Thinking about my LibraryThing reviews

This past year I have been writing reviews on LibraryThing for each book I read. My reviews are between two to five paragraphs in length and, I hope, useful and sometimes fun. A regular visitor to this page can see a snippet of each review to left of the page placed there via a useful widget from LibraryThing. Click on the snippet and a window pops up with data about the book and my review. I think it’s cool.

At first I was writing these reviews as a kind of exercise. Gathering one’s thoughts about a book helps, well, to gather one’s thoughts. Putting those thoughts into words helps refine one’s impressions, and sometimes it can provoke a bit of rethinking. Plus it’s fun to look back six months or a year later and remind yourself what you thought of that book that is now propping up the far end of your bookshelf.

But now, some 57 books later I find that I’ve produced a fair amount of material – more than 30 pages in the file in which I draft my reviews. I’m wondering whether there would be any sense in repurposing that material here on my blog. I’ve already got the LT widget. Would it make sense to produce a blog post as well for each book? (Copyright is retained by the reviewer on LT, so there is no issue raised by doing this.) Is there a good reason not to do this?

On the other hand, is there a good reason to do it?

Market Research – writing contests

The well-meaning and generous-minded colleagues in my writing group sometimes encourage me to submit my short fiction to writing contests. I am reluctant. And not merely because of the disappointment that would ensue should I not be successful. That disappointment is readily available elsewhere. Rather, my reluctance is due to an insufficient understanding of the efficacy of such contests.

To be clear, I do not doubt the legitimacy of (many) writing contests. Indeed, virtually all of the Canadian literary journals and magazines that I previously canvassed host at least one contest for either poetry or fiction and several host multiple contests. The entrance fee for submitting your fiction to these contests is always somewhat more than the cost of a one-year subscription to the journal or magazine. But in most cases your entrance fee entitles you to a one-year subscription. So even if your work does not win, at least you get something valuable. Indeed, if you wish, you could consider the entrance fee as merely a market research expense. Of course this is somewhat more expensive than subscribing directly. But you do have at least the chance of having your submitted story selected for publication. Think of that!

There are also writing contests unconnected to literary journals or magazines. The CBC Canada Writes competitions are a good example. This year there were more than 3000 entries for the short story competition alone. I have no idea how that number compares with journal competitions but I suspect it must be somewhat higher.

I was going to ask who enters such competitions. But with the numbers entering the CBC competition, it must be nearly everyone. Amongst the ten finalists, there are numerous published authors as well as some first-timers. The published authors tend to have had a few stories published, possibly a collection, but they do not appear to be well-established writers. I’m guessing that at some point in one’s career it becomes either unnecessary or unseemly to continue participating in such contests.

That brings me back to the question of efficacy.

What is the relative value of a competition-winning work? Winning the CBC Canada Writes competition will certainly raise awareness of your work, and to a lesser extent I imagine the same is true for winning one of the literary journal or magazine competitions. And of course there is the publication itself, which in most cases is accompanied by either prize money or the standard remuneration that the journal or magazine offers. No doubt there is some residual effect, as you may forever after be apotheosized as “the past winner of …”

But how does this compare with the value of getting a story published in a journal or magazine through the non-competition route? Is the competition story published in the same journal issue with three non-competition stories considered to be of lesser, equal, or greater value? That’s what I don’t know.

And it makes a difference. There is no entrance fee for the submission of one’s work to a journal or magazine, other than the normal cost of preparation time and the cost to one’s ego when the rejection follows later.

Disappointment, as noted earlier, is ubiquitous. But is the disappointment I would receive from the rejection letter following a non-competition submission different in kind or quantity from the disappointment I would receive in not winning a writing contest?

Market Research – Canadian literary magazines

All the writing/publishing guides agree on one point: before submitting your work anywhere, always investigate recent issues of the journal or magazine in order to be certain that what you are submitting falls roughly within the range of writing that journal or magazine tends to publish.

