Writing and reading are, by their nature, solitary pursuits. And yet, with the advent of the internet, we’re more connected to networks of other poets, fictioneers, and essayists than ever before. We tweet at one another using hashtags to group ourselves into sub-communities. We come together in secret Facebook groups and backchannel chats. We find new markets to submit to through resources like Duotrope, mailing lists, and websites that publish monthly break-downs of who’s open for what. And of course, we get together offline, too. Last year, over 12,000 people attended AWP in Minneapolis, a number that will probably increase in 2016. We also meet up on a local scale, attending readings, spoken word events, and book launches in our immediate physical communities.
Yet, the literary community—like all communities—can often feel unsafe, even hostile. While it’s unrealistic to expect any group of people to work cooperatively towards some kind of jerk-free utopia, there are some basic practices everyone can aim for that will help forge the kind of community we should all want; one that is respectful, safe, and welcoming. With that in mind, here are five resolutions you can make to help make you a better literary citizen in 2016 and, in turn, improve the community for everyone.
- Practice Reciprocity
This should be a no-brainer, but alas many members of the lit community are alarmingly short sighted when it comes to their work VS everybody else’s. We’ve all met someone like this; the writer who spends all day on social media promoting their new chapbook but never seems to have the time or dollars to buy, review, discuss, or promote anybody else’s. It’s the person in your Facebook group who begs for (free) critiques of their newest poem, but is nowhere to be found when you ask them politely to return the favor. We want to give this person the benefit of the doubt, but after a while it becomes nauseating watching them go through the endless cycle of self-promotion without stopping to acknowledge the help they’ve received from their community. Want to be a better lit-cit in 2016? Be mindful of the balance between serving yourself and serving the folk around you. (And this goes both ways: if you’re prone to putting everyone else’s work before your own, to the extent that you find 0 time in your day to focus on your own writing projects, don’t be afraid to say ‘not now, sorry!’)
- Challenge Yourself to Read More Diversely
When I started grad school in 2012, I had read almost no female writers. This wasn’t deliberate—I’d just tended to follow mainstream trends, and most of the literature I’d been exposed to came in the form of University-sanctioned reading lists that privileged the voices of deceased white gentlemen. Finding my community helped expose me to a wide variety of other voices—not just the women and PoC who were finding a place in the canon, but the folk who were publishing on a smaller scale with independent presses and in digital literary magazines. But no matter how good we think we are at reading diversely, we all have our blind spots—mostly because tracking down underrepresented or marginalized voices requires more effort than just reading within our own demographic. Even though I make a concerted effort to buy every chapbook I see promoted on my social media feeds, the fact remains that most of those writers are white. Most of the writers on my bookshelf are white. This is a problem. If you feel you may be suffering from a similarly myopic bookshelf, challenge yourself to read outside the box. Read more trans authors. Or more people of color. Or more women. Or more women of color. Or non-binary authors. Or more LGBT authors. Or more contemporary Black authors. What about trying to read more writers with disabilities? (Unsurprisingly, a 15-minute Google returned basically no results for reading lists of differently abled writers—aside from lists of “famous” authors with disabilities. As it goes, writers with disabilities are perhaps the most invisibly marginalized demographic in our community, particularly if their disability isn’t ‘obvious’ – more on this later).
- Your Work Does Not Exist in a Vacuum / Your Intentions Are Meaningless
In 2015, much ink and many pixels were spilled debating whether or not art should be separated from political context. On the one hand you had folks like lauded critic and academic gatekeeper Marjorie Perloff, who recently declared she was leaving the poetry world forever after folks condemned her suggestion that the media had ‘romanticized’ Michael Brown. On the other, you had folks like Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Jay Sizemore who all seemed to want to engage in politically charged creative projects without receiving any criticism or fall-out from them when their apparent intentions were misread. On the other hand (yes, three hands) you had poets like Michael Derrick Hudson, who sought to exploit the poetry community’s alleged bias towards marginalized writers and boner for political correctness to further his own boring career. For Perloff, criticism should be toothless and ‘polite’, a gentle workshopping experience rather than a frank and blunt discussion. Many writers and critics have taken this a step further, suggesting that all that matters if the author’s original intent, and any disparate readings are secondary to that intent. Some have even gone so far as to say that being mindful of social and political contexts when creating work robs it of its power—that writing should shock and offend, sometimes, that this is the job of writing. This attitude is a denial of the basic empathy we ought to be practicing towards other human beings in all areas of our lives. In 2016, let’s come down from the ivory tower of academia and embrace the fact that art is not, and never has been, a-political. Does that mean you can’t write about subjects that may be offensive? Not at all. But if you choose to do so, understand that once you release your work into the wild, your intentions mean less than jackeroo. Your writing stands for itself; if it requires a lengthy and detailed explanation to get your point across, might I suggest that it needs revision and is not ready for general consumption.
- Accept Criticism Graciously
Following neatly on from #3, try to behave with dignity and empathy when you are called out or criticized. Whether that criticism comes in the form of a negative review, a reading of your work that differs from what you originally intended, or someone letting you know they were offended or upset by a comment you made on social media, instead of reacting defensively, try to appreciate where they’re coming from. This isn’t always easy, particularly if you generally consider yourself to be sensitive to the comfort and safety of others. It can be incredibly frustrating to find you’ve fucked up, despite your best intentions. But the correct response to that criticism is not to go off on the person calling you out (particularly in the Age of Twitter, where everything is screencapped and every comment eternal). You may not agree with the points your critic is making, and that’s okay; feel free to stand by your work, your words, and your decisions. But do so politely, and with dignity—and, preferably, after taking the time to genuinely consider their viewpoint.
- Reach Out/Raise Up
Here, we circle back (somewhat) to reciprocity. Key to being a good literary citizen is understanding your place in the ecology of the literary community and knowing when to speak, and when to stay silent. On a practical level, we see this in accounts by authors like Kelly Davio, who writes about being punched in the back by a writer at AWP and having no one step forward to help her or call out her assailant, or Stephen Kuusisto who writes of a similar experience at an AWP panel, where a famous author literally walked over him as he lay on the ground, only to proceed to talk about empathy in his opening remarks. In these instances, someone should have said something. Someone should have reached out. And yet, nobody did—much as few reached out and spoke up in support when, in early 2015, anonymous victims stepped forward to identify abusers in the lit community. Yet being part of a good, functional community is also knowing when to be silent and listen, when to forgo ego and raise up the voices of others. To this end, every single member of the literary community ought to be paying attention to collectives like The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, whose capslocked declarations refuse to pander to dominant discourse and instead centralize the experience of oppressed minorities. Thinking about writing an opinion piece on a form of oppression you know lots about (you have Googled! You know things!) but haven’t actually at any time directly experienced? Perhaps rethink this decision. Spend time reaching out and learning more. Don’t speak over the top of the folks with firsthand experience. Raise them up.
The literary community is a microcosm of the world at large. As such, it will never be perfect—we are imperfect people. We screw up, and we act in self-interested, and we put our feet in our mouths at inopportune times. The best we can do is strive for self-improvement, to practice empathy and mindfulness and to move through these spaces, digital and physical, with the conscious intent to do good, rather than harm. From everyone at Quaint, happy 2016! Let’s make it the year of getting our shit together.
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, the runner-up for the 2014 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and a pushcart nominee, Kia’s work has been published in The Mary Sue, Delirious Hem, and other blogs & magazines, as well as journals such as Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Westerly, Permafrost, and Inky Needles. You can find her online at kiagroom.com and she tweets @whodreamedit.