Anatomy of a Book Deal

January 11, 2019 § 52 Comments

sandramillerBy Sandra A. Miller

It’s the thing you most need to write, so for years that’s what you do, between teaching jobs and magazine gigs, between kids’ soccer games and the holiday dinners where you sit with the restlessness of the story wanting to be told, most inconveniently when your family expects your presence, but all you can do is wonder if the homemade gravy was worth the hours away from words.

You write and rewrite through the seasons, until autumn circles around again, and you find yourself making a familiar wish on your lovely white cream birthday cake: to finish your memoir and find an editor who takes it.

At last, one autumn day it’s done, and you send out queries, and when the email arrives like a Christmas miracle, your family dances you around the kitchen in the fading winter light. There’s a phone call and a contract and a trip to NYC where you sit across from your spunky agent in a Union Square diner on a custom-made spring day, and between bites of a salad, you whisper your thanks to the literary goddesses.

You go back to Boston and rewrite again, this time with—that magic word—representation. Then the agent sends it out, and you cross your fingers and look for signs—pennies, trinkets, stones, and fortunes—that the publishing world will soon shout yes.

Random House says, “It’s wonderfully written, earnest, humorous, and endearing. The problem is the author’s small platform.”

And Viking says, “I’m sorry not to be able to take it forward at this stage. She’s a compelling writer and something about the voice is quite good.”

And with every “almost, but…no” comes a pain as real as a punch to the gut, one that radiates to the heart, the head, the limbs. But then you recover and dive back in and tweak again and wish again and send again, until your birthday comes around again and your favorite cake tastes less like Chantilly cream and more like longing. You are starting to feel like you are made of longing.

Your writer friends throw lifelines, doing for you what you have done for them, reading and editing, praising, cheering. And you toast to their book deals with a bittersweet joy, wondering if your turn will come. At night in bed you count the years like mistakes. In the morning you scan LinkedIn for a job—any job—that’s not baring your soul into a void.

But then Cynthia says, “It’s no. It’s no. It’s no. Until it’s yes.”

And Erica says, “It took me 27 fucking years!”

And your husband says, “I believe in you,” which makes you cry because you are struggling to believe in yourself.

You are afraid to doubt. You are afraid to hope. And you’re afraid not to hope because the universe can hear the tick of your uncertainty. You plant a crystal in the dirt outside of the Flatiron building, but when nothing grows, you call Lisa in despair. “Trust that your book is strong enough to make the journey,” she says. But it’s your birthday again and the journey has worn you down, and you don’t really want the cake that your husband carries to you, as if cradling your pain.

Another Christmas. Another New Year’s. Spring flashes past, then it’s summer again, you rewrite again, and Graywolf says you have a great eye and a strong, resonant story, but it’s not a bulls-eye for our list.

And that’s when you quit.

You quit the agent. You quit the pain. You quit pretending that you can wait anymore for one of the cool kids to want you. So you shut your eyes and sail your words off to a place across the country where you feel like they might be heard.

An hour later the editor calls and wants more. Two hours later, she wants a phone call. And the next day, you talk to her, the editor you’ve been waiting for. But she’s only read half, so you have to wait. Five days later the email comes. “No, but almost…” She wants it shorter. She wants less thru lines.

You whet your knife and cut 100 pages, take it right down to a sharply focused story about a girl so full of longing that she spends her life on a search for treasure.

You send it back, this tiny gem that you’ve been shaping and polishing for years. You wait. Then one sunny December day you have a phone call. When you hang up, tears are streaking your face, and your heart is just a big, beautiful ache of gratitude.
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Sandra A. Miller’s memoir Trove will be published by Brown Paper Press in the fall of 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disacknowledgments, or To All of Those Who Didn’t Believe in Me: F*** Off

January 3, 2019 § 51 Comments

Consolino HeadshotBy Christina Consolino

They say it takes a village to grow a child, and I’d argue that it takes a village to grow a manuscript too. That village is made up of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom play an integral role in seeing a book come to life. Those people should be acknowledged, but since I’ve never been one to dwell on the positive . . .

The literary agents: For rejecting my work over the years. I’d love to mention each of you by name, but I’m only here to disparage a select few. My most memorable rejection arrived from BB, who used the remarkable wording: “Not for nus.” (That’s right. A typo from a literary agent. I wouldn’t want my book handled by someone who couldn’t use spell check anyway, right?) Just know that you—nameless or not—have made me better than I was before. Better . . . stronger . . . faster.

The editors: For reading my manuscript from top to bottom and sending me feedback that made so little sense, it quickly became apparent that you’d either switched my manuscript with someone else’s, or you’d been reading my manuscript while watching Better Call Saul. I have neither a stripper pole nor a mosque in this narrative.

The informal teachers: For scoffing at my projects. “That premise will never fly,” one said. (He didn’t think sparkly vampires would, either.) Another piped in, “How can you write a manuscript and raise four kids at the same time?” (Ever heard of Danielle Steele?) And, “What training do you have to write a book?” (I’m pretty sure that some of the most well-respected authors don’t have degrees in creative writing.) Every time you uttered a phrase like that, I straightened my spine. And now? With the completion of this book, I’m sending you the biggest fucking bird I can muster.

