As evidenced by results from the VIDA Count, the Stella Count and recent experiments, such as this one conducted by Catherine Nichols, sexism remains alive and well in the publishing industry. One of the people working to change that is Melanie, the brain behind Grab the Lapels—a book reviewing site dedicated to providing insightful critiques on work by female authors. We caught up with Melanie to learn more about her reviewing process and what she loves to read.
Can you tell us a bit about your site: how long have you been reviewing and why did you start?
Grab the Lapels started the summer of 2013, and I read fiction and non-fiction and source out work to poets (some poetry goes right over my head). I had previously been reviewing for other venues—The Next Best Book Club, JMWW, the Notre Dame Review, the American Book Review, etc. At the time, I didn’t mind that most books were by men, but then I read a particularly offensive book by a man in which all the women acted like babies or spinsters. I was so pissed off.
Grab the Lapels specifically focuses on the work of female authors. Why did you choose this focus?
After that particular book really honked my hooter, I knew that I wanted to do something, but not many review venues let you pick your own books. Mostly, they have a list of books that have been submitted to them, and (maybe) reviewers can choose from that pile. However, if the list only has books by men, there isn’t really an option, is there?
*side note: I still review occasionally for TNBBC, and the owner of that site is super cool—she lets me review whatever I want after I pointed out that a lot of men do submit books to her, rather than women. She takes anything she’s interested in, so if more men reach out, which they do, then more men will be in the queue.*
What really sealed the deal for only reviewing books by women and interviewing women (and only accepting guest reviews from women) is “the count,” which you can learn more about on the VIDA website. This group is all volunteer-run with the purpose of giving due attention to women in publishing. They look at major magazines and publishers to see who’s publishing women, and who’s writing reviews of women’s work. It was abysmal, and these magazines and publishers claimed that women don’t submit. VIDA encourages their readers to take action if they see a magazine or publisher that is clearly gender biased, and readers respond by cancelling subscriptions. The numbers for women are now improved! Magazines and publishers like to claim that not as many women submit, but the problem is bigger than that. Why don’t women submit their work? Can the magazine do something to encourage and support women—who clearly are writing?
What’s your reviewing process?
I’ve had a lot of experience with workshopping stories (I have three creative writing degrees, though I don’t recommend it), so I tend to think about all books in terms of writing elements: dialogue, plot, showing vs. telling, language, character—all very basic, actually, but I know not everyone reads this way. It’s very much my skillset, and it has to be learned and honed. I might highlight or note a passage that struck me instantly, either as being bad/lazy/cliché, or one that opens up a whole box of fun/something to think about within the text. My reviews then consist of using those writing elements as criteria and exploring them with the passages I marked. As a result, my reviews sometimes read a bit more like critical essays instead of thumbs up/thumbs down reviews. I’m definitely no Ebert.
How do you decide what to read next?
One of my goals when I started was to read what no one else was reading. How many reviews of The Goldfinch do you need before you decide it is/isn’t for you, right? So, I’m thinking both of expanding readers and helping writers. I like small-press authors and the brave work they do that isn’t mainstream. I’m able to find such books through my network of writer friends. However, about a month or so ago I dumped Facebook, so I don’t have as much contact with that group anymore.
Grab the Lapels was also open to submissions for a time. I’m happy to read any genre; I’m familiar enough with a variety of genres that I’m comfortable reviewing what an author is trying to do, rather than my “personal tastes.” I may not love a detective novel, but if it’s done right, I’m sure to have lots to say that is positive with evidence to prove why. I had to close submissions, though, because GTL got so many in the first few months that I’m still reading from that pile—2 years later, mind you—and I read a lot. The massive response only confirms to me that women want to be read and reviewed, which gives me strength and happiness.
What are three key things you look for in a good story?
Consistency: I don’t care what the world or characters look like, they better follow the rules of the world the author created. If an alien race fornicates with a small knob on their heads, they better keep doing that, but if one particular alien wants green knobs instead of blue ones, then she better stick with green ones unless she has an experience to change her mind! The world can be silly, but once created, stick with it.
Implying: I want sentences and scenes to imply so much more than they say. I guess you could call this showing vs. telling, but I think a lot of people confuse what that means. They think, “Don’t tell me that the berries tasted good, show my through X’s facial expressions!” Well, okay, good berry lovin’ is a plus.
