It's fun to like things!
In which I discuss publicly liking things, book reviews, men talking, Taylor Swift as Books, #sundaysentence, and writing toward celebration.
There are lots, and I mean lots, of essays on the contemporary book review. You can read this one in N+1 which covers pay, the way book reviews are “auditions” for other jobs, and other problems: Twitter, New York, trustworthiness of blurb culture, and amount of work a reviewer puts in. The response to the N+1 “What’s the Matter with Book Reviews?” in LARB by Richard Joseph. And the response to that response (also in LARB) from Antonio J. Ferraro. You can read the always lovely and full of glee and revelry Christian Lorentzen in Gawker on negative reviews. Yair Rosenberg in The Atlantic talking about misreadings. And Jay A. Fernandez for Lit Hub about the pitfalls & mistakes of reviewing books. Chris Power in New Statesman asking what is even the point of a book review (particularly in the digital age). I could go on, but I’ll spare you and me.
[it all sounds like a lot of men talking, but okay, I'll take it seriously for a newsletter].
I also enjoyed Phillipa Chong’s interview with Scott Noyer in American Scholar about book review culture which takes into account the range of reviews (from reviews in Goodreads with relative anonymity to your aunt janice to The New Yorker).
I have two main arguments to make about book reviews. The first is very simple, it’s fun to like things & we should like them out loud. The second is also very simple but a little more complicated in the age of “reviews are for readers!” crowd: if you’re not participating in the literary community by saying what you like, or what you’re reading, or who you learned from, or what you’re inspired by—how can you ask others to partake in conversation about your work? It’s not as easy a through line of if you want book reviews, you should write book reviews, but you should be reading and talking about books.
Okay, argument one: it’s fun to like things and we can like things out loud. I know the algorithms point us more forcefully towards negative reviews or negative things in general—and while those can also be good from a publicity standpoint, re: if someone vehemently hates something, I might be curious to know if I agree (and it’s often how essays and tweets go viral, particularly if they have an argumentative or defensive stance) but it’s not my favorite. Unless something is hurting someone (or a group of people, like it’s offensive) or it’s a mass hit that won’t be even slightly affected by my disagreeability, I generally veer away from being negative about books on social platforms. I’ll tell my friends, I’ll go to the group chat, but I’m not telling a mass of strangers how much I dislike a work of art. It’s enough for me to say, “this or that one wasn’t for me.”
But it’s very fun to like things and side note, no one gets hurt. Even if you love something I don’t particularly like, I still enjoy seeing you like it. In fact, I like unabashed liking, I love fandoms, I like unironic heart eyes for tiny, niche and huge, superstar interests. I love this energy. (Strawberry lemonade at Red Robin is THE shit).
Recently, in my literary agent work, I got the opportunity to sign a writer I have loved for many years, Natalie Lima. Out loud, with fervent celebration, I have loved Natalie’s work. I have shared her essays with a few lines of my thoughts on Twitter. I attended the reading she puts on at AWP every year while in San Antonio. And while I had no intention of ever representing her when I was praising her work, I genuinely wanted the world to know that she’s one of the great essayists of my generation—a contemporary in the space where I work, and a writer who is just getting started— now, as luck would have it, she noticed that and we are working together.
While this is a more professional story of liking out loud, it works the same way for publicity. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I had a book blog where I (cringe) wrote book reviews.
In fact, the way I made connections in publishing at first was via my book blog. Publicists determined I was reliable to write reviews, and started sending me tons of books and swag. I once received a black bar of soap in a PR package for Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic. It lingered in our shower caddy ridges for way too long for me to admit here.
In fact, I got personal notes from publicists that I now know on the agenting side. So many of my conversations at the time were one-sided, but felt like I was communing with other writers. I read books I wasn’t ready for and I wrote about them for the internet (how embarrassing). These were books by writers I love today like Teju Cole & Lindsey Hunter. Looking at my downloaded blogging pages, I called Hunter “nasty” and Cole “preachy.” (Who did I think I was?) But at the time my world view was so narrow and I was hardly ever challenged. Reviews gave me an opportunity to write badly about good work, hone my own writing craft in a form with little pressure, and be in a strange form of communion with writers past and present.
