Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, November 5, 2010

What's in the Pile by YOUR Bed?

I was on the phone with my editor at Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, yesterday, bemoaning the current state of non-reviewing of most literary fiction (how we writers love to bemoan), and he said a bunch of things that left me thinking. For one, he referred me to Geoffrey Fowler and Jeffrey Trachtenberg's June 3 Wall Street Journal article, "'Vanity' Press Goes Digital," about the exploding world of digital self-publishing. This was in response to my complaint that increasingly, people I encounter see little to no difference between self-published work and books that have been vetted by publishers. So of course first thing this morning I shared that article with members of my writing group (the next best thing to bemoaning to/with their editors, for writers, is sharing their misery with other writers).

What really kills me is the fact that these self-publishing outfits are referring to themselves as "independent publishers"--which, to my mind, is a term that was already in use and not available for them to co-opt in this way, a term that means "small presses" (like my publisher, Unbridled Books). Calling self-publishing ventures "independent publishers" is kind of like calling Fox News, well, "news."

(Footnote here: My daughter is pushing me to put a new bumper sticker on my car that came in the mail a few days ago; it says "Turn off Fox: Bad News for America." She has some sense of how much we detest Fox News in this house, but apparently that's not why she wants me to put this on my car. "I just like bumper stickers," she told me.)

And a second thing Fred said to me yesterday: With the loss of so many reviewing venues, it's getting harder and harder for people to find out about literary novels that they might like to read. All that's left, really, as a widely-circulated and widely-read resource, is the New York Times Book Review--and I swear it's not just sour grapes when I say that more and more frequently, these days, I find myself scanning the contents of the Times Book Review, sighing, and putting it aside. (That said, though, I do plan to read Susan Straight's Take One Candle Light a Room, reviewed this past Sunday, and Sigrid Nunez's Salvation City, reviewed a few weeks ago.) It's not that I'm not interested in the books that are reviewed in the Times Book Review; it's just that, in most cases, I've already heard about them. Most people have.

More than ever, at a time like this, we writers are beholden to independent booksellers--those people who get the word out about our books far more effectively, really, than reviews do. But of course we all know what these folks are up against now, speaking of the digital world.

I also think that writers need to do their part, to talk up the work of other writers--particularly those who might not be getting a lot of attention in the mainstream press--at every opportunity. This means going into readings, signings, panel discussions, classrooms, etc. prepared to talk about what we're reading, or hoping to read. And I'll admit I haven't always done a good job of this. I just had one of those deer-in-the-headlights moments recently, at the Women's National Book Association panel discussion I participated in, along with Shireen Dodson and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC on October 25. When the inevitable question from the audience came ("What are you all reading now?"), I stumbled for a moment, then answered, honestly, "My co-panelists' books." (This really was true; I'd brought them with me on the train from Philadelphia to Washington so that I could finish them.)

It's funny, and a little disturbing to me, how frequently I seem to be caught off guard, completely unprepared for that question ("What are you reading?" "Who do you recommend?"). I get asked this constantly, at nearly every event, as I imagine most other writers will also say that they do. Why don't I go with a list?

Of course, the truth is, I'm often so bogged down in work for my classes that the most honest answer to the question of what I'm reading at that moment would be something like: "Well, I have about forty reading responses, ten poems, an essay, and six or seven short stories by my students in my bag right now; that's what I'll be turning to when I leave here. Then I'll need to look over the reading I've assigned before my next classes. After I've done that, when I climb into bed, I will open a book from the absurdly tall stack by my bed. But I probably won't get too far before I fall asleep."

I'm not, by nature, a terribly cheerful or optimistic person--as any of you who've read other blog posts by me may have noticed. But I am ridiculously optimistic about acquiring books, constantly. And the truth is, I will, eventually, read most, if not all, of those books in a pile by my bed (and on my desk, and next to my desk, and on the chair behind my desk).

In a follow-up post, I'll list the books in those piles--and also a few more that I'm planning to add to the piles soon. And then I'll print out that list, and I'll carry it with me to every reading or speaking gig I go to. I'll be ready for that question, and I'll be happy for a chance to plug my fellow writers' work.


  1. 'Calling self-publishing ventures "independent publishers" is kind of like calling Fox News, well, "news." ' -- biggest laugh of my week! Thanks, Joyce.


  2. "I'm not, by nature, a terribly cheerful or optimistic person" -- Aw c'mon, Joyce, I know that's not true. OK, not so sure about the "optimistic" part, but I've always known you to be pretty cheerful, despite your pessimism... :)

  3. Awww. I missed these sweet comments back on my birthday. If you check back again--thanks for writing, Jerry.