Book Reviewing in the Social Media Age: or, What if Mark Richard and I Had Been Facebook Friends?

One of my favorite author headshots of all time.

Mark Richard. One of my favorite author headshots of all time.

Truly, one of the most exciting things about book culture these days IS that it’s so incredibly social and interactive. That is the essence of the course I teach at Ball State University: Literary Citizenship. I want to show my students all the ways in which they can engage with book culture.

They can engage in ways that weren’t available to me. I try to imagine what it would have been like in 1990 to be 21 and have at my disposal tweets from Margaret Atwood and pictures of Amy Tan’s dog. Like it wasn’t no big thang.

That is unfathomable to me.

I was a Mark Richard fan

ice-at-bottomHere’s a question: What if I’d become a writer after–not before–the advent of social media? If you’re my age, do you ask yourself this question as often as I do?

Mark Richard was a writer who made an enormous impression on me early in my apprenticeship. I think of him in a star constellation that includes Andre Dubus, Annie Proulx, Dennis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, and Stuart Dybek, writers who published collections in the 80’s and early 90’s–basically, what I read when I took my first creative writing classes, the first writers who first made me go, “Wow.”

What if, after reading Mark Richard’s story “Strays” in Best American Short Stories 1989, I’d been able to friend or follow him?

(No different than the way that I friended Ethan Rutherford the other day, because he’s got a new collection out that I’ve heard about, The Peripatetic Coffin.) 

Richard was in his early 30’s at the time with a book just out, The Ice at the Bottom of the World. I was interning at Interview magazine in New York City, and the book review editor, Mark Marvel (yes, that was his real name) had a review copy of Ice on his desk. He saw me checking it out. “Take it,” he said.

I read it immediately.

When I went to graduate school a year later, I found others who liked his work, and I loaned out this book a lot and spread the Gospel of Mark Richard. I’ve taught his work for many years, too.

What if there’d been an Amazon.com or Goodreads? Maybe I would have gone on one of those sites and written a glowing review.

If there had been blogs back then, maybe I would have had one and written about how much I loved that book. Maybe Mark Richard would have retweeted or reposted my blog post.

Maybe if book culture had been more social and less hierarchical in 1990, more people would have known about Mark Richard and the amazing stories in Ice at the Bottom of the World and Charity. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to start writing for Party of Five.

Maybe Mark Richard and I would have been internet acquaintances. Maybe I could have met lots of other Mark Richard fans via Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, and together, we could have catapulted him to literary stardom.

The problem would have come, of course,  with Fishboy, his second book, which I read and (honestly) did not like at all. Would his publisher have sent me an ARC? Would I have felt compelled to post an early review and “make it good?” Would Mark Richard have courted fans like me to post reviews via his blog or Facebook author page? Would he have offered us a prize if we pre-ordered?

If you are my age, I know what you’re thinking: My God, it’s so ABSURD!

The difference between fandom and reviewing

And this is what my students do not understand about the difference between the world they know (as it is now) and the world I grew up in (as it was). I’m not saying the past was better. I’m not saying that book culture–as it exists today–is a bad thing. Only that it is a vastly different thing.

The week we discussed book reviews in my Literary Citizenship class, I told my students, “This week, we look at the dark side of literary citizenship.” It’s hard, I think, for undergrads to understand why this all matters.

One of my students started her weekly blog post this way:  “As I sat down to research and write this blog about book reviewing, I caught myself thinking, ‘Ugh, I don’t really care about this.'” This sentiment was echoed by many students, many of whom informally review books all the time on their blogs, Tumblrs, Goodreads, and other social media platforms. They talk about books all the time. What’s the big deal?

This link in particular got their attention: about a reader who changed her Amazon.com review of a book she’d received in advance, which irked a well-known writer (and/or her husband) and legions of fans.

Some of my students have been reviewing books for awhile and (even before taking the class with me) were receiving books to review from publishers and authors.  But was it book reviewing that they’d been doing really? Rather, I’d say they were experienced at “talking up” books–not reviewing books. They are FANS of particular books and authors and genres (like YA). The internet makes this participatory kind of fandom possible. It was these students especially that I wanted to think through the ethics of book reviewing in the social media age. One of these students confessed:

“I totally agree with this post that says Twitter makes it hard to avoid being too nice. I like being friends with other writers! I like being buddies! But when I know a writer is following me or will notice mentions of them in a tweet, I don’t want to give them a bad review. I think of them as a person whose feelings I don’t want to hurt.”

13-pure-languageI assigned Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, especially the last story “Pure Language,” which is set in a slightly futuristic New York City, the Capital of Publicity, at a time in which even “word of mouth” can be bought.

