Vivian Apple at the End of the World: the characters — particularly the heroine, Vivian, who grows progressively bolder as the novel proceeds — are smart, dynamic, and seriously funny, and it’s a whip-smart satirical take on contemporary America, from religion (the big one — it’s about the Rapture) to consumerism to feminism to homophobia. And these past few weeks, Coyle watched her readers react to her work as they read it, something most authors never get the chance to do. “Overall it’s been really great,” she said. “I’m a debut author and basically had no feeling of assurance whatsoever that anyone other than my parents was going to read this book. To be able to go on Tumblr and see people not just reading it, but engaging with it, picking themes and characters and quotes they particularly liked or were interested by, has been overwhelming. It is a little weird to watch it unfold in real time. I’ve seen posts where people say, ‘I have a question about this, can’t wait to see how Coyle addresses it’ and I’m like ‘oh no oh god I never addressed that thing.’”
She doesn’t have much to worry about, though: the Reblog Book Club seems to be loving the book, and engaging with it in typical fashion, with fanart and meta and playlists for the apocalypse. “I am a huge fan of fans,” Coyle said. “If there was a fandom fandom, I would belong to it, because nothing is more beautiful to me that goofy outrageous creativity being applied to movies and television shows and books, especially. So the idea that someone would read the book and make a playlist, or draw a picture, or paint their nails the color of the cover, was and is almost too wonderful for me to bear. I have long said that my only authorial goal is to inspire someone else to write fanfiction about my work. I’m not sure if that’s happened yet, but I feel like I’ve gotten a bit closer.” (I’ve advised her to watch her inbox on this front.)
For the readers, some of whom come via the authors, others who show up for every title Fershleiser picks, the Reblog Book Club is a unique space on the web. Lauren Bates works in a library in Florida and has a dedicated book Tumblr, and she found out about the club through Rainbow Rowell’s Tumblr: “I was newly post-grad and unemployed and really very desperate to stay engaged with literature without the excuse of schoolwork,” she told me. “The literary community can sometimes be intimidating or inaccessible to people who don’t have connections to the industry or an active literary scene in their community, and even if you do live in a relatively literary community, it can be difficult to find people with a similar taste in books.” The Tumblr book community, she said, is a beautifully egalitarian space: “We have no idea what each other’s backgrounds are or where (or if) anyone attended college or what their major was or any of that. Your credentials don’t give your opinion more weight than anyone else’s.”
Another active member, Sarah Smith-Eivemark told me that she “owe[s] her publishing career to the Bookternet:” I joined Tumblr a little over three years ago, but I didn’t start actively posting until about two years ago, when I realized that so many of the people who I respected in publishing, the people whose careers I wanted to emulate and work with, had a Tumblr of their own. I’m completely addicted now. I’ve met and connected with more people who share my love of reading and independent publishing through Tumblr than I have with, well, anything else.” Smith-Eivemark is now the publicist at Coach House Books in Toronto, and she still uses Tumblr in her professional life. If anything, the Tumblr book community shows her all the people out there incredibly excited about reading: “…it can just seem so challenging to simply get people to buy a book,” she said. “The Reblog Book Club encourages me, and reminds me that not only are there readers out there, they’re smart, funny, and exactly the kind of people I’d want to know (as we say) IRL.”
It’s a little coincidental that this round of the Reblog Book Club coincided with the launch of another online “book club” at another behemoth of a social network: Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution to read a book every two weeks led to the announcement of Facebook’s “A Year of Books,” in which 278,000 (and counting) members will “discuss” a new title once a fortnight. The inevitable comparisons to Oprah came and went — for an eloquent analysis of why exactly Zuckerberg is not and will never be Oprah, I’d recommend Anna Wiener’s fantastic piece on the subject in the Gawker Review of Books. “Oprah built an entertainment and media empire that trades in feelings; she is the definition of a successful personal brand,” she wrote. “Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, a website buttressed by targeted ads with a well-intentioned but often emotionally clumsy experience. Oprah can make one’s life feel like an important journey to the center of the soul. Facebook can make one’s life feel inadequate, ephemeral, and commoditized.” But while the first meeting of the club was reportedly a mess, the first featured title, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, skyrocketed in sales. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether it’s possible to have a real discussion in this kind of space: Facebook merely suggesting a title will lead people to buy it (though not, it should be noted, to necessarily read it.)
The contrast between Facebook’s book club and the conversations I see on Tumblr are striking. As much as the book industry needs — perhaps even is desperate for — a solid and regular base of book-club consumers, this big, dedicated driver of sales (on that front, Zuckerberg and Oprah will likely have much in common), people who make and distribute books also want passionate readers, the sort who will evangelize for a book that they love. Fershleiser agrees — during our conversation, she echoed some of my thoughts from my last fan culture column on the topic, on how book fandom is more about depth than breadth. She said:
I think that some people think of fandom only as people who already have millions of people hanging on their every word. A lot of what we’re doing here starts smaller. For the books we choose for the Reblog Book Club, the authors are on Tumblr and they have some kind of following but it’s not because they’re the biggest authors on Tumblr, it’s because it’s going to be something interesting to talk about. It’s not that there are huge numbers of people participating in the book club, it’s that they’re really, really engaged and excited and when you have even 50 people on your platform who are talking about a book, every day, who are making incredible fan art, nail art, getting really excited, getting into heated debates about things, especially on a network like Tumblr, with the reblogging and the following, it reverberates through the network and it feels like, ‘What’s this thing that everyone’s talking about? It’s exciting and I want to be a part of it.’ It doesn’t take six million people to create that kind of feeling —–it grows organically.
Is the Reblog Book Club the future of books online? I sure hope so, or at least that it’s a big part of it. It represents some of the best of what the web can offer — genuine connections and discussions, between groups that can’t realistically interact in the analog world, and a sort level playing field, bookstores and authors and librarians and readers sitting side by side, one post after another. And perhaps most importantly, the Tumblr book community gives permission to get deep into the world of a book: it’s cool to love it for a while, and to try to press it into the hands of everyone on your dash. With a few well-chosen gifs, of course.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In this episode, we take a long look into Janet’s middle-school psyche, the hairstyles of manic pixie dream boys, and one of the most acclaimed young adult books in a long while: Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle.
Also discussed in this episode: religion, gender roles, fundamentalism, the rapture, road trips, unrealistically wonderful boys with tousled brown hair, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, John Green, mix tapes, best friends, and God.
Not discussed in this episode: Wait is “Rainbow Rowell” actually her real name, does anyone still make mix tapes anymore because those ruled, realistically terrible boys with neatly combed blond hair, Mike’s middle school experience wherein he was the popular captain of the football team, Mike’s propensity to tell obvious lies about his past.
(Does anybody want to be Janet’s best friend?)