But what if a character says something like, “Mrs. Smith smells like my mom.” This line could mean many things: the character likes Mrs. Smith, the character misses his/her mom, the character now feels animosity toward Mrs. Smith because she reminds the character that his/her mom was a real pill, etc. What is that character thinking? It’s left up to interpretation based on this one line and other contextual clues. This is where books start to relate to readers, because we bring our own backgrounds into it, too.
What do you love most about reading, and why is it important?
I’m always looking for characters unlike me—and I know this is uncommon. People hate characters that do things they would “never” do, like think about killing your own baby by smashing its head on the fireplace, or trying to pray to God to heal a limb that is nearly severed instead of going to the hospital (I’ve read both of these scenarios). If we understand motives, we can understand others and ourselves, which makes reading widely important. People who read what is basically the same book over and over scare me, to be honest. The other section of people who scare me are those who write solely to make a profit, because they are adding to the piles of almost indistinguishable books out there. They buy manuals that tell them how to write in formulas that have already been successful and kill what is good about reading: that which broadens readers.
Why are book reviews are important?
Sharing information has always been vitally important. You could think back to slave narratives (Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, etc.) in which learning to read enabled a slave to see him or herself as a human. Even the post office knows sharing information is vital, which is why they have the cheaper “media mail.” In the end, when I share information about a book that someone hasn’t read or heard of, I’m affirming that what the author is doing is important, which might encourage her to keep writing that new stuff that doesn’t look like everything else out there.
What’s been your favourite read so far this year?
I really enjoyed How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch by D. Bryant Simmons. The characters are complex, at times making me hate the “hero” and love the “villain.” There are children involved, too, so things get more complex as the parents battle for the kids’ love and trust. This book is the first in The Morrow Girls Series, and while I would love to read the second book, which just came out, I’m still working through that submissions pile (almost done, though!).
What five books should everyone reading this add to their TBR pile?
It depends on what would expand the reader’s worldview. They could try For Sale By Owner by Kelcey Parker to read an interesting perspective on darkness in domesticity. Readers could check out Limber by Angela Pelster to get a more creative view of trees, their history, and their importance. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin is a great introduction to black lives in the U.S.—honest, real, loving, living bodies. Lynda Barry’s novel Cruddy scares the shit out of me every time I read it, but there is this pingback of freedom and adventure, too, which I recommend for the way adolescent girls are the focus of and invisible in the world. Finally, The Tide King by Jen Michalski is historical and set in non-U.S. countries, but magical, and loving, but sad. I hope these themes give everyone something new to experience!
If you could live inside a book, which one would you pick?
Maybe The Dangerous Husband by Jane Shapiro. The wife thinks her husband is trying to kill her, but it’s totally possible that he’s just a big clumsy oaf. I mean, that would sure make married life exciting!
Which three fictional characters would you most like to meet and why?
May, from The Book of Ruth: to be so evil and a dream-crusher, but also to be sad and a good dancer.
The Father, from Cruddy: navy all the way, a drunk, a sharp edge in a mean world.
The Bogeywoman, from Bogeywoman: when being a lesbian meant you were mental, The Bogeywoman lived and adventured.
Who is the one character you’d never want to run into in real life?
Anyone from one of those books with the “chick covers.” They’re all the same colors—pink, baby blue, lime green—and appeal to women with an object—a shoe, a lipstick, a telephone.
What advice would you give to new and aspiring reviewers?
If you think you’re swaying someone with your personal yea/nay and don’t provide evidence, you’re really writing an online reading diary, not a review. Be honest about that, and include what kind of reviewer you are in your “About” section.
Also, if you don’t finish a book, don’t review it. Just leave it off your site. If an author sent it to you, write them a nice email about why you won’t be finishing it. However, judging a book you never finished is dishonest.
What advice would you give to emerging writers?
Don’t be too eager to publish; story first, glory last. I’ve read a number of books that could have been great but were big flops because they were poorly edited—not just punctuation and typos, though such flubs will turn me off in a heartbeat—but content. If my final impression of your book is that it could have been 100 pages shorter, that’s bad (and it does happen).
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