Inbox/Outbox: September 7-September 20

Or: You Can’t Do That in Book Blogging, “That” being “schedule things like readalongs and disappear for a week.”

Or: You Can Do That, But From Couch to Moon will mock you without mercy.

It was not my attention, of course, to go an entire week without writing any posts, but life intervened, as life does. Sometimes, for those of us who are hobbyists, blogging must take a back seat to the demands of the real world.

Inbox

Believe it or not, but I have successfully gone an entire week without acquiring much of anything, perhaps because of that whole “life” thing to which I refer above. My abstention from consumption hasn’t been entirely complete, though: For the first time in almost 20 years, I purchased comic books. If the clerk gave me odd looks, I console myself with the knowledge that I was far from the oldest person in the store. (There were actually men in suspenders, which suggests to me that they were very old. No, they were not hipsters. Maybe broken hipsters, amirite? Anybody..?)

Ms. Marvel #1 (G. Willow Wilson is the writer.)

Ms. Marvel #1 (G. Willow Wilson is the writer.)

My return to objects of youthful folly comic books was prompted by my admiration of the lovely writing of G. Willow Wilson, author of Alif the Unseen, which I adore. With that in mind, I purchased issues 4 through 7 of Ms. Marvel. As a teenager (this during the “grim ‘n’ gritty” comics era of the 90s), I would probably have said something like, “Female characters? Female writers? Ppssh.” (Actually, I probably would have said “girl.” And, I would have thought it in a snide tone, rather than actually saying it, because saying it implies that you care, and caring was uncool in the 90s.) Now, as an adult, I said (thought) something like, “$3.99 per issue?! What the f***!” Then I plunked down my money anyway.

I’ve only read issue 4 so far, but I like it well enough. And I’m quite pleased that the writer and protagonist are females, that they’re Muslim, and that they’re not parading around in their undies with their asses up in the air. I mean, they could if they wanted, it’s a free country, but my point is: I like it just the way it is, thanks very much. (Side note: I would think that the ominpresence of Internet porn obviates the need for scantily clad female superheroes, but that trope seems to satisfy a base need in the brains of a certain segment of fandom. “Wonder Woman’s t*****s! HEHHEHHEHHEHHEH!!!)

I guess I have feelings about this or something, huh? Man, I hate having feelings.

Outbox

City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

I spent the last (not quite) two weeks working my way through luxuriating in Robert Jackson Bennett’s recent novel, City of Stairs. (Confession: I am a slow reader. I was in remedial reading in first grade.) In my defense, City of Stairs is a long book, and I’m glad that it is, ’cause it’s chock fulla goodness. Expect a review next week, probably, assuming I am able to establish a beachhead against Everyday Life. Positive thoughts welcome.

"Don't cry for me; I'm already dead." The Simpsons.

Blog, Interrupted

"Don't cry for me; I'm already dead." The Simpsons.

“Don’t cry for me; I’m already dead.” The Simpsons.

Readers stopping by for the Jagannath Readalong will note that I missed the post that was due last night. My apologies. Life (and, if I’m honest, poor planning) intervened. Some of you will find this ironic, given this week’s discussion in You Can’t Do That in Book Blogging.

Know that I am still here, but getting caught up after a hectic week. The Jagannath readalong will continue as planned, with a “make-up” post for the one previously scheduled for September 11. Inbox/Outbox will pick up again next Friday.

I prefer this cover.

I prefer this cover.

In the meantime, I’m neck-deep in the engrossing and very, very long City of Stairs. My impression, given the reaction on social media, as well as the text I’ve consumed thus far, is that Robert Jackson Bennett has a hit on his hands. I’m sensing historical parallels, in terms of the struggle between East and West that defined the past few centuries. In any case: I’ve to date avoided everyone’s reviews, ’cause I’m picky about knowing what’s coming. If you’d like, please post the link to your review in the comments, and I’ll follow up as soon as I’ve finished the book.

Until next week, I bid you adieu.

You Can’t Do That in Book Blogging: Post Frequency, Length

Yes, I made it look like this on purpose.

OR CAN YOU?!

Last week I suggested that we, the book blogging community, take a closer look at what we do, and, importantly, how we do it. It seems to have struck a chord: Many bloggers commented, and, if usage is any indicator, many more are interested. We’re something of a nascent hive mind, so it only makes sense for us to pool our resources and openly discuss this thing we take very much for granted.

I want to reiterate that I don’t think I know better than anyone else. Having a background in information science and writing for a few websites, though, I’ve heard things, and they’ll inform my discussions here. My hope is that readers will use my posts as a foil: If you agree with something, expand on it; if you disagree, explain why. As Tenacious D would say, “That’s f*****’ teamwork.” (Also: Topic suggestions are welcome. You can recommend a topic in the comments. Please label it as such. Blatantly. Like, “TOPIC SUGGESTION!!!”)

Note: For a related (but distinct) take on book blogging and book reviewer issues, check out Ria’s column “The Reviewer’s Dilemma” at Bibliotropic.

