We, as an industry, have our share of the blame in all this. We publish too many books. We publish too many insignificant books. As a result it becomes very difficult for an important book, one that can be enjoyed and talked about by people from many walks of life, to make its way amid the dreck to readers.
This will sound like a cop-out—we haven’t really initiated or engaged in any specific outreach programs—but I think our publishing program itself, and the readership it targets, are both conceived partially as a response to this crisis in critical literacy.
I also agree that online journals, book sites, and the like can be a bit of an echo chamber and perhaps broadcast to a narrow audience. This is partly the reason FWR founded an annual daylong literary symposium in Ann Arbor, free and open to the public, called the State of the Book, and why we now are one of the sponsors for the Voices of the Middle West festival each spring—a similar event that tries to nurture a broader conversation about books in collaboration with the university and some local community organizations. We especially try to reach out to younger readers and college students through these various channels. I’m curious to hear from others about similar programs that you’ve found equally beneficial on this front, or initiatives that might be adopted elsewhere, whether they’re projects of your own or others. And, of course, those engines—whether online or on the ground—that are helping foster the most productive conversations.
Schoolman: I love the long-form critical essay, in which the lines between writer, reader, and critic blur, where there is room to explore the inner world of a book and its cultural context, where there is room for the critic-writer’s own ideas to emerge and breathe. There are still places where this is possible: the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Threepenny Review, Guernica, Asymptote, Music & Literature, the White Review, the Quarterly Conversation.
I agree with Michael that the best, most far-reaching conversations about books can happen in a local bar—the relationship between the overworked editor and the local bar is of course another question to explore—where people can express themselves without a lot of literary jargon. Archipelago has an ongoing relationship with a fantastic organization based in Staten Island, New York, called OutLOUD. It does an inspiring job of bringing people of all ages together from various walks of life to read and think about books and art. The conversations about our books and the worlds each has emerged from are always alive and move in surprising directions.
I’m intrigued by Michael’s comment about writers not necessarily counting as readers. Are you saying that they read in a different way? That reading is perhaps more essential to them than to other people? Or...?
Reynolds: Sorry, Jill. My comment about writers/readers wasn’t clear at all. I just meant that I am often surprised at how writers or those who have aspirations to be writers are not careful, prolific readers and converse about books in too businesslike a way, if at all. In addition, a high number of visitors to FWR and other similar venues may not be an indication of a largish public engaging in meaningful discussion about books and their place in the culture and society because many of those visitors may be aspiring writers engaging in the conversation in order to advance their careers rather than to pursue a genuine, disinterested engagement with the literary and artistic questions being raised. I’m not necessarily against writers advancing their careers! But this is not the kind of critical literacy, nor the kind of disinterested dialogue, I was talking about in my original comment.
Post: All the places Jill mentions are ones I would think to recommend as well. Drawing on Michael’s response, though, I do think there is a difference between the audiences reading the White Review or Quarterly Conversation—mostly people looking for high-minded discussion of capital-L Literature—and casual readers discussing books in a bar. To create and sustain a vibrant book culture we need to have outlets from both ends of the spectrum—along with Twitter conversations that range in quality from witty banter to knee-jerk reactions to measured comments [from] book clubs and mainstream reviews—since there’s no single way people can, or should, be interacting with and talking about books. Although what’s most important, in my opinion, is getting people who aren’t writers or publishing people talking about books. That’s what we exist for, right?
When I worked in independent bookstores, the sort of conversation Michael and I are pining for seemed to happen on a regular basis, both among booksellers and with customers. It probably still does, but there’s no bookstore in Rochester where this experience could possibly take place—something that’s likely the case in a lot of other midsize cities. My local bar, NOX, is actually book-themed, so it could be a bar where books are discussed. I would very much like that.
Reynolds: The conclusion to this whole conversation: books and booze, together forever!
Epler: That sort of sounds like a wrap. Or last call? Just a final note so I don’t feel like a liar: I hands-down agree with talking up books anywhere and everywhere—which is why we have canaries here tweeting away, though I don’t know what they might be twittering—and we love any book talk from the highbrow journals to suburban book clubs to bar chats, but I do have to say—just to be honest—that New Directions just doesn’t do the sort of outreach that’s been mentioned, and much admired by me, such as Jill’s OutLOUD efforts and FWR’s engagement with local community organizations. We donate books to prisons and to some libraries, and give time to PEN and whatnot, but really we’re not that socially conscious. Maybe the old dog can learn new tricks, but that’s the truth these days. Now, back to the bar!
Evans: Practically, I’d love to see an organized effort in MFA programs and colleges to encourage the next generation who want to get into publishing to pursue some of the areas behind the scenes. If every person who starts a new literary journal in the next year would instead focus on hosting a book club at a local bookstore—or bar!—we’d be a healthier community. Or tackle the problems in literary magazine distribution. Or work at nonprofit fund-raising and/or lobbying for literary nonprofits. These are not as sexy as being an editor—although I assume my fellow panelists will agree that there’s very little that’s sexy about actually being an editor—but the same attention in the MFA programs to the real health of publishing as to pedagogy could do a lot for the industry.
I apologize for ending on a down note, but a certain amount of the reading audience is just gone—there’s simply other media that appeals more to a lot of the broader audience. But we’ve hopefully learned, after the rise and leveling of the e-book panic, that there continues to be an audience, and a sizable one, for literary books. But we need to rebuild the base of our industry and foster not readers necessarily, but rather those who will get the books into the readers’ hands. More book clubs. More diversity. More lobbying. More education nonprofits. More pop-up bookstores. More ideas and risks and people to start the casual conversations in the bar that end deep at last call.
Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is also the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.