The numerous agencies and organizations I contacted: For not returning my calls when I asked for help with research. The doctor and dentist and hygienist who blew me and my laptop off after having offered to speak with me? I’ve killed you off and told all my friends about you. The therapist who never followed-up with me? Dead too. You had one job to do. One job.

The alpha readers: For dropping the ball, even though you said, “Yes, I’ll read the manuscript.” You neither read it nor provided any feedback as to why you didn’t (or couldn’t) read it. You’ve opened my eyes to the ways of the world and taught me to choose wisely when it comes to readers. The true readers will indeed, bring life, and the false? They will take it from you.

The so-called literary citizens: For never sharing my work, ever (even though I share yours). Despite your congratulatory comments, your “Thanks for being a fabulous literary citizen!” emails, your tiny fucking heart and thumbs up emojis when I post something. It’s been a real pleasure knowing that you have not and will not share my work. Your lack of response has taught me what the real world is all about: me. (Well, you, really.) It’s clear that the “Me generation” is alive and well, even in the literary world.

The colleagues: For never taking me seriously. “That’s a cute hobby you have there,” she said. And this zinger from an old boss: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing trying to write a book?” he said. “You’re a fucking science teacher!” (I know what you’re thinking: what boss would use an F-bomb at work? That one. But he also got fired for “fraternizing” with his boss. Wink, wink.)

The librarian: For your lack of encouragement or support and for stating that I’d never find a home for my manuscript in this world, then tearing it from my hands and tossing it into the trash. Only later did a friend find it in the employee restroom, annotated from cover to cover, although the acknowledgments had been used as some makeshift toilet paper. Little did that librarian know that the scene would make it into the final draft of my current work-in-progress.

The veterinarian: For healing my old, cantankerous cat, the one who always pushed the delete button on my keyboard and scratched at the draft, ate the draft, and then vomited the draft. Without you, dear doctor, I’d be cat-less, but I’d have more intact manuscripts in hand. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

My dog: For taking the manuscript between her jaws, running out the door, and burying it behind the compost pile. Her valiant actions prompted me to begin anew, thus finding my true, authentic voice, again leading me to be better . . . stronger . . . faster.

My children: For not being able to stay awake—not one of them!—while I read the draft aloud. (If you don’t actually hear the words, my dear progeny, they cannot count toward any reading minutes.)

And last but not least, my husband, the true love of my life: For not reading my work because women-centered narratives are “not his thing,” despite finding him glued to movies on the Lifetime channel. Asshole.
___

Christina Consolino is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan and has had work featured in HuffPostShort Fiction BreakFlights: The Literary Journal of Sinclair Community CollegeTribe Magazine, and Literary Mama, where she serves as Senior and Profiles Editor. She also serves on the board of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop at University of Dayton and as a writing instructor at a local writing center. Along with writing and editing, Christina currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology at Sinclair Community College.

The Stories We Tell the Agents We Tell Them To

December 27, 2018 § 8 Comments

By Paul Skenazy

Literary agents: can’t find one, wish you had one, wonder if yours is the right one. The web is full of complaints about agents, but fuller of questions about how to get one.

Anyone have experience with agent X, Y, Z? Is he/she trustworthy? Will they get behind my book and pitch it to publishers?

Then there’s the followup:

She loves my memoir but wants me to revise it.

He says my childhood needs tear-filled nights and more drugs.

They want Dad to swear and yell but he didn’t.

Those are harder changes for a memoirist than a novelist, who at least has latitude to invent. But how far should one go to meet an agent’s vision when it defies your own sense of the story you have to tell?

I must have been rejected by forty agents while querying my novel, Temper CA, about a woman, Joy, returning to the Gold Rush town where she grew up to attend her grandfather’s funeral. I wrote to agents who represented books like mine; agents recommended by a matching service (for a fee); agents I approached with recommendations from well-published friends.

Then I thought I’d found my soul mate. I sent Agent A my manuscript on a Friday and he emailed me on Monday: “Dear Paul, I read your novel through in one sitting. It’s very, very well done. My wife … thought it read like an Elizabeth Strout novel.” He sent the book out immediately to a publisher he was sure would be interested.

That was in February 2016. The publisher said no. Another publisher found the book too “quiet,” too slow out of the gate.

Agent A asked me to revise. Instead of Joy’s psychological crisis, A suggested an anti-heroine: “Everyone’s looking for literary fiction in which the heroine has an unapologetically dangerous side. Books like Gone Girl…The Girl on the Train…” His idea: Joy kills her grandfather but implicates her father. “Have the stakes build as she reveals some dark childhood story about the relationship between her, her father and grandfather… Crime novels are a much steadier market than ‘literary’ novels. If Camus were writing today, we’d no doubt market him as crime fiction.”

Keep the setting, keep the names, write a new novel.

