When most people think of the month of February, events such as Valentine’s Day, Black History Month, and President’s Day come to mind. What you may not know is that February is also National Book Review Month. Here at SUNY Geneseo, we are celebrating books of all genres through the English Department’s second annual National Book Review Month (NaRMo). Readers can submit reviews of their favorite books to the NaRMo website: www.narmo.milne-library.org. The website provides five easy steps to writing a book review and how to submit the review once completed. NaRMo is accepting reviews from a variety of genres including Children’s Books, Drama, Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry.
To learn more about NaRMo and why book reviews are a great asset to not only the Geneseo literary community, but also the campus community, I interviewed the creator of NaRMo here at SUNY Geneseo, Dr. Lytton Smith. Dr. Lytton Smith has been a member of the SUNY Geneseo faculty since 2014 as an Assistant Professor of English teaching Advanced Poetry Workshops I and II.
1. What inspired you to create NaRMo? How does this differ from other literary awareness months such as National Novel Writing Month and National Poetry Month?
I remember being at a wedding, and the bride, a good friend, was asking for contemporary poetry recommendations; she’d got an anthology of poetry by her bedside and was reading a poem a night to try to get to know a range of poets, but she wanted to have suggestions. And I realized there was nowhere for her to go, short of knowing a poet to ask. And I realized this isn’t a problem for poetry alone: would-be readers have very few ways to find books that aren’t already getting a lot of attention. Part of the problem is the economics: when I worked for a small publisher, one of our books was chosen to be part of a featured series at a major bookstore. But to participate you had to pay several thousand dollars. In theory, you’d get the money back in sales. But a small publisher might not have that money, might not be able to take the risk. There’s not a lot of awareness about how much economics restrict access to and awareness of books—so National Book Review Month comes out of trying to focus attention on the widest possible range of books, making sure those that aren’t already getting attention but deserve it do get some attention. Plus, why are we all writing all of these words if we’re not also working to make sure people can read them?
2. What do you think book reviews offer a literary community?
I think it’s bigger than literary community. Yes, book reviews can help writers find their kindred spirits, or know the landscape of, say, blackly comic short-story collections about tragedy. But I think we as a literary community, or set of literary communities, need to be thinking, especially at this moment in time, about how we can expand the literary and literacy, too, to other communities. I think a lot of attention is given to generating writing, and not so much to sharing that writing with people who aren’t already other writers. In an ideal society, one which recognizes art’s power to inform and transform, that role wouldn’t fall to writers along; readers and reviewers would help books find their audience. Right now, though, if writers aren’t doing it, it’s not going to happen. And the consequence of that isn’t just personal—your book not getting read—it’s social in the widest sense: a declining ability to understand narrative, cause-and-effect, sympathy, and other peoples’ lives.
3. In your opinion, what is the significance of a book review in a literary journal? How can a book review contribute to a literary journal’s message?
I do think literary journals should have book reviews, and many of them do. I think we’re trying to create a cycle of reading (and writing): you read the work in the journal and that leads you to reading published works by the writers or by writers like them and that maybe leads you to journals those writers published in so you can find new writers; reviewing would fit neatly into that. And, at the same time, who gets reviewed can be a way of establishing a journal’s values for writing—the same way a blurb from a writer might signal the aesthetics of the book it accompanies.
4. What do see for the future of NaRMo? In upcoming years, how do you think the Geneseo community can benefit from this project?
Heather Molzon, the current intern for NaRMo, came up with the brilliant idea of starting Geneseo Reads, a student activity club that would work year-round to get Geneseo students talking about what they’re reading, to helping others find books to read, and to even fundraising for literacy projects, for communities experiencing book deserts and so on. One of the things I’m really excited about in that idea is the fact that it’s a club that will cross majors, and be instantly accessible for students on their first day at campus. It might take a few semesters to realize you want to take up a new sport, but if you’re trying to meet people who aren’t like you but share your love of something, reading’s a great way to do it. Reading always used to be social, even out loud, and Geneseo Reads taps into that. I hope that’s something that NaRMo might achieve beyond Geneseo, too, adding to the wonderful book groups that are dotted all around the country by trying to help people come across stories, forms, and ways of thinking that challenge and surprise them more often.
Thank you to Dr. Lytton Smith for agreeing to this interview. You can celebrate National Book Review Month by submitting your book review at http://narmo.milne-library.org/submit-review. You can keep up to date on the latest book reviews on the NaRMo Facebook page, here. Happy reading and get reviewing!