Writing a blog is a lot like shouting through a crack in the door. Could be the door leads to an empty janitor’s closet. Could be it leads to a giant ballroom, with row after row of chairs occupied by people who can’t wait to hear what I have to say. I hold my mouth to the door the same either way, and there’s always a hope that someone, or maybe lots of someones, will receive me.
So it’s really gratifying when a friend writes with a follow-up question to a post. That happened to me recently, after a post on literary citizenship and litmag editing.
That friend, Ryan, asked this: “How does someone like me, a one-time MFA-type who no longer participates in the community, but who reads a lot, wants to keep up with good work and good writers, but doesn’t have a lot of money to throw around, participate as part of this kind of community? I guess at this point I am just a would-be reader who no longer keeps up with the field. How do I work my way back in as a smart reader of contemporary work?”
I was interested to see that Ryan wanted to work his way back as a reader instead of a writer. It makes sense; the way back to writing is, of course, to write; you don’t need to consult a blog-ologist to figure that one out. But outside of a community, it can be very hard to figure out whom to read. I think we’ve all had that professor who somehow got mired in the two-year period of her MFA and continues to teach the hottest pen in 1987, three decades later.
It’s a lot like the music world. We pay close attention to musical artists in our youth, when life is mostly about cruising and dancing and sharing music with friends. But there’s a reason I still listen to REM and the Indigo Girls. Since approximately 1990, I haven’t really had the time, energy, or deep desire to figure out who was putting out good new music.
Likewise, I still rock Flock of Seagulls hair and frosty pastel eye shadow. And only a general lack of acid-wash—along with fervent objections of loved ones—keeps me from wearing acid-wash.
There’s a way back for Ryan, though, and for anyone who is interested in becoming better versed in contemporary writing. It has to do with using editorial taste and perspective to our own private benefit.
Here’s how I’d go about it, Ryan:
- First, pick up the latest copy of a major prize anthology containing the genre that interests you. It could be one from the Best American series—The Best American Poetry, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, etc.—or it could be the Pushcart anthology, the O. Henry anthology, or The Best American Non-Required Reading. There are also lots of irregularly published anthologies of contemporary writing, and these come from various presses and embrace different purposes.
- Next, read the anthologies, of course. They don’t do much good just lined up on the shelf.
- Does a writer speak to you? Is the work particularly good, or is it especially relevant to your own thinking and writing at the moment? Make a note of the name. That’s a writer to read.
- Look at the credits for the work you admired. Where did it originally appear? You can purchase a copy of that litmag and see who else the editors chose to print. Chances are, there will be a lot of overlap in the editors’ aesthetics, so maybe you can add some other authors to you reading list.
- Look at the bios of your favorite writers in the anthology. Where did they publish? Pay close attention to those journals that appear in multiple bios. If three of the writers you like were in a certain journal, you should probably get your hands on that journal.
- The anthologies direct you to specific writers, who generally have collections you can study further. Look at the acknowledgements page. Who does the writer thank? Where did the writer study? Is there any other information that can point you to other names to follow?
- By this point, you’ve got an excellent sense of the writers you like, and a combination of bios and acknowledgements pages has pointed you toward others like them, almost like a game of crack the whip. Some of the work you encounter in this way will be promising and some will be off track. You’re doing better, though, than you would be doing on your own.
- Pay attention to the large, prestigious magazines—The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, The Nation. If you like what you see there, you’ll have an easy way to keep up with important new names. There’s a good chance you won’t like that work, though, if your tastes are unconventional or experimental. At least you’ll know who editors find significant, though, and that helps to make sure you’re well versed in the largest names.
- I’ve enjoyed reading collections by major prize-winners in the past. There was a year when I decided to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in poetry, and then I started to do the same with National Book Awards. Winners and finalists from each year make a nice reading list, and those books are never too hard to find.
- Locate groups, live or via social media, that enjoy talking about new writing. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town with a killer independent bookstore, you can find knowledgeable readers there, generally working behind the counter and eager to tell you what’s hot.
While these tips will help anyone to stay current with contemporary writing, I still think there is great value in reading, period—great literature endures, and we don’t need to always be tracking down hot new writers.
When I was a kid, my father liked to say that anything we read is, on some level, good for us. He believed it held true for everything from cereal boxes to dirty magazines to Dr. Seuss. I know because I asked him. And he was a wise man, and right about so many things—this included.
Anything you read is to the good. But exciting new writing is out there and not hard to find.