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.

The Commodity of Others’ Lives

November 11, 2015 § 7 Comments

51KdglJZ7CL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_Short nonfiction storytelling–often photo-driven, largely consumed on social media and at events staged in bars–is enjoying a vogue. Which personally, I like. The Moth is one of my favorite venues, I enjoy Jeff Sharlet’s micro-essays on Instagram and post my own.

But as a “storyteller,” am I ducking my responsibility to the people who figure in my work? Am I appropriating their stories? Is mine the best point of view to deliver their experience?

In The New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham reviews Humans of New York–first a series of Facebook posts, now a book. Author/photographer Brandon Stanton has compiled his work and published with St. Martins, even as he moves into new Humans territory in Iran, India and Pakistan.

Cunningham doesn’t like it. He compares the work (unfavorably) to the social justice journalism of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, James Agee and Walker Evans, and Jacob Riis. He posits:

The quick and cavalier consumption of others has something to do with Facebook, Humans of New York’s native and most comfortable medium. The humans in Stanton’s photos—just like the most photogenic and happy-seeming and apparently knowable humans in your timeline—are well and softly lit, almost laminated; the city recedes behind them in a still-recognizable blur. We understand each entry as something snatched from right here, from someplace culturally adjacent, if not identical, to the watcher’s world; there’s a sense (and, given Stanton’s apparent tirelessness, a corresponding reality) that this could just as easily be you, today, beaming out from the open windowpane of someone else’s news feed. Any ambiguity or intrigue to be found in a HONY photo is chased out into the open, and, ultimately, annihilated by Stanton’s captions, and by the satisfaction that he seems to want his followers to feel.

But maybe it’s OK to want the reader/viewer to feel kinship, immediacy, identification. Maybe satisfying stories have their own charm. Our editor here at Brevity, Dinty W. Moore, advocates that a piece is by definition not ‘nonfiction’ if you make stuff up, change the timeline, or condense characters. I’d add that it’s very possible, through selective leaving-out and keeping-in, to form a messy, chaotic, even improbable story into a tight bundle of nuance, character growth, temporal journey, and yes, satisfaction.

Check out Cunningham’s review and tell us what you think.

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Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

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