I prefer to think of this advice as straightforwardly pragmatic. Aligning your submissions to realistic targets saves time (both yours and the editors), effort (both yours and the editors), and money (mostly yours). There is no reason to treat this as the first step on the downward spiral to crass capitulation to the whims of the market (dread word!). There will be plenty of time for that later.

How do you set about investigating the recent issues of the many and varied literary journals and magazines in Canada? First stop for me – the library.

We have an excellent public library in Waterloo, and I’m not just saying that because it is within walking distance of where I live. I duly made a list of the twelve most likely candidates I would like to investigate and headed to the library. Alas, dear reader, the public library did not contain even one of the journals or magazines on my list. And I’m not talking obscure stuff here; these were mainstream Canadian literary journals. To be fair, the library did contain The New Quarterly, but as that is edited and published just down the street, I’m not sure that demonstrated much commitment to new Canadian writing.

Fortunately we are blessed with a fabulous independent bookstore in Waterloo – Words Worth Books. The folks there are definitely committed to new Canadian writing. A great many literary journals and magazines are available…for purchase. Fair enough. But if you are on a research quest you might want to add things up first. To purchase just the most recent issue of the twelve most likely candidates to receive my, as yet undiscovered, prose would set me back $135.79.

Back at the drawing board, I determined that I might have over-estimated the number of literary journals and magazines that would be interested in my, as yet undiscovered, writing. It’s highly likely that less than five would really be worth investigating. Or, as amounts to much the same, two, plus the one carried by the public library. Research, as we used to say when I was a graduate student, is subject to market forces.

This brings me to The Journey Prize Stories 23, selected by Alexander MacLeod, Alison Peck and Sarah Selecky (buy it at your local independent bookstore). Each year, the whole field of Canadian literary journals and magazines is canvassed and the best of the new Canadian writing finds a home in this annual publication. It’s like concentrated market research, but in the form of something you would actually enjoy reading.

The 2011 collection is of a high standard (not unlike the fine writing of the selectors). I did not find a single story here that I thought out of place amongst its peers. Some surprised, impressed, or startled me: Miranda Hill’s “Petitions to Saint Chronic”, Jessica Westhead’s “What I Would Say”, Jay Brown’s “The Girl From the War”, and Seyward Goodhand’s “The Fur Trader’s Daughter”.

Having read The Journey Prize Stories, I think it is safe to say that the literary journals and magazines in Canada are already getting plenty of worthy submissions, and I can probably save the editors a bit of time by setting mine aside. But what really intrigues me is whether, and how, these writers did their market research.

Only so many books left

How many books do you have left? Last night, a discussion at the book club I frequent turned serious. Even for those with a prodigious capacity for reading, there could still only be a certain number of novels one could read in a year. And only a certain number of years left to each of us. Imagine a stack of yet unnamed and unread books that constitute your entire future reads. How distressing is it for you when the one you’ve just finished is nowhere near the level of a good read?

That prompts a number of questions, not least of which is what exactly is a good read. For most involved in the discussion, a good read, minimally, is never a waste of time. That, in itself, may not shed a great deal of light on the subject. In the right mood, a thoroughly entertaining or adventurous read might be just the tonic one needs. On the other hand, a ponderous tome that one plods through without pleasure might be a clear waste of time regardless of how frequently its merits are insisted upon by others. It is as though, for a good read, we are each looking for the right novel at the right time, which can be read in the right way.

But what of that hint of fear I heard in some voices? What is its source? And where can we turn for the recommendation that will place the right novel in our hands at the right time? The novel we had just read had an enticing but ultimately unsatisfactory answer to that question. And I found that when I was asked it directly, I also had nothing like a well-considered reply.

I have a shelf of books in my room that I intend to read in the near future. Each time I finish reading a novel, I turn to that shelf and consider what to read next. I also have a list of books not on that shelf but to which I have easy access at the local library. And of course there is a far larger unwritten list of books that might, given my current state of knowledge, understanding, and sensitivity, be plausible selections for me. I know that I tend to read authors; if I enjoy one book by an author, I will tend to read all that he or she has written. I know that I have no real tolerance for mysteries or horror. I’m certainly influenced in my choice by what I have most recently read. And I might have one or two books that I have fixed upon as definite choices in the year ahead. But more than any of these, I will tend to take the advice of a trusted friend.

