Focusing Outward: Living Literary Citizenship in Community
(Originally published at https://www.bostonbookblog.com/articles/focusing-outward-living-literary-citizenship-in-community on July 16, 2019.)
“Try to treat other people as if they possessed precious hearts and infinite souls.” -David Brooks
Writing is often assumed to be a solitary endeavor. Yet even the act of writing implies another person. Publishing, on the other hand, is never solitary, not even when independently done. And with current publishing practices requiring authors to hawk their own wares, the notion of a lone writer happily ensconced in a room full of books has been relegated into the realm of myth. A ghost of publishing’s past. Like it or not, writers are—if not by nature, at least by necessity—a communal species.
Although the concept of citizenship within a literary community is not new, I wonder if it has been properly understood. In Jane Friedman’s 2014 blog post “Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship?” and Becky Tuch’s Salon.com article from the same year, both authors define literary citizenship as a reaction to a manipulative publishing industry where “writers are being exploited under the guise of marketing activities as ‘enriching activities’” (Friedman) and “the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers” (Tuch).
More recent articles by Wendy J. Fox and Allison K. Williams accept the exploitative realities of contemporary publishing and focus instead on the rules and expectations of a healthy literary citizenry. “It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that ‘self-publicist’ is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right” (Williams). Readers are even provided with helpful lists of do’s and don’ts to help them navigate such unfamiliar and hostile waters.
Yet even as I am grateful for the insights of these more experienced authors, there remains in their explanations a focus on the self that I find disheartening. As though the only point to literary citizenship is to figure out how much we must give in order to get what we want.
Still, weighing how much we must give to a community versus how much we receive from it remains a necessary part of human existence. In her 1999 article “The Psychology of Prejudice: Ingroup Love or Outgroup Hate” social psychology professor Marilynn B. Brewer teaches us that “group living represents the fundamental survival strategy that characterizes the human species” and that “as a species we have evolved to rely on cooperation rather than strength, and on social learning rather than instinct as basic adaptations” (433). In short, we cannot survive on our own.
Instead, we seek visual and behavioral clues to identify those we can depend on to reciprocate our generosity. Engaging with people worthy of our delimited trust enables us to give and take freely, without fear of having our own resources depleted. “Symbols and behaviors that differentiate the ingroup from local outgroups become particularly important here, to reduce the risk that ingroup benefits will be inadvertently extended to outgroup members, and to ensure that ingroup members will recognize one’s own entitlement to receive benefits” (Brewer 433-434). In other words, we use external markers to determine whether we’ll be safe in another person’s hands.
Good literary citizens are not exempt from exhibiting and even embracing our own brand of external markers. On Twitter, we gleefully self-identify with writerly hashtags, or tweets about word counts and rejections. In real life, it is our thick-rimmed glasses or our ubiquitous coffee mug or our tote from Powell’s Books that declares our trustworthiness. This ability to quickly and accurately identify a good literary citizen is essential to the viability of a writer. For are we not human? Do we not need to survive in a harsh and increasingly mercenary landscape? As Friedman points out, the modern publishing industry is forcing writers to fend for themselves, even as our biological evolution has rendered us incapable of fending alone.
Yet concern for our own survival is only part of literary citizenship. The very word “citizenship” implies a separate entity larger than ourselves—a gathering of socially awkward yet highly creative introverts into a selective community that can and often threatens to exist without us. Even the most successfully published authors are not the center of the universe, leaving the rest of us to bemoan our stars, which burned too quickly and not brightly enough to satisfy the black hole of our egos. Recently, I saw Event Horizon Telescope’s picture of a black hole and do not think it coincidence that it looked like Sauron’s ring—not because Tolkien might actually be the center of my universe, but because the insatiable greed of our literary egos will bind us all in darkness.
Even Tolkien needed other writers. Last week I went to Oxford and popped into The Eagle and Child to rest my forehead against the wooden walls, hoping that if I were quiet enough, I could hear the remains of nascent stories once shared in an incremental, careful birthing where Inklings acted as midwives to Tolkien’s tales.
So why then is our interpretation of literary citizenship so one-sided? Why, even when we attempt to focus on the other, do we anticipate only what they can do for us? Such self-serving attitudes mimic too closely for my comfort the current annihilistic tendencies of American politics. Long gone are the days when we considered not what our country could do for us, and now we are literally destroying the planet with our rapacious consumerism faster than we feared possible.
