Time to Ponder Books: how being mad at one book led me to start Grab the Lapels

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?

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43 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing the story of how your blog got started. I think it’s interesting how often people start blogs because they see a need that’s not met. Or they get angry about a book or a book trend. That’s why I like book blogs. They fill in the places that publishers and professional reviewers sometimes leave empty.

    • This is just a guess, but I feel like bloggers who start because they want to keep track of their thoughts on reading struggle the most. There has to be an audience. If a person ONLY wants to keep track of their thoughts, Goodreads is a nifty tool.

  2. Oh I liked hearing this story! I need to pay more attention to the genders of my authors, but I think I seem to review quite a few women as well as men it seems…

    I started this blog when I left the publishing industry, but I seem to have found myself right back in it again. Which, to be honest, is right where I want to be!

    • Did you get started because you missed the publishing industry?

      I like to use my end-of-year post as a way to check how my reading is. Oftentimes, I’m all smug and think I’m doing great and then realize I read 60 books by straight white women from the U.S., or something bummer like that. This year, because my books are at least half from my personal collection, the end-of-year review will tell me less about my current reading choices and more about what kind of book buying I am. Am I thinking about the author’s background when I BUY a book?

  3. I loved reading the story of why you started your blog. Thank you for sharing that with us. 😊
    I started my blog because I wanted to write on a regular basis and needed an outlet for that. I thought about what I enjoy discussing and a book blog idea was born from that. I am so fortunate that I got to discover this wonderful community because of that as well – something I was not aware of initially and something I now cherish dearly. 😊

    • I definitely did not know about blogging communities when I started. I ran Grab the Lapels more like an online magazine. Honestly, I can’t even remember how I realized I could follow people, or how people found me! It’s been 5.5 years.

  4. What a great post – so interested to hear why and how you started your blog. I started mine as an incentive to read the books I had and not buy any new ones and it has, by and large, worked for me.

    • I do believe you were in the 700s when I started following you, and now you’re in the 500s! I distinctly remember you writing that you could ALL your books…..well, except these boxes in the attic, or something like that!

  5. Interesting, thanks for sharing. I started blogging a few months ago because (a) I was blogging for my job at the time and colleagues said I should have my own! (b) I wanted to make friends to discuss books with and (c) to practise my writing skills.

    • I’ve read several folks say they blog to practice their writing skills, and I’d love to know more about how that works. I taught writing and literature in high education for 10 years and often found that students had an idea of what kind of writer they were, but only transformed when pushed. What is it about blogging that pushes–and shows–a blogger how to write better? I’d love to hear more!

      • I think that because I’m writing for an audience (potentially thousands of people), this makes me consider my words more carefully and it also encourages me to communicate clearly. Maybe it’s also a competitive thing – I see how well other bloggers write (or otherwise) and want to be known for my writing style.

  6. I started my blog when a friend started hers and realised how much I enjoyed the interaction of reading, writing and commenting. My theme, the independent woman in Australian Literature, was the subject of my M.Litt thesis and arose strangely enough from second wave feminists failing to acknowledge that there was a tradition of anti-marriage women’s writing extending back into the nineteenth century, and as I have since discovered, as far back as the seventeenth century in English writing. You cottoned on to the “independent woman” bit and so I have for years now immensely enjoyed your eclectic mix of experimental women’s fiction, Anne of Green Gables, and African-American revolutionary studies.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Bill. I never expected the types of books I read to vary so much, but once I stopped taking reviewer copies, I sort of went all over the place.

      I never realized your blog is based on your master’s thesis, or that your friend blogged. Which friend is that? Sue? Lisa?

      • The friend who got me into blogging was Michelle (Here: http://michellescotttucker.com/?wref=bif) who blogged as she wrote an autobiography of Elizabeth Macarthur, a famous early white settler. She’s now the Executive Director of The Stella Prize, Australia’s pre-eminent literary prize for women writers, and seems to have stopped blogging, though she is doing a guest post for me in a couple of weeks.

  7. Interesting, and I know what you mean about pressure for positive reviews when dealing with small presses or self-published authors. On the whole, I only take books for review from major publishers who can absorb negative reviews without too much adverse impact. I don’t know about professional reviewers since I don’t read them, but I assure you the vast majority of reviews I read round the blogosphere are of books by women – I’d reckon 80% or more. In fact, I sometimes feel that I might start a blog specialising in books by men… 😉

  8. Great to hear about the origins of your blog – thanks for sharing! You bring an interesting perspective to the books you look at, and I look forward to following your updates on the women writers you read in 2019.

    I started mine out of curiosity, after noticing several Goodreads friends had blogs. It’s been a useful way to discover new writers and structure my reading.

  9. I loved reading about how and why you started your blog.

    I started mine as kind of a lark, just because I wanted a space to talk about books and reading since I wasn’t getting enough of that in my real life. I found all you wonderful, interesting bookish people, which has been the most wonderful surprise! My struggles didn’t come at the beginning, really, but have come up as I’ve gone on blogging. I seem to be losing my steam – I don’t write as frequently as I did at first. Maybe blogs have a shelf life? (ha ha!) I still want to keep up with reading what my blog friends write but I just don’t have the passion for posting more than one post a week, or sometimes less. I don’t know, maybe it’s a phase. I will always be a reader, it’s who I am. But I may not always blog about it.

