|A Moment of Jen|
posted by Jen at 6/04/2012 03:58:00 PM
MY BOOK EXPO AMERICA BLOGGER CONVENTION KEYNOTE ADDRESS
Let me start by saying that I know I’m kind of an odd choice to give this presentation.
While I’ve been happily published by Atria Books for twelve years and ten books, I’m not a publisher…although I’m happy to share whatever insights I can give you about that part of the world.
While I’ve been blogging since 2002, I’m not exactly a book blogger the way most of you are. My blog is as likely to talk about “The Bachelor” as it is the latest publishing news.
So…why me? Who am I, and why am I here?
I think what I bring to the table is my own success in the world social media. I think – I hope – that I’ve figured out a way to use my blog, and Facebook, and Twitter and Pinterest to have an ongoing conversation with my readers, not deliver a “buy my book” monologue.
When I sold my first book in 2000, there was no such thing as social media. Stephen King’s e-novella RIDING THE BULLET, which I remember downloading for 99 cents and reading on my desktop at work, was presumed to be future of e-books….and there were only the most primitive e-readers available.
Websites, weblogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kindles, Nooks and iPads…all of these have emerged in the last decade, and publishers, authors and readers have all been scrambling to figure out how to use these new technologies to connect books with readers.
Let’s start with the good news: there has never been a more exciting time to be part of the conversation about books and reading than right now.
Once upon a time, when I was a young reader, there was no conversation at all. There was instead a series of occasionally overlapping monologues, with critics, authors and readers, each in their separate spheres.
The critics would issue their edicts from on high.
The readers would discuss them, in real life and usually in private.
(That’s my mom’s book club, by the way. Notice what book they're NOT reading.
True story – when my first book was published, I took my mom with me on part of my book tour. I’d be in the store, introducing myself to the manager and the sales staff, signing stock, being friendly, doing my thing, and I’d hear my mother talking to other bookstore patrons. “I just read the best book!” she’d gush…and I’d smile, proudly. “It had everything – amazing writing, great plot, and it was funny.” Here it comes, I would think…and I’d turn around just in time to hear my mother say, “Richard Russo! Empire Falls! Hang on, I’ll help you find it!” I finally had to tell my mother that, unless she discovered that Mrs. Russo was up in Maine, pimping GOOD IN BED, she had to at least try to hand-sell one copy of my book for every one of his).
So: critics talked to readers. Readers talked to each other. And authors – well, authors were largely silent and voiceless between books. Presumably, they were holed up in their garrets or their New Hampshire compounds, working on their next opus.
Aside from a letter to the editor, a book tour or reading, visit a book club, or, if you were Norman Mailer or Richard Ford, spitting on a critic at a party, authors really didn’t have an avenue for responding to criticism or interacting with readers. If an author had something to say, she said it in her next book.
We had three separate spheres – critics, authors, and readers. All of them were talking. None of them could talk to each other.
And then along came the Internet.
Suddenly, readers could talk to authors.
Authors could talk to critics.
Authors could talk to other authors.
The critical landscape had been looking bleak. Now, that landscape has been revitalized. Now, anyone with a laptop and an opinion can call him or herself a critic, and publish a review on the book of the moment, or the book of twenty years ago, and talk, online, to other readers and maybe even critics and the author herself, about her opinion.
The world has opened up.
While the world was expanding, so was readers’ access to authors’ lives. No more was our knowledge of our favorite writer confined to what we could glean from the book jacket. Now, we can go to their websites (because, of course, their publishers insisted they had websites, not to mention Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts) and see pictures of their houses or their spouses; their vacation or their kids.
Readers can email them our thoughts on their latest book. We can Tweet at Judy Blume.
Just…let’s just all sit with that a minute. We can tweet at Judy Blume. And sometimes, she tweets back!
Of course, this brave new world of overlapping conversation and unprecedented access was not without its complications and growing pains.
Consider the rise and fall of the women I consider to be the world’s first book blogger: Oprah Winfrey.
Yes, okay, technically Winfrey didn’t have a book blog – she had a televised book club, launched in 1996, and lasting until 2010.
But if Toni Morrison can call Bill Clinton the first black president, and Newsweek can call Barack Obama the first gay president, then I can call Oprah Winfrey the world’s first book blogger.
Even though Oprah did not, technically, begin with a blog, her televised book club had all of the hallmakrs that would come to characterize book blogs in the next decades: a fresh, enthusiastic voice, a tone that was worlds apart from the educated dispassion and cool remove of book critics, dispensing judgment from on high.