To a person my age or older, “Pure Language” sends chills down the spine. To my students…eh, not so much.

They recognize that there’s a problem. How are we ever going to know what’s really good and what’s hype? But none of them could offer a solution to the problem–other than “I just won’t review books I don’t like.”

I shouldn’t have expected them to have an answer, really, (not fair) and in the end, I hope I was able to convey not just HOW to review books, but why doing so ethically and well really does matter.

That is why I call this class Literary Citizenship. Not Literary Friendship. Not Literary Connections. Not even Literary Community. Because that second word–citizenship–implies responsibility.

Here are some of the best reflections from my students on the issue:

Rachael Heffner: “I’ve done a couple reviews of books, but I don’t know what can be constituted as a review or just an enthusiastic post about a book. Who’s to say?”

Indeed. Who’s to say?

Sarah Hollowell: “You read book reviews trying to figure out if you want to read something. My hope is that I’ll build an audience that trusts my opinion on the types of books they want to read. I don’t want to tell them that a book is great, because more than likely they’ll realize it’s not and they’ll either 1) think I’m lying or 2) think I have bad taste. Both of them fill me with dread.”

I’m so happy that my students want to be credible and taken seriously. It’s a source of great relief to me.

Kiley Neal: Reviewing books is an art in itself, one that should not be taken lightly, especially by people who are dedicated to reading and writing. This is our community, and if we don’t take care of it, who will?

Indeed, Kiley!

Michael Cox: The reviewer’s paradox is likability vs. credibility.

Indeed! That’s the paradox.

And because he grew up on a farm, John Carter compares book reviewing to livestock judging. It’s an apt metaphor!

One student quoted a wonderful poem by my colleague Peter Davis, which I’ll include here:

POEM ADDRESSING THE READER
AND EXPRESSING A BEAUTIFUL HOPE

I am very appreciative that you’ve taken the time to read this poem. I hope you like it. Let me know what I can do to improve it. I know that we all have different tastes and different ideas about what comprises good writing. Hopefully, we can agree in this instance. If you have very strong feelings about it, one way or another, you should write a review of the book in which this poem appears. If this poem is being published in a journal and you are unaware that it is also in a book, you should look it up. It is possible it is not yet in a book. You could even try reaching me, or something. You could google me. A review would really be nice. Something formal so that I feel it’s legitimate. I’m actually only half interested in this poem so far, but I’m also feeling a small mania about it. I have reason to believe that I’m very, very good and that you’re leaning closer and closer and closer and that at any particular instant you may kiss me on the cheek.

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Form a Blog Circle

I gave the Discovery 2013 interns some “Summer Homework.”

Why?

Many of these students were in my Literary Citizenship class this spring, but some were not, and so we’ve decided to spend the 10 weeks leading up to the conference doing some training via “homework.”

Every Friday by 3 PM, they’ll engage in something I call “Charming Notes.” It’s a version of what Carolyn See prescribes in her book Making a Literary Life. They’ll be required to friend or follow or engage with five people, writers, magazines, agents, or publishers in order to expand their literary horizons. (We did this in my class during Spring 2013, and it worked wonders.) One of those five must be an “active” note–meaning they have to say something to the person, comment on a blog, send an email or message, not just passively follow someone.

Every other Friday by 3 PM, they’ll post to their blog. I’ve told them that these posts can be:

  • journal entries
  • book reviews/what they’re reading
  • commentary about articles they read while preparing for MWW
  • interviews with writers
  • a roundup of links to helpful articles or information
  • fearful questions and anxieties
  • a response to someone else’s blog post
  • I’ve recommended that they use my blog Literary Citizenship for inspiration, esp. the links in the right-hand column.

I’ve warned them: “You can blog about or share your own writing, but primarily, the goal is to be interested in what other people are doing, not what you’re doing.”

They must read ALL of each week’s posts (5 or 6) and comment on them. In a sense, they will “workshop” each other’s posts, but in a supportive, helpful way. Such as, if they think the post could be formatted more attractively or they catch a typo, they should tell the person in our private FB group (only we see that). But if they want to engage in a conversation with the post, they’ll do that in the comments section.

Basically, I’ve created a blog circle.

Ultimately, I want each intern to find the community they need and blog about whatever they need to blog about, but I also want them to form a community among themselves.

The internet is about circles and communities and connections. Our job is to find the right ones to plug into. 

A metaphor: going online at first is like being a boat drifting in the middle of the ocean. You write into a void. No one can find you. You’re a needle in a haystack. You’re not even a ping on anybody’s radar.

What you have to do is find some other boats and tie yourselves together. Not just any boats. The right boats. Boats like you.

