Reviewing Books in an Age of Self-Publishing

A lot of people are talking about whether or not it's possible to develop a literary canon in an age of self-publishing. When there are no gatekeepers, how do we know what to keep for future generations? Those who've had the gates slammed in their faces find the open doors of self-publishing a welcome relief and a source of hope for their material. To them, this question seems archaic. But when anything can be published, the resulting sea of material makes it almost impossible to find the readership that matters, whoever that is. And the plethora of written material that's now available for people to read is mind-boggling—and growing exponentially by the day.

It's kind of like orbital debris. At the moment, it doesn't really affect anyone. But at the rate we're going, it will. Eventually. Future generations will look back on our irresponsibility and cast well-earned judgment.

Not that keeping a blog or self-pubbing your memoirs is literary littering. But sometimes it is.

I think that's why reviewers are important. Good ones. Reviewers who don't just read the books that are already hitting the bestseller shelves, or the blogs that everyone else is already following, imitating, tumbling, and pinning. Reviewers who hunt for new material more voraciously and thoroughly than an acquisitions agent.

I don't think I've said anything new yet, so here it goes: I think we should be paying reviewers. I think we should be finding the good reviewers, the trustworthy, intelligent, hound dog reviewers, and then we should be paying them to cull through the morass of material that's out there—traditionally published and self-published, books and blogs and zines—to find that canon. Otherwise the digital age will actually serve to drown out voices, not to give the silenced a voice. We'll still only hear about the books that have money behind them. And our age will be remembered not for liberating the writer, but for making the writer irrelevant. As things stand now, book reviewers are a dying breed. Granted, there are more self-proclaimed reviewers on the internet than ever (myself included), but they're mostly not getting paid. And the only way to read enough to attempt the attic purge that is contemporary book reviewing is for it to be a full time job. So I would challenge our newspapers and journals not to cut those columns. And I would challenge people looking for a good book to read to first find a reviewer they trust, someone they'd happily take a book suggestion from., and find a way to keep them doing what they're doing.


A Q&A with Chelsea Davis

Over the past year, I've had the pleasure of knowing Chelsea Davis, an artist and musician as well as a friend. Just over a week ago, Chelsea launched a Kickstarter to fund an EP with songs written by her and our friend Ana Sanchez. As someone who thinks a lot about the creative life, and what it looks like to live out of our identity as image bearers of a Creator, I thought I'd take a moment to grill her (in writing) about what it's like to be Chelsea Davis.

So, Chelsea Davis, what is it that you do?

I try to understand my experiences of people, places, and things. Generally, this involves a lot of quiet time followed by a lot of talking out loud. Occasionally somewhere in the middle, I find words to name my experiences, and then I sing about them.

When and how did you realize that music was your passion?

I just watched an embarrassing home video of my 4th birthday. Apparently someone brought a karaoke machine, and I refused to share the mic with any of the other kids.

Seriously though, I loved all things performing and artistic when I was growing up. I chose to attend a different high school than my friends to study musical theater, but I had a negative experience trying to fit in there and ended up transferring. Things went downhill for a couple years (as they do when you’re 15 and the world is a terrible horrible no good very bad place.) I minimized my love of performing to be accepted by my boyfriend & peers. I really wasn’t myself for quite awhile. It felt like a part of me just died.  

I went to college to become an English teacher and had enough transfer credits my freshman year to basically take whatever classes I wanted to---and I never left the music building. I pursued a degree in music therapy and ended up teaching elementary music for 5 years.  

Then in 2009 I developed a stress-related illness that was semi-debilitating. I started to re-evaluate how I was spending my time. I discovered that I was spending so much time working in music-related fields, I didn’t have the time or energy to create my own music or perform. Getting sick was a definite wake-up call that something needed to change.

Then in 2010, I was sitting in church and the speaker asked, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail? Turn to the person next to you and share.” I turned to my left and blurted out, “I would be a professional singer.” No one could’ve been more surprised than me.

A few months later, I made plans to leave my full-time teaching job to pursue singing & songwriting.

How does your day to day life look differently than it would otherwise because of your creative pursuits? What are your rhythms?