Oprah didn’t sound like a critic. She sounded like a friend, the woman next to you at the soccer game or the carpool lane who couldn’t wait to tell you about the amazing book she’d just discovered, and how much she loved it, and how much you were going to love it, too. She came at books as a reader….and the importance of that stance cannot be overstated.
Every book she picked became an instant bestseller, ensuring that every writer unlucky enough to publish during the Age of Oprah had to deal with well-meaning relatives who’d pull you into a corner and whisper, in the tones of having just received a revelation from on high, “Have you thought about sending it to Oprah?” Yes. Yes, Nanna. I thought about sending it to Oprah.)
Traditional critics weren’t happy watching a chat-show hostess most famous for her yo-yo dieting commanding an army of readers.
Oprah didn’t care. At least, she never responded publicly to those who told her she was doing reading wrong, that she was picking bad books, that she was trespassing on territory better left to the better-educated.
And then along came Jonathan Franzen, whose interaction with Oprah would demonstrate the perils of the interactive world, where readers and critics and authors can talk TO each other instead of about each other.
In September of 2001, Oprah picked Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS for her book club.
Franzen, a self-proclaimed writer in the high-literary tradition who took himself very, very seriously, went on a kind of foot-in-mouth cross-country tour.
While Franzen allowed that Oprah had “picked some good books,” he told an Oregon public radio station she’d also “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe.” Clumsily backpedaling in USA Today, he acknowledged that Oprah had done a lot of good, that she was a hero – “but not a hero of mine, per se.” (You sort of had to wonder where the publicist with the taser was).
Stung, Oprah rescinded her invitation, saying that Franzen was clearly uncomfortable about coming on her show, and that it was never her intention to make anyone uncomfortable…but it’s what happened to the book club in the wake of that kerfuffle that would foreshadow blogger/author/publisher interactions to come, and how they played out in public and in real time.
You know that old Eleanor Roosevelt chestnut about how no one can make you feel inferior without your consent?
It’s my belief that Oprah respected Jonathan Franzen – respected all writers – a lot. When he said, essentially, that her picks were unworthy, that cut deep.
Three books after FREEDOM, Oprah shuttered the club. When she started it up business again, she stuck to the classics…until her disastrous ’06 choice of James Frey.
After that egg-meet-face moment, where it was revealed that Frey's memoir was not what the kids call "true," and when Frey’s publisher, veteran Nan Talese proclaimed that readers didn’t deserve anything better than the appearance of truthiness, as opposed to actual truth, Oprah’s picks tapered off, becoming once or twice a year instead of monthly events.
In December of 2010, the club limped off into the sunset with the safest of safe choices – Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, which had the worst sales of any previous pick. Just lack week, she revived the club, delighting readers, and pissing off BEA keynote speakers who thought they were done with their speeches. Will book clubs bring viewers to her foundering network? Time will tell...but I'm happy for @cherylstrayed, who became the first living woman since Toni Morrison in 2002 who Oprah tapped.
By 2010, the book club had become irrelevant. Oprah had become just another critic, marching in lockstep with the Times and The New Yorker, playing it safe, adding a limp, belated “me, too,” when they heaped laurels on Cormac McCarthy or Jeffrey Eugenides.
If Oprah was one of the first book bloggers, than I was part of that first wave of novelists who used blogs to invite readers to step into our parlors, and our lives, to share intimate details of what went on behind the scenes and between the books. As an ex-newspaper reporter, the chance to talk to readers, to get my words out there, to say something in the yearlong silence between books was a thrilling opportunity.
I remember telling my publisher that I wanted a blog. Then I remember explaining what a blog was.
I launched my blog, then called SnarkSpot, in January of 2002, and, as bloggers did, I treated my life as material.
I wrote about my family,
and my dog,
and my seemingly-endless first pregnancy, about my Bradley-method birth classes, and bringing my mother on book tour, where we stayed in five-star hotels (my sister and I did Marlon Perkins, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom-inspired voiceovers as Fran wandered around the lobby, staring at people and sneaking free bottled water into her totebag: the animal, out of is normal habitat is clearly uncomfortable as it struggles to adjust to its strange new environment. Let’s watch, as it approaches the minibar). Followed by, "You girls stay away from that minibar! Do you know you can by a whole package of Oreos for $5? Goddamnit, Jenny, are you tweeting this?"
