“I’m not the man my actions would suggest.” – The Afghan Whigs
This weekend I stood up and spoke at a delayed memorial service for the dearest friend I’ll ever have. Looking around the room I thought about how he deserved so much better than he got. His family, his friends, very few of us deserved the gift of his company. But he gave it freely because he didn’t understand it’s value. I spoke about the love he felt for people, the fear of inadequacy he never shook, but most of all how he was the embodiment of joy. You could not be despondent in his company. You could not turn away from his enthusiasm. He was beyond measure in his determination to wring every moment of happiness he could from a coldly vicious world. So, (I said, looking at the people who mourned him) I struggle to follow that example.
This weekend I also attended the saddest musical festival in recent memory. An undersold, disorganized assortment of bad ideas littered with a drunken assembly of culture-as-costume kids. All of them searching for the feeling they know music festivals are supposed to bring them. Asking to have their pictures taken in poses that simulated joy without seeming to feel any of it. I left early, but stayed to see a band known for it’s embrace of humanity’s many flaws. A band whose lead singer often loudly proclaims “There is so much joy in what we do!” Because I needed some. He’s right. There is so much joy when The Hold Steady performs. They never fail to make me feel better about whatever I am feeling down about.
I remember when books made me feel like that. As readers we talk about The Book Slump frequently. It’s that period of time when the reader needs to switch up the genre or authors they’re reading until something clicks again. It’s the thing that happens to students when they’ve analyzed and overanalyzed texts they don’t emotionally connect to until they find the right answer and can run away from Dickens forever. It’s a loss of joy. During this week’s Blogger Blackout a number of reader reviewers have discussed how BBA make it hard to find the joy in what they do. Blogs stopped reviewing this week because we do understand our value. Many of us have worked with promotional street teams in music, or motivated volunteers, or organized student groups. We understand that without the cogs the machine falls apart. We understand that joy is the strongest motivator. I haven’t read a book in two weeks. There’s no joy, this week, in what we do.
Reviewers have watched authors stay silent. Have watched publishers stay silent. We’ve noted who has rallied to the side of reason and who has danced merrily through the fields of self-delusion. Every publisher and every author who sent me a review request in the last two weeks without mentioning the blackout or the hostile climate has been noted. Here’s the thing. If you’re on the sidelines? You’re waiting to see who wins. If the battle is between reader-reviewer joy and author entitlement it doesn’t take a lot of Badly Behaving Authors to drive reviewers off the field. (Only one side is getting paid here.) So what does victory look like? No more negative reviews, ever? Four stars for every Book Baby because it’s the most special Book Baby ever to be offered gently into the world? Does it look like discoverability solely in the hands of Amazon metrics or paid advertising? I don’t know, because I don’t live in Book Industry World. By choice, I haven’t been paid for my reviews in a couple of decades.
Victory (to me) looks like fellow authors and publishers drowning out BBA’s in an instant chorus of disapproval. It looks like people with a financial interest in the industry protecting the people who are showing up as volunteers. Victory looks like a rejection of doxxing. It looks like creating reader spaces that young voices can use to explore their reactions to art. Victory looks like an acknowledgement that reader-reviewers are not cogs in the publishing machine but valued partners in the creation of a healthy and vibrant community of traditionally focused literacy. (That means people who read your books.) It looks like not wasting time fitting us for cheerleader uniforms or sending us Rules for Reviewing. Victory means not bracing ourselves for a new attack when what we really want to do is foster the love of literature in others. Because there was so much joy in what we did. And we want that back. Without it, this stack of books is going unread. Those library holds are returning to the shelves. We’re talking about television and music and sports and games and everything but your new book. Joy is something we can create elsewhere.