5 Ways To Be a Good Literary Citizen

A term I’ve heard with increasing frequency is “literary citizen.” It is usually spoken of along with an admonition to be a good one. But how exactly are we supposed to be good literary citizens, and why should we try?

Writing is often thought of as a solitary occupation, and it’s true we writers spend a lot of time alone. However, we write so people can read our writing—a writer is inherently part of a group. Yet even in graduate school, surrounded by other emerging writers, I didn’t think of myself as part of a literary community. Of course, community meant something different in the pre-social-networking nineties, but the idea that I was a writer within a larger writing community didn’t dawn on me until I was well established in New York. But if you’re writing, you’re a literary citizen, so you should make the society a nicer place to live.

GIVEAWAY: Allison is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rmonk won.)



allison-amend-author-writer         a-nearly-perfect-copy-book-cover

Column by Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and
author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection
Things That Pass for Love as well as the novel Stations West, which was a
finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma
Book Award. Her new novel, A NEARLY PERFECT COPY (April 2013, Nan A.
Talese/Doubleday). In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said of the book,
“Amend makes her characters immediately real, depicting their complicated
desires and decisions in a highly enjoyable, nearly perfect novel.” Allison lives
in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College and
for the Red Earth MFA program. Find her on Facebook or on Twitter.



Here are some five ways, and reasons, to be a good literary citizen:

1. Say yes, unless you mean no.

I was recently gathering blurbs for my new novel, and who agreed to read and comment on it? A single parent, a writer under deadline, and someone I admire whom I’d never met. They could have easily have claimed they were too busy (because they were too busy) but instead they made time. A few said no, but right away, and with believable regret, promising to praise my book by word of mouth. Knowing how difficult it is to ask for blurbs, which are, let’s face it, a few hours of unpaid labor, I plan to always say yes to those who ask. Of course, I’ve only been asked three times, so this policy may have to change, but then I plan on being among those who say no with believable regret, and then I will praise the book by word of mouth. This also applies to reading your friends’ work in progress, giving them feedback, and perhaps suggesting an appropriate outlet for publication. If you can possibly do it, do it; if you can’t, don’t promise to and renege. Someone will do the same for you.

(How to Sell Pieces to Magazines and Newspapers.)

2. Put your money where your mouth is, or your mouth where your money would be.

If we want there to be outlets for literary fiction, we need to buy the magazines and support the publishers we beg to accept our work. I will admit that there have been times in my life when the cost of a new book seemed prohibitive, but if you can gather the $26.95, it’s one of the best things you can do for your future career (and the career of the person whose book you bought). If such a thing still exists in your neighborhood, buy books from an independent bookstore (you can find the closest one here) or at Powells. Or subscribe to your favorite literary journal.

If you’re a teacher, consider using journals in your class instead of or in addition to textbooks or anthologies. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has a great program where journals adopted for class use are sold at half price to students, and are free for their instructors.

In my family, we’ve started a holiday tradition where everyone buys one hardcover book to give to someone else. We read the book and pass it among ourselves. Thus, we have something to do during family vacations (instead of argue), we have someone to discuss the book with, and we don’t have to worry about what to get each other (because who needs another scarf?).

There are other ways to support the book industry even if you’re flat broke. Recommend books on your Twitter or Facebook feed (or whatever the next social networking trend is). Read library books in public so people can see the covers. Become the person people ask for book club recommendations. Go to readings–it’s supportive to be in the audience, asking questions. A few years ago a well-known literary writer whom I’d met once at a conference braved a snowstorm to come hear me read in Newton, Massachusetts. I was (am) incredibly touched.

3. Flattery will get you everywhere.

When you read something you like, contact that person and tell him or her you liked it, especially emerging writers. Remember when the first stranger said she liked your story? Be that person for someone else. If you can’t find the writer online, editors and publishers will usually pass along compliments. Even established writers like to hear from intelligent, thoughtful colleagues.

4. Establish your own literary community.

One of the most important things my graduate program emphasized was finding the readers who will be with you your whole life. It took a bit of searching, but now I have two or three people who understand what I’m trying to accomplish and will drop nearly everything to read the drafts I send them. These days, children and careers sometimes get in the way, but I know that as soon as is humanly possible they will give me honest and constructive feedback.

