On Wednesday, author Deesha Philyaw, along with writers Kiese Laymon, Robert Jones Jr., and a growing band of contributors, announced the launch of a new literary endeavor.
LIT 16 is a quarterly reading series that highlights the work of 16 debut authors. The idea is to team with booksellers, podcasts like The Stacks and Books Are Pop Culture and other literary-minded outlets to bring these debut works to a wider audience, build a support network and sell some books.
“We are doing what Toni Morrison told us to do, which is to use our power to empower someone else,” says Philyaw during a phone interview Thursday.
“If we – we being Robert, Kiese and I – use our platforms and the power we now have as a result of the success of our books to empower these writers and to give their books a fighting chance, that’s exactly what we want to do.”
Debut authors, Philyaw says, need all the love and support they can get, so that’s what LIT 16 aims to provide to its inaugural cohort:
Aaron Foley, “Boys Come First”;
Alejandro Varela, “The Town of Babylon”;
Candice Marie Benbow, “Red Lip Theology”;
Chantal V. Johnson, “Post-Traumatic”;
Cleyvis Natera, “Neruda on the Park”;
Xochitl Gonzalez, “Olga Dies Dreaming”;
Steven Thrasher, “The Viral Underclass”;
Tara M. Stringfellow, “Memphis”;
Zain Khalid, “Brother Alive”;
Camonghne Felix, “Dyscalculia”;
Danté Stewart, “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle”;
David Dennis Jr., “The Movement Made Us”;
M Shelly Conner, “Everyman”;
Chantal James, “None But the Righteous”;
Destiny O. Birdsong, “Nobody’s Magic”;
Jamila Minnicks, “Moonrise Over New Jessup.”
While she’s pleased with the interest in the project – noting with pride that the National Book Foundation retweeted the #LIT16 thread – Philyaw makes one thing very clear.
This sweet 16 is not a competition.
“Our hope is that this effort inspires other writers to view each other through the lenses of care and community, instead of competition,” she said via text after our conversation. “This idea that publishing feeds us that we should see each other as competition also pits Black writers against each other. This mythology that we are interchangeable and that there can only be one.
“Some writers buy into that,” she continued. “This idea that another writer’s success is a threat to our own. This is why what Toni Morrison said is so radical. She literally said, To hell with that! Look out for each other. And so we are.”
Black writers and writers of color are often told there isn’t a market for their work, so publishers don’t aggressively market and promote their books, which hurts sales, she says. That’s not the way it should be.
“Our excellence has always been there. We didn’t just suddenly become worth investing in or worth reading; we always have been,” she says. “As a community, we can certainly uplift each other. That’s something that is never about a trend. That’s always in fashion, to be about each other’s business and sharing the wealth.
“We can give a boost and say, Look, these books do sell,” she says. “There is an audience. People are hungry for these stories.”
Philyaw’s own debut collection “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” was famously rejected by every publisher approached except one, West Virginia University Press, before going on to win prizes that included the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 2020/2021 Story Prize. It was also a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction.
Philyaw – who also works with the Ursa short story project – highlights the support she got from others, such as Laymon who talked up her book on The Stacks podcast. “That’s how people found out about my book before it came out,” says Philyaw. “Kiese mentioned my book and he praised my book and people started tagging me on Instagram, like, Hey, I don’t know who you are, or what this book is, but Kiese said, ‘Read it.’
“That really started the buzz for my book, just really kind of organic grassroots kind of support,” she says, and that’s what LIT 16 aims to do.
Throughout our conversation, Philyaw heaps praise on those involved in the effort. The first quarterly event will be through Loyalty Books on Nov. 9.
“Hopefully, lots of people turn out to the reading series and we hope they sell a lot of books,” she says.
“We’re not even mincing words and we use that language in our tweets about it: Buy books. That’s what we want; we want people to buy books.”