My natural habitat is creative chaos, and I’m a very circular thinker, so I sometimes have a hard time organizing myself. Every day is different, but my weeks have a pretty good flow to them. In my weekly rhythm, there are some essentials for me to be able to live well & create well:

1)     quiet, uninterrupted, journaling time almost every day  
2)     having individual time with my two closest friends for 3-4 hours
3)     counseling once a week
4)     eating at regular intervals (a real struggle if I’m in the middle of something)
5)     doing yoga 4-5 time a week really helps me care for myself emotionally so I can focus
6)     daily bedtime ritual with my husband where we do the Examen practice to evaluate what was life-giving during the day, and then we read aloud.
7)     If I’m writing, particularly blogging, I’m best in the morning
8)     If I’m singing, I’m best in the afternoon\evening (warmed up)

Depending on the phase of a creative project I’m in, the rhythm really shifts. For example, right now we’re in this huge fundraising push for the Kickstarter, so I’m spending 10-12 hours of my day glued to my computer. NOT ideal. I can’t wait to get back to my normal groove.  

From where do you get your inspiration?

When I was young, my internal experience of the world didn’t match the shiny veneer that was being painted for me by my family and in my church. I found that gap very confusing, and I think I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to name my experiences in order to validate them—to create an external representation of them so that the world makes sense. I was hungry for honesty and integrity, and I think that comes through in my work. I don’t really brush things under the rug.  

If you had a daughter, what's the one thing you would want her to learn from your life?

How to live boldly and imperfectly, without shame.  

If you had a son, what's the one thing you would want him to learn from your life?

How to treat women with respect and dignity, and use his power, privilege and gifts to lift up other people.

What's your most extravagant wish for your music?

I really want to have a song on So You Think You Can Dance. I think I would weep for days.

What's your most humble wish for your music?

That whoever hears it and resonates with it will be moved to greater vulnerability in their own life. I want it to heal people, break shame, give courage to name experiences, and help people hold on when it’s really hard.  

Let's say you were going to go away for a month somewhere, to an ideal location, with the end goal being to have written a handful of new songs. What would that place look like?

Oooooh!!! Great question. I would love to go to a farm somewhere in the Midwest or South. I’m from Kentucky originally, so I imagine it would be two-story rickety farmhouse with big old windows overlooking a huge yard and trees for miles. There would be quilts and rocking chairs and a screened in porch or solarium, and a piano, of course. We’d be far enough away that we’d have to drive into town. It would probably be late spring or early fall, to miss the humidity. That sounds lovely, only made more unrealistically ideal if a couple friends could still visit every few days for lemonade and fresh berries and listening to cicadas together. 

Tell us about Kickstarter. What's the deal?

Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website for people who have a creative project to raise money to fund their idea. It’s a platform for people who want to make something, be it an album, an invention, a play, etc. You set a funding goal, and if you don’t meet that goal within 30 days, all the Backers get their money refunded, and you get $0. It’s an all-or-nothing deal.  
My current project is the album “Caged Bird”, which I co-wrote with spoken word artist Ana Sanchez. I’m using my performance platform as an opportunity to raise awareness about some of those things that we tend to brush under the rug—sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.

We launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the album on Tuesday, June 24, and as of right now, we’ve raised over $12K in 3 days*. Our goal was $15K to record a 6 song album with Grammy-winning executive producer Bill Cunliffe. It’s going so well, we might set a stretch goal of $25K and see if we can make a FULL LENGTH version of “Caged Bird.” I’m pretty excited. You can watch a short video & hear the music here:

*Update: The "Caged Bird" Kickstarter project reached full funding after only 6 days! You can add to the support through the link above. The backer perks are incredible, the music beautiful, and the cause noble. 


The Disastrous Life of Me

Lately I've been feeling like any account of my current life would have to include the word "disastrous" in its title. It's a bit hyperbolic, but when you consider how easily a pile of little things can take on the weight of something much greater, disaster seems about right.

Here's an abbreviated account of my recent troubles:

There was that cake I made that kind of imploded. That was after having to make it twice because the first attempt turned out way too thin.
Then I got cake grease all over my new shirt.
And I broke my biggest mixing bowl.

I broke that while making bread for an amazing dinner with a friend, after which, while walking her to her car, a bug flew into my mouth.
Then there was the whiskey. A parting gift for a friend, I had to pick it up in Costa Mesa at an exorbitant price (apparently worth every penny, but I don't drink whiskey so what do I know). I accidentally left the whiskey too long in the warm car. It uncorked itself. All over the floor of the backseat.
Which meant my car had to be detailed.
Having never detailed my car before, I didn't know they left the plastic on the seat because the seat was damp. So when I picked it up, I whipped off the plastic without a thought and sat right down on a wet seat.
This was after I'd already vacuumed out half my car because I'd knocked over two succulents, spilling almost a full pot of soil all over the passenger seat.
I hosted an open mic night the other day and managed to knock the microphone over, getting my foot completely knotted in the cord while I was at it. As I stood there on my remaining foot waiting to be untangled, all I could think was, "This is my life now."