Perhaps comparing the literary world to the political one is unfair, yet existing definitions of literary citizenship imply we are more self-centered than we think. True, some self-centeredness is necessary—if I spent all my time reading other people’s writing, I couldn’t produce any of my own. As an Assistant Professor at Berklee College of Music teaching no less than six writing and literature classes per semester, I know what it means to be sucked dry. But I also know that I am by nature a generous person, not because I am a sucker, but because I believe in a balance that is not equal. My father taught me, on what became the first of many backpacking trips, to leave the campsite better than I found it. Perhaps it is my deep and obsessive love of nature that has imbued this lopsided philosophy into every aspect of my life. I want to give more than I take.
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY’S THE LITTLE PRINCE
To understand better this other part of being a literary citizen, this selfless focus on others, I of course turn to books for guidance. Whenever pedagogically justifiable, I work Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince into my course curriculum. It is my favorite book. It is the world’s favorite book, translated into at least 300 languages—more than any other non-religious text (Oulton). But it is not America’s favorite book.
Nor is it our favorite movie. Despite an insanely talented cast (Jeff Bridges, Marion Cottillard, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Paul Giamatti, Albert Brooks, Paul Rudd, and Ricky Gervais among others), not even director Mark Osborne of Kung Fu Panda fame could secure an American theatrical release for his The Little Prince. Not even with a French César Award, $100 million in overseas box office returns, and a 95% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. If it hadn’t been for Netflix, most Americans would still know nothing of The Little Prince, unless of course they read the book in French class, where difficulty with the language prevents any real connection.
I am no exception. I, too, first discovered The Little Prince in a badly taught public school French class (having been too terrified to watch the 1974 live-action film version) and I, too, dismissed it. Luckily, a French friend gave me another copy, where she inscribed enough pieces of her heart in the dedication to ensure its keeping, changing my life forever.
In Saint-Exupéry’s perfect little book, our narrator, the Pilot, has every reason to be self-absorbed. In fact, his life depends on it. After crash-landing in the middle of the Sahara Desert, the Pilot’s only hope is to repair his plane before his water supply runs out. His self-centeredness is wholly understandable, yet Saint-Exupéry refuses to condone it. Not even survival is sufficient excuse for selfishness.
It is when the Pilot forgets his own suffering as he alleviates the suffering of another that he saves his own life. Recognizing the fatigue and vulnerability of his small companion, the Pilot lifts the Little Prince into his exhausted arms, convinced of the futility of their search for water but no longer concerned for his own welfare. Only in this moment of selflessness does the Pilot discover a well. Again, his first thought is for his small friend—he worries that the bucket is too heavy a burden for the Little Prince to bear. The pulley creaks as he raises the water, offering the first sip to the Little Prince, the sound of the Pilot’s generosity echoing forever among the stars.
With such concern for others, we are unlikely to burden anyone. In a literary community built on delimited trust, nobody’s well would run dry. And yet they do. Constantly. Slush piles the size of skyscrapers crush the souls of writers and agents alike. Burnout on both sides can lead to disillusionment and even abandonment. Unanswered queries, unrealistic expectations and demands, don’t just suck up our time, but also our sense of self, leaving us questioning whether or not our craft has any merit at all, and if so, whether we have the emotional energy required to produce it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a concrete list of instructions or rules for participating in a healthier, more sustainable literary community. But I do have some ideas on how to get started. Or rather Donna Hicks does. A good first step, perhaps the most essential step, is to honor the dignity of all people. Author. Agent. Editor. Publisher. Critic. The person accepting you. The person rejecting you. We all have dignity, which Hicks, an Associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, defines as our inherent worth coupled with our inherent vulnerability. Perhaps in the literary community we’ve over-emphasized the importance of worth—not the inherent kind—until our need for external validation exceeds our devotion to the craft itself. But we do not pay enough attention to our vulnerabilities.
As a recently published author at a very small press, I’m no stranger to vulnerability. Although I would much prefer to write my own blurbs and post my own numerous five star reviews, alas, I cannot. At least not ethically so. Yet, socially awkward introvert that I am, it is infinitely easier for me to give help than to ask for it. I would rather go without sleep to finish reviewing someone else’s novel than ask a friend of a friend to blurb my own.
