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Wed July 6, 2011
How Far East, How Far West: A conversation with Jeremiah Chamberlin
Jeremiah Chamberlin wears many hats.
In addition to writing, Mr. Chamberlin also edits the website Fiction Writers Review and teaches at the University of Michigan, where he will be teaching a course on Midwestern fiction this fall.
Some of the work that may be included in the course (the syllabus is still developing) might include:
- Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (Ohio)
- Childhood and Other Neighborhoods by Stuart Dybek (Chicago)
- Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (Rockford, IL)
- The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway (Michigan)
- American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell (Michigan)
- Feast of Love by Charles Baxter (Ann Arbor, MI)
We spoke in the Michigan Radio studios about Amazon book reviews, promoting emerging writers, and the boundaries of the Midwest.
Brian Short: Jeremiah Chamberlain, thanks for coming in.
Jeremiah Chamberlin: Thanks for having me Brian.
BS: I was wondering if you would start by talking a little bit about Fiction Writers Review, which is a website with book reviews and interviews. I was wondering if you could just tell us what it is and what the idea behind it is.
JC: Fiction Writers Review is an online literary journal. We publish reviews of new fiction, interviews with authors. We publish essays on craft and the literary life and we have a daily blog. We’re almost three years old, about to celebrate our third year anniversary.
We were founded by several U of M students after they finished graduate school at the University of Michigan. Namely, Anne Stameshkin, who is our founding editor, and Marissa Perry, our web designer. While they were in graduate school they had a class with Eileen Pollack, who was our director of the MFA program at Michigan. During one of the discussions we were talking about how little actual reviewing is actually done of fiction these days.
Even in the New York Times Book Review and New York Review of Books, they’re predominantly focused on non-fiction. And they wanted to find a way to talk about fiction from a fiction writer’s point of view rather than from a critic’s point of view or from the point of view of someone who is mostly reviewing the book mostly based on genre. So if you like books about World War II love stories, this is one for you. We wanted to look at it from more of a writer’s point of view focusing on issues of craft and how it was written as much as what it’s written about.
Thumbs Up Thumbs Down
BS: How do you see that mission as different, in terms of having fiction writers looking at a book, how is that different than a critic viewing it?
JC: I think with the rise of Amazon.com and book blogs, specifically systems like Amazon where you have star ratings, or thumbs up thumbs down types of evaluation, criticism became very individualized and all opinions were equalized. I’m not saying that I’m against meritocracy in any way [laughs] but it became more about whether the reader of the book “liked” it or felt like they got their money’s worth rather than trying to come at the book for what the author was after.
One of the examples I like to cite is a review of the short story writer Holiday Reinhorn who wrote a collection called Big Cats. Big Cats had on its cover a picture of a leopard’s back. And to one particular Amazon.com reviewer who goes by the handle “shopaholic,” “shopaholic” bought the book thinking it was sort of a chick lit piece about Prada.
And so when she found that the stories were gritty, realistic pieces about Oregon, she felt very disappointed and wrote a blistering review of this book saying it was all about “loser-ish people,” and their problems and had nothing to do with shopping. Somehow, she had misinterpreted its cover. And so rather than taking a step back and realizing she had bought something she didn’t realize [wasn’t chick lit], she blamed the author for her disappointing purchase.
We see this on Facebook and everywhere, that it’s all about, do I like this, do I not like this. Even new search engines like Bing are adding a ‘like’ function so you can see, when you look for restaurants, whether your friends made similar searches.
Even on Kindle now, you can see which passage was underlined in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and by how many people. So as you’re reading, you’ll see, five thousand people have highlighted this line or passage. Which in one way is kind of interactive, and feels like a community reading endeavor. On the other hand, it feels like signposts for how one should read. We wanted to sort of move away from that.
The Joke About Waiting Tables
BS: What other portals do you see as serving similar filtering functions? Are there a lot of sites doing this for readers, in different ways, for different communities, different audiences?
JC: Our primary mission when we started was to promote and support the work of emerging writers. Whether that meant highlighting a debut novelist’s first book or first story collection, or whether that meant helping a young writer write their first book review with close editorial guidance, conduct their first author interview with close editorial suggestions, assistance with the editorial process afterwards. So if it was about an emerging writer’s work or the publication itself was by an emerging writer, all of those are working to support and promote emerging writers.
It’s the old joke about trying to get a job waiting tables. You can’t get hired if you don’t have experience. But how can you get experience if you can’t get hired, and it creates this catch-22. We wanted to break that cycle and create a bridge between the world of cold, lonely, writing in the dark by yourself and becoming a published author. Whether that bridge is from an MFA program into the professional writing world or from one’s own literary studio or as a second career.
So whether you bought the book or not shouldn’t matter. You should be able to walk away from a good book review and think, oh, I’m seeing fiction from a new angle, either as a reader or as a writer.
