Category Archives: Literary Citizenship

Episode 51: Reality (or, “The Scorpion’s Widow”)

It’s not easy being a literary citizen these days. On one hand, writers are so cheap and entitled that we bitch about two-dollar submission fees. On the other hand, we’re brainwashed marketing drones manipulated by evil corporate overlords. So, in episode 51 the WITTScasters pour a few stiff shots of reality. Then, as a chaser, the boys enjoy the hardboiled first chapter of Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde.

Reading Discussed

  • In The Black-Eyed Blonde, Benjamin Black (John Banville’s nom-de-hardboiled-plume) sends Raymond Chandler’s world-weary sleuth Philip Marlowe out into lonely LA on one more case. The first chapter is available as a PDF on Banville’s homepage-de-plume.
  • “Literary citizenship” is getting a lot of press these days, but not all of it’s positive. In Salon, Becky Tuch explains why she detests it.
  • The movie The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall (now streaming on Netflix) made Jon realize that stand-up comedy is a purely audience-driven art-form.
  • Ben guessed the sixties. Jon guessed the fifties, or forties. Brian wisely abstained. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop began in 1936.
  • Did Ben really teach introductory rhet/comp at Purdue? If so, shouldn’t he know that when you oversimplify someone’s argument and then attack that oversimplified argument it’s called a straw man?
  • Better lube up the scroll wheel on your mouse if you want to see how many graduate and undergraduate creative writing programs there are.
  • The “why do we have to pay to submit online?” conversation has been going on for a while now. Here’s The Missouri Review‘s take from two-and-a-half years ago. Perhaps the most interesting point: top-tier journals like TMR see submission fees less as a revenue stream and more as a way to slow down the stream of submissions.
  • If you hope to go pro as an Upslope-drinking-basketball-watcher, you’ll need versatility.
  • Go on an alimentary adventure with Mary Roach in Gulp.
  • Instead of the colonoscopy, Brian opted for John Banville’s short fiction collection Long Lankin.
  • Here’s the John Banville interview in The Paris Review that so delighted Brian.
  • Benjamin Black’s not the only writer breathing new life into other authors’ characters. Check out Porter Shreve’s The End of the Book, which, in part, follows Sherwood Anderson’s George Willard out of Winesburg, Ohio.
  • For a second straight episode, the conversation wandered into Ben’s “Skunk Hour” bear trap! His mind’s not right.
  • In The Guardian, Elizabeth Edmondson takes a break from writing genre fiction to complain about the terms “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.”
  • In this Interview Magazine, uh, interview, Zadie Smith explains that even with all the other competing mediums we have today, a contemporary novel will still feel “necessary” if its “sentences [are] necessary.”

Why I don’t write negative book reviews

As I’ve written here before, I occasionally write book reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch — for instance, most recently, here and here and here. I like to write reviews because

  • it often means I can get a review copy of a book a few weeks before it comes out, and I’m impatient like that;
  • I think it’s good karma for a writer to add to a conversation about his peers’ work (see, for instance, our literary citizenship discussion); and
  • reviews are a way for me to more fully consider a book, by taking notes and thinking about what the author is trying to do and whether the book succeeds.

But I just had to weasel my way out of a book review, because the book was so bad I didn’t finish it (not a book I’ve mentioned on the show, because I had a feeling I wouldn’t like it). I might finish the book and, if forced, I’m sure I could think of something diplomatic to say about it, but I don’t ever want to be bash one of my colleagues’ books, even if it deserves it. Here’s why.  Continue reading

Some thoughts on professionalization

Yesterday, I blogged a link to one of Cathy Day’s Literary Citizenship student’s round-up of harsh publishing truths. Cathy commented to ask when should students learn professionalization? Someone anonymous asked why shouldn’t students learn the business of their future field?

These are good questions. One good point is that undergraduate creative writing students are going to go into a variety of professions — as editors, agents, copywriters, journalists, etc. Some of them will go to law school. Some of them will go into academia. Others might marry someone making respectable money and stay home with the kids. Maybe one of them will actually make money as a commercial fiction writer, and maybe one of them will become a serious artist.

Given how scarce some of those jobs are, professionalization is certainly welcome. My flip comment — that I’m not sure it’s good for a person’s writing to obsess over publishing — is really directed to the one artist out of the bunch. Here are a few harsh truths for undergraduate creative writing majors who want to be artists:  Continue reading

AWP 2013: Random Thoughts

There’s a lot of post-AWP therapy writing going on out there. For instance, Steve Almond on how insignificant we all are; some dude on how AWP’s leadership has failed to provide a real conference; a myriad of Facebook status updates asking questions like, “Should undergraduates be allowed to attend?”

