Web of lit­er­ary thrills

Pas­sion­ate read­ers and au­thors find a place to bond on the blog­ging plat­form Tum­blr.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Carolyn Kellogg

To ex­press her love to Judy Blume, a 1970s tween would have had to write a let­ter. Th­ese days, a young reader en­chanted by YA books — by, say, au­thor Rain­bow Row­ell — can make nail art that matches a book cover and share it on Tum­blr, where the au­thor her­self might see and share it with her fol­low­ers.

“When some­one who lives in Kansas and has [never met] an au­thor in per­son has the au­thor re-blog some­thing they made, they freak out,” says Rachel Fer­sh­leiser, who means “freak out” in

the nicest way. An in­fec­tious book booster, Fer­sh­leiser man­ages Tum­blr’s lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ties by reach­ing out to read­ers, li­brar­i­ans and book­sell­ers, meet­ing with pub­lish­ers, set­ting up con­tests and net­work­ing with au­thors and teach­ing them how to use Tum­blr.

The communal blog­ging plat­form, which al­lows any­one 13 and older to quickly set up a site of his or her own, has cre­ated an es­sen­tial on­line lit­er­ary ecosys­tem. Ya­hoo ac­quired the com­pany for $1.1 bil­lion in 2013 and has left its quirky user en­vi­ron­ment, made up of more than 231 mil­lion blogs, largely undis­turbed.

“Tum­blr’s very pas­sion-fo­cused. Peo­ple think of us as a place for fans,” says Fer­sh­leiser, who will be at the Los An­ge­les Times Fes­ti­val of Books, ap­pear­ing on the panel “Pub­lish­ing: The New Writ­ers’ Tool­box,” on Satur­day. “This fan cul­ture is be­ing in­cred­i­bly ex­cited about the thing you love and want­ing to make more and more of it.”

Hence, the pink and gray fin­ger­nails painted with a tele­phone re­ceiver and coiled cord, in­spired by the cover of Row­ell’s 2014 novel, “Land­line.” Sim­i­larly, a cor­nu­copia of books has in­spired em­broi­dery, jew­elry, draw­ings and paint­ings. And playlists. Peo­ple cook recipes found in and in­spired by books. There’s an en­tire Tum­blr blog, Proof Read­ing (proof­read in­g­books.tum­blr.com), ded­i­cated to match­ing books with ap­pro­pri­ate cock­tails.

Tum­blr is par­tic­u­larly well-suited for shar­ing images, videos and GIFs, which might make it seem like an odd fit for wordy, book­ish types. Yet there’s some­thing in its alchemy — tools that al­low any­one to fol­low any­one else’s blog, the abil­ity to take any­one’s post and re­blog it your­self with a sin­gle click — that makes it a pri­mary on­line meet­ing place for cer­tain read­ers.

“There’s a huge, huge YA book com­mu­nity,” Fer­sh­leiser says, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of them are fol­low­ing au­thors who are on Tum­blr, in­clud­ing Row­ell, Mau­reen John­son and John Green.

Green at­tributes part of the suc­cess of his book “The Fault in Our Stars” (and its film adap­ta­tion) to the avid fans on Tum­blr.

“My read­ers are evan­ge­lists,” he blogged on the site last year. “If you scroll through the ‘Look­ing for Alaska’ or TFiOS tags on Tum­blr, you see a lot of peo­ple scream­ing at their friends to read my books, and mak­ing art about the books, and an­i­mat­ing quo­ta­tions from them, and so on. I am just re­ally lucky in this re­spect.”

Those peo­ple aren’t just teens.

“There are a lot of book­sell­ers and li­brar­i­ans and women in our 30s who like to read that stuff,” Fer­sh­leiser says proudly.

Other sig­nif­i­cant com­mu­ni­ties on Tum­blr fo­cus on science fic­tion, comic books, small in­de­pen­dent presses and lit­er­ary fic­tion. But YA is the cen­ter of Fer­sh­leiser’s book world. She launched Tum­blr’s of­fi­cial book club in 2013 and gears its se­lec­tions to that fan base, in­clud­ing the just-an­nounced sixth book, “All the Rage” by Court­ney Sum­mers.

“I’ve al­ways said I want to be the Oprah of the In­ter­net. Be­ing able to choose an amaz­ing book and bring to­gether a whole lot of peo­ple around it is re­ally cool,” Fer­sh­leiser says. “The only re­quire­ments are that the au­thor is in the Tum­blr com­mu­nity, that there’s a lot to talk about, and that the book will be ap­peal­ing to teens and adults.”

Be­cause of the in­ter­face, the dis­cus­sion re­mains ex­tremely up­beat. Tum­blr’s re­post­ing func­tion al­lows the orig­i­na­tor to see all later uses of his or her post.

“It’s prob­a­bly a less neg­a­tive place than other so­cial sites,” Fer­sh­leiser says. “When I want to re­spond to some­thing, I re­blog it onto my blog, so I’m not go­ing to do that to call some­one a ‘but­tface.’ ”

That col­le­gial at­mos­phere has made Tum­blr a place where book­ish young women have come to feel wel­come to ex­press them­selves; it’s be­come a haven for en­thu­si­asm and girl­ish cheer.

As far as books are con­cerned, it’s not much of a crit­i­cal dis­course — there are other places for that: news­pa­pers, print jour­nals, web­sites like the Los An­ge­les Re­view of Books. But in those places, you can’t cel­e­brate your fa­vorite novel by designing an out­fit for its main char­ac­ter or cre­at­ing a playlist — un­like on Tum­blr, where if the au­thor sees what you’ve done, so much the bet­ter.

“For peo­ple who don’t live in New York and go to pub­lish­ing par­ties, or get to come to the L.A. Times Book Fes­ti­val and meet writ­ers,” Fer­sh­leiser says, “it’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­nity to connect.”

Rachel Fer­sh­leiser

TUM­BLR’S Rachel Fer­sh­leiser over­sees the site’s read­erly out­posts.

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