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
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.”
I 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?
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.
John Carter uses livestock judging as a metaphor to talk about reviewing books. This is Indiana, folks.
Want to know my opinion on book reviews? Of course you do. That’s why you’re here.
After reading all the links on the topic over at Literary Citizenship, I realized that a lot of people have a lot different opinions on what makes a good book review.
I think there’s a common one: explanation.
It seems like everyone agrees that a good book review shouldn’t say just how the reviewer feels, but why they feel that way. In one article, Charles Baxter calls this unexplained kind of reviewing “Owl Criticism,” saying,
…quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.’
Because I am who I am, and I have trouble NOT linking a topic to agriculture, let me provide a…
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My students are realizing that being “friends” with writers on FB and Twitter does effect how free they feel to be honest in their book reviews. It was great to see them begin to grapple with this conundrum this week.
Here’s a great roundup about the art of book reviewing. This is what I really want my students to understand: that to REALLY review a book is to embrace a new art form with seriousness of purpose and a commitment to do it well.
I just got off the phone with my friend, L. Marie, who recently created a blog, “Thoughts about writing and life.” I’m thrilled that she’s blogging! We chatted about Literary Citizenship and how she needs this online presence in order to impress the agents where she’s currently shopping her young adult fantasy book. She has an MFA and is a terrific writer—but she realized that she needed to get online and join the literary world. I talked to her all about what we’re doing in our class; we talked through WordPress and how to add hyperlinks and tags. She’s on a roll now!
She’s also an avid reader, so I encouraged her to do reviews of books (her current blog is a movie review that ties into her writing). And wouldn’t you know it, our Lit Cit class is talking about that very topic this week. Book reviews are…
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God knows, the world needs more book reviewers.
A key principle of Literary Citizenship is that it’s important to talk up (informally) or review (formally) the books you like. Start with your personal network and work up to Goodreads and Amazon.com. Review books on your blog. Maybe even work toward reviewing for newspapers and magazines, print or online. Robin Becker at Penn State and Irina Reyn at Pitt are just two people I know of who actively teach their students how to write and publish book reviews.
Now, I’ve never been much of a book reviewer, but I know people who are.
Like my friend, the writer/critic David Walton. He’s the author of the novel Ride and a former winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. He’s also a prolific book reviewer for such places as the New York Times Book Review and the Dallas Morning News, among others.
[Also: this gave me an excuse to write to him. Because he’s one of the things I miss most about Pittsburgh.]
Q: Dave, I’ve shared John Updike’s six rules for book reviewers with my students, as well as this incredibly informative article by Rebecca Skloot about how to break in as a book reviewer. What my students need from you are the very basics.
Well, some of this is standard.
- Full title and full author name early, if possible in the first paragraph, even though it’s in the heading.
- Something about the author, but not much.
- Give away no important plot point, and nothing after the first 50 or 100 pages.
- Make sure you have a quote or two–a sample of the author’s style.
- You need a lede and a walk-off, an opening that overviews the book and a conclusion that leaves a final impression, final point–and for me is usually something specific, a detail from the book, less than an overview or judgment.
- Avoid conflicts of interest (no reviewing of friends, enemies, former professors, etc.)
But really, the book itself shapes the review.
Q: How long should a review be?
Word limits are strict. 450-500 words. It used to be 500-600, but 450 is preferred, and I try to aim for that. That means you have to be compressed in what you say, and very definite.
I usually write 500+ then pare down.
Q: Oh, gentle reader, to give you a sense of how many words that is, I should mention that you have now reached word 430 in this post.
Writing a polished review is a demanding writing exercise. It takes me two days to get those 450 words. Sometimes I labor over an opening paragraph or two for a couple of hours, then pitch it out. And believe me, there’s a lot to check in 450 words–use the word excellent twice, or any word, and it stands out.
Q: Do you review books you don’t like?
My feeling is that you review books you like, and the review’s job is to sell the book. There are so many books, why give attention to a bad book? Readers read reviews to spot books they want to read. That’s my feeling. However, established writers can be knocked and savaged, when they deserve it.
Q: Why do you do it?
Why do I review books? Because I like to read. I mostly review history and bioraphy, and usually single out subjects I don’t know much about. Right now I’m reviewing a history of the tenth century. I can’t think of a subject more remote from my interests–but every period of history has its interest, and every good book is an enlargement, even if it doesn’t fit into your category of expertise. Especially if it doesn’t fit into your existing category of expertise, but gives you, as a book should, a new perspective, a set of experiences you would not otherwise have had.
Also, I like to see my name in print. Through lean years of output and publication, I’ve been able to consider myself a writer. My words are in newspapers all over Dallas, or Cleveland, or Louisville, Kansas City, with my name above them.
Partly for the money, too, believe it or not. Newspapers don’t pay much for a review, maybe a couple of hundred at best. More often less, much less. It adds up if you can publish a review in more than one place, but that takes patience and finesse. Most editors want to run their reviews first. And newspapers, and newspaper space, shrink year by year.
Q: What my students want to know is “Can I make a living at it?”
No, probably not. Reviewing can be a drain. It pays little. It takes time from other things. But it instills the standards that are important in all writing: economy, precision, a sense of order and clear purpose. And lastly: most of us are English majors, and isn’t it the dream of the English major to be paid for reading–that solitary pursuit that for years took us away from play and chores, that got us labelled as idlers and dropouts and solitaries? And here at last, even if only for a rate I figure out to be about 35 cents an hour, to be paid for it. It’s too good to pass up.
Some years ago I might send a review to eight or ten papers, but many of them are gone now, or don’t publish reviews anymore, or have had their freelancer budget cut to nothing. But for years reviewing sustained me, some of them very lean years, and I’ve gained immeasurably from working with gifted and sensitive editors, who cared about books, and nurtured writers and reviewers–especially local writers–in ways that advanced them. In many ways the book editor of an important newspaper can nourish and advance a fledgling writer. Many of the old practices and standards, and safeguards, of the publishing business have gone by the wayside over these past decades, at the same as the newspaper business has shrunk, and newspapers and publishing houses have gutted their staffs of editors, proofreaders, fact checkers. Reviewing books is an important part of a writer’s community, and grows more important as you grow in prominence.
Q: What’s hard for me to talk to my students about is why book reviews matter–and by this I mean formal reviews, book criticism. They’re undergraduates. They don’t want to think of themselves as “critics.” They don’t read the NYTBR. They might pick up Scott Turow’s Innocent and see a snippet of your review from the Dallas Morning News and have no idea how that snippet got there, why it matters that it’s there.
Because of the decline of a strong publishing apparatus, and a healthy spirit of review and criticism in the daily press, writers must fall back more on their own immediate community of friends, fellow writers, and direct readership on line. Hurt especially are those levels of first and middle list authors who require time and close editorial guidance to become grow, and find their readership.
Book reviewing is a huge subject–and an important one. On the right sidebar, I’ve archived MANY articles about this topic. The Giraldi thing. The good reviews for hire thing. Check them out. If there’s something you think I should know about, please, pass it on!
Over on his blog Footnotes, Jackson Eflin talks up books his likes–with plenty of footnotes.