A few friends and I created a literary sorority. Though we’re scattered all over the country, we support each other virtually. Once a year we get together to remind ourselves that someone is rooting for us and excited about our work.

(Should you mention self-published books when querying an agent?)

5. Rejoice in others’ successes.

This one can be challenging for those of us who are prone to a bit of envy. But I try to remember that every best-selling literary novel means that more people are likely to read. More people are likely to go into a bookstore to get that novel, and therefore find mine nearby. More people will seek out that author’s other work, and find my story alongside theirs in a literary journal. There is not a finite number of successful writers—someone else’s success is likely to make yours more probable, not less, especially if it’s someone you know, who might nominate you for a prize, or introduce you to her agent.

If you are that successful author (good for you. I’m really happy for you. Really I am) think about who you can boost along with you on your way up. If Jack had brought someone else up the beanstalk perhaps they both could have sold the movie rights.

GIVEAWAY: Allison is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rmonk won.)



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9 thoughts on “5 Ways To Be a Good Literary Citizen

  1. vrundell

    Thanks for your comments! I’m the shameless book-giver in the family and I blog and post reviews all the time, so I know all about good citizenry…but it’s a great idea to reach out to authors and praise them personally. Right now I do so via twitter, but a more formal declaration may be better!
    Best of luck!

  2. mande78

    Another way to be a good literary citizen… Support conferences. Not only is it a great way to meet writing buddies, it’s a great opportunity to learn something new. There are different types of conferences: general writers conferences, genre conferences, writing boot camp conferences, and retreats.


    Visit my blog & comment for a chance to win a Kindle Fire.

  3. smbergin

    I really enjoyed this article and think that we all could do more to show our literary pride. I’ve recently gone on a spending spree of literary gifts as a subtle reminder to friends to stay connected to their literary roots!

    Write on …


  4. Katie

    I love a big, beautiful, new and new-smelling hardback to spend a weekend with, so cheers to #2. Also, encouraging other writers’ successes, especially if you’re envious, can make you feel better about your own situtation – whether dire or on the ups.

  5. itsjuliemartin

    Step out of your comfort zone: I attended my first writers conference this year. I had majored in English and worked more than two decades as a journalist, so I felt comfortable with my new tribe. My husband on the other hand, a poetry-writing school teacher, reluctantly joined me for the out-of-town excursion. I was overwhelmed by the generosity that people showed my husband after his turn at the open mic, then after my reading from my novel manuscript. It’s a risk worth taking, extending that hand in a crowd to a stranger to say, “I loved your work.” It meant a lot to me, and to him.

  6. willmorse

    Not a fan of commuters who flaunt book covers. Worse than bumper stickers.

    I miss browsing at local bookstores. I should make a photo album of all my ebook covers so I can actually see what’s in my Kindle library.

  7. tberry1974

    I went to a sci/fi-fantasy convention a few months ago, and was just overwhelmed at the local, self-published or small press offerings. I gathered as many bookmarks or cards as I could. I want to read these works and blog about them and share my reviews on Goodreads and Facebook to help out writers whose books I enjoy. I think it’s so important to go to book signings too. I want writers to keep writing for as long as I can keep reading. Without books, we’re doomed. I also do the World Book Night where I give out copies of books for free to people who may not read as much. Last year I gave out an Atwood book to a retirement community and had rave feedback from people who had never heard of the book.

  8. rmonk

    Here’s a 6th way to be a good literary citizen. If you are a writer, then please beware of self-publishers. One in particular, Guideposts (Inspiring Voices), hiding behind the veil of their Angels on Earth magazine, a compilation of angel stories supplied to them by the readership. Angels on Earth has a paid distribution of millions. Great place to advertise if your book is of the same genre.
    Well, here’s the deal, to advertise with Angels on Earth, you must re-PUBLISH with Inspiring Voices (Guideposts), and that’s a cost of several thousand dollars. Still, with such a high distribution to a captive audience, it still should work out if your book is good.
    But you find later, after you are re-published with Inspiring Voices, and that your royalty checks are barely chicken feed, that you have no account to verify, no account exists in the company to tell you how many of your books were actually sold, at least not for your eyes.
    This is despicable and should be investigated. It begs for a class action law suit.


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