Columns > Published on December 23rd, 2015

10 Pathways to Literary Citizenship

In writing, there's a whole lot of hustle. New writers hustling to get into good programs. Emerging writers hustling to get published. Debut authors hustling established authors for back-cover blurbs. Established authors hustling for the big awards.

All that hustle is exhausting, and it tends to disguise a disturbing fact: reading and writing itself is in decline, and it has been for quite some time. That's part of why the book world is so competitive; since 1978, the number of Americans who don't read books has nearly tripled.

To reverse that trend, we're going to have to engage with the world in ways that are less about the hustle and more about the love. That means we're going to have to become better literary citizens, and here are ten bona fide ways to make it happen in 2016.

1. Rave about your reading

If you love a book, why keep it to yourself? Tell your friend over coffee. Tell your buddies at work. Hell, tell that rando on the bus who keeps asking what's so funny.

We're going to have to engage with the world in ways that are less about the hustle and more about the love. That means we're going to have to become better literary citizens...

Speak it. Preach it. Proselytize. Books are sold by word of mouth, and for that to work, you've got to talk.

2. Write Reviews

Reviews by ordinary people are an essential mechanism for selling almost anything on the Web, and that's true nowhere  as much as it is with books. So if you love something you've read, why not share your love in a paragraph or two of punchy prose? In articulating exactly why you loved it, you'll be doing yourself a favor (not to mention the author and the reading public at large).

Extra points if you read the book within the first few months of its launch, thereby helping to build some buzz.

3. Get with this whole social media thing

We understand that you're a reclusive genius. But while you're wrapped up in your reclusion, a poorly punctuated political meme might be the most intelligent thing the people you went to high school with see all day.

Don't let that happen. 

Share a great article, essay, short story, or even a poem. Share that review of the latest, greatest book you read. Call bullshit on the shoddy logic behind the latest NYT op-ed. Whatever you do, engage. More people are paying attention than you know.

4. Write an essay

The essay is the language of democracy, of persuasion, of strongly held opinions articulated in clear language, backed up facts or experience or both. It's a means by which ordinary citizens can talk back to the culture at large.

It's also a form well suited to those gaps we strive to fill each day by fiddling with our phones, while offering significantly more food for thought than the latest roundup of silly GIFs. 

Don't just simmer on the latest outrage, or the thing that seems strange no one is talking about. Write an essay, and get it published somewhere where people will read it, whether or not it adds a prestigious byline to your bio. Rinse and repeat.

5. Engage with kids

If you have kids of your own, you're no doubt deep in the project of indoctrinating them into the ranks of book addicts already.

But if you don't have kids of your own, you can still mentor young bookworms in your extended family. Or volunteer to read to kids in your neighborhood through an afterschool program.

If you teach creative writing for adults, maybe you could teach creative writing for kids through an arts camp. Maybe you could volunteer with a local nonprofit that brings writers into schools. 

Regardless of your approach, engaging with kids is key, as the future of book culture rests on new recruits. And, let's face it—there's no time in life that a book can have a bigger effect on you than when you're a kid.

6. Give someone else a hand up

The hustle is about trying to get someone with greater authority than you to give you a hand. A big part of literary citizenship is about offering a hand to someone with less.

Too often in life, we focus on what we don't have or what we haven't done yet, focusing on the next milestone almost as soon as we've reached the one we're at. You may not even recognize how far you've come until you stop for a moment and extend yourself to someone who's working toward their first publication or maybe trying to finish their first draft of their first book.

While you might not be able to offer that person what they're looking for, chances are good that your advice, validation, and encouragement will be just as valuable in the long run.

Remember, you're not risking anything by associating with less accomplished writers. This isn't high school. (And if you don't think there's anyone below you on this totem pole, think again.)

7. Get a subscription

There's a time in your life to spend the day in your local bookstore reading as many literary journals as you can before submitting. But if you're at the point where you actually get your oil changed every three thousand miles or so, it's time to grow up and get a subscription.

Maybe you're a New Yorker or Harper's kind of gal. But sometimes the best subscription isn't to one of the glossies you've been hustling so hard to get into. Sometimes the best subscription is to that weird little bootstrap operation that published your last poem.

Because part of being a grown up is knowing what you actually like, isn't it? 

8. Get a podcast

So much of the conversation about books isn't taking place in the newspapers (what are those?) and on TV (books on TV?). They're taking place via podcasts like Between the Covers and LitUp and Late Night Library.

Pick one and add it to your life—on your commute, during your morning jog, or even in the shower. I guarantee your life will be richer for it.

9. Give books

Love a book? Give it as a present. Birthdays, Xmas, anniversaries, life transitions, whatever. The right scarf never changed anyone's life.

10. Read, read, read

Need I say more?

About the author

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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