Only One or Two Shots
JC: As globalization takes place, we lose small venues. If you have one book buyer who handles all the fiction A-H at Borders and another book buyer who handles I-Z, if your last name is Chamberlain like mine is, you better hope the first guy likes your book because he’s the one who is deciding whether it goes in 2000 Borders around the country or not, and in what quantities, and any prominent placement.
Whereas with a more diffuse model, every buyer at every independent bookstore is assessing and independently making those choices. So if your book is picked up by one of those large distributors like Borders, like Barnes and Noble, some of the larger regional chains, that’s good for you because you’re guaranteed to be in all their stores. But if you don’t, then you wish the opposite model had been in place.
So I think what regional writers are probably battling most is simply a lack of opportunities. You have one or two shots with the big media outlets and either they review and pay attention to your book or they don’t. And that’s certainly something else we’re trying to do at Fiction Writers Review is, emerging writers, because they are emerging, very often those books are being published by independent presses which don’t get a lot of airtime in the national media because they’re not big New York houses.
I think it will probably become increasingly more difficult for a writer to break out, as it were.
On the other hand, you have some real benefits with social networking and social media. I think that the avalanche and snowball effect of Twitter, that that mode is growing exponentially. We sometimes have 100 or more followers added to our site a day. We have several thousand Twitter followers and, likewise, several thousand Facebook followers.
And I think the day of the author website is waning. But I think authors are using Facebook and other social media quite skillfully and targeting their audiences and helping to rally crowds at readings, getting their message out. But I think authors will, whether they like it or not, have to do more of this role.
I think the day of the author in his desk on in her garret creating the art and then the publisher being in charge of disseminating it to the public is kind of on the wane. Not all authors are interested in getting out on the road and promoting the book but I think it’s become an increasingly large part of their job, whether one likes that or not.
It's Not a Sack Race
BS: If writers aren’t simply concerned about writing, to what extent does what buyers want infiltrate into the creative process? Obviously this is something that every writer deals with in the dark of their own soul [laughs]. To what extent is it actually affecting what writers produce, or what writers are even trying to sell? Has that significantly changed? Is there a certain flattening effect when what we expect to be expected is what we try to produce?
JC: That’s a great question that I think a lot of us are grappling with. I’ll say three things about that.
First, I was at [the Associated Writing Programs conference] AWP in Washington, DC, in February. A young writer came up to me and immediately launched into all his statistics. It felt a little bit like a baseball player with his ERA and RBIs. And he told me he had X number of thousand followers on Facebook, and this many followers on Twitter and several other social media tools that I hadn’t even heard of.
And then he quipped, although I think quite seriously, you know, “Now all I need to do is write something.” [laughs] At first I thought he was joking. But from the look on his face I could tell he really wasn’t. He was so taken over by the idea that he had to build an audience that that became the primary function rather than the creation of the art itself.
So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, Mary Gaitskill visited our university in late March or early April, and we published a wonderful interview with her that Emily McLaughlin did for Fiction Writers Review, which I highly recommend, it’s a wonderful interview. Mary Gaitskill was a student at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, she won several Hopwood Awards.
While she was there recently someone asked her about the role of agents and editors. And she was very upset to hear that some agents now edit an author’s work. She believed that this was absolutely a crossed boundary and she very strenuously argued that the agent should sell and only sell your work. And that the moment the agent started suggesting changes they were clearly having the market and only the market in mind.
Now, as someone who knows a lot of agents and some agents who work in this fashion, I’m not entirely in agreement with Mary Gaitskill about that. I do see it as a danger. On the other hand, the sad fact is that editors are doing less editing in New York these days. And they often will not look at a book unless it’s ready to go.
It used to be that an editor would look for a diamond in the rough and say, well, I can work with this person, I can make this book shine, we can do X and Y, I see the vision for it. Now, if the vision isn’t there, ready to go and in place, they’ve got a hundred other choices to go with that are.
Editors have become increasingly more conservative with what they buy and increasingly conservative with the time they devote. So when you do find an editor who is someone who does a lot of editing, that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. So I think there needs to be a bit of play back and forth. There needs to be an agent who can advise you on your work without shaping it towards a particular field.
And I think the third thing, insofar as, is the market dictating what we want, is to say I think we have these preconceived notions built in about what the market is, and then we create these self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, everyone says that short stories don’t sell, right? And if an author is a fiction writer and wants to work, they should go for the novel because the only thing that is selling is the novel. But then if you ask those very people who bemoan the fact that they can’t sell their short story collections, how many they’ve actually bought recently? They’ll probably tell you that it’s been months and months and even years since they bought one. And I think that if you want the market to be interested in short fiction then you need to put your money where your mouth is and buy collections and promote short fiction.
