By Darian Muka
Book Fight, a literary podcast self-proclaimed as tough love for literature, is the best literary podcast in Philly, not to mention, the only one. Winner of the 2015 Geek Award for Multimedia Project of the Year, Book Fight has over 200 episodes and averages 4,000 weekly listeners.
Mike Ingram, 40, and Tom McAllister, 35, started the podcast, Book Fight in 2012 as a way of adding levity to the literary review world. Most literary podcasts listen like a deep dive into a story with a dry, academic tone. The Book Fight guys, on the other hand, review books with a conversational tone and strong opinions they don’t try to hide.
They describe the podcast as an extension of the conversations they were already having with like-minded, literary friends at the bar, only with a little less alcohol. Episodes revolve around thoughts on theme, genre and characters in literature. Or they devolve into hysterical segments on far-flung topics ranging from fanfiction about Obama and a unicorn to dating advice based on literary preference. In other words, Book Fight is not your New Yorker style literary analysis.
In fact, the podcasts are never one hundred percent review. They always include other segments like South Philly News, literary recommendations, or updates on little-known literary feuds. But when they do get to the book, Ingram and McAllister discuss them as invested readers and writers. They tell you what they see, what a book implies, what place it has in its genre and/or how it affects readers and literature as a whole. For listeners, it feels like hearing about literature from two people you could easily be friends with. From an evocative romance novel to an anthologized literary text, they let discussion develop organically.
“If somebody just wanted to read a book review, listening to our hour-long show is the least efficient way of doing that,” says Ingram. But based on the show’s popularity, people clearly aren’t looking for efficiency when it comes to book talk.
THE SECRET OF THEIR SUCCESS
Ingram and McAllister met in graduate school at the University of Iowa and have been friends for 13 years. Now they both work as professors in the English department of Temple University and serve as editors for the literary magazine, Barrelhouse – Ingram as the books editor and McAllister the nonfiction editor – their long-time friendship is easily discernible on air.
“I think even if you don’t know them personally, Mike and Tom have great conversational chemistry,” says Becky Barnard, 36, who was a Book Fight listener even before she joined the Barrelhouse staff as Production Manager. “It’s like talking to your friends at a bar – they drift from serious literary criticism to weird trivia to in-jokes in such a natural way,” she says.
That “natural way” is obviously a result of the fact that McAllister and Ingram live a life immersed in the written word.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s great about the two of them together,”says Claire Folkman, 30, Co-Editor of Dirty Diamonds: an all-girl comic anthology and a former guest on the show. “Because they are both highly educated teachers, and they teach literature they know what they want to talk about,” she says. “ Plus, they’re really good friends, so they’re very good at talking to each other.”
One of the few critiques of the podcast is its lack of easy entrance. For long-time listeners, they’re used to the range of intensity of the episodes, but it’s hard to know where to start if you’re just coming in. So where should you start?
“I think it depends what you’re looking for,” says McAllister. “Because going through and picking a book you know doesn’t necessarily mean the episode is any good.”
And starting with a book you love could be a hindrance in enjoying the podcast. “I feel like people probably get in there and might get annoyed that we’re not loving the book the way we’re supposed to,” says McAllister.
McAllister suggests Episode 88 with Philadelphia novelist, Asali Solomon, but you can also find a few suggestions on the Book Fight website and from their 2016 highlight post.
BEYOND BOOK FIGHT
Beyond Book Fight, Barrelhouse and Temple University, Ingram runs a reading series called Tire Fire, writes freelance articles about the energy industry and healthcare and is always working on his own writing. McAllister’s new book, The Young Widower’s Handbook, came out February 7th and made it on Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers list for spring, 2017. Now finishing up the season, Spring Fling, the two look forward to bringing more guests on the show. Most of their guests are people plucked from their literary world. One of their guests, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib for example, was chosen after Ingram and McAllister featured his work in Barrelhouse. Their most recent episodes features guests Kelly Phillips and Claire Folkman, Co-Editors and Publishers of Dirty Diamonds: an all-girl comic anthology.
But the most important consideration is not how well known a writer is, or or how much Ingram and McAllister like a guest’s writing, it’s how well they can speak on a podcast. Oh, and that they are willing to drive to McAllister’s house in New Jersey for an hour to chat.
Though they don’t have guests scheduled too far in advance, they hope to have Bud Smith, friend of Barrelhouse, on to discuss the Novelization of ET in the future.
And as for the future of Book Fight, the hosts says it’s time to re-evaluate. With the success they’ve had, many of the things they’ve set out to do, they have accomplished. So for right now, the podcast is what they enjoy doing, but they are looking forward to seeing it grow.
“Despite my occasional complaints about the workload and time commitment, I really enjoy making the show,” says Ingram “It can look like a pretty crowded field – sometimes it feels like everyone in the world is starting a podcast – but it’s still a relatively small niche when you compare it to other media. So, I think there’s a lot of growth potential. I don’t know if that will ever translate into real money for us, but for me, that’s less the point than just being involved in a thing I’m excited about.”
Catch Book Fight every Wednesday on the Book Fight website or any other podcast outlet. For More of McAllister and Ingram, check out their websites, Barrelhouses site, or just wander the Philly literary scene for a while; you’ll find them.
Darian Muka is the executive editor at Qwerty Philly