October 9, 2013

The Writing Life: Lynne Barrett

Literary Journalism

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 Thanksgiving break.

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 online journals. 

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? Disadvantages?
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.

Twitter @LynneBarrett
Web Site/Blog:  www.lynnebarrett.com


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