The Muse’s Town Hall: Looking for Literary in Digital Places

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

28 April 2014 iStock_000017041203Small photog iLexx texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday
  2. Looking for Literary in Digital Places
  3. Can you “Make the Case” for Literary Fiction?
  4. Last Week’s Topic: What If Boys Can’t Find the Right (Reading) Stuff?

#EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday / Live Video Stream Friday

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on this week’s Ether topic(s) at 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT—and that’s 4 p.m. BST in London. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join us and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

And then on Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. BST / 7:30 p.m. CEST, Publishing Perspectives will have a live video stream from Boston of The Muse and the Marketplace Town Hall event discussed today on the Ether.

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Looking for Literary in Digital Places

By Porter Anderson

I don’t see online communities growing up around literary authors and books in quite the same way I see it happening for genre fiction and fan fiction.

Eve Bridburg

Eve Bridburg

Eve Bridburg, Grub Street’s executive director in Boston, is very clear on why she and artistic director Chris Castellani wanted to program a special session into their The Muse and the Marketplace Conference on literary fiction. She asks:

Where is the larger discovery platform for literary fiction? Will publishers keep publishing it if there aren’t readers? Where is the curation going to come from? Who will care if the audience isn’t large enough to excite big players?

On Friday (May 2), Publishing Perspectives will present a live video stream of this special session at #Muse14, as we’re hashing it. What Every Literary Writer Needs To Know About the Digital Disruption: A Town Hall Debate is set for 1:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. GMT / 6:30 p.m. BST  / 7:30 p.m. CEST.

I’ll have the honor of moderating the event, and Bridburg’s co-panelists include Amazon’s Jon Fine; Kobo’s Christine Munroe; Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser; author Steve Almond; Scratch Magazine publisher Jane Friedman; literary agent April Eberhardt; Electric Lit’s Ben Samuel; Vook’s Matt Cavnar; and Bublish’s Kathy MeisPublishing Perspectives is Media Partner with Grub Street for the event.

As Bridburg, Castellani and I have planned the event, it’s been impressive to see how committed the Grub Street team is to this issue. As teachers of writing to thousands of “Grubbies” annually, this non-profit center based on Boylston Street overlooking the Boston Common is determined to establish and maintain a “publishing agnostic” attitude. This, according to Bridburg (see Writers Wrestling on the Conference Circuit at Thought Catalog), means the organization doesn’t state a preference for traditional publishing or self-publishing, even in a business that sometimes asks us all to choose sides.

Wherever you stand in the question of entrepreneurial independence vs. the traditional publication approaches of the industry! the industry! it’s not hard to see that — for the most part — self-published ebook success has belonged to genre writers. Romance, mystery, science-fiction and fantasy, and their myriad sub-genres appear to be the most fertile fields in which a self-publisher might grow a readership.

From, "The 50k Report"

From, “The 50k Report”

In an report from Hugh Howey, a data-scraping survey of a snapshot of the top 50,000 bestselling ebooks on Amazon indicates that genre fiction titles accounted for 69 percent of those daily unit sales. Of the 11,000 top-selling genre ebooks in that sample, as many as 27 percent of them were self-published.

These estimations are disputed by some in the industry, of course, but they remain one interpretation of what’s going on in a market that must function without actual sales data from its major retailers.

Amazon’s Jon Fine and others have regularly reported that roughly a quarter of the 100 top-selling Kindle titles in a given year are self-published. Those titles don’t skew literary.

Bridburg, in fact, is echoing Muse keynote speaker Jane Friedman, who, in her comments to us at Publishing Perspectives for The Muse’s Town Hall: Jane Friedman on Literary in Digital Times, also goes right for the community angle, saying, “I wish there were a community aspect to it, which the literary world needs. Where’s the literary person’s version of Wattpad?”

For her part, Bridburg sees the Wattpad model as it stands today to be valuable as a community but wonders aloud if it’s the kind of operation that might produce work generally thought of as literary. She says:

Wattpad boasts 40 million stories one can read. After spending hours on Wattpad…I don’t see much evidence there or on other online sites (though I’m sure there are exceptions) of work that is carefully crafted at a high level. The characters tend to be flat, there’s little dramatization. The result is work that isn’t going to resonate and have impact. It’s not work that will change minds or move us toward common values.

