Book Review: Seattle City of Literature: Reflections From a Community of Writers, Edited by Ryan Boudinot

This book, though entertaining enough in its own way, disappointed me.  It’s my fault, really.  Too often my appreciation for things depends in a large part on my expectations.  I was on one of my forays to the Amazon physical book store in the University Village in Seattle, and as is becoming my habit – at least I’ve done it twice; the store hasn’t been there very long – I allowed myself a budget of one fiction book and one nonfiction book.  I knew I would probably be able to afford that much, as the prices of the books are linked to Amazon’s electronic website, and the physical bookstore offers the same generous discounts as the website does.  It would be nice to read something about Seattle, thought I, and sauntered over to a corner near the windows where a regional book section is set up.  Finding this book, I grabbed it without looking at it very closely, thinking that it would be intensely interesting to learn something about Seattle’s literary scene.

The book is interesting, but not in the way that I thought.  It doesn’t give much insight at all into the history or current status of the literary community in Seattle.  It’s more a collage such as you would find on a social media site:  brief snippets and anecdotes like photographs that capture moments in time but without depth.  Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.  I wanted a history of the literary scene in Seattle – how it began, how it developed, an in-depth look at the major players.  Instead, this book is a collection of brief essays in which writers recall stories of their favorite teachers of literature, notable readings they attended, drinking times with writer buddies, and so on.  The proprietors and employees of bookstores, instead of giving the readers a glimpse at the history and notable events of the establishments, answer trivia questions about hypothetical plot scenarios.  As I said, it’s entertaining in a light sort of way, but not what I expected or hoped to find.

One thing that disappointed me was its lack of comprehensiveness in dealing with Seattle’s multifaceted literary scene.  Most of the volume is taken up with poetry writers and poetry readings.  Now, I love good poetry but there is so much more that Seattle has to offer.  For instance, there is only a passing mention of the rich, vibrant science fiction and fantasy literary community in Seattle.  Seattle hosts the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop, where so many stellar speculative fiction writers honed their craft going all the way back to 1970 when it was initiated.  I’m biased, I know, because I attended Clarion West way back in 1973 when I was a literary stripling of twenty, far too young to imbibe most of the lessons the pro instructors were trying to teach me, and after finally returning to Seattle after thirty-five years of living abroad, it is to the science fiction and fantasy community that I felt drawn.  Many top award-winning speculative fiction writers live in the Seattle area, and the community is thriving, welcoming, generous, and a hell of a lot of fun.  That aside, there is too little detail on the multitudes of other novelists and short story writers who inhabit this corner of the country.

Having said all this, I offer no discredit to the book.  I expected something else and didn’t find it, but that is not to say that the editor and community of writers within did not accomplish the task they set out to accomplish.  I can’t really say that it’s a bird’s eye view of the Seattle writing community, because so much is missing, but it’s more like a gathering of images that give brief flashes of insight, moments in time that illuminate fragments of the past.

*     *     *

The editor of this book did a unique, innovative, interesting thing when the volume was almost complete.  He sent a copy to Paul Constant, a former books editor at the Seattle alternate weekly the Stranger, and asked him to write a review that he would include in the book as an afterword.  Constant’s review is vaguely complementary, but rather like mine doesn’t really say much because there isn’t much of substance in the book.  After I wrote my review, I searched the Net to see what others were saying about the book, and I came across an article Constant wrote in the Seattle Review of Books some time after “Seattle:  City of Literature” was published.  In it, he points out his failure to catch the lack of diversity in the book’s essays.  He mentions a conversation with Nicola Griffith, an award-winning science fiction writer, about the vital importance of diversity in every collaborative work.  He also cites another article in the Seattle Review of Books by Donna Miscolta that stresses the lack of voices from writers of color from a city that is overflowing with multiracial and multicultural influences.  She gives a number of examples of overlooked literary luminaries, and suggests that the editor should not promote the book as comprehensive with such glaring oversights.  I admit that my assertion of lack of balance in the anthology was based more on missing literary genres rather than missing cultural diversity, but I find it interesting that I am not the only one who feels that the book does, indeed, lack balance.

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