Support Your Literary Community

Dan Green asks a lot of important questions about “literary citizenship” and makes a lot of really good points. (And when I think of members in good standing of the “literary community” I certainly think of him.) I don’t have any answers to his questions, but I do have some responses to some of the points he raises.

First of all, I think the basic idea of a literary citizen is pretty simple. Don’t trash the community that nourishes you and gives you a place to exist. Don’t shit where you live. Do some good deeds for your people. Try to leave your place a little better than you found it. If for no other reason, it’s in your own self interest to make the ecosystem you live in a beautiful, interesting, healthy place to be.

As to the free riders and the gamers. Yes, there will always be a tiny percentage of community members who are transparently participating only for their own interests, just as there will also be a few saint-like figures who seem tireless in the good deeds they’ll do for others, with seemingly no regard whatsoever for their own careers. The cynics are easy enough to pick out and avoid, and the saints are welcome. That leaves the rest of us, the vast vast majority of or less decent people trying to do a little good while also trying to carve out a life for ourselves.

Social networks have, of course, become hugely important in the ways we interact as members of this community. But despite everything that social networks have changed, I find things like this a little overblown:

Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media “presence.” Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, “Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being ‘trained’ to do.”‘

First of all, it’s flat-out wrong that “corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves.” There’s a pretty huge difference between what a career publicist can accomplish (and the work involved in getting it done) and the author who’s recruited to do a book tour.

Yes, the author is being asked to participate to a greater degree in publicity than, say, 30 years ago, but c’mon. I don’t know of any “corporate publishers” who ask their authors to print and mail out hundreds of galleys, cultivate relationships with scores/hundreds of critics nationwide, book nationwide bookstore tours (which are generally paid for in total by the publisher, and are not cheap), create and place advertising, and generally build the kind of market presence that can turn an author from completely unknown to semi-famous in a single season. I just don’t think it really helps this conversation at all to confuse the work a publicist does with the expectations that an author be part of a literary community.

As to the social media presence, yes, some authors really get social media and love it and have built sizable followings. But have a look at the number of Twitter followers for many of your favorite authors, and I guarantee they will be tiny (if they’re even on Twitter). Then compare that to the social media presence for his/her publisher. Yes, our media environment has changed quite a bit, but in large it’s the publicists and the publishers who have adapted to build sizable presences in the new online media, not the authors. And let’s not overstate what a Twitter presence can do for a writer; yes, it will help a bit, but it’s not a panacea for sales and publicity by any means.

Just one example out of many: Garth Risk Hallberg got himself a $2 million book deal with a leading publisher despite having no social media profile to speak of, having pretty much gone into hiding from the work he used to do at The Millions (or anywhere for that matter), and barely even having email. So, I mean . . .

The authors that have built sizable social media followings are generally in it for reasons other than to publicize their next book (and if they do also use it to publicize their work, I’m not going to fault them—see above). They probably get a lot out of being on Twitter, are well-suited enough to the environment that it doesn’t destroy their mood, and maybe just like being able to share information on cool books with thousands of people.

Bottom line: having been working in publishing for a while now, and having been in touch with all sorts of publishers and authors all over the place, I just don’t see any real evidence of what people like Becky Tuch say, and I think statements like hers are far too cynical and don’t consider the nuances that exist in the real world. It’s my experience that people who participate in the literary community via social media want to be there, and are doing it for a variety of reasons. The very last reason of all is that they’re being forced there by their publisher.

Dan also raises this series of important questions:

Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably “business” would not be the center of activity: payment comes in “kindness and skill,” receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to “learn, engage, and grow.”

But would real growth actually occur if all that was “paid forward” was “kindness”? Would the “skill” also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative?

Honestly, I think the answers are “yes” and “yes.” When I look at the amount of coverage afforded today to small/indie press titles and authors in very mainstream publications with huge audiences (and it has increased a lot), I think that’s a direct result of the small/indie community that has been built in the decade-and-a-half since the Internet came into its own. Many people from that community have been enabled to crash the gates of the venerable mainstream, and they have brought along their friends with them. A lot of the people I consider peers today started out as nobodies with nothing more than shitty blogs (myself included), and now many of them are in places of power ans prestige. They still remember their old friends, and they’re still parts of the communities they started with. All of this has very substantively affected the sorts of books and authors that are taken seriously these days.

As to the honesty factor—yes, there’s tons of fluff out there. Every day we all see people passing along links to articles they haven’t read past the headline and promoting books they probably haven’t read. This is obviously not a good thing, and I think it can in part be attributed to the pressure to “keep up” and to be a “good citizen,” as well as to the list-making tendency of Internet media. Obviously these aren’t good things, we can all agree. But, two things: 1) This all existed before the Internet, and I think the Internet has only magnified it and brought it more into the open; and 2) Amid all this bullshitting I also see a lot of very genuine criticism and discussion happening.

Because, the fact is, if you really do want to start an indie press and make it live, you need to be able to handle people giving you real talk, or else you won’t survive. And if you really want to be a good writer, you have to deal with honest responses to your work, or else your writing will suck and nobody will actually respect you, regardless of what they say on Facebook.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the people I know, but I tend to see a lot more people in my community who are interested in honest feedback and improving their skills than wanting to accumulate a bunch of skin-deep praise. And, it’s my genuine belief that a ream-full of superficial praise doesn’t sell books so much as create a short-lived buzz on social media that everyone will have forgotten in a week. By contrast, my experience is that what really sells books and makes careers is the deep, extended engagement, where people are giving word-of-mouth recommendations for months/years to come, and where the analysis of the book goes so deep that said book begins to sound really, really compelling. And social media has made it possible to do this in ways and across geographies that we never could have before.

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say here that I think the image of the literary apostate is just that—an image, oftentimes cultivated by a canny and well-connected individual for careerist reasons. Even someone as genius as Samuel Beckett was a virtual nobody in the U.S. until his publisher at Grove figured out how to make him a mainstream commodity (and he wasn’t so much of an outsider as his image would have it). Even a complete misanthrope like Thomas Bernhard recognized the necessity for people to be connected to other people. Yes, writers tend to be solitary people, and some parts of the literary community will tend to turn writers off. A healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing—but neither is finding the people in the world who get you and forming relationships with them. When you get right down to it, that’s probably 90% of what the words “literary community” mean to me.

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