Hierarchy & Division in the Writing World

Recently I asked a writer and agent whether I should attend an upcoming pitch conference to pitch my revision book. His reaction surprised me: He compared current trends in publishing to the increasing disparity of wealth in our country, the separation between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the elevation of celebrities and specialists and the successful above most ordinary folk… To move from peon status to what our culture views as success, he said, you have to get on your knees and beg. He sees pitch conferences as an opportunity to beg.

While I don’t entirely agree (I pitched my book at AWP and got an agent at Bloomsbury to look at my proposal; was that begging?), I’ve been mulling over his analogy ever since. Yes, the 1% of authors earn a disproportional amount of the pot of money that goes to writers and receive the majority of media attention. Yes, the metaphorical 1% of publishing houses (the “Big Five”—Hatchett, Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster) own a disproportional part of the market. Ingram and Baker & Taylor dominate distribution. And we all know about Amazon’s monopoly. On the sales curve, a tiny minority of authors sell the majority of books while most of us reside on the “long red tail” of small sales.

This is our cultural reality. How does it affect our thinking? Our art-making? Our willingness to publish? I’m quite certain we’ve all participated in this “have” and “have-not” thinking. It happens when literary writers look down their noses at the genre writers, when the stranger you’ve just told you’re a writer asks, “Have you published?”, when the paper book is deemed more worthy than the ebook, when writing for print publication is more valid than web journals, when the poets dismiss prose as worldly, when sacred texts are considered separate from secular texts, when any writing (sacred or secular) gets canonized… I remember one writer friend of mine dismissing her sister-in-law as “not really a writer” because she wrote Chicken Soup of the Soul pieces.  I couldn’t help but wonder how her distinctions between “real” writers and others affected her own confidence.

These prejudices infect the best of us. When I found myself waiting outside the auditorium at the Key West Literary Seminar beside Marilynne Robinson, the author I admire more than any other living today, I was too tongue-tied even to say hello. Respecting authors is fine; elevating a writer like that, to the detriment of my own accomplishments, is a form of psychological transference.  It deprives her of her humanity and me of my agency.

The literary world isn’t served well by our super-star culture.  Publishers throw money at certain books to guarantee their stardom.  Readers get a thrill from reading the books of famous people rather than from reading good stories.  And writers must labor at building platforms rather than honing our craft.

How then can we crow-bar ourselves out of hierarchical thinking into a place of greater freedom? How can we write and publish in this climate and stay healthy? How can we open our hearts to writers of all stripes and still strive for the highest quality in our own work?

One of the things I’ve always loved about The Loft Literary Center is that it’s a place “where writers learn from other writers.” In the Loft classroom the playing field is even, and this egalitarianism has been one of the best gifts I’ve received as a writer. Now I hope this value saturates all my work with writers.  A writer is someone who writes.  Let’s celebrate our great diversity!

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Upcoming opportunities:

June 24, 7 p.m.:  Queer Voices Pride Reading, Minneapolis Central Library.
September 26:  Introduction to Spiritual Memoir, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
October 31, 9-12 a.m.:  Revision Revolution workshop, The Loft Literary Center.
SAVE THE DATE:  September 12-16, 2016:  Revision retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts.

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