I’m just back from Iowa, writing about the Democratic Caucus for Salon. You know what will make you think about citizenry? Watching hundreds of working-class union members standing in the harsh wind and freezing rain waiting to get in to a Hillary Clinton rally in an overheated high school gym in Cedar Rapids. Watching them excitedly waving “Fighting For Us” signs when they see Hillary, several of them so moved they cry.
Here in the literary community there’s been a lot of talk about whether or not being a good literary citizen is important. Let’s be clear: of course it is. Literary citizenship isn’t about reward; it’s about service. Some things we do as service might reap tangible rewards for us, but to my mind, service is that which is intended to support others without consideration of reward. I think we all need to be doing some service—and almost every writer/editor/agent/arts administrator I know, does. I tend to be suspicious of anyone who wants to be part of a community without coming to its aid. Service is about pitching in as mightily as you can without harming your life, and building the community you want to live in. It’s reviewing and interviewing and promoting and buying and reading the work of others. It’s about helping pull writers up the ladder, and pushing them up, too. To those who say, “I can’t; I don’t have time,” I say, “Figure out a way to shave 5% off what you are doing for your own work and pitch in. Even if you are only working on your own work one hour a day, shave three minutes off and do something to build this community you say you want to be part of.” We all know what generosity is. Be generous.
And to those who say that good literary citizens aren’t devoted to the craft, I say, “Bite your fucking tongue.” And read these books on the list today. They are by some of the most generous, wonderful, big-hearted writers I know.
I’m a person who asks people to do things. I say “please” a lot. I ask people to read at fundraisers, to donate, to promote, to teach, to attend, to support, to help. I am always asking people to help—and these folks always do, and that’s on top of all their other service—which, for each one of them, is huge—and their writing, and their full, rich, complex lives.
I love them, every one of them. They inspire me to be more on the page and more in the world. Their writing is gorgeous. Every one of these books is a gift and a testament to the craft. (Not to mention critically acclaimed—I’m not just suggesting them because of the citizens who wrote them; I’m suggesting them because they are wonderful books. The excellent citizenry is bonus.) I hope you will buy their books and promote the hell out of them. These folks are part of what makes our tribe strong. Your support makes it that much stronger. That’s love.
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
Human complexity exquisitely rendered. We are all in the gutter; we are all looking at the stars. What I know after reading this magnificent, new novel: look at everyone differently. Are we all villains? Are any of us heroes?
- Oh! You Pretty Things by Shanna Mahin
Janet Maslin, in her New York Times review of this warm-hearted novel, called it, “quite a breakout.” Just out in paperback, this book is that rare treat—a fast-paced read with big heart that leaves you thinking long after you’ve finished. This is a book you’ll pass along to your pals. Plus, Shanna gives us high school dropouts a good name. She’s a G and she’s squad. Buy this book.
- The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
This novel is a fucking masterpiece. Ten years in the making, it’ll make you think twice about time and craft and what it takes to make a novel. Junot Díaz was right to call Alex the fire and the light. And did you see Alex on Late Night with Seth Myers last week?
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