Thursday, March 2, 2017

Building Book Movements, Not Fires: Q&A with Leader of Books Are Not a Luxury

black book cover with text in orange-yellow paint
If we all buy books twice a month, every month, a movement is built.

Within days of the 2016 presidential election, I received an email from my old friend Michael Noll about a huge, new project that would actively promote writers "with the single goal of promoting sales of books by writers from groups that Trump seeks to erase from our country." The name of the project would be Books Are Not A Luxury.

The website launched January 3, and now, the project is entering its third month of literary resistance and its third featured book, complete with shelf talkers, essays, links to reviews, author Q&As, and of course, links to multiple bookseller sites where readers & librarians can purchase the book. There is even a growing list of participating bookstores featuring and selling the books.

I'm pleased to welcome Michael to this little place on the internet, so that you can learn about Books Are Not A Luxury.

1. What motivated you to begin the website?

MN: I got the idea for the website a day or two after the presidential election. It wasn't the fact that a Republican won that bothered me but, rather, the fact that America had elected a man who had made abuse, ridicule, and violent rhetoric toward people of color, Muslims, immigrants, and disabled people a central part of his campaign. While Trump didn't talk a lot about LGBTQ+ issues, his vice president had signed a bill making it legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians as governor of Indiana. I really felt—and this may be naive—that if people in areas that predominantly voted for Trump knew people of color, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people, then they wouldn't be so accepting of hatred and ugliness toward them. When direct experience isn't possible, books can at least offer a glimpse into worlds that aren't the reader's.

I also worried that, in terms of publishing, that those groups would have a harder time getting published now that alt-right rhetoric had gone mainstream. So, I wanted to help make those books more visible.

2. What has been the response?
MN: Incredibly positive—for a couple of reasons. People really want to support the groups being directly attacked by alt-right rhetoric. But they also want book recommendations. As the Lee & Low report showed, the publishing industry, from top to bottom, is almost entirely white, and so it's no surprise that people in that industry have a tendency to promote books that hew closely to their own experience. There are many smart, well-meaning people in publishing, of course, and many who advocate for diverse books, but the machinery that they're part of just isn't set up to promote diverse authors and stories. This means readers don't find out about many great books, and so people are hungry for books that reflect a broader range of experience.

3. What should readers do after reading the book? Are you encouraging donations to libraries, for example? 
MN: Readers should do what comes naturally—tell someone about the book and pass it along to people who might want to read it. If that means donating to libraries, that's great. I have a link at the website that helps people find the address for their local library. I grew up in a small town in rural Kansas, a place with a great library but no bookstore. For people living in my hometown—and towns like it all over the country—the only way they discover new books is at their libraries. And, these libraries are always strapped for funds, particularly in Kansas where the governor wants to cut and even eliminate their funding altogether. So, donations are great!

4. How could book clubs use the site?
MN: Readers and book clubs should check out the website for Books Are Not a Luxury. For each book, the site publishes an author Q&A and essays by writers responding to the book. The goal is to create a conversation around each book and place the books within a context of other experiences and ideas. These essays offer more perspectives and experiences, which makes for a richer reading and discussion experience.

5. What's a question you'd like me to ask?
MN: I'm sometimes asked—about Books Are Not a Luxury and about another site I run called Read to Write Stories—how I find the writers and books that I feature. It's always struck me as a surprising question because it doesn't feel hard to find them. Sometimes I will consciously read journals or book lists for something to check out, but it's more often the case that I can check a list I'm constantly updating with books that I stumble across and make a note to read. I stumble across them on Facebook (which is the nice thing about having lots of friends who are writers and avid readers) and through journals, both print and online, that I follow. And, of course, I find out about books through reviews.

It's true, as I said earlier, that the publishing industry can do more to promote diverse books, but that's not to say that it's only white, straight, able-bodied writers who are getting attention. Both of the first two books featured at Books Are Not a Luxury (Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith and In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib) were reviewed by The New York Times. I think part of the problem is that white, cis, non-disabled readers tend to see those reviews and not pause to read them or pause to think, "I should read that book." Of course, a book becomes more difficult to pass by when it pops up over and over, which is why multiple reviews are so popular. (Why else does anyone read Franzen? Because he gets reviewed so often that you think, "Oh hell, I'll just read the damn thing to see what everyone's talking about.") 

At some point with these blogs, I made a conscious decision to seek out diverse books, and so I tend to notice them when they're reviewed. I don't skim over them. Skimming is how unconscious racism/bigotry reveals itself. One bookstore manager told me that they'd carried In the Language of Miracles—a pretty mainstream narrative that anyone who reads thrillers or tense literary fiction would enjoy—and sold zero copies. Readers saw the book but didn't buy it, probably in large part because of the author's name. Diversity is all around us if we're just willing to witness it.

  • Have you read a new book and want to recommend to Books Are Not A Luxury? Go here: 
  • If your neighborhood bookstore would be interested in this project, send an email to booksarenotaluxury @ gmail dot com.

Featured Reads from Books Are Not a Luxury:

Michael is the Program Director for the Writers' League of Texas and the editor of the craft-of-writing blog Read to Write Stories. His book THE WRITER’S FIELD GUIDE TO THE CRAFT OF FICTION, is forthcoming this fall (Press: A Strange Object). His short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Chattahoochee Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Indiana Review, and The New Territory. His story, “The Tank Yard,” was included in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016. He lives in Austin, TX, with his family.