I put it all out there…
Some of what I wrote came from the bad place. Did the world really need a sentence-by-sentence, sometimes word-by-word deconstruction of Curtis Sittenfeld’s NewYork Times takedown of Melissa Bank’s new novel, which she slammed for being insufficiently serious chick lit?
Maybe not. (And Curtis and I are friends now -- so at least some part of this story has a happy ending).
But remember, this was the early days of blogging, the day when you could, indeed, dance like no one was watching…and, for me, knowing full well that books like mine, with naked legs and cheesecake on a pink cover were unlikely to be hailed as the successor to Salinger or Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, blogging was a chance to defend myself, and my genre…to be a voice that said that, in spite of the cutesy covers, in spite of the breezy tone and bad boyfriends and bosses, in spite of the critics' scorn and, eventually, an entire anthology called THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT challenging my genre’s worth
some of those books had something to say.
I’d found my voice…in my books and on my blog…and then along came the New York Times.
In 2005, I got a call asking if I’d be interviewed for a story about mothers who blogged. I said, “Sure!” (Note to future Times subjects: beware the reporter who begins his interview by stating, “My wife loves your books.” Translation: he wouldn’t deign to read them).
Some of you will probably remember the story. As it turns out, the Times was not so much a fan of quote-unquote mommyblogs.
The headline of the story was Mommy –parenthesis --- and me – and, in the first few paragraphs, the reporter observed that, more often than not, such sites are “shrines to parental self-absorption.”
Narcissistic self-absorption? Seriously? I didn’t even know I was writing a mommyblog! I thought I was writing a blog about being a mother who wrote! That I was being funny and informative and helpful, to the rest of the struggling new moms trying to balance work and family and the inevitable loss of identity that goes with being Woman Pushing Stroller – or, these days, Woman Wearing Sling. I thought I was helpful and amusing -- an Erma Bomback for the e-age!
But I was wrong. The New York Times said so.
Then, in the summer of 2005, just before the film version of “In Her Shoes” was coming out,
the paper sent a reporter to my house in Philadelphia to do a profile of me for the Sunday magazine.
I cannot tell you how excited I was – even though the reporter they sent was far better known for her hit pieces than her valentines. This meant that they thought I was interesting! Maybe it would be one of those great pieces that would make everyone who read it want to read my books! They like me! They really, really like me!
Long story short – not so much. The Times didn’t think I was interesting as much as a symptom of what it saw as literature’s wrong turn – a turn toward social media and public connection, as opposed to dignified silence.
I can only recall bits and pieces of my day in the reporter’s company – my subconscious has helpfully blocked out most of it – but there are things I do remember.
Like the reporter wandering through my bedroom, picking up a picture of my sister, considering it with a sneer, and saying, “She’s not THAT pretty. I actually thought it was you!” (For those of your unfamiliar with IN HER SHOES, it's the story of a hot sister -- based on my sister Molly, who actually, objectively is much better looking than I am, and her smart-but-frumpy big sister).
Or her asking, over lunch, “Do you write your blog so that people will LIKE you?” (And oh, if I’d just been the tiniest bit quicker, I would have said, “No, silly, that’s what the blow jobs are for!”)
Bottom line: as the day went on, and the reporter asked me 10 questions about my blog for every one about my books, I began to get the distinct feeling that this piece wasn’t going to resemble the paper’s 4,000-word mash note to Jonathan Safran Foer… that it was, instead, going to be something I regretted, possibly for the rest of my life.
When I told the reporter that we were done, that I wouldn’t sit for the scheduled portrait, and that there wasn’t going to be a story, she was furious, complaining bitterly about the time she’d quote “wasted” reading my books (which erased any doubts I had about the slant of her story).
Nobody can hurt your feeling unless you give them permission. I gave the Times permission.
And I should maybe give you a little back story about this portion of the speech, which involves my agent and some of my loved ones saying, ‘Maybe you could just say ‘a big Northeastern paper.’” Because, if you piss off the Times, maybe they’ll take it out on your next book.
I thought about it…and, then, I thought, well, what else can the paper do? What other painful, embarrassing thing can happen?
Have Henry Alford say something bitchy about me? Been there.
Quote Jonathan Galassi – Franzen’s editor – making fun of my made-up German? Done that.
Misrepresent my sales on its bestseller list?
Well, this week my current paperback, THEN CAME YOU, the number eight bestselling book on Bookscan, which is said to account for 70 to 80 percent of sales.
For the same time period, it’s number 22 on the Times list.
