Category Archives: Women's National Book Assoc.

Librarians and booksellers in revolt

booklegger001In the late 1960s and early 1970s the countercultural movement, in its  anti-establishment wisdom, pushed librarians to question library-work-as-usual. For example, librarians began to investigate–and change–the way things were named in our catalogs, making subject headings more authentic and relevant. (Now, of course, keyword searching, tags, and other techniques have made all that head-banging work almost irrelevant.) Since the library profession is largely female, Second Wave Feminism shook things up as well.

Women in the Literary Landscape, (the Women’s National Book Association publication I helped write), showcases those changes in the library, bookselling, and publishing worlds. I remember, as a young librarian in the 1970s, seeing the magazine Booklegger, put out by Celeste West, Valerie Wheat, and others. It would be correct to say that the scales fell from my eyes. I was working at that time for what was considered a very progressive library system but Booklegger and the subsequent book of essays, Revolting Librarians, went much farther in their efforts to disrupt complacency. They wrote, for instance, about libraries needing to provide access to non-mainstream literature, specifically, the little magazines and alternative newspapers that were expressing views not otherwise heard. The Berkeley Barb, East Village Other, and the LA Free Press, to name just a few of the more well-known publications, offered alternative ideas, opinions, and local news, addressing populations that were then mostly invisible. An article titled “I Never See Him Come Into the the Library Much Anymore” skewered the lack of a customer service focus in reference work.

There was countercultural change in the bookselling business as well. Below, from  Women in the Literary Landscape, are a few paragraphs about the feminist bookstore movement.

“Women opened bookstores that served as gathering centers for book discussion, self-help groups, meetings, and performances, with chairs and tables to sit at and bulletin boards to advertise local events. The bookstores stocked non-sexist children’s literature, lesbian fiction, books that portrayed nontraditional families, writings on women and violence, and as women’s history developed into an academic discipline, they were sources of feminist scholarship. They were also safe spaces for women leading nontraditional lives. Publishers, ever conscious of the marketplace, recognized that these bookstores meant there were new opportunities in the field of feminist literature.

“In the 1970s and 1980s there were at least one hundred feminist bookstores around the country. The first two were Amazon in Minneapolis and ICI in Oakland. They were soon followed by New Words in Boston, Bookwoman in Austin (Texas), and Charis in Atlanta, among many others. Carol Seajay, one of the founders of Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco, started the Feminist Bookstore News, creating a way for the bookstores to exchange news and ideas. In 1994 there were still one hundred feminist bookstores, but by the late 1990s with the arrival of chain bookstores and online sales, the number declined, and by 2014 there were only fourteen.”

I still have my copy of the first issue of Booklegger (that’s the graphic at the top of this post). It’s an artifact from an earlier era, but the energy that fueled it never goes out of style. For more information about the indomitable Celeste West, click here.

Madge Jenison and the Sunwise Turn

Sunwise Turn memoirLast week I wrote about the book I co-authored, Women in the Literary Landscape, which contains an overview of the role of women in various fields related to books. One of the joys of doing the research was discovering Madge Jenison, known as a “minor novelist” and the co-owner of the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, which opened in New York City in 1915. Madge wrote a memoir about her bookselling experiences, called Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. Her personality shines through on every page: warm, buoyant, idealistic and exuding positive energy. Jenison felt that putting the right book in the hands of the right reader might just save the world. One of my favorite lines from the memoir is, “Books– do I made too much of them?”

In 1915, women were opening bookstores all over the U.S. and running the bookselling departments in department stores. For much of the 20th century, department stores believed that selling books raised the tone, made the store appear more like an intellectual endeavor rather than just a temple of of commerce and brought in more educated and wealthy customers. In the early years of the century bookselling was deemed a suitable profession for women (more about that in another post). Here’s a paragraph from Women in the Literary Community about Jenison.

“In 1916, friends Madge Jenison (1874-1960) and Mary Horgan Mowbray-Clarke opened a bookstore on 33rd street near Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan called the Sunwise Turn Bookshop. The unusual name came from Celtic belief that following the motion of the sun brought good fortune. As Madge wrote in her 1923 memoir Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling: ‘Our theory was that we meant to sell books in a more modern and civilized way than they were being sold, and carry them, if the powers were in us, into the stream of the creative life of our generation.’ With the judicious use of paint, pillows, upholstered chairs, and hangings, they created a cozy place for readers and book buyers. Theodore Dreiser was the first author to give a reading; other well-known authors followed, and exhibits by avant-garde painters and sculptors soon rounded out the picture of a welcoming bookshop dedicated to literature and the arts. The Sunwise Turn quickly became a well-known gathering place for artists and writers who were interested in the modernist movement. Peggy Guggenheim was an intern in those early years; she found her calling as an art collector there (as well as her first husband).”

