Why did you create the course Literary Journalism?
Since 2008, I’ve been editing The Florida Book Review. Some of my FIU students have written book reviews and
features for FBR, in some cases doing independent studies, so I’ve
been teaching them elements of book reviewing and writing for the web. I also
had students in graduate fiction workshops write book reviews (of all sorts of
fiction, not solely Florida books) as a way to articulate their tastes and
standards. I’ve included blogging about Miami Book Fair
International as an optional assignment in my nonfiction classes, and students
loved doing it, alongside the FBR contributing editors. Last Fall, the WLRN-Herald News
picked up pieces from the FBR Book Fair coverage for their
website. Having seen how eager students were to learn the practical aspects of
this type of writing, and how much confidence they gained when their work was
published, I proposed a graduate course in Literary Journalism.
What were the challenges in setting
up and maintaining the course?
I needed to think through what the
assignments would be, in such a way that each student could pursue individual
interests while all gaining needed skills and experience. I also felt it was
important to look at current literary journalism as it happens, which means
each week I am reading a great deal online to find examples (good and bad),
innovations, controversies, etc., though I'm also using some older, classic
pieces to balance that. To amplify their understanding, I'm bringing in
visitors who can offer a range of perspectives on places Literary Journalism
can lead them. And in November, they'll be live-blogging from the Book Fair,
which is an intense experience. I'll be acting as editor, posting the
pieces, and checking them as I do so, for accuracy and suitability. This
is fun but exhausting; it's a good thing the Book Fair comes just before
When did you begin blogging? Why?
To be clear, I don't have a blog
where I write regularly. I considered it, but could see that I don't have time
to do it often enough, when I’m teaching, editing, and writing fiction.
Instead, I've been contributing to blogs and other web publications, and I post
links to these pieces on my Goodreads author blog and of course on my
website. And I am active on Twitter. While I have written book reviews
for a long time, it was really during the year leading up to the publication of
my third story collection, Magpies, that I started to jump into
writing for online media. I’d already published fiction and nonfiction in
Then, in April 2011, The Review Review, a great
online magazine that carries lots of reviews of literary magazines and coverage
of them, published my essay, "What Editors Want: A Must-Read for Writers
Submitting to Literary Magazines.” The editor, Becky Tuch, is responsible for
that urgent subtitle on my piece, by the way, and I'm sure it's one reason the
piece went viral, and within days had been written up in the L.A. Times book
blog, linked to by The New Yorker's blog, and was being shared all
over Facebook and Twitter. I got email from quite a few editors, and picked up
lots of Twitter followers from as far away as India and Australia. Glimmer
Train republished the piece in their digest. And it continues to get
hits and comments—it had a second round of attention recently, with lots of
shares at places like Poets & Writers. All in all, this was a
great experience and an education in how rapidly the Internet can move and how
eager an audience there is. I started to explore guest blogging and other web
writing from there.
How have your past experiences
prepared you to teach this class?
I've long been a book reviewer, and I
worked on newspapers and as a free-lancer. And the experience of editing The
Florida Book Review got me thinking about what I was teaching the
writers who worked on it. And then, after Magpies came out, I
wrote guest blog posts on my writing process for TSP, the Story
Prize blog, and another about how place and displacement affect my fiction for Lisa Romeo Writes. And I was interviewed by blogs (including Beyond the Margins, Gerry Wilson's The Writerly Life, and Angela
Kelsey's Tell the Story) and online magazines like Sliverof Stone and Bookslut. Reviews of my book appeared
in other innovative online venues, like The Rumpus. From all this,
I got a closer look at the lively discussion about books, publishing, reading,
and writing that the web has made possible, and I wanted to introduce my
students to the possibilities it holds for them.
What do you hope your students will
learn from this course?
I've focused on the range of forms
that come under the umbrella "Literary Journalism": traditional
journalism (reporting, interviewing, profiles, and features that in some way
touch on books/writing/reading); book reviewing and other opinion pieces;
writing about literary history; and personal writing from the perspective of
being a reader and/or a writer. I want to help my students develop the
many skills involved and to write a lot of different work that they can,
ultimately, publish, whether on a blog or in a newspaper or magazine. A given
topic—for instance the recent controversy here in Miami-Dade about library
closures and public support for libraries—can prompt many types of pieces, from
coverage of a protest, to an interview with someone who'd be affected by
library closures, to a personal essay that ranges back to the writer's first
experience of libraries. Since they aspire to be authors who will some day be
reviewed and interviewed, I think this experience can help to prepare them to
understand that role, as well.
And on another level, we are looking
at the changing roles and opportunities for them to contribute to and affect
what is happening in the literary world. The web has made it possible to show
how powerful traditional publications choose to give voice to some groups far
more than others, and there’s a debate about this taking place in ways not
possible before, when someone can, on a blog or online publication, make an argument
that gets seen, holding mainstream publications to account. This is
true, also, for genres that have not been reviewed, or for “niche” types of
writing that can now find audiences across international lines. Many who have
been invisible can now become visible. In the class, we are talking
about what that means for emerging writers, and for writers in South Florida
where there is such a diversity of voices to be heard.
What are the advantages of blogging?
Writing regularly, on a schedule, is
an important means of developing your voice and exploring your material. And
having your writing online helps a writer become known. At the same time, once
something is out there, it's out there. It's important to be clear about what
you do and don't want to cover, to think about what you really have time
for. Being trained in the skills needed for interviewing, reporting, and
researching, and learning to write correctly, clearly, and interestingly under
time pressure—all of this is training journalists get and that can benefit
anyone who wants to blog successfully.
I'd extend this sense of opportunity
and risk to other parts of internet presence. Being on Twitter is a kind of
micro-blogging, for instance. In the class, we're discussing both what
the students write and these larger issues, so that they can make informed
decisions about the ways they'd like to be visible and how much, the interests
they want to focus on, and how to navigate a public writing life.
Lynne Barrett is the author of the
story collections Magpies (Gold Medal, Florida Book Awards), The
Secret Names of Women, and The Land of Go. She edited Tigertail:
Florida Flash and co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion.
Her recent work has appeared in Real South, Ellery Queen’s
Mystery Magazine, The Southern Women’s Review, Delta Blues, One Year to a
Writing Life, and Blue Christmas. Her essay in The
Review Review, “What Editors Want,” was featured in the L.A. Times and Glimmer
Train’s digest. A recipient of the Edgar Award for best mystery story and
an NEA Fellowship, she teaches in the MFA program at Florida International
University and is editor of The Florida Book Review.