Hi, readers! I’m switching gears today — moving away from learning from books, garbage and otherwise, to how one book made me so mad that I started Grab the Lapels. You could say it was the straw that broke this camel’s back, really. I want to thank Briana and Krysta at Pages Unbound for recommending this topic.
There have been points in my life when I wasn’t a great reader. There are stretches of time for which I struggle to remember if I read at all outside of school. What happened? I’m not sure. As a college freshman, I was a music performance major on the violin, but when I spectacularly failed at that, I switched to an English/Creative Writing major. Unprepared, I read many books I didn’t understand, and a few that struck me deeply: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Girl Imagined by Chance by Lance Olsen, The Pillowman (a play) by Martin McDonagh, The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle. Do you notice a theme? I didn’t. These books are so different.
They’re all by men. In fact, very few books required in my classes were by women. Sure, there were some. I even took a class about female Gothic writers, which was a head trip because I was surrounded by novels by women. Near the end of my MFA program, I started reviewing books for online and print magazines. But I fell out of love with it. The books sent my way were again written mainly by men.
In fact, one book made me so angry that I met with a writer friend of mine and told her I was going to start a book review blog and read only women. The book used women like pornographic dolls to push a message of toxic masculinity. I’d advertise my blog idea to all the small-press authors I knew from my MFA program and conferences, and I’d let groups of women writers on Facebook know. A couple of days later, in the summer of 2013, Grab the Lapels was born.
I was sent loads of books right away. Women published by small presses were desperate for attention. And who can blame them? Most professional reviewers are men. Most books reviewed are by men. It’s getting better since a group called VIDA started publishing stats on these professional journals, and readers changed their subscriptions based on the results.
In that first year, I was overwhelmed. Many writers wanted to send me PDFs to review, but if you’ve ever tried to read a huge PDF document, you know the issues (namely, weird scrolling and you can’t highlight or take notes unless you buy the ADOBE version that lets you do that — and I use a Chromebook!). I collected so many books, I never thought I’d get through them all. Some writers waited a whole year to hear from me.
I found that review copies do something to me as a reviewer. Though I started to be a “for the people” reviewer, reading book after book that was well written but didn’t interest me started to make blogging feel like a chore. There were some total gems: Limber by Angela Pelster, who made a collection of essays about trees interesting. The Tide King by Jen Michalski, who wove a tale about living forever that still has me star-struck. I also appreciated the horror/Christmas crossover in Santa’s Little Helper by H.D. Gordon (and ’tis the season, after all. . .).
However, if I negatively reviewed a book from the small-press community, relationships I had created online and in person could/would be weakened or destroyed. This led me to wonder: did writers assume I would review all books positively because I had pitched myself as a champion for women in the small-press community?
In 2016, three years after I started and over a year since I quit taking review copies from authors and publishers, I finished the pile of books sent to me. Since then, I’ve been reviewing my own and library books. While I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to reviewer copies, I’m still only reviewing books by women and focus mainly on those who publish with smaller presses.
Why did you start blogging? What were some early struggles you experienced?