Is “literary citizenship” just a nice way of saying “hype?”

Is “literary citizenship” just a nice way of saying “hype?”

Last week, I created a mid-term survey for my novel writing class. I wanted to know how things were going. Fine, it seems, but I did get this comment: “Though the class has a solid layout, I feel it’s taught with an assumption that each student intends to measure their success with book sales, awards, and film adaptations. It might help to keep in mind some of us are more motivated by art than the latest trends and approaches to win a broad audience and sell a ton of books.”

Reading your own teaching evaluations is a deeply humbling experience, not much different from reading workshop critiques. Scary as it can be, it’s also kind of fascinating to read what people think about you. Positive critiques are great, sure, but it’s what you do with the negative ones that determines what kind of person you are.

As much as it dismays me that the student above thinks that my class is about crass commercialism, I can’t deny that my pedagogy has turned toward the practical in the last few years. I focus less on product and more on process. I teach students (including undergraduates) how to write and sell a novel, as well as how to use social media to connect with other writers and readers. My novel-writing textbook is called Writing the Breakout Novel, for heaven’s sake.

My students have definitely reacted to these changes. Here’s a few comments from my anonymous teaching evals over the last year or so:

“Although Professor Day is knowledgeable and interesting, perhaps too much emphasis was given to social networking (twitter, blogger) rather than to fiction writing.”

“Cathy does a wonderful job of teaching beyond the craft of writing (although she does that very very well) to the “art” of getting oneself published. I appreciate that she is up on the technology and social networking needed to get one’s name out there and be recognized, published, and marketed.”

“Some of the business of being a writer conversations were a little overwhelming at the time, but I think it will ultimately be valuable knowledge.”

A few months ago, I asked here “Should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer?” and friends and strangers chimed in to say, “Craft should always be the most important thing. With regard to the ‘business of writing,’ a little goes a long way.”

All this is very much on my mind as I prepare to teach my course on Literary Citizenship next semester. My worst fear is that my students and colleagues will think I’m teaching a class called “Self-promotion, Horn Tooting, and the Art of Hype,” which—let’s be frank—is sort of what I’m doing, only I want it to be the exact spiritual opposite and come from a place that’s outward focused, not inward focused.

I don’t know about you, but when I need to think about something good and hard, I teach a class on it. And these are the questions that have consumed me for the last few years as a writer:

  • How can I be a decent human being AND get you to buy my books?
  • How can I be a writer “you’ve heard of” without turning into some version of myself I can’t fucking stand?
  • I know it’s important to write the absolute best book I can, yes yes yes, but how much do I need to toot my own horn in order for that book to be read?

And I’ll bet if you’re my age or older, you think about this a lot too.

Today I read an article on the Virginia Quarterly Review website in which writer Sean Bishop dared to ask the question, “What’s the difference between self-publishing and publishing with a small press?” I found myself nodding a lot as I read it, but I also agreed with some of the nay-sayers in the comments, especially the one who noted “We’re all bloggers now, and no, we’re not readers so much as self-promoters and readers of self-promotion.”

Sigh.

I’m reminded of another recent article on the VQR site, “Quality Work Does Not Speak for Itself—It Must be Marketed.” Amy Lowell’s most recent biographer Carl Rollyson wrote that, based on reading the poet’s voluminous correspondence with editors, journalists, and publishers, Lowell would have been a fan of author websites and social media as a means to promote her work and the work of other poets in the Imagism movement. She forged an “unstinting campaign to find publishers for their work, reviewers who would recognize its value, and, ultimately, audiences that would follow them.” T.S. Eliot called Lowell the “demon saleswoman of poetry” who used whatever means at her disposal to promote herself and the poets she admired. Rollyson writes, “She did not have access to the kinds of social media and electronic platforms that I’m sure would have thrilled her. She did not believe that the work spoke for itself. An author had to speak up for her work and do so with a savvy understanding of the marketplace.”

Rollyson says, “My point is that there has never been a period in publishing when authors themselves were not the individuals most invested in getting their work known. And in this age, for someone like Amy Lowell, that would mean contributing considerable time, energy, and money to produce the best author’s website around. You can bet she would not be against social media, labeling it some new imposition on the author, more comfortable with the easier and cozier ways that prevailed in the old days. Lowell would be the first to say that those old days are largely a chimera. She always felt she was struggling to be heard, even though her books sold out and went into second and third editions. She never let up.”

By the way, it’s no accident that both of these conversations started at VQR. Jane Friedman, a long-time editor and social media expert, is the new Web Editor at VQR, and Jane’s been talking about “the business of writing” for years at conferences and on her blog. Jane is the space on a Venn diagram where the Poets & Writers world and the Writer’s Digest world overlap in interesting ways, and lately–as I work with the Midwest Writers Workshop and teach my novel writing class and prepare to teach a course on Literary Citizenship–I’ve been spending a lot of time in that space, too.

I’ll leave you with a great quote by writer/director Charlie Kaufman I found via writer Julianna Baggott. This baby’s going on the syllabus for my Literary Citizenship class, fer sure. On September 30, 2011, he addressed BAFTA as part of their Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. Kaufman said:

I do not want to be a salesman, I do not want to scream, “Buy me!” or, “Watch me!” And I don’t want to do that tonight. What I’m trying to express–what I’d like to express–is the notion that, by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play….The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind. Think, “Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.

Actually, maybe I need to read that quote in class right away.

Literary Citizenship Teaching

2 comments

  1. John Vanderslice says:

    This is a really important subject and discussion. I think making a separate class of it is the best possible idea. You would not want to pretend that issues of craft should get pushed aside, but the notion of literary citizenship is vital, so vital that it deserves to be shouted. I bet your students gain a lot from the class, especially given the ethos explained in that last quotation. Good luck.

  2. Ian Wilson says:

    I, too, hate the idea of shouting, “Buy Me,” but we’re in a world where it’s unavoidable. Yet this idea that you’re somehow more interested in commerce and social media than writing seems laughable. They should be bowing down to you that you actually say something about real world conditions, that they actually get some practical bit of advice about what’s going on — out there. I always make the last class session I teach — no matter what the course — a practicum on submission, agents, publishing, contests.

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