But you know, I've found a curious consequence to these minor havocs. I feel unusually blessed with things being normal, and incredibly grateful for anything above average. I bought myself some peonies on my lunch break earlier this week, and they nearly made me cry they were so beautiful. (Even after accidentally dropping one in the trash.) We should take time for peonies, and for pancakes and people watching, taking the longer route, opening the windows, pausing with the cup of coffee. If it takes disaster to notice these things, then let disaster come. But it shouldn't take disaster. We should live with our eyes wide open.


Shakespeare Sundays

I'll tell you what gives me more joy than anything else I can think of: creative communities. I don't mean formal communities with logos and schedules, though those are nice enough. I mean when you find out that Benedict Cumberbatch is friends with Tom Hiddleston who's friends with Zachary Levi who's friends with Nathan Fillion who's friends with Joss Whedon. Just imagine that dinner party for a moment. Now you see what I mean.

Yesterday afternoon I was in a room of people, most of them friends, some of them strangers, reading through "The Merchant of Venice". Each person read a different role. And the whole thing was brilliant. I found myself looking around me at the other readers with a particular appreciation, because I was in the midst of my own convergence. The creative community had happened. Not a single person in the room was "famous", but every one of them was graced with a good measure of talent—and a few of them with the kind of talent that makes you stop and stare and forget to breathe. (If I say our Shylock was better than Al Pacino, will I be believed?)

This is just to say, again, that I'm very grateful. None of this came about because I said, "Here, let's develop a community." It came about because a few people who loved something very much found the same love in each other and said, "This here! Let us celebrate it!" We find ourselves in good places when we set about celebrating our whole (as in hale, full, well and making well) passions. 


Pater Noster

I wrote this responsive prayer for our service yesterday as part of a 40 day series on the Lord's Prayer our church is going through. My mother asked me to post it here. I do what she says.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
This is your world. You hold the past, present, and future in your almighty hands. Because the veil was torn and the Spirit has come, we are always—even now—standing in the presence of our God. All of creation bends to you—and would we hesitate? The rocks sing your praise, and the waves rest at your feet. How often we forget!

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
All around us—and within us—we find excuses to ignore your persistent presence.  We settle for easy dissatisfaction in things that are not of you. We have stepped too far over that line that runs through each human heart. We’ve compromised to keep ourselves from suffering as you suffer, grieving as you grieve—but it has robbed us also of your divine, unfettered joy. All this, and we hesitate to call the darkness evil. Christ, keep us.

And Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Son of God, have mercy on us for the things we choose to do instead of loving you.  Too often we cast the stones of our own justice, forgetting that they fall on you. Our hardness of heart keeps us distant—but apart from you, where shall we go? How can we live? You who said, “Father, forgive,” help us to have mercy as you have mercy. Unclench the fists of our hearts, and teach us to love like you.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Give us today our daily bread.
Ever more we need you! When the car unexpectedly runs out of gas, the bank account’s tapped out, the job’s lost, or we’re just too tired to do the kindest thing. Then the simplest things are supernatural, because we only have when they come from you. Every day we need your grace. Every day we need your bread.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Even though it messes with our personal plans, even though it requires our surrender, even though it means everything must change—O that you would rend the heavens and come down! We are weary, we are angry, that the oppressor has had his way! The closer we are to you, the more it breaks our hearts to see the poor trampled, the weak abused—to see the lonely, the less than, the lost, the hurt.

We’ve wronged, fallen short, and been endlessly needy, and you’ve met us with your own endless mercy and generosity. So too we need you when the brokenness of the world hurts us more than we can bear. Put an end to the brokenness of nature. Put an end to the brokenness of humanity. Because in your presence neither disaster nor disease nor abuse nor death by any hand can stand. You conquer with severest light, and you heal with perfect tenderness.

We need you now to remind us of the goodness of existence, of the beauty of the earth—to remind us of the astonishing gift of your holiness here with us. When our hearts are burdened, when our future is hard to see, when our patience is thin and our eyes are dim, still, as your children, there is one thing we know: That you, O Lord, are good.

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.



Choosing Coriolanus

Let me tell you a little bit about my life right now. It's quite lovely, actually—I have a perfect apartment, good friends, precious family, and I ate delicious sweet potato gnocchi today. But it's not particularly cheerful at the moment. It seems nearly everyone I care about is going through their own personal gauntlets, and I am left to pray. Which is a good place to be left in, but not easy.

I have made this observation elsewhere, but I'll make it again here. Something happens when you crack open the door to grief. You become almost physically aware of the feelings that are due things. That which is delightful suddenly strikes you as the most beautiful thing in existence. That which is sad can set you to honest weeping. I find a certain sanctity in this. After all, Jesus wept.