Wattpad’s folks, of course, will stress that they’re not a publication platform, per se, and that they think of themselves as a social network based in reading. (The overwhelming majority of its membership comprises readers, not writers.)

Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace Conference, expected to draw more than 800 people in Boston, is set for Friday through Sunday (May 2-4).

Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace Conference, expected to draw more than 800 people in Boston, is set for Friday through Sunday (May 2-4).

But the question of how such sites and initiatives may or may not serve the needs of literary-fiction development is crucial to outfits like Grub Street, which keenly feel a responsibility to respond to a digital dynamic that may be enabling one sort of content much more readily than another.

“The reason this matters,” Bridburg says, “is because [literary work] is ‘good’ narrative that can uniquely teach us empathy. We can debate what this looks like — I’m well aware that ‘standards’ are often used by those in power to marginalize others. [But] it’s only when you are totally lost in narrative that you are walking in someone else’s shoes.”

One of the great things about people like Bridburg, in fact, that she’s unafraid to invoke concepts of genuinely significant value. She says the word “masterpiece” without apologizing. Boy, I like that. It’s pertinent here because most of the works of literature our culture can point to today and say “masterpiece” are works the culture will generally concur are “literary.”

At Grub Street, she cautions, nobody’s walking up and down the hallways insisting on masterpieces. “But the idea is to push for elements of that masterpiece with everything you write,” she says. “That’s what we tell our students.”

She points me, for example, to an essay in The Guardian, What’s the definition of a great book? in which former Man Booker Prize judge Rick Gekoski discusses qualities of “masterpieces.” Gekoski writes:

Once you have agreed examples of masterpieces, you do notice that they have some qualities in common, though not necessarily any given one. So, if you must: what do many masterpieces have in common?…what you find in the greatest works of literature often involves some or all of the following: the high quality of the language, complexity of theme and detail, universality, depth and quality of feeling, memorableness, rereadability…When you read works of this quality you often feel, and continue to feel, that your internal planes have shifted, and that things will never, quite, be the same again.

For my money, Gekoski is getting at some very workable definition-building concepts for the “what is literary?” question.

But one of our efforts Friday will be not to get caught up in the what-is-literary? debate. You may be able to grab Gekoski’s concepts here and run, or you might want to throw them across the room. Nailing down what-is-literary won’t be on our agenda.

But Bridburg’s concerns will be. She voices them this way:

I worry that our young readers will come up on a diet of [lesser] stories and not understand what good storytelling is about. I have nothing against Wattpad and people of all walks of life writing. Grub Street was founded on the idea that everyone has a story. It’s just that we then work with people, give them an appreciation of craft, and tell them to work at it before seeking an audience. Wattpad has a very different agenda.

And it just may be possible for many of us to agree that digitally “democratized” and warmly welcoming communities today do tend to support something less exacting than inclusive; less critical than supportive; less instructional than inspiring. Many times, I’ve rather unkindly called this the “inspi-vational” movement and I find that it serves the emotional needs of enthusiasts, hobbiests, very well, while probably offering little to the development of truly powerful literature.

If a community of enthusiasm is what you enjoy, there’s not a thing wrong with it, go for it.

“Who will care? The writers have to care and they have to be bold and experiment and band together to make the case” for literary fiction in the digital era.

But what does it do to promote the rigors of literature we might recognize as literary? And where might we see a rise in community building that does more?

“I do see evidence of writers banding together to create community and to cultivate audience,” Bridburg says. “Many years ago, a group of writers working on novels together who called themselves ‘the council’ created Beyond the Margins. It’s still going strong. They blog about their work, books they admire, writing, and so on. When one of them has a novel coming out, they have a built-in platform.

“Our Novel Incubator alums have begun something similar as well. They have started a blog called ‘Dead Darlings.’ You can blog there if you’ve graduated from the Incubator. They’ve also launched a reading series called ‘Craft on Draft.’ They have a bookstore and share resources. But both of these efforts are very small.”