I think ultimately, you just need to do your work. And whenever I get embroiled or wrapped up in this idea of the market, I remember Charlie Baxter’s wise advice to me once years ago, and he simply said art is not a sack race. And that has consoled me on a number of occasions, both when I feel that I am not writing or publishing fast enough and also that it isn’t a competition.
Writing the Midwest
BS: I know you’re teaching a class in the fall on Midwestern literature. Am I getting that right?
JC: Yeah, it’s called “Writing the Midwest.”
BS: What’s it like putting the class together? What’s your process like?
JC: It’s very hard putting it together.
JC: Like any class, the hard part is what to leave out. When most people think of literary culture, the Midwest doesn’t immediately spring to mind. New York is the home of publishing and Los Angeles is sort of the capital of screenwriting. We think of San Francisco as the seat of poetry, or at least it certainly was during the Beat generation. Yet half of the Nobel Prize winners in literature [from America] have come from the Midwest, numerous Pulitzer Prizes and some of the most iconic writers of the twentieth century. Whether it’s Ernest Hemingway or Saul Bellow or Toni Morrison, originally from Ohio, we have these wonderfully iconic writers. The hardest part has been deciding what to put in.
The other tricky thing about teaching a class or formulating a class about the Midwest is just asking what exactly are the boundaries of the Midwest? Is Pittsburg Midwestern? If so, do I bring in some Michael Chabon? Some consider the Dakotas and the Plains States like Nebraska Midwestern. Is that Midwest? Do I bring in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers? How far south does the boundary extend? Northern Illinois, Chicago, no problem of course, but when you get down near the border of Kentucky, southern Illinois and southern Indiana feel a lot like the south to me.
Really a lot of the work is going to be on the shoulders of the students as they help define this. I’m not the type of instructor who walks in with PowerPoint presentations and lecture notes and asks my students to be receptacles of knowledge as I talk at them. I’m teaching this class because I actually don’t know the answers to any of these questions [laughs]. If somebody put a map in front of me and said draw the Midwest, I’d really have a tricky time doing it. I wanted to see what my students think about that.
I started thinking about this, actually, when I was reading about the South and a scholar proposing that when we teach Southern literature that we include the Caribbean, the idea that the South doesn’t stop at the borders of the end of the land mass. Plantation culture is hugely prevalent in the Caribbean. That whole idea of extending those borders and boundaries is really fascinating to me. I started thinking, well, yeah, that’s true in the Midwest, too. How far West does it travel? How far East?
So the two primary trouble spots for me are who do I include, considering it is only a sixteen-week class, or rather who gets left out, and what are those boundaries to begin with.
So those are a few things I’m kicking around. Jack Driscoll’s work, a northern Michigan writer, he’s got a new short story collection coming out this Fall from Wayne State University Press which I’m very excited to see. Jim Harrison is an iconic Midwestern writer although he doesn’t really live in the state much anymore, but much of his work is set in the Upper Peninsula, which is a vastly different mountainous wild landscape compared to the flats of Iowa, and trying to understand the way topography shapes both character and narrative will be an interesting endeavor.
“Here’s a Michigan Book, You’ll Get It”
BS: If you had to choose one book, one that represented Michigan, and you could shove it into people’s hands and say, here, read this, you’ll get it, what would you choose?
JC: That’s probably the most inhumane question you could ask—
JC: “Here’s a Michigan book, you’ll get it.” Wow. I’m going to skirt your question, Brian, and say that is the trickiest part about a class like this. I’m particularly interested in the way in which urban and suburban parts of the Midwest collide. Dean Bakapoulos’s novel Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon is a wonderful coming-of-age story set in the 1980s, with all of the factories closing in Detroit, and how this once thriving urban community, largely made up of immigrants, Pols and Ukrainians and Czechs and so forth, working in the auto factories, and raising these solid, what we think of as nuclear families, and then having to suffer the ruin of that collapse which we’re basically seeing an echo of now.
The Reaganite 1980s of Detroit looks a lot like the last couple of years in Detroit with a similar fallout. And that book is, as I said, a coming-of-age story about a young man moving out of that Michigan and moving towards the more suburban part of the state, towards a college life at the University of Michigan.
That’s so remarkably different than Jim Harrison writing novellas about the Upper Peninsula, which in many ways feels more akin to the work of writers who are writing about wild places like Montana.
I don’t know how to capture the state [laughs].
BS: That’s alright. You talked about Dean Bakapoulos’s book long enough, we’ll just take that as your unofficial answer.
Jeremiah Chamberlain’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Glimmer Train, Flyway, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He is a regular contributor to Poets and Writers Magazine and he’s an editor at Fiction Writers Review. Jeremy, thanks for coming in.
JC: Thanks, Brian.