Without further ado, the topics I mentioned last week: Post frequency and length.

But First, There’s the Question of Motive, AKA “Intent”

Presumably we are identifying ourselves as book bloggers because we want to talk (or write, or otherwise express ourselves) in regards to books. We’re bibliophiles, and book lovers are by nature chatty creatures, given over to an enthusiasm for our subject that sometimes bleeds into evangelism. (Case in point: My post dedicated to other posts about Annihilation.) Ultimately, we’re here for the books, and for the companionship to be found with fellow book lovers.

You might say we're a fellowship.

You might say we’re a fellowship.

But make no mistake: Not everyone is attributing to us such purity of motive. “Be careful how you present yourself,” some “knowledgeable” voices warn, “lest publishers and authors perceive your blog as a hobby.” (I have read things to this effect; they used the term “hobby.”) But, but, but…book blogging is a hobby. Perhaps there are “professional” book bloggers out there, making a living off of the typitty-typitty. Technically speaking, accepting money in exchange for your work, however informal it might seem, would qualify you as a “professional.” I suspect, though, that most of us aren’t being compensated, with the possible exception of ARCs, and that’s not really compensation. It’s an element of symbiosis: Publishers give us review copies, we give them reviews (read: Publicity).

For most of us then, book blogging really is a hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good to have hobbies. A hobby is not, as the cult of productivity will tell you, a waste of time; nor is it merely a means of acquiring skills that could be parlayed into a different career path. A hobby is a practice that enhances one’s quality of life, which is, like, a real thing, at least for those of us who enjoy a minimum amount of security and a basic livelihood.

What these commentators are really getting at is: Do you want to manage your blog as if it’s a hobby? Will you be more or less formal? What’s your intent? If your goal is to storm the book blogging world, cutting a swath through the reputations and egos of fragile authors, that’s fine. It’s totally legitimate. There’s nothing wrong with admitting it. But you have to act accordingly, because becoming the blitzkrieg of book blogging will require you to cultivate a readership. And, with that in mind, you will have to consider the frequency with which you blog, and the length of your posts.

“Consistency is all I ask! Give us this day day our daily mask.” (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.)

I don’t post on a daily basis. For one reason or another, beyond book reviews, I don’t feel like I have much to say. Perhaps I’m not “creative” enough to conceive of even a minimum of content. You might say that I behave as a hobbyist would: I’m casual. And my usage statistics show it. When I began blogging, nearly a year ago now, I would sometimes go weeks without updating my site. I’d average a few visitors (single digits) every week. Behold: I’ve become more vocal lately, and I’ve acquired higher usage and more “followers.” The rule is simple: If your intent is to have a presence, measured here via the metrics of usage and followers, you must post every day. It really is important enough for me to say it again: If you want to grow your audience, you must post every day.

There’s a very simple logic to this. There are a gajillion people vomiting their thoughts onto the Internet. The good thing is, you’re one of them. You’re right there with everyone else, sharing your thoughts on Nana Smith’s chin hair and cats, they’re really, really cute, and, like, oh my God, you just read this book by Author X that everyone else has just got to read, like, you can’t even. And so on.

The bad thing is: We all have ADD. If you’re not saying something, we’re going to look at that shiny thing over there. Ohhh, shiny. Succotash! What?

It’s like that. If you want to have a presence, you must be present. Don’t ask for our attention, demand it. But do it in a way that’s not off-putting, or we’ll never forgive you.

In addition to advocating a daily post, the self-appointed experts (of whom I am one, apparently, if I do say so myself *sarcastically preens*) will opine at length about…er, length. This is the rule: You must post 1000 words per day. The folks who favor this rule indicate that 1000 words per day is the minimum necessary to not only gain a reader’s attention, but also to convince the reader that you’re saying something of quality, of value to him or her.

I should note that I don’t agree with this particular rule, and I’d be interested to hear other bloggers’ opinions. Personally, I prefer not to read “long” items on a screen, with the exception of an e-reader. If something is longer than 800 words, I tend to skim at some point. Which brings us to the corollary: You can achieve 1000 words any way you want, i.e., through three posts of 400 words each, but you have to hit 1000. It’s true that multiple posts are likely to bring me, as a user, back to a website. Consider Boing Boing: I usually visit twice per day. But I’m not sure length matters. Maybe it’s my ADD, but I’m as likely to follow that link to a video of a baby panda snoring as I am some hoo-ha’s 2500 word treatise on everything that’s wrong with Spider Woman’s butt. I know, I have skewed priorities.

Takeaways

First, you’ll see I fooled you into reading my 1000+ word post, ultimately enhancing my usage stats. KIDDING! That’s not my goal; I just had more to say on the topic than I realized. But it could serve as a useful case study, no?

The takeaway, I think, is this: Metrics aren’t everything. The number of hits you receive, the number of followers you can claim, are only important insofar as they matter to you. There’s nothing wrong with caring about those numbers. You don’t need to feel guilty, or like you’re some sort of sellout. No, you’re someone who’s doing something he or she cares about. Good for you.