Hang out with them. Talk. Learn. Eat. Plus, you’re more visible to search parties.

Who’s in your blog circle? If you don’t have one, think about how to find one.

An example: I just proposed a panel for AWP 2014 in Seattle on teaching novel writing. The first people who came to my mind were people I’ve met via social media who share my interest. John Vanderslice comments on my blog “The Big Thing” quite often because he teaches a similar class. Then there’s Roxane Gay and Jon Billman, with whom I talk about the subject on Twitter from time to time.

They sent me Charming Notes, or I sent Charming Notes to them.

That’s the benefit of being online, I think: that when particular opportunities arise, names come to mind.


Bringing New York Publishing to Muncie, Indiana

Kiley Neal, Sara Rae Rust, and Kam McBride at the first meeting of the Discovery 2013 Internship, which will give 11 Ball State students the chance to work directly with literary agents, authors, and other publishing professionals. Boo ya!

Kiley Neal, Sara Rae Rust, and Kam McBride at the first meeting of the Discovery 2013 Internship, which will give 11 Ball State students the chance to work directly with literary agents, authors, and other publishing professionals. Boo ya!

Thanks to a grant from the Discovery Group, I’ve hired 11 Ball State students for internships at this summer’s Midwest Writers Workshop. I want to tell you about it, so mosey on over to The Big Thing to learn more. They will be teaching literary citizenship to others. It’s really amazing.


Last Lecture: Find Your Tribe

tribe

You’ve all come so far since that first night of class. Remember? Remember where you were just a short time ago?

Think about what you accomplished.

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It’s Not Just Posters: Advice for Promoting Your Next Local Event

My students were required to help organize a literary event. Madison was in the group assigned to promote our campus literary festival OFF-CAMPUS. Anyone who teaches knows that’s it’s really hard to bring “Town and Gown” together. Here are some great ideas about how to make that happen–and the most important thing is that students have to leave campus.

Call Me Marv

Recently I was a part of the promotional team for Ball State’s In Print Festival of First Books. Throughout the process of trying to gain attendees for this literary festival, I learned that there are a 3 key steps for anyone that hopes to promote a local event in a small town and I thought I’d share them with you all.

applestore  Step 1 – Window Shop – Yep that’s right, you have to walk. Go to the most high  traffic business area in your town and window shop. You are not shopping for merchandise though, you are shopping for windows. Windows to hang up your posters/advertisements for your event. Go in and ask the owner/manager if they are interested in hanging your advertisement. I recommend doing this before you actually have the posters made. This way it allows you to have a conversation with the owner and explain your…

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Playing the Digital-Word-of-Mouth Game

The infographic in question.

A few days ago at BookRiot, the writer Andrew Shaffer asked the question, “What do readers owe authors?” He was responding to a much-discussed infographic that’s been making the rounds. Shaffer notes that Amazon’s recent purchase of Goodreads highlights the importance of “digital word-of-mouth” and how authors and publishers need to do “everything in their power to increase the chatter surrounding their own books on social media.”

He cites these familiar examples:

I’ve seen readers tweet to writers that they enjoyed their books, only to have the writer respond with a “small request” to leave their thoughts on Amazon in the form of a review. Snider even suggests that readers “download and print the infographic to use a checklist” when buying books, so they don’t accidentally forget to like, tag, tweet, share, or review their new purchases. When did being a reader begin to feel like such a chore?

Since I’m basically teaching a class that encourages students to be “literary citizens” and directly participate in book culture by “helping” authors in these exact ways, I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought.

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Students always complain that creative writing teachers never talk about publishing. Well, this week, I schooled them, and I schooled them good. You can check out the links in the right-hand column under “Publishing a Book 101.” I also had them read excerpts from Carolyn See’s MAKING A LITERARY LIFE, Betsy Lerner’s THE FOREST FOR THE TREES, Gerald Gross’s EDITORS AND EDITING, Eckstutt and Henry’s THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED, and Ted Striphas THE LATE AGE OF PRINT. It was a lot to take in. Here, Marvin Madison Jones takes it all in and makes sense of it all. In his own words.

Call Me Marv

The publishing world is a very mysterious world similar to that of Willy Wonka’s factory. No one knows what is going on up in there. The people involved hide their secrets well and do not write about the process of getting a book published very often. First book authors are left blind to the shenanigans and happenings that go on during the publishing process.

images

Being part of Cathy Day‘s Lit Citizenship class I have been presented with many of the ugly truths and surprising information about the publishing process and I should share some of them with you.

Be warned that some of this information might be a bit disheartening to some writers but also remember that these are only some parts of the publishing world not all. Every single writer has a chance at success, you just got to find the write publisher and people that will treat…

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