Why is the recommendation of a trusted friend so persuasive? And what does he or she suggest that I read next?

PIO – an academic question

Previously I have been thinking about Personal Identity Online (PIO) in terms of how a consultant might shape or influence how he or she is perceived. I took that as a straightforward communications challenge and put forward suggestions on setting up a consultancy website, blogging, tweeting, and more. Now I want to turn to a couple of thorny issues for academics who are thinking about their PIOs. I want to describe two cases: (1) a well-published academic currently unaffiliated with a university, and (2) a tenured faculty member who uses a non-academic email address and/or domain name for his or her academic web page.

The days of completing your Ph.D. and walking directly into a tenured faculty position are long gone (and maybe they were only ever a myth). The norm for the academic career path in the Humanities tends to be Ph.D., post-doctoral research (if you are lucky), sessional or contract teaching (sometimes, sadly, referred to as “casual” staff), a mad scramble for publications, and then (if you are very lucky) landing a tenure-track assistant professorship, followed by another mad scramble for additional publications, high teaching-evaluations, and “service” (which includes administrative duties as well as contributions to one’s profession such as peer reviewing submissions for publication). Finally, if all goes well, you achieve tenure. And now you can set out on the longer journey toward becoming a full professor. (NB. these are terms for the progression in North America; in the UK and elsewhere the terminology and the progression varies somewhat.)

Between completing your Ph.D. at one institution and securing tenure at another, the young academic may find himself or herself employed, at one time or another, by a surprising number of academic institutions. They might even temporarily be employed by two or more institutions at the same time, for example if they were contract teaching individual courses at different institutions. There may even be times, despite one’s stellar publishing record and high teaching-evaluations, when one finds oneself between institutional employers. In that situation, how does the young academic self-identify online?

There are complications, naturally. Over the years, the young academic may have been given, temporarily, an institutional email address and quite possibly webspace for hosting teaching and other academic information relevant to one’s department. These persist as links on web pages or email addresses in colleagues’ email clients long after one has moved on. What is the half-life of an institutionally hosted academic web page? And how long will it continue to skew search engine results years after it has become inaccessible to the person who originally set it up?

The self-identification question is one on which I do not have a settled opinion. Recently there has been a move to recognise that a substantial portion of our tertiary teaching population is in some stage of the progression described above. One term mooted for such individuals is “independent scholar”. There is even now a Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars. (I think there is still work to be done on thinking this through since one benefit of “full membership” – a library card for Simon Fraser University – requires the scholar to appear “in person” in order to pick up their new library card.) Is independent scholar the best self-describer available? I have also seen individuals self-ascribe by the name of their academic group, e.g. Historian, Philosopher, Physicist, etc. That might not work so well for all groups. How would the researcher in comparative literature self-ascribe in this way?

The second case I mentioned – the tenured faculty member using a non-academic email address – could easily arise out of the academic progression I described. The itinerant academician might have found that a non-academic email address (and also a non-academic domain name for a personal academic web page) is simpler. It saves the need to request an update to one’s friends and colleagues’ email address books each time one moves on. Even once tenured the academic may find that it is easier to stay with the non-institutional email address and/or web page. (There are also cases where some institutions have less than fully reliable email infrastructure, unlike the rock solid email infrastructure we used to have at the University of Oxford. In such a case, the academic may feel it safer to give out his or her non-institutional email address.)

Again, I do not have, as yet, a settled opinion on this. Clearly, however, the two cases I am describing are related. Here all I have managed, if at all, is to describe the communications challenge. I’ll need to do a bit more thinking in order to come up with my preferred solution. But I welcome suggestions. With our universities expanding dramatically, but without a consequent expansion in the numbers of tenured faculty, my suspicion is that the above situations will be faced by increasing numbers of scholars, independent or otherwise.