Who Do We Read?

February 8, 2016 § 5 Comments


4-algonquin-frank-case-dorothy-parker_650Many new writers worry that the literary world is closed. A hotbed of nepotism, mutual back-scratching, and willful avoidance of anything or anyone from over the transom. And in a way it is–no matter what our level, whether our work is in the local coffee-house’s literary journal or a respected national publication, writers read our friends, we read the people our friends told us to read, we read people with whom we have something in common, and then–if there’s time–we read everyone else.

This can be deeply frustrating when a writer is starting out. Over at LitHub, Jeff Sharlet writes an open letter to a stranger convinced his work is being overlooked, about the priorities Sharlet sets when deciding how to fill his limited reading time:

You seem indignant that I’ve not read your work; you don’t mention whether or not you’ve read mine; and you can’t imagine that there might be work by those besides you—besides me!—worth reading.

For instance, work by young writers, students, for whom I’m often the only reader. You could say, “Sure, but those kids are privileged, they can afford college.” Fair enough. But reading their work is the job that allows me to afford groceries. It has the added benefit of being deeply pleasurable, in part because so few students presume their own genius. They tend to be grateful for a single reader, even one who’s slow, sometimes, because he procrastinates by answering crank emails from strangers.

Another category of writer worth reading: Friends. “Oh, great,” you might say, “a chummy clique of established writers.” That’s true. But then, there’s the fact that we weren’t always “established,” and the reality that for all but the most famous or most self-satisfied writers, being “established”—published and sometimes paid—doesn’t mean you don’t depend on friends to ping back like sonar when you drop some new work into the abyss of public words.

Here’s what I’ve read since you first wrote to me instead of clicking on your link:

Sharlet discusses the circumstances that create communities of mutual readers, and how literary citizenship arises inextricably from personal connection–but also, how that “personal” connection isn’t something that springs fully-formed, how personal connection and literary “friends” are cultivated and maintained, largely through mutual interest in each others’ words and subject matter.

Are you reading your friends’ work? Are you reading the places you want to be published, and having small interactions in person or in email or on social media? Are you looking for places to meet other writers online or in person, in workshops, classes, forums and interest groups? Are you reading widely in the subjects or genres you care about most, and letting those authors know you exist and you appreciate their work? Those are the first steps. And what we’re all heading for is not tumbling down the walls of the literary Jericho we stand outside in supplication, but creating a new world of our own. One holding the citizens we most admire, encompassing the writers who came up with us and ourselves.

Read Jeff Sharlet’s When a Self-Declared Genius Asks You to Read His Masterpiece: In a Letter to a Total Stranger, Why I Read What I Read, at LitHub.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her literary community is largely former classmates, fellow workshop attendees, and writers she knows from a LiveJournal community.

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