Who knows what the future holds for the generation of aspiring writers coming of age in New York City today? Long before the internet, writers got together over drinks to share their passions and ideas. Take the circle of expats in Pre-War Paris, for example. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein hung out with writers like Edmund Wilson. The parties they threw became the inspiration for their novels, like The Great Gatsby. It seems like a fabled time, a moment in history when truly great minds came together and fed off each other. They read each other’s work and offered their criticism. Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to have that kind of closeness in the age of social media. We can meet hundreds of people online, but it seems somehow artificial. An online encounter will never be the same as a face to face one.
Perhaps the team behind Writer’s Bloq, feels that way too. They could have focused exclusively on building and promoting the website online, hiding behind their laptop screens. But they knew that wasn’t enough. On May 3, about a hundred people packed into the rare book room at The Strand for Unsolicited: an MFA Mingle. Writers and their fans (including some publishing professionals) sampled Argo tea and imbibed beer from the Brooklyn Brewery or flavored Voli vodka, Writer’s Bloq’s sponsors. Prizes including gift certificates to the Strand, Joe Coffee and one special prize of a one night stay at the Library Hotel were raffled off at the end of the evening. Every reader received a framed drawing of herself (all the readers were female) and a book.
The strength of Unsolicited lies in taking the online community, which could exist purely in the semi-anonymous realm of the internet, and bringing people together. “As someone who loves both literature and technology, it’s refreshing to see someone working hard to make a tool that writers can use to stay connected and discover new work,” says Yanyi Luo, an undergraduate at Columbia and one of the readers at Unsolicited. “I’ve found that it’s easy for the literary scene to stay within itself, and so I hope to see Writer’s Bloq expand to many more programs or even completely open access with reasonable methods to continue finding interesting new work, and for publishers and other stakeholders in the literary industry to benefit from the service as well.”
Halle Murcek, an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School who was among the readers at Unsolicited, appreciates the feedback she receives from other writers on the site. “We as writers love it when anyone reads our work but receiving feedback from someone who is doing what you are doing (is in the same boat, so to speak) the outcome, for me, is extremely gratifying and helpful. There is a difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer and a writer should be able to do both when critiquing other writers’ work.” As for suggestions for the future, she says, “I think, once the bloq continues to grow, it would be great to offer a workshop outside of the online atmosphere. Writers are always looking to get together to drink and read and talk about their work and I think most people on the blog would be up for this idea.”
For the reading, the team selected the top writers on the site to share their work with a live audience. The popularity of the writers is determined by the number of views their submissions receive. According to Nayia, founder and CEO of Writer’s Bloq, the more often an individual uploads work and comments on other writers’ work, the more popular he/she becomes. And the more views and likes a writer has on his/her pieces, the more likely it is that curious readers will click on his/her work. A problem with this system is that it tends to favor writers who have a large output, perhaps uploading several short pieces in a week, rather than writers who work in long form and post fewer pieces. Additionally, the top writers at Unsolicited all read fiction or poetry. There was no nonfiction represented. When I asked Nayia about this in an interview, she said that in the future she would like to take genre into account when selecting the readers, ensuring a wider variety of material.
The Writer’s Bloq team is planning the next reading for September 13. Based on feedback from members of the Writer’s Bloq community, the team is working on a way to adjust privacy settings on the site in order to give limited access to literary agents and editors. The consensus seems to be that these writers want their voices to be heard. It seems that public readings like Unsolicited combined with online participation is the way to go.
Angela Koh, who’s working on an MFA in poetry at Columbia, adds, “At Unsolicited, I could say I liked the party favors best (Eileen Myle’s recent book, flavored vodka, a framed sketch of the readers), or the venue at the historical Strand Bookstore, or the mind-numbing turnout of writers, agents, and editors. But I can’t forget how the accommodating team hoisted a 60-pound podium for me–so I could read comfortably behind it. And if I could’ve changed anything, maybe I would’ve rigged the lottery to win that one-night stay at The Library Hotel.”