And small efforts may not stand up well to the fast work of the digital dynamic. Already, some say that major traditional publishers are doing less literary work because genre is more lucrative. Bridburg says she worries this could be the case in the online space as well:

It could be that there just isn’t as much money in literary as there is in romance, mystery, and thrillers, making it less appealing for online publishers or online writing communities to get into the literary space. This might mean that literary writers will have to create communities and audience for themselves. Otherwise, I fear literary writing will become more and more like poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I love poetry. But there’s almost no commercial market for it.

And that reflection of poetry’s position in today’s marketplace, for Bridburg, has a somewhat sad resonance in the founding of The Muse and the Marketplace, itself, she says:

When we decided to create a conference called The Muse and Marketplace, we realized that our poetry students wouldn’t be coming. There aren’t literary agents for poets unless they happen to be Robert Pinsky or someone of that stature. Instead, poets write for academic audiences and prizes. Again, nothing wrong there (though I do wish there was a bigger trade audience for poetry). But I’m concerned with making sure that we keep a literary audience and readership alive.

Landing Gear US by Kate Pullinger May 20 release Touchstone 2014Bridburg mentions UK novelist Kate Pullinger, whose work spans both literary tradition and digital development. Pullinger’s Landing Gear is due out from Touchstone in the States on May 20.

“Alas,” Bridburg says, “I see little Kate Pullinger-like energy on this side of the pond.”

And it is, Bridburg says, the writers, the authors who will need to ensure the future of literary fiction.

“All this by way of saying, who will care?” Eve Bridburg says.

“The writers have to care and they have to be bold and experiment and band together to make the case.”

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Can you “Make the Case” for Literary Fiction?

Please give these questions a bit of thought, and join us Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. British Summer Time, 5 p.m. Central European Summer Time for our #EtherIssue discussion.

  • As Eve Bridburg asks, do you care about literary fiction and its future in digital publishing?
  • Is the place and purpose of literary fiction today being weakened or blurred by commercial imperatives that favor genre work?
  • Should genre writers care if literary fiction founders?
  • Even if you don’t write literary, yourself, are the goals of its best principles not meaningful to you as a writer? Do you “push for elements of that masterpiece,” as Bridburg puts it?

We’d love your input on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. BST on hashtag #EtherIssue — and join us Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. GMT for the live stream of the Muse Town Hall here at Publishing Perspectives.

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Last Week’s Topic: What If Boys Can’t Find the Right (Reading) Stuff?

As you’ll recall, our topic last week’s #EtherIssue turned on Nottingham author Jonathan Emmett‘s write-up of his research on gender representation in the children’s book industry (with an emphasis on picture books) and on review attention to that work.

The basic premise of what Emmett is laying out here is that the preponderance of women in the curation and presentation of so much of children’s material may have something to do with a perceived lack of content that’s as interesting to boys as it is to girls.

22 April 2014 iStock_000000677884Small photog leezsnow texted story imageWhen we complain that boys and men don’t read enough, in other words, Emmett asks us, are we taking into account that the sensibilities of those creating, selling, and covering material for children may not support the development of content appropriate for boys.

I’ll be returning to this issue in various venues, as a lot of very intelligent, thoughtful discussion has arisen in the wake of our start on it here last week. Let me point out, for example, Hooking Boys on Books by “Elizabeth the Mom and Elizabeth the Author” Craig. She writes, in part:

Ordinarily we think of our girls being shortchanged, as they have so often in the past. Here is an instance where our boys could be shortchanged…and in an area where we should try for some balance. As Emmett put it on Twitter: “…we need to offer a menu that caters to wider tastes.”

And special thanks to Emmett and to the many others who joined us in our #EtherIssue discussion. The conversation was level-headed and mature, as I’m always glad to find our Publishing Perspectives exchanges to be. Such sensitive and important issues as potential gender influences on readership deserve just that.

To recap a few of the points made, then, here is a representative sample of tweets from the conversation.

As he does so ably in many of our #EtherIssue exchanges, author James Scott Bell jumped right up to answer the question of whether the majority-female children’s publishing staffing that Emmett has identified could affect books for boys:

Kevin Eagan at Critical Margins pointed out his recent podcast that toucheson the topic of reading, or trying to, as boys.

Our thanks again to all who joined in! We’ll be looking forward to another good discussion on Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. BST / 6 p.m. CEST / 8 a.m. PT.


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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 33-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether articles are read at Thought Catalog and he is a regular contributor to He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto: iLexx

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.