Sunday, April 16, 2023

who gets to be a writer?

When I first saw someone post this article last week, I actually thought it was an older piece. Especially since every once in a while I see similar discussions and have been historically seeing them since the first years of poetry blogdom and everyone I knew trying to land first book contracts way back in the early aughts. If the number of presses with open reading periods was abysmal then, its probably more abysmal now,  which meant, and continues to mean, that if you are intent on publishing traditionally as a poet, you are likely going to try the contest route. This fact makes the findings of these sorts of studies even more abysmal of course. The odds of winning one seem small, not only because there are actually hundreds of other great poets with books probably better than yours. But also because, it seems, the deck is always stacked in some kinds of pedigree and connections favor as the article reveals. At least for poetry. Especially for poetry,

I think what is interesting, however, is the phrasing in the paragraph intro-ing Spahr & Co's study--"Who gets to be a writer?" which got me thinking about the sort of scope I have now that I lacked back in the earliest days of my career as a writer trying to find a publisher, trying to land in journals, making my way in the lit world. Because of course, the answer, or more specifically "How does one get to be a writer?" has no real answer. Or, better, has a million answers.  

The good thing is that you really only need to worry about the unfairness and inequity in the publishing world if you are intent on being a certain kind of writer with a certain kind of set of priorities. Unfortunately, this set of circumstances is also the one that often leads to things like grants and fellowships and teaching positions that allow you to actually be in a career (financially) as a creative writer and not have to make a living elsewhere. These are the poets and the circumstances that speak as if they are the only game in town as if these are the only gains, which is something I believed at 30, but now, not so much. 

For me, most of my book publications came from presses with open reading periods (Ghost Road, Black Lawrence), or nudging my way into established relationships with presses who had published smaller pieces of work by querying if they wanted to see more (Dusie, Sundress) Once, miraculously by invitation and the serendipity of being at the end of a project (Noctuary). But those opportunities are less frequent now, more competitive, and they may cost you a lot in submission fees and elbow grease. As I delved into self-publishing the last couple of years, I don't know, however, if I would have been as successful at it without having had those experiences with other publishers beforehand. To have learned how to market books and myself. To get to understand how things work, but also the perspective to see that they are not the ONLY way.   

But I will say again, there are so many ways of being a writer. For existing as a writer in the world. Some of them even make some money Ask any slam poet who moves a good number of books and makes money touring. Or Rupi Kaur and other famous Insta poets.  Ask the fiction writers who do very brisk sales on self-published multi-volume novels in just about every genre. The cool thing about doing zine fests is how many really good writers you meet DIY-ing it. The audiences for these, even if the money is not there, is often far greater than even the Iowa and Ivy-pedigreed writers who win book contests. 

Perhaps the better question should be more "Who gets to be a certain KIND of writer?"  The answer is obviously skewed toward white, upper-middle or wealthy class people with Harvard degrees. Not all obviously. I know a few poets winning contests whose backgrounds are far more modest., but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. I also know Harvard or Iowa-degreed poets who are awesome and would have succeeded even without the degree gilding the path. I also know lots of poets with stunning books still trying to find a publisher I worry never will. Mostly I've learned that there are actually infinite ways of being a writer and finding an audience and enjoying the work you do, and thankfully, much more equitable and open ones than you will find behind the book contest system and all its nonsense. So if the system is broken, find a new system.