Every week, I come across a book and think, I wish I had time to read this and get other people to read it. Either it’s by a friend (IRL or virtual) or a former student or someone I heard at a reading or someone I don’t even know who just mails me their book and says, “Here. I want you to have this.” I keep these books on a special shelf in my bedroom which I’ve labeled in my head, BOOKS I WISH I COULD DO MORE FOR.
But the sad fact of my life as a creative writing teacher is that I don’t have a lot of time to read books.
Also, I suck at writing book reviews.
So on the first night of Literary Citizenship class, I brought all those books from my shelf at home to class, held them up one by one, and “pitched” them to my students. We’d been talking about following writers on social media. They were following all these famous writers, and I said, “People, these writers don’t need your help. Those books don’t need you. THESE books need you.”
One of those books was The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. I heard him give a talk in Indianapolis a few months ago at the Gathering of Writers. He talked very fast and very convincingly about novel writing, and I wrote down everything he said. Afterwards, I introduced myself to him, thanked him for his talk, and then went to the book table and bought his most recent novel.
My husband read it first. He loved it, and he’s hard to please. He wrote a Goodreads review of it.
A few weeks later, over Christmas break, I had a chance to read it, and I thought, Oh my students would love this.
I was right.
The first student to get her hands on the novel was Sarah Hollowell, who tweeted a marriage proposal to Mr. Winters upon finishing it. Then she wrote a nice review.
The second student to read it was Jackson Eflin, who was intrigued by Sarah’s raving and read it himself. He reviewed it on his new blog Footnotes, where you will notice he uses a lot of footnotes.
There are things that still wish could happen.
- My husband, Sarah, and Jackson all borrowed my book. So, I don’t know if I’ve helped Winters sell any books yet.
- My husband needs to put his review on Amazon, where more people will find it, perhaps. Actually, I think he should publish his reviews in larger venues.
- Sarah and Jackson could, if they liked, try to publish their reviews in larger venues and/or continue developing the readership of their blogs by continuing to write good, well-written, interesting reviews.
- I need to get to the part of my syllabus where I cover book reviews–how to write them and the ethics of book reviewing culture, which can get pretty murky sometimes.
Another student in my class, Rachael Heffner, reviewed a book on her Tumblr this week. It’s another from my BOOKS I WISH I COULD DO MORE FOR pile, the first novel by my former student Sal Pane: Last Call in the City of Bridges. Rachael read this book for another class she’s taking with me, so she wrote up a review and posted it, and Sal saw it and shared it.
Trouble is: there were were spelling errors and other mistakes. When I asked Rachael to edit her post a little, she was grateful for the feedback. She said she’s used to posting things to her Tumblr that only a few people see. She’s not used to having a bigger audience.
I told her, “If you’re applying for a job with say, an agent or publisher, and they Google you and find that review, they might think twice about hiring you. They might worry that your writing skills aren’t strong enough yet.”
On the other hand, they might think, “Isn’t it great that this person is active on social media and cares about something. It’s the spirit that counts.” This is a distinct possibility.
It was, as they say, a teachable moment.
Last night, Rachael told me that another writer had noticed her review of Sal’s novel and emailed her to see if she would like to review more books. She was very excited about this, and I am too, but like I said, we haven’t gotten to book reviewing part of the syllabus yet. Check out the links to the right here —-> “Reviewing Others.” It’s all about the ways in which social media is changing the way we think about what it means to review a book.
I’ve invited my students to be literary citizens and help me help other people’s books.
This has an upside, but a downside, too.
Q: Professor Day, how do I get published?
A: Work to create a culture in which books can thrive.
Q: No, seriously. How do I get people to buy and read my work? How do I get discovered?
A: What did you do today to help get someone else’s work discovered?
This is the essence of literary citizenship. Or as Chuck Sambuchino says in “How to Support an Author’s New Book: 11 Ideas for You,” a new post over at Writer Unboxed:
Help writers sell books. It’s that simple. Just help them and support the publishing industry. Good karma will befall you, and the hope is that others will help you in return as your big release day comes.
They are simple steps: Buy the book. Make sure it’s face-out on the bookstore shelf. Read the book in public. Request the book at your local library. Be an advocate for the book on social media, etc.
If you’re a part of the indielit world, the small press scene, these ideas and suggestions will be nothing new to you. These strategies are what have allowed the independent literary press world to explode and expand in recent years. (Go to the AWP Book Fair. You’ll see what I mean. 11,000 attendees. 650 exhibitors.)
But all authors need readers who will do these things, whether they’re publishing with a tiny micro press or the Big Five.
And all creative writing students need to know this is work they can (and should) do.
In 1967, there were 13 creative writing programs. Today, there are more than 500. Every year, we generate thousands and thousands of graduates. We spend a lot of time and energy helping them to self-identify as writers. We are fools if we fail to show them how to self-identify as literary citizens, book buyers, lifelong readers, and lovers of books.
We’re creating a small army. Imagine what good work they could do.