Still, because I believe in my little book, and because no writer can afford to be an island, not even when they want to be, I read encouraging tweets and inspirational quotes, trying to generate enough courage to ask that friend of a friend for a blurb, promising to make it worth her while, because as a professor, mother, writer, non-profit co-founder, and volunteer, I know how valuable time is. And how elusive. Consequently, I’m not discouraged by outright rejection. What is harder for me to stomach, however, is the lack of any response at all. It makes me feel like I don’t exist.
I do not think being a literary citizen means saying yes to every person who asks you to read their book or recommend them to your agent. I don’t think it means buying every book published by every small press—although reviews and recommendations and financial support will always be a necessary part of literary citizenship. But I do think it means acknowledging a person’s dignity when you say no.
I admit my description of a utopic literary society sounds ideal, unrealistic, impossible even. There will always be egos among us. But there are heroes too. Unsung heroes worthy of our trust, like Nonstop Reader, who willingly interrupt their busy lives to help a writer out simply because they can. For their generosity, I am forever grateful. And indebted.
I first acknowledged my writerly interdependence six years ago. It had been four years since I’d put creative pen to paper. Four years since I’d learned, two days before giving birth, that Harper Collins would not be publishing my funny and smart yet quirky YA novel, and that my agent would no longer represent me. I had slipped unwittingly yet completely into a fog of weariness and self-doubt. A fog that would not dispel on its own. I needed encouragement. I needed accountability. I needed examples of strong working mothers who were also brilliant writers to put my many whining and tired excuses to bed. And I found them.
Michelle Bailat-Jones and Sara Johnson Allen inspired me to start writing again. With them, I co-found L’ATELIER Writers, a literary community built on the concepts of dignity and delimited trust. A community that somehow manages to give more than it takes without depleting its considerable resources. Like the biblical loaves and fishes, or even a public school potluck, when we bring our own limited resources to the table, we discover abundance. I have witnessed this abundance. I have seen selfless literary citizenship realized time and again, and it never ceases to amaze me.
I could go on. And I do, if ever you have the misfortune to be in one of my classes when I’m teaching The Little Prince. Like Saint-Exupéry, I believe wholly in turning our focus outwards. It is essential to our survival, yes on an individual level, which hints somewhat at hypocrisy, but also on a global one—that most precious something much larger than ourselves.
Brewer, Marilynn B. “The Psychology of Prejudice: Ingroup Love and Outgroup Hate?” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 55, no. 3, 1999, pp. 429–444., doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00126.
Brooks, David. “Now Is the Time to Talk About the Power of Touch.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/opinion/human-touch-aziz-ansari.html?emc=edit_th_180119&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=54859095&referer=.
“Fatechanger.” Fatechanger, 16 June 2019, nonstopreaderbooks.blogspot.com/2019/06/fatechanger.html.
Jane Friedman. “Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship?” Jane Friedman, 29 Apr. 2015, www.janefriedman.com/limits-literary-citizenship/.
“Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices.” The Millions, 19 Feb. 2018, themillions.com/2018/02/literary-citizenship-how-to-handle-rejection-and-nurture-emerging-voices.html.
Oulton, Emma. “'The Little Prince' Is Now Available In 300 Languages.” Bustle, Bustle, 12 June 2019, www.bustle.com/p/the-little-prince-is-now-the-most-translated-book-in-the-world-that-isnt-religious-it-totally-deserves-the-honor-50154.
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine , Antoine . Saint-Exupéry, and Katherine Woods. The Little Prince. , 1943. Print.
Talks, TEDx. “Declare Dignity: Donna Hicks at TEDxStormont.” YouTube, YouTube, 4 Apr. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPF7QspiLqM.
“That's Not How Any of This Works.” BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog, 16 Jan. 2018, brevity.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/thats-not-how-any-of-this-works/.
Tuch, Becky. “More Work, No Pay: Why I Detest ‘Literary Citizenship.’” Salon, Salon.com, 23 Apr. 2014, www.salon.com/2014/04/23/more_work_no_pay_why_i_detest_literary_citizenship/.