This sounds to me like Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were ahead of their time, creating a welcoming space that allowed readers to browse, talk to staff members knowledgeable about books, and soak up culture. Sound familiar?

For a fun article on little (in size) bookstores and how they survive today, there’s a recent article in Publishers Weekly “Behind the Counter at America’s Smallest Indie Bookstores.” 

Women in the Literary Landscape

Women in the Literary LandscapeI’m a member of the Women’s National Book Association, formed in 1917 by a group of women booksellers in New York when the all-male American Booksellers Association (ABA) refused to admit women. Those women booksellers were not to be put off; they  formed the WNBA, which celebrated its centennial last November. Of course, a short time after the WNBA, the ABA came calling, asking for a merger of the two organizations. The WNBA politely refused, specifying the value of a separate women’s group.

In November, 2017 when the WNBA centennial was celebrated, there were twelve chapters around the country, doing just fine, thank you. From the beginning, the organization was not limited to booksellers, but to any woman who was involved in the book world: authors, editors, publishers, librarians, printers, literary agents…you get the point. Membership for the past twelve years has changed my life and I hear that comment from members all the time. As a networking and professional development organization, the WNBA creates connections among members in many ways, fostering careers and friendships.

All this is preliminary to letting you know about the book that was published in conjunction with the centennial: Women in the Literary Landscape: A WNBA Centennial Publication. It contains a history of the organization, but more to the point, most of the book is taken up with an overview of women in the literary world in the U.S. from colonial times to the present with social-historical underpinnings.

I was asked to be the editor of the book, but ended up as one of the main contributors. It was a collaborative project that took more than two years. At the start, I searched for other works that had linked all these literary fields–the due diligence part of the process. There were none that I could find. To clarify, no one had written about people in all these fields in one place. I realized that our project that would have real value in the study of women’s place in the literary community. This was thrilling. We began the research and writing.

We asked Doris Weatherford, U.S. women’s historian, to give us a basic narrative. Doris provided a wonderful history going back to colonial times and through the Progressive Era. With that backbone about the women who were movers and shakers (many now forgotten) as printers, publishers, and writers, along with Doris’s insightful comments about social and political history, we were off to a great start. I added information about booksellers, librarians, editors, and publishers, and brought the narrative up to 2017. In each historical section we featured exceptional women and information about what the WNBA was doing in those years.

The book was published in March, 2018, although we had advance copies available in time for the centennial celebration, held at Pen + Brush Gallery in New York  in November. Our publisher is C&R Press, a small independent press that was happy to make our book their first nonfiction title.

More about the book and the women who feature in it in subsequent posts…especially about the woman on the cover, Madge Jenison.

 

National Reading Group Month

For the past several years I’ve chaired the reading committee that selects the titles for the Great Group Reads list that comes out in September in time for National Reading Group Month (October). There were 22 readers this year and we read like fiends all spring and summer. It was fun and exhausting at the same time and I really appreciate the readers’ their efforts. We put together a great list of books.

National Reading Group Month is sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association–the other WNBA–and to celebrate NRGM all the chapters around the country have author programs, highlighting the Great Group Reads books and other wonderful new books that will provoke lively discussions.

The New York WNBA chapter program is this Wednesday evening–October 17–at the Strand Book Store in their classy Rare Book Room and I’m moderating the panel of 5 authors. For me, this is the high that comes at the end of the hard work: the chance to talk to authors of novels and memoirs, to find out how they wrote those wonderful books, what they were thinking about when they wrote them, how they write, and maybe even why they write. If you’re in NYC, come to the Strand for the 7pm program–it’s only $10 and for that you’ll get a $10 Strand gift card–can it be possible that there’s a book you want to buy?

The authors on the panel are: Alix Kates Shulman whose current novel is Menage (Other Press), a wicked sendup of modern marriage. Shulman’s name ought to be familiar to you as the writer of the iconic feminist novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. 
Elizabeth Nunez will be there too, author of Boundaries (Akashic Press), a lovely cross-cultural story of a woman coping with competing demands of family and career.
David Maine, author of An Age of Madness (Red Hen Press), a devastating psychological study of a woman doctor whose family life has gone horribly wrong. I was delighted that this title made it onto the Great Group Reads list.
I’m eager to meet Ben Ryder Howe and hear  more about his hilarious and heartfelt memoir My Korean Deli: Risking it all for a Convenience Store (Picador). I listened to this one and laughed out loud often. It’s more than just humorous–it’s a great New York story with lots of food for thought about who we are and the choices we make for the ones we love.
Marisa de los Santos will be there to talk about Falling Together (Wm. Morrow Paperbacks), a novel about three college friends who find that despite their close  friendship, they’ve been blind to some important truths.