In the midst of all this, I've been personally "suffering" a lot of Stupid. My wallet was stolen a month ago, and for a pile of reasons, it's taken all that time to get access to my new bank account. I made an hour long trip the other day only to find out it was a wasted journey. I broke my key ring. I dropped each of my keys individually the whole way down the hall trying to fix it. I'm pretty sure there's a leak in one of my tires. I could go on, but why bother.

I've been meaning to treat myself to something, lately—preferably something theatrical. A few weeks ago, I heard the Donmar's Coriolanus would be screening in Irvine. The tickets were available online—I just needed my new payment card. I waited for it for three weeks. Just long enough to be too late.

Though the tickets were sold out, I called anyway, and the woman at the box office sounded vaguely hopeful. It was possible (though the seats might not be any good) that just maybe there would be room for me. An hour before it started, I sat in my living room thinking about my perfect parking space fifty feet from my door, and the 45 minute drive in Orange County traffic, and the strong likelihood that I'd have to turn right back around. To be honest, I was afraid of being stuck in a stupid situation again.

And then I thought about what I'd be doing in an hour if I didn't go: sitting in my living room, wishing I'd gone. When I got to the box office, I told the woman I didn't have a ticket. She plucked one off the counter, saying, "You're in luck. A woman just left this here for the next person who came along. It's yours."

It was so perfect it was like a bad novel.  

So it was with absolute gratitude that I watched Coriolanus. And I think that's the way we should approach every work of Shakespeare. And while we're at it, the world.


For once in my life, I disagree with First Things. I suppose actually twice, because in August of 2012 they posted a review of the film adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus which was less than positive, and just last month they reviewed the Donmar Theatre's production of the same with similar disaffection.

The review of the film is titled "Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus," which is the first sign that the reviewer's main issue lies in the portrayal of Coriolanus himself. A different reviewer looked at the Donmar performance, and her main contention is also with the portrayal of main character. The one is too subtle, the other too sensitive. I think an interesting evening would be had if we could put these two reviewers in a room together, because they seem to disagree with one another almost completely about who Coriolanus is supposed to be. Sympathetic? Cruel? Fascist? Victimized?

I loved them both, for that exact reason. There may be plenty of wrong ways to perform Shakespeare, but I suspect there isn't a singular right one. Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus was terrifying and victimized. Thoroughly unlikable, but horrifyingly admirable. Tom Hiddleston's Coriolanus was a soldier of soldiers, self-destructively honest, ironically blind. And they both had more or less the same lines.

In the end, I found myself preferring the latter depiction—and not just because I'm a single woman between the ages of fifteen and fifty. (No, really. I swear.) I preferred it, because, unlike the film adaptation, I didn't feel like it was trying to do more than what Shakespeare wrote (i.e. be more political than he was already being), and it was richer as a result. It also felt much more like a classic tragedy. The end was completely surprising and completely unnecessary and completely inevitable all at once. It was so classically tragic, it felt more like Sophocles than Shakespeare.


I was thinking about Coriolanus as a character during the 30 minute walk home from my new parking spot (thankfully worth it). I was thinking about the choices he made—and the choices that were made for him—and how much he suffered for them. Here's the thing of it: You can't sort this one out. It's no one's specific fault how the Coriolanus cookie crumbles. As soon as you blame the politicians, the people open their mouths. As soon as you blame the people, Coriolanus turns out to be an ass. 

What does seem to be clear is that sometimes things happen regardless of you. Sometimes you step into a stream that seems like inevitability and you're left with nothing but your character, because no matter what, you'll be strung up by your ankles. 

Sometimes I make wise choices. Sometimes I make stupid ones. So often the difference lies not in the actions, but in their consequences. It seems so arbitrary that at times I might almost think our lives are ruled by fate—were it not for the burning in my heart. The thing Coriolanus lacked altogether. Human sympathy.

Incidentally (and I feel very strongly about this), I think sympathy isn't so much sharing other people's emotional experiences as it is echoing the "No's" and "Amen's" of God. Life can look an awful lot like tragedy sometimes, but it's not at all. For one thing, it makes no account of delight. "Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless." (Thank you, Auden.) More than this, suffering is never the end of the story. It is always the beginning. I don't say that dismissively. One must believe that souls are eternal to hold to this—and I do. 


from the Writers' Workshop, Feb 2014

Right as my hope comes crashing down,
I pray I might be hopeful still from every angle.
I pray hope overcomes dreams with better things,
And the sight and the shiver, the taste and the sound

Go out from me, and come back new.
Clean my memories, build them with better wings,
Root my feet to the earth and wake me up well,
For I have dreamed many dreams, and not one of them true.
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