Once I wrote a whole review of When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams and SHE WROTE ME BACK. I still have the printed copy of her comment. To this day, I will read anything she writes and support all of her work because when I was a “no one” and she was a “someone,” she let me know she saw me.
Today, perhaps, that level of mistake-making in my blog would be disparaged or I would be eaten alive on Twitter, and I get it, but writing my reviews into the vacuum of my blog, and later in the bookstagram bubble, made me ask new questions and ask in a way I hadn’t before. Suddenly my thoughts were a reflection of—not the work I was reviewing—but the questions I thought to ask about it, what the work provoked in me, about the world, about history and culture and past and present and future, what I concentrated on while reading, what I believed about the art and structure and movement and style of a text, and the most important for me, how books could broaden the boundaries of my small, picket-fenced world. I wasn’t writing for Harper’s, my blog was a low stakes place for me to interact with other readers and share a perspective, one perspective, on the art I was consuming. There aren’t a lot of places online anymore that are low stakes in this way, but also who says?
My years of writing book reviews helped me so much in workshop discussions of both books we read, and my peer’s work in draft stages. I truly think it made me more successful than I would have otherwise been during my MFA. Thinking about what I was reading enough to write cohesively about it taught me how to write.
But book reviews are more than an access point for personal growth (they don’t need to be, but they are). Book reviews are representative of a thriving literary ecosystem. Book reviews put folks in conversation who normally wouldn’t be. Book reviews remind us that we need each other. At a time when we’ve lost so many real-life connection points, book reviews build them.
Reaching out to your favorite writers, exclaiming that you love their work on social media, posting that cozy coffee Sunday morning bookstagram shot with a quote from their debut, writing about their work for your newsletter or blog—loving their work out loud finishes a cyclical relationship of art, and can create a reciprocal one.
The literary community is like any that depends on mutual support. There is no writer without readers and there are no readers without writers. Both must coexist and we are all definitely in a codependent relationship. I understand the argument behind not reading reviews, especially Goodreads which can be a truly vile place, but while we write books in (mostly) isolation, we publish books in conversation. We hope our work becomes a cultural talking point. We hope people buy our books off of their independent bookstore shelf. We want reviews, interviews, and gossip. Our goal is to write into our own little lonelinesses and then have our books enter a dialogue. How can we ask for that if we, ourselves, are not a part of the dialogue on the other side.
To like something, you don’t have to write an entire book review for it. Though you could, and here are some lists to help you get started with that: Trish Hopkinson, Poets & Writers database, and Alina Stefanescu’s list.
Roxane Gay is my favorite example of being a writer-reader. She writes so many reviews on Goodreads (and she’s honest!), and is incredibly supportive of writers at all stages in their careers. Not only is she always working on new essays, teaching, building imprints, but she’s offering her ladder to other writers so often, her landscape is like a game of chutes & ladders.
Writing short one-sentence reviews on Goodreads is so helpful to authors, but there are some engines of publicity that I think are great examples of liking things out loud that aren’t full-blown book reviews. For example, Amy Long’s Taylor Swift as Books on Instagram. #sundaysentence on Twitter, which the most lovely Maureen O’Leary always does and I like it every single Sunday. Candace Hartsuyker who always tweets quotes from her favorite stories for the week. Zeeshan Pathan who shares so much art to my Twitter feed. Leslie Pietrzyk posts Works-In-Progress where she interviews writers.
And that reciprocal relationship I mentioned earlier, it can serve you. When your work is published, perhaps the writer you once reviewed will celebrate you. When you need a blurb, perhaps they’ll remember your kindness towards them. When you need someone to be in conversation with at a bookstore, they’ll be happy to join you at their local establishment. Because they know you’ve not only spent time with their work, but you’ve been an advocate for that work out loud. Now they have no obligation to do any of these things, but the fact of the matter is that they could. I truly in my gut think that you’ll get back what you’re giving in this scenario.