This has happened with every book since LITTLE EARTHQUAKES. My publisher will go to the Times and say, “we think Jen’s book should be higher, and here are our numbers to support our claims.” The Times will say, “we think Jen’s book is right where it should be, and we’re not showing you our numbers. They’re proprietary.”
There’s just nothing to be done…and I shouldn’t expect any better.
As anyone who’s taken a women’s studies class will tell you, as long as there’s a woman writing about her own life, there’s someone – sometimes a man, sometimes another woman -- to tell her that what she’s written is unworthy, unimportant, beneath notice, that it’s not real literature and not worth taking seriously.
In the wake of this kind of treatment, though, it’s hard not to lose your social media mojo…and, in 2006 until 2009, I went through kind of a dark night of my bloggy soul.
I was still very happy writing my novels. The Times was still very happy ignoring them, except when I’d be lucky enough to be mentioned in the springtime vagina round-up, where Janet Maslin admitted that “Ms. Weiner’s characters are warmly and realistically drawn” in an article headline “The Girls of Summer: Surveying This Season’s Chick Lit.”
Sure, literary writers like Jane Smiley were still stepping up to tell me they were unworthy, that I should be turning my skills toward more serious matters.
But I felt solid about my novels. I was an English major, with enough women’s studies in my background to know what any woman can expect when she unleashes her female-based fiction on the world…but, in terms of blogging, I was second and third-guessing everything I wrote, losing sleep, fretting endlessly. Is this an overshare? Is it too personal? Is it silly? Stupid? Disreputable?
Is the Times going to laugh at me again?
Worse, is a fellow female writer going to tell the world that I only care about the issue because it has an impact on my own sales and hurt writer-feelings...that I'm not trying to make things better for current and future female writers, just me, myself and I?
To quote Roxane Gay (before she went on to suggest just that), "Sometimes, it would be nice to be able to say, “There is a problem that demands attention,” without being shouted down, condescended to, derided or ignored."
But if people were saying that, I couldn't hear them.
I had lost my social-media mojo...until "The Bachelor," and my fellow writters helped me get it back.
I was a Twitter resister. I’d been pulled onto MySpace, I liked Facebook just fine…did I really need a new microblogging site, one more item on the daily to-do list?
As it turns out, I think that the novels are fine and that blogging was fun, but Twitter might have been the thing I was born for.
Twitter’s taught me discipline, the skill of being funny or poignant in a pithy 140 characters.
It’s let me connect with readers, in a more intimate way than I ever could before.
It’s let me meet other authors, and hang out with them around the virtual water cooler and talk shop. It’s given me people.
Twitter’s like being at the biggest, best cocktail party in the world, where I can talk about anything to almost anyone, – big books, reality TV, how I embarrassed myself if in front of Jeffrey Eugenides or how, when your three-year-old says she “just wants to hold” the bottle of sparkly red nail polish, she is totally, totally lying.
Best of all, it’s given me a place to light a candle, instead of cursing the darkness – a place where I can not only point out instances of sexism and discrimination in the publishing world, I can also do something about it, supporting other authors in ways that weren’t available when my first book was published…and it’s something, I think, that all bloggers can do to celebrate the things they love.
Case in point: I loved Sarah Pekkanen’s debut novel, THE OPPOSITE OF ME
…and I remember the women who gave me blurbs even though they had no connection through agent or editor or publisher…they just liked my book.
When GOOD IN BED was published, I swore then that I would never be a non-blurbing writer…that I would always help debut novelists, as a way of paying forward the generosity my peers had shown to me.
Social media gave me – gives all of us – a chance to do this.
Sarah smartly recognized the importance of pre-orders in getting her book on people’s radar. She organized a contest and lined up some prizes for people who ordered her book the Tuesday before publication. I decided that, for one day only, I would offer a copy of one of my books to everyone who ordered Sarah’s.
The response was more than I think any of us imagined. I tweeted up a storm, linking to Sarah’s first chapter, and where you could buy the book, eventually mailing out more than four hundred copies of my books. THE OPPOSITE OF ME cracked the online bestseller lists at B&N and Amazon.
Sarah's excellent debut novel got written up on a bunch of blogs and even newspapers that might have just dismissed her book as another piece of disposable chick lit.
…and my new path was clear.
