December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
For writers, December runs hot and cold—a lot of rejection notices come in as the semester winds up, and a few acceptances, too. Everyone shares their end-of-year lists and nominations for prizes, like the Pushcart. I wasn’t nominated for anything this year, and I wasn’t expecting to be, but one editor did take the time to tell me that I was “a smidgen” away from making the cut for a Pushcart nod. Since it’s been a slow year otherwise, in terms of writing and publishing, it made me feel good for a few days, and I appreciated it.
A couple months ago, Roxane Gay, one of the most generous writers out there in terms of sharing advice to fellow writers, published a piece called “The Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves” for the AWP site. The whole article is worth a read, but the first question, in particular, has stayed with me:
1. Are you a good literary citizen?
I don’t want to be overly prescriptive but while writing matters most, how we move through the literary world also matters. Literary citizenship is certainly not being disingenuous, uncritical, or falsely affirming about everything you read and every writer you encounter.
Instead, literary citizenship can involve being a consumer as well as a producer of the written word. Subscribe to a literary magazine or two. Attend readings once in a while. Volunteer at a literary magazine. Do what you want, so long as you are doing something to contribute to the literary community, beyond simply offering your writing.
Don’t burn bridges you may want to cross in the future. The writing world is as small as it is big; most everyone is connected in some way. Again, this is not to suggest you should be disingenuous but you never know when seemingly casual connections will end up leading to professional opportunities to participate in a reading series, or read at a university, or teach at a writing workshop.
Good literary citizenship can also extend to how you comport yourself when participating in social networks. Are you relentless in promoting your own writing, sharing the same link more than two or three times? Do you send direct messages or private Facebook messages to strangers, promoting your latest project? Of course you should promote your work but take care in how you promote your work and consider sharing the good news about the writing of others, if you are so moved.
Mostly, literary citizenship is the importance of remembering that no one is alone in the writing world. Conduct yourself as such.
This has been on my mind lately as I make more friends and connections in the literary world. Social media tends to have a snowball effect when it comes to these things. I am connected to people—writers, editors, program directors—who don’t really know who I am, and I don’t really know them, but, as with any other field of interest, it is useful and rewarding to stay in touch with other practitioners, share ideas and frustrations about our choice of craft, and spread news about achievements and opportunities.
But it is not lost on me that many of the people with whom I interact can also give me something I want. I want to be read by them, be published by them, be promoted by them and invited to read with them. I want to be mentioned in the same conversations as them. There is a fine line that must be trod in how I interact with them. When I submit a story to a journal, and then share a link to another story published in that journal while my submission is being considered, or like news of an editor’s book deal, am I greasing the skids? Am I complicit in a fraud if that action is interpreted as such?
And if an acceptance or other opportunity were to come about from a journal I have promoted, or an editor whose work I have shared or liked, is it somehow less of an achievement if those interactions helped the editor or publisher to remember my name?
I haven’t been submitting much lately, mainly because I have only a handful of pieces that are ready to see the light of day. But I have been sharing links, reading up on other writers’ career milestones and new projects, liking and encouraging as a way of staying abreast of what others are doing. In one way it feels like a way to participate in the conversation of writing, for lack of anything of my own to contribute. And it is always great to know talented and creative people. Having them close at hand, and paying attention to how they conduct themselves, can be a bit of a tacit, poor-man’s mentorship. But there are also times when it feels as though I am exposing myself, because for all the energy I spend fostering relationships with other writers I know I should be spending more on improving my craft.
Earlier this week, one accomplished writer I follow and respect posted his list of favorite books of the year for The Millions’ Year in Reading, and the first commenter—anonymous, naturally—accused him of shilling for his friends. It was true, the writer admitted—a lot of the authors he mentioned were his friends. Some of them he had known for a while and others he had gotten to know only after enjoying their books. A few other commenters piled on, rather cruelly, accusing the writer of abusing his position as part of a circle-jerking enclave, which seemed to suggest a disdain not for the promotion of friends’ books but for the seeming impenetrability of that circle, a smugness among those who belonged to it, and the perception from outsiders that membership in that circle made it impossible to treat each other’s work with the same critical honesty expected in the writing community at large.
On the one hand, this kind of accusation doesn’t say much; in any business, even one purportedly transacting in merit, one establishes a coterie of people one trusts, and those are the people one is naturally eager to work with.
But I think there is also a responsibility to consider how things look from afar. The Internet gives writers a streaming, 24-hour opportunity to get their names in front of the people they seek to impress, and unlike the work of drafting, revising, critiquing and polishing, a lot of electronic networking takes place out in the open. We retweet, share, and like with no lack of awareness that we might be seen doing it and get paid back for it down the road. That’s only human nature. But it is also human nature to be cynical, and a writer who trumpets the work of another writer who has done that person a favor is going to appear disingenuous to some.
Community is a valuable thing. I am very grateful for the many friendships I have made in such a short time since I started sending my work out. But true friendship needs distance and honesty at times, and I wonder if the Internet has made the writing community too snug for its own good.