To be a part of the literary community over the last few weeks has involved seeing months’ worth of events rescheduled, canceled, or shifted online. In some cases, this has been due to precautions taken to prevent coronavirus infection; in others, it’s due to writers canceling book tours. The Loft’s Wordplay Festival is shifting from an in-person event to one that will take place in a host of online spaces, for instance. As writers, publishers, and event planners look out at this shifting landscape, a host of questions come to mind. If events aren’t feasible right now, are there alternatives? Are live-streamed readings and discussions the new normal when it comes to literary events? Is there a way to capture that same sense of community that the best literary events held in a physical space can accomplish?
Cards on the table: I am curious about the answers to these questions for a host of reasons, including from the perspective of a writer with a book due out in the fall who very much enjoys taking part in literary events — and who’s wondering what to expect. This is intended to be the first in a series of articles on this subject in part because a lot of us are figuring things out as we go. Some ideas that look great on paper won’t resonate. Something deeply unlikely might click with a wider audience. We won’t know until we’ve tried it.
When I think of online literary events, I find myself flashing back to a decade and change ago, when a small but influential number of writers carved out a presence in the online community Second Life. This included the sight of William Gibson conducting a reading there — a moment of life imitating art and involving the very artist who’d thought of the thing being imitated. Gibson wasn’t the only one to take a crack at this; Warren Ellis did something similar.
Second Life may have given way to Zoom, Instagram Live, and Google Hangouts — though who knows, it could certainly make a comeback for literary events — but the premise and challenge are both the same. How do you turn a literary event held in a bookstore, bar, or coffee shop into something that takes place online and keep an equivalent sense of immediacy and community?
Kristen Millares Young was preparing for a number of events this spring to support her novel Subduction. Now, she’s in a very different position — one of many writers lacking one of the most widespread and popular tools of promoting one’s book, i.e. a book tour.
“The literary community is handmade,” Young told me. “Although I had planned to interact with readers in person, which I still hope to do in the summer and fall, I will now engage with online communities of thought, which are real, if somewhat tenuously connected.”
Young noted that she has some experience already with online events — including panels she’s appeared on at AWP, which have been recorded and archived online for subsequent viewing. “I’ve taught classes and given readings using Zoom and Google Hangouts,” she said.
And she’s planning to echo the original shape of her book tour with a series of online events. “Although I have rescheduled many readings for later in the year, I will also livestream readings from my home to record and post on the original reading date with a preorder link to that specific bookstore,” Young said.
While the current national situation precludes traditional book touring, Young also pointed out that other tools available to writers to promote their books still exist — and she plans to use them. “Aside from appearing virtually at book clubs, which I can arrange personally or via the Novel Network, I will be writing a series of essays, op-eds, reviews and conversations for The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Lit Hub, Psychology Today, Moss literary journal and the Powell’s blog, among other outlets,” she told me. “It’s the working-class way to launch a tour from home.”
Another writer with a book set to be released in uncertain times is Caroline Leavitt, whose 12th novel With or Without You is due in August. “I had a big Texas Library Association event and I had prepared this whole talk and memorized it — complete with hand gestures! — and then the event was cancelled,” Leavitt recalled. “I admit I am kind of Pollyanna/proactive, so I made a video of my talk anyway and sent it to my publicity team at Algonquin and they said, ‘Oh, we can use that for the newsletter we send out!’ And I realized I could help others.”
Last week, Leavitt began hosting writers on her blog with the Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour. It’s included stops from Janelle Brown and Cara Black, and it’s given writers a space to talk about their upcoming books, promote forthcoming books by other writers, and name-check their favorite indie bookstores.
“I have over 100 authors, including Lily King, Chris Bojahlian, Ann Hood, sending videos and I’ve been putting them all over social media,” Leavitt said. “Readers have written asking what they can do (they can make videos, too!)”
Leavitt’s endeavor has expanded into other realms as well — including a collaborative project with fellow writer Jenna Blum. A Mighty Blaze is the result: a project which is set to run until June 2nd. It’s an online space which will post information from writers with new books out on a weekly basis; Poets & Writers has come on board as a partner. And Leavitt plans to move the Nothing is Cancelled-related materials there as well.
“Jenna and I are open to any and all ideas from everyone. We want to create and serve the literary community,” Leavitt said.“I always say, we are all swimming in the same ocean, and yes there can be sharks and poisonous jellyfish, but there are also wonders, and what we need to do, especially in these tough dark times, is help one another float.”
Since the advent of social media, apps have made it progressively easier to accomplish tasks that might have been prohibitively onerous a decade ago. For this moment in time, it’s meant that a lot of writers, editors, and other literary figures have been able to mobilize quickly and turn their ideas for virtual happenings into reality.
Tor.com’s Christina Orlando teamed with Saga’s Lauren Jackson for a new project (separate from their work spaces) on Instagram Live in which the two would discuss books being released during the time of coronavirus. (Full disclosure: Orlando has edited a whole lot of book reviews I’ve written.) Why Instagram Live? “We couldn’t get Twitch to work, honestly!” Orlando told me. “Both of us have larger audiences on Twitter but we felt like Instagram was the easiest jump.”
As Orlando phrased it, the flexibility of Instagram’s platform made it work in ways where others felt lacking. “It feels more social, and people can pop in and out as they please, plus send us questions and thoughts in real time,” they said. “I really like that sort of interactive engagement. Also, truly: we like looking at each other’s faces.”
Orlando also noted that the present crisis sparked the impetus to launch something that had been on their mind for a while. “We really wanted a place to talk about SFF media outside of our work lives, and to share the books we love that maybe aren’t getting enough of a spotlight now that tours and such have been cancelled,” they said. “We just wanna talk about nerdy joy, and love authors for all of the work they do. It really is about taking pleasure in things that we find intellectually engaging.”
Orlando also recently hosted a Q & A — on Instagram Live, and subsequently uploaded to YouTube — with author Victoria Lee, whose novel The Electric Heir was released on Tuesday. Orlando sees their ongoing project with Jackson as a way to spotlight notable science fiction, fantasy, and horror works.
“The hope is that we can bring light to authors that maybe don’t get a lot of mainstream love, but that we’re (professionally & intellectually) thirsting over — authors that are doing exciting work, that are creating something different and rule-breaking, and that make us want to hop into bed with their books,” they told me. “I want to emphasize that the plan is to create a place for joy, away from the anxiety of everything else.”
That sense of creation and possibility is a notable bright spot at an uncertain and sometimes frightening time — and it’s sparked a number of other online ventures. Matt Bell, author of A Tree or a Person or a Wall (among others), took to Twitter to announce an online reading to take place on Friday via Zoom, with Amber Sparks, Megan Giddings, and Mary South all taking part. (The readings will also be livestreamed on YouTube.) And Brian Gresko, editor of When I First Held You and co-host of the Pete’s Candy Store Reading Series, just announced the launch of the Decameron Series, a series of online readings to take place on Tuesday evenings. And these efforts represent only part of a growing coterie.
What we’re seeing right now is a flourishing sense of exploration and experimentation — a number of creative people pushing at the boundaries with the technology available to them to see what results. It remains to be seen whether this will be temporary solution to the question of literary events at time of a pandemic, or if this is laying the groundwork for what literary events will be going forward. But at a time of so much uncertainty, it’s encouraging to see so many steps taken by so many, and with such speed.