I continued to do Q and A’s and interviews and giveaways with Emma Donoghue, whose book ROOM took the country by storm last year, and with Liz Moore, a fellow Philadelphian and a rising star in literary fiction, whose book HEFT, about lonely people and chosen families, broke my heart. I’ve been thrilled to help spread the word about writers from Buzz Bissinger to Jillian Medoff to Julie Buxbaum.
I am so pleased to be in a position where, instead of just complaining about the Times’ bias, I can actually do something about it -- that I can now be part of someone else’s magic, that I can be the one sprinkling the fairy dust.
If you’ve got a blog, you can it, too.
I’m not saying never write bad reviews, or that there’s no place in the world for some well-deserved snark. I’m not saying not to be honest…
But there’s something to be said for talking up the things you love instead of talking down the things you hate.
And so, in closing, Blogging Class of 2012,
I would tell you this:
No matter what you blog about, there’s going to be someone there to try to slap you down, to tell you it’s unworthy, undignified, silly and girlie.
In Oprah’s day, blogging existed as a corrective. It filled in the blanks that the mainsream critics ignored, considering the books and the genres that were beneath them, pointed out what the mainstream was covering badly, or missing entirely…and bloggers continue to serve this role, in different, sometimes dazzling ways.
Janice Harayda, aware that statistically women writers are underrepresented on review pages, pledged that 50 percent or more of her “One Minute Book Reviews” would go to women.
Carleen Brice launched “When White Readers meet Black Writers, a “sometimes serious, sometimes lighthearted plea for EVERYONE to give black authors a try.” (In a video, she demystified the choices, pointing out that the books are “made of paper….just like other books. It’s not too scary, is it?” she asked.
Twitter is a place where Jodi Picoult and I can tell the world that the New York Times doesn’t cover popular fiction by women with the same regularity or regard with which it considers popular books by men.
It’s where Slate’s website for women, Double X, can tweet the statistics that show that, indeed, women are less frequently reviewed….
It’s where any number of other tweeters can say that Jodi and I are just jealous, and that our books suck.
And the conversation rolls on…because, painful as it sometimes feels, social media is a conversation, and there’s always someone new to talk to, and something new to talk about.
As a writer, Twitter has been invaluable. It’s let me listen to my readers: why do your black people in your books have light eyes? When can we expect a gay character in one of your novels?
It’s let me ask for their help when deciding where to buy ads, or even which author photo to use.
My favorite example: in THE NEXT BEST THING, coming in July, one of the main characters uses a wheelchair. I found Priscilla Hedlin, who blogs as Wheelchair Mommy, on Twitter, and she was kind enough to take an early look and tell me what I got right and what I got wrong.
As bloggers, you can help authors just by being there – by tweeting a “reading your book right now,” by answering our questions, by covering the books and the genres that the mainstream ignores, or covering popular books in a way the mainstream can’t.
Anyone could review Chad Harbach or do a Q and A with Kate Christensen, but how many people would think to bake protein bars with Harbach, or ask Christensen for her playlist?
Where the mainstream zigs, bloggers zag. Where dead-tree people are stuck with the demands of the form –500 words with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down at the end, with attention paid to the big releases from the big houses – bloggers are limited by nothing but their own imagination.
Bloggers can be passionate where their print peers had to be objective. They could be silly, enthusiasts, cheerleaders who’d shout the good news from the mountaintop when they found a book they loved or axe men who’d gleefully eviscerate something they couldn’t stand…and it’s been a pleasure to watch that passion make its way to the mainstream, as the Venn diagrams’s circles continue to overlap to the point where they’ve almost melted into nonexistence, where writers who got their start on blogs now review for NPR, and mainstream critics like the Washington Post's Ron Charles do video reviews draped in breakfast meat.
I would encourage you to be as transparent as possible, to remember that some of those old dead-tree rules about conflict of interest and full disclosure where in place for a reason – to ensure that the reader was getting a review untainted by money or personal loyalties, or rivalries. If your blog or Twitter feed has a moneymaking component that’s not as obvious as an ad or a tip cup at the bottom of the page, spell it out, as clearly and visibly and as often as possible.
Know the rules: the FTC says that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Sticking an #ad or #promo hashtag at the end of a tweet isn’t sexy…but, if you’ve been paid to praise the book, it’s the law.
Speak in your own voice, with the courage of your convictions, about the books and authors and topics you love, no matter who tells you that you shouldn’t love them.
Dance like no one’s watching. Sing like no one can hear. Tweet like your mother’s not online.
Be brave, be smart, be creative, be kind, and, above all, be yourself…and I promise, the readers will find you.