So, come to the Strand if you can and say hello. There will be time to ask questions of the authors and talk to them after the program.

Writing About the Past

Later this month I’ll have the pleasure of moderating a panel on historical fiction, a genre that seems to have taken over the fiction lists this year. The New York chapter of the Women’s National Book Association is sponsoring the event and I’m thrilled to be the moderator of a stellar panel. The evening is free to WNBA members–a good time to join–and $10 in advance if you’re not a member. It will be at the Wix Lounge, 10 W. 18th St, 2nd floor, from 6-8pm on April 26th. We’ve subtitled the evening An Enduring Genre in a Changing Landscape since it’s about both writing and publishing.

We’ll have 2 authors on the panel, an agent, editor, and reviewer. I’ll write more about the panelists later; here’s the link to information and registration for the evening which will give you the cast of characters and all the details.

Since I’ll be asking the questions, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction and what questions would spark good conversation among our panelists. I’m a firm believer that if you need something, ask the universe, and true to form, I’ve found food for thought about the topic almost every place I turn. For instance, in the past week I’ve been re-reading Amos Oz’s masterpiece A Tale of Love and Darkness. Oz’s descriptions of the way memories surface, persist, and mutate in his writing is breathtaking as is the re-creation of his childhood in pre-statehood Israel.

There are many wonderful passages in the book about reading and writing, but the one that grabbed me is “…that selfsame urge I had when I was small–the desire to grant a second chance to something that could never have one–is still one of the urges that gets me going today whenever I sit down to write a story.” Isn’t writing historical fiction providing a second chance for characters to take the stage? That goes on my list of questions to ask.

National Reading Group Month Event

I’m moderating a panel in New York in celebration of National Reading Group Month this Thursday evening, Oct. 20th. This is my third year doing this and I love it. The five authors on the panel, in no particular order, are: Julie Otsuka (just nominated for the National Book Award for The Buddha in the Attic), Scott Spencer (Man in the Woods), Nayana Currimbhoy (Miss Timmins’ School for Girls), Annia Ciezadlo (Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War), and Aine Greaney (Dance Lessons). The program is sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association and it should be a lovely evening.

I’ve read all the books and enjoyed them–they’re very different from each other in style, language, setting, character, so I’m hoping to get some good discussions going among the authors that evening of the panel.  I’ve listened to podcasts and downloads of interviews with the authors where I could find them in preparation and now I’m really excited to meet them.

The titles above, with the exception of Scott Spencer’s Man in the Woods and Nayana Currimbhoy’s Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, are on the Great Group Reads list this year. They’d also work well for book groups–lots to talk about in both.

Great Reads for book groups, 2010

For the second year, I had the fun of chairing the committee that reads and selects the titles for this list. We look for books that will be good for discussion, midlist books that may not get the big bucks for publicity. Since we read many titles pre-pub, we sometimes include a title or two that does turn out to be a bestseller. We’ll live with that! The list is mainly fiction, but this year and last year we picked one memoir. Here’s a link to the Great Group Reads website with all the titles, annotations, and links to reviews and publishers’ websites. The readers come from around the country and we have a great virtual conversation about the books.

Great Group Reads is part of National Reading Group Month, which is sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association, a great group that’s been around since 1917, when a group of women–ticked off by the all-male Bookseller’s League’s no-women members policy–formed their own group. Still going strong after 93 years, there are chapters in cities around the country. The NYC chapter is the founding chapter, and we host networking and educational events for our members, a great group of authors, editors, agents, publishers, librarians, and others involved in the book world.

All the WNBA chapters host events for National Reading Group Month (October); I’m moderating an author panel for the NYC chapter’s event on October 19th at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, starting at 6:30 pm. Come if you can–the event is free and there will be donations of books from publishers, refreshments, and book signings afterwards. Since Brooklyn now seems to be author central, we have a great group of authors: Susan Henderson, Sheri Holman, Rick Moody, Jackson Taylor, and Emily St. John Mandel. There’s a little more detail on the WNBA website events page; I’ll have more information as it gets closer.