To back up, AWP is an annual conference for writers and other book people, mostly affiliated with MFA programs. This year, 12,000 people converged in Boston for panel discussions, readings, signings, and a book fair. It can be overwhelming, and there’s a lot to complain about:

  • Conference center lighting
  • Crowds
  • Butt face social climbers
  • Crowds
  • Travel expenses
  • Crowds
  • Wintry weather (always with the northern cities)

Still, it’s a good time. The real source of complaint seems to be tied in with networking, professionalism, and ambition — all of which miss the point of what AWP is good for, I think.  Continue reading

On Networking, Business and Writing

I spent much of this past work week at a personal development program which emphasized, among other things, the importance of networking. Networking — or at least networking for the sake of networking — is not something that I do naturally; in fact it kind of turns me off. But there’s a lot to be said for having a web of people you respect who are allies and even friends, and this is true in writing as well as in business. I’ve been reflecting on all this while doing some weekend decompressing. And because it’s the weekend, I’m excusing myself from presenting the following thoughts in any coherent order. Like a southern rock protagonist, this post was born to ramble.

My Writing Network
One thing I acknowledged over the course of the week is that my professional network is probably too small.  However, it is strong — my connections are my friends, who I joke with in the hallways at the office and invite over to watch sports. My writing connections are similar. I don’t keep in touch with writers who visited my MFA program (despite the fact that Davy Rothbart assured me that I am one of his doggs), or who I met at the bar at AWP (disclaimer: I’ve never actually done this), but the people who I do stay connected to I really know and admire: great teachers from grad school, night classes, and high school (shout out to Mr. Briggs!); writing group members from San Diego, now spread around the country; fellow writers from my MFA program. These are people who I can send a story to for honest feedback (some of them will be getting one in their in-boxes this week), and whose updates on their writing and their lives I am truly interested in. We remember each other’s unpublished stories from over a decade ago, and take genuine pleasure in each other’s success. Continue reading

Prince Books in Norfolk, Va.

stray-decorumIn episode 4, Ben mentioned the value of local bookstores. To that end, I would like to give a shout-out to Prince Books in Norfolk, Va. I visited them today and bought a copy of George Singleton’s new story collection, Stray Decorum.

A lot of bookstore clerks seem, to me, to be introverts, and can be quiet or even awkward until you get to know them. (So can I.) Not only did the clerks at Prince Books have good taste, they were friendly and charming, and I look forward to returning next time I’m in Norfolk.

I also want to use this space to recommend one of my favorite story writers. I obviously haven’t read this new collection yet, but George Singleton is consistently hilarious and invariably writes with heart.

Finally, Stray Decorum is published by Dzanc, one of the big names in small presses; they do especially well, for my money, with short fiction. Check them out.

The Art of the Book Review

Today Cathy Day’s literary citizenship blog directed me here, to Linda Taylor’s blog post about writing book reviews.

I write a handful of book reviews a year, so this is something I think about regularly: How do you write a good book review? Can you ever trash a book? What should be the balance between summary, quotation, and analysis?  Continue reading

What I Had Forgotten About Writing Groups

Four years after grad school — four years with very little new fiction to show for themselves — I joined a writing group. I had not been in a writing group since before the MFA (shout out to Write Club San Diego!) and I had forgotten how valuable they are. Here’s what I’ve remembered:

Writing groups give you deadlines.
Let’s be honest: you’re a bad person. Your writer friends are out there cranking out stories and novels and your lazy ass would rather watch old Law and Orders than put words on the page. But when your turn comes up for writing group, you have no choice. You write a paragraph. It sucks. You write another one. It sucks too, but now you’re moving. You write a third. It doesn’t suck so bad. Why didn’t you do this weeks ago?

Writing groups recharge you.
In an earlier post, Jon gave a great introduction to Literary Citizenship, which we’ll be discussing in more detail on What I’m Trying to Say in the near future. It basically means instead of being a leech in the literary world (for example, trying to get published in journals you’ve never read) you attempt to at least become one of those sucker fish that occasionally eat some dirt off the shark (subscribe to a journal, write a note to an author, start an awesome podcast where you mention books you’ve read and enjoyed, etc.). A writing group is LitCit on a local level, and it’s just as symbiotic. You encourage and guide others in their writing, and even on nights when your work isn’t discussed, you walk out of the coffee shop wanting to write. Continue reading

What is Literary Citizenship?

The three of us had a lot of reasons for starting this podcast, but one of those reasons, I think, had something to do with “literary citizenship,” which is a fancy term for the way in which you participate in the community of writers.

I first heard the term from Cathy Day, who has a lovely set of guidelines for being a good literary citizen here. She’s even teaching an undergraduate course on the topic and has aggregated what other writers have had to say. For instance, Matt Bell, Anna Leahy, and Blake Butler.

The general theme is that a thriving community — comprised of writers, editors, professors, literary journals, bookstores, bloggers, general readers, and more — exists out there, and this community is a writer’s support network. And as in any community, you can be a good citizen or a bad citizen.

Why be a good literary citizen?

Sure, there are writers who succeed as lone wolfs. Thomas Pynchon is the obvious example, or maybe the late William Gay, or Cormac McCarthy before he went Hollywood. But most of us are not these lone geniuses. Continue reading