June 17, 2019

Literary Life Online: "A Good Cocktail Party"

By Michael Kaler, NYU SPI 2019 student

“There’s an extraordinary amount of energy in this room!”

So observed Susan Greenbaum, Interim Dean of the NYU School of Professional Studies as she welcomed hundreds of ecstatic current NYU Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) students and alumni, MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students, faculty, guests and guest speakers gathered recently at NYU’s Kimmel Center.

The reason for the enthusiasm was clear. In addition to commemorating the Summer Publishing Institute, the event was also the 24th NYU Media Talk and the latest in the series of PubTechConnect events co-hosted by the NYU Center for Publishing and Publishers Weekly, The topic of conversation was 'Book Lovers on the Internet.' MJ Franklin, a social editor at the New York Times, moderated a panel examining the role of digital and social media in enriching discussions about great books and bringing together wide audiences of readers.

The panelists were Cristina Arreola, Senior Books Editor at Bustle; Jane Lee, Senior Manager of Community & Content at Epic Reads; Emma Straub, novelist and owner of Books Are Magic; and Jess Zimmerman, Editor-in-Chief of Electric Literature.

"What a night this is for book lovers!" Executive Director of SPI Andrea Chambers stressed during her opening remarks. Against the backdrop of the stunning New York skyline at sunset, the panelists discussed with wit and passion the current state of bookish websites and social networks.

More often than not, the speakers agreed with each other. Reviews that assess the craft, structure, and tone of a book are appearing less and less frequently on the web, the panelists concurred; personal essays detailing gut-level emotional reactions to books are ascending in popularity. Zimmerman and Straub pointed out how user-driven sites like Goodreads and Amazon disservice authors by offering a forum for hyperbolic pans; Lee and Arreola drew attention to how long-silenced perspectives can find a voice on the internet through digital book clubs. The panelists suggested that among a broad array of options, there’s a website for every kind of reader. In fact, Straub described literary activity on the web as "a good cocktail party, where it’s always busy and you’re not the only one there."

The speakers tackled difficult subjects head on. Arreola spoke candidly of Bustle’s ongoing effort to respond to racism and sexism in the literary world through crafting inclusive book-recommendation listicles. "Books are about power structures," Zimmerman reiterated, and then she and Straub reflected on how bias affects the work of many professional and amateur reviewers. Offering a more personal approach, Lee touched upon how digital media allowed her to engage with likeminded, supportive people growing up, validating her sense of herself as a reader and writer.

A succinct Q & A session wrapped up the Media Talk. A handful of audience members had the chance to ask the five speakers anything; the questions were as thought provoking as the answers. "There’s this dichotomy between the personal, interior power of reading and the shared excitement that comes from discussing a book with others. How has the internet complicated that tension?" wondered SPI student Cameron Dyer-Hawes. "We were siloed before the internet," Lee replied, before considering a few of the ways the web has allowed people to digitally publicize the joy they experience while reading in privacy.

During the one-hour reception that ended the night, SPI students praised the panel for its energy and insight. "Everyone was really excited and friendly, and the panel was current, relatable, and boundary pushing," Rayan Khayat enthused. “As someone who loves magazines but isn’t the most bookish person,” added Dean Nachampasak, "the talk helped me realize there’s a spot for everyone on these sites."

Inclusivity, authenticity, accessibility: these words, more than any others, linked together the panelists’ responses to the night’s diverse set of questions. Again and again, the panelists praised digital media for its ability to facilitate community and encompass a wide range of readers. From sites like Epic Reads to Electric Lit, the bookish web amplifies often-marginalized voices and empowers once-isolated book lovers to connect with each other at last.

“My biggest takeaway from tonight is that the internet has created a space for people to talk about the books that they love, even if they might not be lucky enough to be part of that community in person,” SPI student Leyla Erkan concluded near the event’s end. “That’s a really beautiful thing—and it’s something to be celebrated.”

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