What you’ve been reading
I love hearing from you all about what you’ve read. Here are some recent book recommendations sent in from readers:
I’ve just finished “These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett and “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus, both of which I loved. I was very interested in your comments about “The Sentence” and will definitely add it to my (ever growing) list of books I want to read. I’ve read two of Louise Erdrich’s – “LaRose” and “The Night Watchman” and it was really nice to read about Native American culture. – Gemma Burke, Tipperary, Ireland
“Lakewood” by Megan Giddings is the next book my book club is reading- thanks to a mention of it in OCR’s article about her latest book, “The Women Could Fly.” Other recent reads were “The Measure” by Nikki Erlick and “The Lunar Housewife” by Caroline Woods. – Eileen Ferris
“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi – Eve Reymond
Mysteries, legal thrillers, espionage, mainly. Some histories occasionally. I get most of my books through the Riverside Public Library, in e-book or audio book format. My wife reads extensively on Kindle and we share the account. When I read my Kindle I almost always use the books she’s purchased. – Brian Thiebaux
Do you have any recommendations? Please send them to email@example.com and they might appear in the column.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Jesse Green talks about Mary Rodgers, ‘Freaky Friday’ and ‘Shy’
Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for the New York Times, and here he responds to the Q&A and describes the process of writing “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers” with Rodgers, who died in 2014.
Q. How do you describe your book, “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers,” to readers who might not know that much about her and how did you come to the project?
“Shy” is the true story of a woman who was at the middle of everything and tried it all: the daughter of a theatrical giant (Richard Rodgers); a composer in her own right (“Once Upon a Mattress”); a highly successful author (“Freaky Friday”); and a great arts doyenne (as the longtime chair of the Juilliard School). But she was also someone who had to fight her way out of a world of very constrained privilege to make a life on her own terms, about which she is (as the subtitle warns you) alarmingly outspoken.
Mary, who didn’t care for the genre to begin with, was unhappy with her own stabs at writing her memoirs. We had met some years earlier – when I was writing about her son, Adam Guettel, another exceptional theater composer – and quickly became friends. So it made sense that she eventually asked me to write the book with her; we could have fun, she said, and we absolutely did. But she died during the process, and the entire writing part fell to me, luckily based on years of conversations about her life, her work, and her ambitions for the book. Which is why it has such an unusual format: It’s structured to recreate the great pleasure and give-and-take of those conversations.
Q. Rodgers wrote the novel “Freaky Friday,” which has become a cultural mainstay as a catchphrase and the films. What did she think of its improbably long life?
She was delighted, in part because it proved her contention that talented people have “more than one arrow” in their quiver. She considered herself a one-hit wonder in each of her careers but was happy with that — unlike the men she knew, who (she said) devalued anything less than permanent success at the very highest level. And as far as the content of the Freaky Friday books is concerned, she was pleased that several generations of young people were exposed to stories that had a strong moral core without being moralistic.
Q. Mary Rodgers was extremely close with Stephen Sondheim. Can you talk a little about their relationship?
They met at Oscar Hammerstein’s house in Bucks County, Pa. By the time 14-year-old Sondheim trounced 13-year-old Mary in two games of chess, and then played her some Gershwin on the piano, she was in love for life. She had two marriages and many other relationships, but her adoration of Sondheim was the constant — and no wonder, as talent is what truly turned her on. Nor was it one-sided; he was extraordinarily close to her, not just when they worked on songs together but also as confidants and cohabitants in the very highest echelons of the American theater. When they tried to make that cohabitation literal, things became awkward, in the form of what Mary called a trial marriage. Happily they walked that back, and remained close (with occasional eruptions of pique) ever after.
Q. The book, which arrives 8 years after Mary Rodgers’ death, has been a surprise hit with readers. What do you think she would have said about that?
“It’s better than a poke in the eye with a stick.”
Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?
I’m a completist, so I recommend reading the entire works of: William Maxwell, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist, not the actress), et al. And then starting over and reading them again!
Q. What are you reading now?
Because of my job — I’m the chief theater critic for The New York Times — I read a lot of plays. Currently I’m reading “Les Blancs,” “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” and other lesser-known works by Lorraine Hansberry, the author of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?
A common answer, no doubt, but “Goodnight Moon,” which in its intensity and concision seemed to invite a strong response and leave room for it.
Q. Can you recall a book you thought could have been written just for you (or conversely, one that most definitely wasn’t)?
I don’t really understand the concept of books “written just for you.” I have certainly loved books about my own demographic, sometimes sliced very close to the bone. But I mostly read to learn about other lives: to triangulate a bigger understanding of the world from theirs and mine.
Q. What’s something about your book that no one knows?
As “alarmingly outspoken” as “Shy” is, there’s plenty I left out.
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What’s next on ‘Bookish’
The next free Bookish event is Sept. 16 with guests Barbie Latza Nadeau, Andy Borowitz and Ron Shelton joining host Sandra Tsing Loh.