| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life I Found My Literary Community by Writing Book Reviews
My goal wasn’t to become a career critic, but to get the word out about books I felt deserved the attention.
In 2015, I was promoted to professor at my university after publishing my second story collection, but what should have felt like a career pinnacle barely registered as such. I had four dead novels in a drawer, and as one colleague put it, was “still sitting at the kids’ table” because I’d only published short fiction. Moreover, these novels weren’t first drafts I’d given up on, but ones I had revised for years with my then-agent, three of which she’d sent out to publishers. It wasn’t that I’d abandoned them—it was that no one wanted them.
And yet, despite my deep ambivalence toward writing and my overwhelming feelings of failure, I was working on a fifth. Even though the process had lost all charm, a part of me still really, really wanted to write a novel. I’d completed a first draft when the letter arrived from the university president announcing my promotion. At that point, I decided to take a step back and really ask myself: what do you want to do next?
The answer: anything but write fiction. So I did what felt like a radical thing and decided to quit writing for a year.
Given how burned out and beat down I felt from those first four novels and the draft of the fifth, I knew this phase was going to last a spell, but I wasn’t going to force it. I thought about writing nonfiction or even flash fiction, but too many building blocks were the same—character, setting, point of view—and I knew they would just lead to the same kind of self-flagellation. What did I really want to do? If I could take those hours and apply them somewhere else, where would it be? I considered how I liked to spend my free time, and the answer was so obvious I was surprised it took me so long to get there—I wanted to read.
This also seemed like a radical idea, in a way. Rather than struggling to produce my own stuff, I could just fangirl over everyone else’s. But could I really be a writing teacher that didn’t write? I wanted a way to still feel like part of the literary community, as well as to set a good example for my students about staying engaged. There was a genre, I realized, that would help me do that while also avoiding problems of plot and character: the book review.
Since I’d just been promoted, I had some breathing room to refocus my attention without worrying about the next scrabble up the academic ladder. Reviews weren’t considered scholarship in my department, but even that had its upside, as there would be no pressure attached to publishing them.
Once I’d decided to write reviews, I tried to figure out exactly what kind of books I wanted to read. My first two books were story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press, and despite my colleague’s comment, I did not think short stories meant one was “sitting at the kids’ table.” I wanted to concentrate on reviewing short-story collections because those often fly under the radar, and I wanted to focus on smaller presses since they needed the publicity more than large houses. I generally gravitate toward reading women writers, and I also wanted to help promote the work of BIPOC writers.
That year transformed my approach to reading.
I only wanted to write positive reviews. They could be critical—positive doesn’t have to mean Pollyanna—but I didn’t want to spend my time, or the space in a review, discussing something I didn’t love. I am also a conflict-averse person, and since this was related to my gig as a fiction writer, I didn’t want to piss anyone off. My goal wasn’t to become a career critic, but to get the word out about books I felt deserved the attention.
That year transformed my approach to reading. Previously, I’d found myself reading just to teach stories or take them apart, or, god help me, find their flaws. Like writing fiction, reading had become another way for me to compare myself to others and come up lacking. But now, I wasn’t tying reading to teaching or to my own writing, but doing so just to see the value of the work. I read weird stories and flash fiction and dystopian stories and happy ones. I read surprise endings and ones that made me cry. I laughed a lot, usually spontaneously, and I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what made these stories tick, only I was coming at it from a place of support rather than competition. I paid attention to language, looking for the perfect quote that would encapsulate a character or the tone of the book. I talked about what I was reading to anyone who would listen. At some point, I realized that what I was experiencing was excitement and—as corny as it sounds—joy.
The reviews themselves took me a long time. I read every book twice and took copious notes as I went, often diving into the author’s previous works to get a sense of how they’d grown. I aimed for a standard length of 800-1000 words, but often wrote way over and had to trim back. I sent them to journals that felt low-stakes—again, I didn’t want this to feel pressured in any way—and when the reviews were accepted, it was almost as exciting as having my fiction published. Almost.
When my year of not-writing-fiction was up, I returned to the novel I’d been struggling with and found more there to like than I thought I would. Part of this shift was because I was reading with a kinder eye and with that elusive emotion of joy, looking for the positive rather than the negative. It would take three more years to get the novel in shape, but after spending so much time immersed in language and structures very different from my own, the manuscript felt malleable somehow—something I could improve on rather than a set failure.
Each year, I continued to publish reviews, and eventually branched out to publish in more venues. I grew more confident in what I had to say about these works, and also more confident about my own. At this point, I’ve reviewed novels and memoir and essay collections, and authors such as Sara Majka, Collette Sartor, Nicolette Polek, and Ron A. Austin—all talented writers who deserve bigger audiences.
Eventually I invited some of these writers to visit my classroom and give readings, offering them a small stipend and a bed in my guest room. They went out for breakfast with students who were excited to talk to Real Writers and helped me demonstrate to my class the life cycle of a literary community. I felt like I’d made real connections with writers I admired, but without the dreaded feeling of networking, which had always felt unnatural to me.
Reviewing books has even transformed the way I taught. Inspired by the writer Cathy Day, I started assigning a literary citizenship log where students earned points for writing fan letters to authors, talking about books on social media, attending events, or writing reviews on Goodreads and other sites. Eventually, I started assigning them to write book reviews, which were a great gateway assignment to publication.
When that fifth novel I troubled over finally came together and eventually became the book Deer Season, I resolved to get out of my own Midwestern way and ask some of the friends I’d made through reviewing for support. And you know what? They were thrilled for me. They wrote blurbs, they interviewed me, they invited me onto their podcasts, they told their friends, and, yes, some of them even reviewed my novel. I hadn’t gotten into book reviewing at all to benefit myself or my own writing—if anything it was to get away from thinking about them—yet the benefit showed up all the same.
The funny part is, since I’ve been reviewing books and have opened myself up to reading more widely, I’ve found myself in the most prolific stage of my career so far. Deer Season just came out with the University of Nebraska Press, and Blackout, my next novel, will be out in 2022 with Thomas & Mercer. I’ve started writing for Publishers Weekly and I’m averaging a book review every two weeks. With every new writing and reading project, I ask myself, am I interested in this? Does this make me happy? Do I want to spend my time here?
I can trace so much of this new approach back to book reviewing and how it opened my eyes and my literary community. If you’re feeling the burnout with your own work, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break and turn your attention to someone else’s. Ask yourself how you really want to spend your time. My worst fear was that I’d decide I never wanted to write again, but by facing that fear and giving myself time to explore it, the exact opposite happened.