If you do care about those numbers, you’re going to have to act accordingly. You need to post every day. And you’ll have to experiment with the length of your posts. Several shorter posts per day? One long one? Experiment, look at the data, and approach it again.

And, if you’re sitting by yourself, with a cat on your lap and a cup of tea in your hand, and your feet perched on a swaying tower of paperbacks, and you’re having a conversation with the only two other book bloggers you’ve befriended after seven years, that’s okay, too. It sounds like you’ve got a kick-ass hobby. You should protect it with all you hold dear. Seriously, if someone messes with you, let them know that you will cut a bitch. Metaphorically. ‘Cause hobbyists are for real.

Book blogger OUT.

Jagannath Readalong, Part 3: Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom

This is Part 3 of my month-long Jagannath readalong. JOIN ME. And then read Part 2.

Last time we discussed “Beatrice,” a traditional love story turned on its head: The couples whose tales Tidbeck told included a blimp and a boiler, the objects of affection from their human partners. If “Beatrice” is absurd, playful, the story that follows it, “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom,” is introspective, mysterious, and, perhaps, a little ominous. By placing the two stories next to one another, Tidbeck demonstrates her range and establishes the tone for the rest of the collection.

jagannath

“Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom” takes the form of a series of letters from Viveka to her recently deceased father, the eponymous Ove. Ove, apparently a widower, has died of a heart attack. The story has a complex structure: As Viveka’s letters are written at successively later dates, they narrate not only her move from the city to the family farm on which she grew up, but also her recollections of her childhood. Viveka rambles about her father’s friends, the farm, and, tantalizingly, her mother.

The defining moment of Viveka’s and Ove’s lives was the disappearance of her mother. Viveka was still a small child when she watched her mother walk into the woods surrounding the farmhouse at which they lived (along with a number of hippies). “Mum kissed my forehead and then she walked away,” Viveka writes. “She was wearing the red dress. She was barefoot. Mum walked in amongst the tree sand there was a tinkling sound on the air, like tiny bells.” And then she was gone. Ove would have known this, of course; Viveka is writing for herself as much as she is for her father. The reader notes those elements that make the moment magical: Viveka’s mum kisses her, presumably saying “goodbye.” Where was Mum going with bare feet, though?

Viveka’s and Ove’s fates unspool from this moment. Ove alerts the police, but was “told she didn’t exist. She wasn’t in the national registry.” Telling, perhaps, that Ove’s friends recall to Viveka her father’s claims that her “mother just came out of the forest one day.” The young Viveka is entered into the national registry, immunized, and sent to school, and Ove seems to have disbanded the commune. He did what “a dad is supposed to do,” sending Viveka to school and helping her with her homework. But it’s clear he was quietly shattered, never quite present. And Ove began drinking, eventually living in squalid conditions so horrible that Viveka would go years without seeing him.

Genuine Swedish farmhouse.

Genuine Swedish farmhouse.

As Viveka considers her relationship with her father, she moves to the old farmhouse. Ove had a habit of making an annual visit to the farm, cleaning it up, only to return home and begin drinking again. Although it’s mentioned only in passing, the observant reader will note Viveka’s reaction upon her final visit to her father’s apartment. In contrast to the filth she previously encountered, Viveka finds everything clean, scrubbed, smelling of pine. It seems to indicate a change in Ove’s character. “There were a couple of suitcases standing near the door,” Viveka writes. Was Ove planning on going somewhere?

It’s clear that Viveka’s return to the farmhouse is as much about getting lost as it is parsing out the past. The farmhouse, after all, is not only where Mum disappeared, but where Viveka existed “off the map,” outside of government records–not “officially real.” Between jobs, Viveka misses an appointment with her unemployment caseworker. Isolated, Viveka wonders, were she to disappear, how much time might pass before someone misses her. Alone, Viveka becomes ruminative. “The sun is so low in the sky. The sunset just goes on and on.” Geographically, Viveka is near the arctic circle, but something more is going on here; it’s like time has stopped. Viveka writes: “But it was a knowledge that there was something out there. That there was a hole in the world. And a longing to go there. I still have that longing, but it doesn’t overwhelm me like it used to. Until now. There’s something about the light here that makes the longing bloom.”

In one of her later letters, Viveka reveals that Ove’s annual trips to the farmhouse were motivated by his hope that his wife would return. She never did, of course, and it broke him. In her last letter, Viveka reports that the sun didn’t rise. “The sound of bells still hangs in the air. And the twilight just lingering there, that won go towards night or day.” The reader knows something is coming. And then Viveka closes with a sentiment that should be hopeful but, given her isolation and the endless twilight, sounds ominous: “I think Mum is coming soon.”

What does Viveka mean? Where did Mum come from, where did she go, and what is she? The simple truth, I think, is that we’re not meant to know. The unknown coexists with the mundane. It might take an aspect we know–but it may not. And that’s Jagannath.