The more you celebrate other people and their writing, the more you’ll build connections for your own celebration. I don’t mean to make this sound selfish as if you’re out celebrating others for your own gain, but I do believe it’s powerful to encourage and admire and praise work that moves us, and celebrating someone else’s achievements has never once steered me wrong. In fact, I would argue, I’m at my most miserable when I’m feeling competitive. Instead, use that feeling to fuel more joy.
It’s simple things like these that say “I liked this!” without having to give a lot of depth to the why. You can simply like & share.
post a photo of a poem from the collection you’re reading
post a highlighted passage from your current read
make a thread of all the books you read in a year
post a sentence about each book on Goodreads / Amazon / Storygraph / your library review space. I don’t believe in star ratings anymore, but if you do, post a star count.
share the work of writers in a magazine you want to be in
start a newsletter or a blog and talk about the books you’re reading
when you get a book in the mail, post how excited you are to read it
revel in book covers you think are beautiful
talk about how a book inspired your own writing
email a writer or their agent that you loved their work. I can tell you, without a smidgen of a doubt, anytime I get an email like this for a client, I immediately forward it. They may not be able to respond, but they appreciate it so much.
Whatever you want when your book comes out, you could (and I would argue should!) be doing for others.
In an effort to back up my argument, here’s what I really like right now:
Erin Langner’s forthcoming essay collection from Zone 3 Press, Souvenirs from Paradise which looks at grief through the lens of trips to Las Vegas. It’s fascinating and tender and because Langner has an MA in Museology, she studies Vegas like an art collector.
Cleaning out my books and finding old notes to myself (you should see Paint It Black by Janet Fitch, it was a favorite of mine for a long time. I’m scared to reread it because I loved it so much).
This children’s book: The Honeybee by Kristen Hall, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
I know, I know, some of us are afraid of saying the wrong thing online, of critiquing a work of art in the “wrong way.” You know what’s not a critique? Telling people what you love. Just because you tweet about a certain essay, book, or poem, doesn’t mean you’re cosigning everything in that book or you will die on the hill where that book is buried and growing flowers. We can hold differing opinions at once.
And by the way, we allow this for music. We all say “wow, I can’t believe that album had no skips.” We love musicians even if we don’t like every song on the album. Can’t we love books even if a particular scene isn’t working for us?
There is always going to be a reason to critique a book, something that was off-putting to you specifically, something you didn’t like stylistically, a turn in the plot you thought wasn’t needed, or something that just didn’t feel quite right in your gut for whatever reason, and that’s fine. You can still say, I genuinely enjoyed this read, or this genuinely taught me something and I want to tell people I liked this part [this line, this phrase, this metaphor, this dialogue, this way of saying or thinking or being, these glyph ornaments between sections, this cover, this idea or premise, this chapter title].
While we’re busy picking out everything we don’t like about something—have we spent enough time with what we love?
There are … three options for exercises this week. Your first is to publicly like something. Public can mean whatever it means to you. But I want to see books and work and art being liked in my feeds. I want to see small celebrations around a sentence.
And for extra points, you can reach out to a book reviews editor at your favorite magazine and pitch a book review. Everyone and anyone can review books—even if it’s just for the conversations we can have with ourselves about our ideas. At the most microbic levels, it will help us write, to think, to stew and ponder. One of my favorite publicity folks, Jennifer Huang, told me last week that they’re “working on bringing the pot to a boil” in their writing. Sometimes talking about the work we love either aloud in conversation or on paper, gives us a nudge towards al dente.
And for fun, since the title of this newsletter is F-U-N, you can imagine what you hope people will say about your own book. Write yourself a book review. If your book could be read perfectly (whatever that means to you), what do you want the reviewer to say?
Okay, you wrote a review.
Now, write towards that review when you get back to your pages. You said the style is _____, is it? You said readers would devour it, is the pacing … devourable? Write TOWARDS celebration.