Monday, January 18, 2010

Why on earth do I think it's a good idea to host a challenge?

When I started Wuthering Expectations, I participated in a single challenge, subject: Russian literature. Read four Russian books, you bet. Lermontov, Gogol, early Dostoevsky. This challenge was actually mentioned in Newsweek.  The challenge as such, aside from reading the books, which I would have read anyway, was entirely unsatisfying.

A couple of dozen people read entirely different, unrelated books, and had nothing to say to each other.  Nothing resembling a conversation developed, and how could it?  I got, and get, so much more out of anything posted at Lizok's Bookshelf.  And I hated writing for the Challenge weblog.  I had no idea for whom I was writing.  Every so-called "review" was a constricted botch.

So I turned against challenges a bit.  My reading is plenty organized as it is.  But over the last year I have paid more attention and have changed my mind.  Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, soon to enter it's fourth year, was instrumental.  As of this writing, 227 books have been read in the past year for the challenge, many of which would not have been read without prodding.  The enthusiatic, insightful response of Mel U at A Reading Life has been especially impressive.  He has developed his own conversation with modern Japanese literature, and he lets me listen in.

So simply pointing the way does have some value, even though the review format is deadly and readers will have a hard time really engaging with each other.  I wholeheartedly endorse the Clover, Bee, and Reverie, challenge which wants to encourage the reading of poetry (read 2+ poetry books during the year).  I'm not participating, though - I read 30 books of poetry last year, write about poetry often, and do not exactly need the encouragement.  I don't see how any discussion can develop, either, but the pointing and nudging has its own value.

So what if everyone reads the same book?  The Woolf in Winter readalong (Mrs. Dalloway all linked together here) seems to be working well, although it's interesting to see the delicacy with with commenters treat each other.  Better than the other extreme, that's fer sher.  Rebecca Reid's Classics Circuit, in which readers concentrate on authors or movements rather than single books (Gaskell, Collins, now Wharton), has gotten a good response, too.  I'm going to participate in the Harlem Renaissance edition next month, with a post about Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Women (1899), although, I pray I'll come up with something better than a review for an unknown audience.

Maybe readalongs are the way to go.  But one wants people to be free in their reading - we want many readers and many books in the conversation.  How do we square the circle?  I've come up with a possible solution, one that is just slightly nuts.  Tomorrow, I officially launch the Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Reading Challenge and Caber Toss.  You may not, you are thinking to yourself, give a tinker's dam about Scottish literature.  Me neither!  Nevertheles, peruse the rules, and wish me luck.  We'll see.


  1. Bring it on! I've already got ready my kilt, sporan, and a pile of Scottish novels to choose from.

  2. I'm ready! I've been psyching myself up to read Carlyle for weeks!

  3. Looking forward to tomorrow .... although we'll see about what you're suggesting we read.

    Also there's something about a summer Scottish read being launched at Glasgow's AyeWrite festival in March.

    Looks like you're attuned to the Zeitgeist, my friend.

  4. I've posted before about how I'm not usually keen on joining challenges myself, mostly because I have so many things I want to read on my own and end up only joining challenges involving books I would have read anyway, which sort of defeats the purpose of the challenge. I'm more interested in the readalong concept because of its potential to stimulate conversation among readers, but, as you say, conversation about *lots* of different books is the ideal.

    That said, even though I'm not wild about joining challenges, what I love about the proliferation of challenges is that they do push readers to try something new, whether it be graphic novels, Victoriana, Japanese literature, or Scottish literature. And those readers'
    posts, in turn, encourage nonparticipants like me to try something new from time to time as well. I haven't read much Scottish literature, so I'm looking forward to seeing the suggestions that arise from your challenge!

  5. Colleen, my kilt is on back order. Can't wait to see the novels. Well, that's not true. I can wait a day, at least. No one needs to be in any hurry to say what they're reading. Better if they're not, actually.

    Stefanie - psyching yourself up for Carlyle - that's about right!

    Lizzy, that Glasgow festival seems to be interested only in contemporary books. Now where's the fun in that?

    Teresa, I agree with what you wrote. I hope you join in - there should be something for everyone. Just based on what you've been reading, George MacDonald would go well with The Hobbit, and Boswell's journals would be a fine follwup to Pepys.

  6. Amateur Reader-thanks hugely for the mention-I will for sure read for this challenge-I will give my probable reads once the challenge post is written-

  7. You are very kind to mention my blog, AR, thank you! "Meeting" you and several other bloggers was the highlight of the Russian Reading Challenge for me.

    It will be fun to follow your challenge... it's making me curious to learn more about James Macpherson and the Ossian poetry, which was an influence on Russian poetry.

  8. I never feel I'm writing a random "review" to an unknown audience. I am explaining my thoughts and feelings about a particular book. I call it all reviews but it's not really. And I love how for the Classics Circuit people write in their own blog's style.

    I look forward to seeing your reading lists for this new challenge!

  9. Learning more about Ossian = Good.

    Reading Ossian = Bad.

    I have read bits, actually. No more, no more. Today I made him the one exception to the "I'll read it" rule. No, William McGonagall is also an exception. And Helen Bannerman.

    Rebecca - it's something I need to work on. But let me give an explicit example. Anyone who includes a plot summary in his post or review is not just explaining his thoughts or feelings. The reviewer already knows the plot. That summary is written for an audience.

    I write for an audience, too. Everyone does. Maybe it's worth saying that the audience is primarily imaginary. Writing for the Russian blog, I knew the audience was different than my owbn, but I failed to imagine who they were. I just floundered.

  10. yeah, I'm not a fan of basic plot summaries either. But I do like how every blogger has his or her own style for writing about what they've read.

  11. You raise a good point about audience. It would be worthwhile to sit down and give it some serious thought. Just who is the intended audience for my blog? I'm not sure I can say.

    I like the idea of a genuine conversation about books and I agree that I don't see it very often. Comments tend to be quick "hello there" sort of remarks rather than longer, more thoughtful remarks. And I find it very difficult to keep the past reviews of other bloggers in mind when I write my own.

    But, I've been doing this for a couple of years now and I am looking for a way to take it to the next level, so to speak.

  12. We mostly just write - we develop our idea about our audience unconsciously, and much of what I write is really just for me, with the hope that someone else will get the joke. But you're right, it is occasionally a good idea to step back and think about what you're doing.

    By the way, Madi, where do you post your book reviews?