    • Most blogs I’ve encountered live 1-3 years. I’m wondering if part of it is not every reader is a writer. For me, writing blog posts fills in this place where fiction writing used to live. I’m not always happy with how frustrating it is writing fiction, but GTL still gives me space to write. You could try switching up your style by writing a reading diary instead of reviews.

  10. I think when you first start book blogging, you are excited to read all the books and promote the ones you love, but you quickly find out you realistically cannot read all the books (and blogging takes up a lot of reading time you’d have otherwise). When I first started blogging, I found it hard to say no to review requests. And like you, I didn’t always enjoy the experience. I’ve discovered reading without that added pressure is more my speed. I even stress about NetGalley ARCs sometimes and those are ones I want to read and actively request!

    • I felt a lot of pressure to review every small-press book positively–but I couldn’t. In fact, the first review I ever published on Grab the Lapels was negative. For some reason, I can’t seem to forget that. Anyway, there are writers who have completely stopped speaking to me, and others who definitely speak less over my reviews of their books. One person was angry that I really liked her book except this one detail. I mean, you can’t be a writer and feel that way. In fact, I’ve read about writers who let their negative reviewers go over their next manuscript with them!

  11. How interesting – thank you for sharing this! I have been keeping a book journal since 1997 but didn’t blog then. However, I used to copy my reviews into letters to my then long distance boyfriend. And looking back I think I used my blog when that was lost to do the same thing although with a gap, as I started it in 2005. They were short pieces on Livejournal and then at some point I migrated it all onto WordPress, so the old short ones are still there. I think I wanted to share my thoughts and showcase people – I didn’t get that many review copies until a while later.

  12. I really enjoyed reading your blog’s origin story! **Side note: I’ll make sure I don’t ever read The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men” lol**

    I think it is awesome that you stepped away from review copies since it was making reading & blogging feel like a chore. I am working through my review copies too. Once I am finally finished, I will only be requesting a select few books that I am highly anticipating.

    Basically I started my blog to have a creative outlet & to be part of a community. I feel like book blogging has satisfied both.

  13. I love this origin story. Mine is not nearly as complex or intense. I’m sorry that you ran into such a toxic book, but I’m glad it pushed you into blogging so we could meet! 🙂 Seriously, it’s awful that almost all high education literature is written by white men. Cue eye roll. How long do you think it will be before we get away from this?

    I can understand no longer taking review copies. Do you think you’ll ever take review copies again on a case-by-case basis?

    • I might take a review copy of a book that has come to my attention early and that I want to read already. One publisher asks me to review every book by a woman that they publish. I pointed them to my FAQ that clearly says I don’t want review copies right now.

      I think colleges will stop focusing on fiction by white men as more and more survey classes introduce us to other canons. I had a few professors who did. I think it’s the folks who nag us to death about the value of “classics” who cut out anyone who isn’t a white man.

      • Wow. Do you have to point them towards an FAQ for EVERY female published book?! Also, I haven’t seen you review much non-fiction. Only Hurston and memoir. Do you read female-published nonfiction outside of those spaces?

        Good point about how everything will grow and change with time. We just need to be patient. Only, I want the future now! 🙂

        • I went through a stretch in 2017, I believe, when I read a lot of nonfiction, but my 2018 reading challenge didn’t really let me dictate my own book choices. I’d read the oldest and newest books I own each month, plus one book about a fat woman, and one random choice.

  14. I started my blog because I wanted to talk about books with other people. A lot of friends, family, and coworkers around me “in real life” read and I was having conversations with them about books, but we all read such similar things that I wanted to branch out and hear other ideas and hear about different books that I wouldn’t necessarily come across otherwise. I’ve found that since I’ve started blogging, I’m retaining what I read much more as I now have to write a review and contemplate the book more than just reading it and moving on to the next read. I’ve always read various genres, so I don’t really have a theme for my blog, just books and reading!
    I’m always contemplating no longer taking books for review – I don’t like feeling “locked in”, or reading books so far in advance that I can’t discuss them with anyone!

    • When I was in a book club for a year or two, I realized that I didn’t like reading the same book as everyone else. We mostly came to the same feelings about it, or if we didn’t, if felt like we were saying opposite things from a very personal place, and that it would be rude to disagree. I imagine there are some rigorous book clubs with people who really know and trust each other, but this book club was for anyone, so you never knew who would show up.

  15. Wonderful post!! I love seeing how bloggers start out!

    When I first started, it took me a little while to begin accepting books for review from authors and publishers. When they began to roll in from various indie writers, I was quickly overwhelmed. I was so grateful to be given the chance to read the books, especially because I don’t think I wold have heard of these authors otherwise! But I quickly realized that I needed an honest review strategy. Once I got that down, things went much more smoothly for me.

    • When I think “indie” writers, I often think self-published or vanity press authors. They’re so hungry for reviews because no one wants to give them a chance. And to be fair, most self-published books I’ve read are…not so good. However, because I went through an MFA program in fiction writing, I had a lot of connections to the small-press industry to get me started.

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