Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship?

by Sal Falko / Flickr
by Sal Falko / Flickr

The backlash against Literary Citizenship is underway, and perhaps it was inevitable.

For those unaware of term, it’s widely used in the literary, bookish community to refer to activities that support and further reading, writing, and publishing, and the growth of your professional network. In some ways, it’s a more palatable (or friendly) way to think of platform building.

What I’ve always liked about the Literary Citizenship movement:

  1. It’s simple for people to understand and practice. It aligns well with the values of the literary community.
  2. It operates with an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.

In her piece “All Work and No Pay Makes Jack a Dull Writer: On Literary Citizenship and Its Limits,” Becky Tuch raises a red flag on all this positive spin, and points to a downturn in publishers’ marketing budgets:

Who, then, must make up for this [economic] shortfall? Certainly it’s not the owners and CEO’s of publishing companies who lend a hand to writers in times of duress (in spite of the fact that their profits are derived precisely from those writers). No, it’s writers who are expected to look after themselves and one another.

Tuch argues that writers are being exploited under the guise of marketing activities as “enriching” activities. She asks us to question and challenge this system, and the corporate publishers or corporate-culture machinations that have led us to the necessity of literary citizenship, and calls for “frank discussions about labor power and financial remuneration.”

Here’s a high-level summary of my own approach to this.

1. The disruption faced by publishing affects the entire media industry (and the world) and goes beyond economics. Publishing is not a specialized activity any longer. Anybody can publish. That’s not to say anybody can publish well, but publication alone is not meaningful in and of itself in many cases. From the time of Gutenberg until roughly 2000, to print and publish something was to amplify it because of the investment and specialized knowledge required. That’s largely not the case today (though for some print-driven work, it still is). To amplify something takes a different kind of muscle, and amplifying through print distribution is becoming less and less meaningful as 50% of book sales now happen online (whether for print or digital books). Publishers of all types and sizes are struggling with this disruption and what it means for their value to authors, readers, and the larger culture.

2. Authors can transcend publishers when it comes to reader loyalty. Most of us don’t buy books because of who published them; we buy them because of who the author is. And if we don’t know the author, we often buy based on word of mouth. Publishers try to encourage this word of mouth, but few have brand recognition or connections with actual readers, because they haven’t traditionally been direct-to-consumer companies. They’ve sold to middlemen instead—bookstores, libraries, wholesalers.

In the last 5-10 years, authors have gained tools to connect directly with readers—tools that they’ve never had before—which give them tremendous power amidst the disruption. This is power that many publishers still lack.

Unfortunately, in the literary market, involvement with the readership is often seen as undesirable—writing for an audience or engaging with them is seen to lessen the art. (“I don’t write for readers” — you’ve heard that one, right?) I won’t address the problematic nature of this belief here, but this cultural myth is prevalent (I’m using the word “myth” neutrally here—as in Joseph Campbell “myth”), and may be the subtext of some criticism of literary citizenship.

3. The abundance mindset trumps the victim or scarcity mindset. In Zen terms (pardon my Zen nature): are we going to see ourselves as part of the publishing world, or as acted upon by the publishing world (victims)? It may seem a slight and meaningless distinction, but it powerfully affects your outlook and how you decide what to do next—if you believe you are the person who has control of your life and work.

Also, we have to remember that when one area of the network or community suffers, it will invariably affect another part. (Watch this terrific video on this concept.) We’re already seeing shifts in the market that point to how publishers have to change—e.g., 25% of the top 100 books on Amazon last year were self-published, authors are successfully crowdfunding new books, and Wattpad has launched the careers of new, young authors, which uses a very different model than any we’ve seen before.

New business models are out there, and authors are finding the opportunities amidst the change. Benjamin Zander wrote in The Art of Possibility:

The frames our minds create define—and confine—what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.

What frame are we using to look at the economic problem writers now face? I would suggest it’s not useful to use the framework of, “Publishers are taking advantage of writers.” Let’s change the frame we’re using—not to whitewash any potential unethical behavior, but to spot a productive way forward.

One of the more inspiring things I’ve read lately is Elizabeth Hyde Steven’s Make Art Make Money, which is all about balancing business and art, as mastered by the late, great Jim Henson. I can’t think of a better way to close than quote something she learned from studying his career:

We can walk into the world of business feeling we are on the turf of strangers, possible enemies. Or we can enter that world in a way that brings our own turf with us, so that we no longer feel defensive but expansive. With the realization of the power our art wields, we can become generous. When we do, we become compelling, enviable, impressive, and we have the ability to change things.

For more more reading on literary citizenship, take a look at 10 Ways to Be a Totally Epic Literary Citizen.

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