When I got done with self-pity I set to work. I spent three months creating crimes, motives that crossed and double-crossed, secrets behind secrets behind secrets. What I didn’t do was turn Joy into a murderer. My agent’s disappointment was clear: “It’s been a long time since a novelist without a fiction-publishing track record took so little of my advice.”

I was hurt and angry, but I tried again. An alcoholic Joy killed her grandfather and implicated her bastard of a father. I felt like I was writing pornography.

To counter that self-betrayal I simultaneously wrote a second, parallel novel, closer to my original story, and sent him the thriller and the not-thriller. Maybe I could convince Agent A that my book was worth his time by letting him read it alongside his book.

The thriller grabbed him in the opening chapters, he told me, then it flagged. Too much backstory, memory, psychology. No publisher would be interested. He read twenty pages of the not-thriller and dismissed it.

I was done. A year after signing, we parted ways. I returned to earlier drafts, incorporated ideas from my year of inept revisions and rewrote once more. I made the novel mine again.

This story has a happy ending. A friend connected me with a former small-press publisher who wanted to represent a few writers. She liked my manuscript and offered suggestions about where I might slow down, dive more deeply. I had a residency at Playa, a beautiful sequestered landscape in Oregon’s high desert. I altered some stories—true and apocryphal—from oral histories of the Oregon outback and melded them into my Gold Rush town. I left Playa in September 2017 with a 60,000 word draft and spent the next month whittling to just under 40,000 words. I submitted my revised Temper CA to a novella competition—and promptly forgot I’d entered. So many years of contests and rejections: this one seemed as hopeless as the rest. In February 2018, I told a friend the book was ‘dead in the water.’

The next morning I found out Temper CA had won the Miami University Press 2018 Novella Prize. As I cried on the phone, I realized I didn’t know which version of the manuscript I’d submitted—there had been so many.

Temper CA, will be published in January 2019. Miami has been extraordinary in their editorial work and I feel lucky to have landed where I did with a book I’m proud of.

This is not the book Agent A read two years ago. The story did need more volume, though poisons and patricide weren’t the right noisemakers. I did need to get out of the gate faster but that didn’t mean a hundred-page dash. Joy isn’t always a trustworthy narrator, but that’s part of what she herself needs to learn, not a way of deceiving a reader. Temper CA is the story I hoped to tell about family and landscape, failure and forgiveness. Agent A praised the book I wrote, then told me it didn’t work. Thanks to his misguided suggestions, I produced a book he would not like.

Agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world and as fledgling writers we’ll do almost anything to get in. But not quite everything. Learning what we can’t do teaches us about what we can, who we are, and what we want our literary worlds to be.

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Paul Skenazy taught Literature and Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published essays, stories, and book reviews in a range of newspapers and magazines, as well as critical work on James M. Cain and other noir writers. Temper CA will be available January 8, 2019. You can preorder the novella through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local indie bookstore.

Photo credit: Shelby Graham

Troll Pox

December 3, 2018 § 48 Comments

gritzBy Ona Gritz

When I was four years old I caught a case of chickenpox that had been making the rounds in my neighborhood. My mother’s reaction to those first telltale spots was to say, “Uh-oh…” but I felt delighted. My big sister had just gotten over the virus, and a few of my older friends—kids already in school!—had had it too. I was, of course, unfamiliar with the phrase rite of passage, but I recognized one when it spread across my skin in a connect-the-ots rash.

“I can’t come out to play,” I yelled from my window when my recently recovered upstairs neighbor happened by, pushing a doll carriage. “I’ve got chicken box now.”

One morning, fifty years later, I checked my email and discovered I’d been contacted by a troll. He had read an essay of mine about marriage and disability that I’d had the good fortune of publishing in a national newspaper—a first for me. “I think your article got way more praise than it deserved,” he wrote, “so I critiqued it here.”

Staring at the link he’d provided, I felt only the slightest temptation to click on it. I’d received lovely responses to that essay from good friends, strangers, and even a few writers I admired. Did I really need to know what this one disgruntled reader thought? I moved his message to the trash.

That was the end of it. Except it wasn’t. I wondered about this stranger who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to tear me down. It was disturbing but also oddly flattering. The next morning, I posted about it on the wall of an online writers’ support group. Even as I clicked the share button, I recognized my four-year-old self, calling proudly out the window about my chickenpox. I’d gotten trolled just like writers in the big league do. I wanted people to know.

Members of the group quickly jumped to my defense, as I knew they would.

Gross. Delete and move on!!!

How wonderful that your piece made him think?

Love your haters. They’re your biggest fans.

Later, I tried to recall the first time I’d read an online essay and noticed a rash of vitriol in the comments section. Five years before? Ten? I remembered feeling shocked and also queasy. What was it, I’d wondered, about this author’s writing that made people want to hurt her? The answer, I now knew, was quite likely nothing in particular. Anonymity together with access to a very public platform is a potent combination. Hating had become a thing.

Is this really who we are, I’ve asked myself since then, whenever I make the mistake of browsing the comments section of nearly any online essay. Are most people fuming, jealous, and condemnatory at their core? Inevitably, I had to ask an even tougher question. Am I?

The answer is no, but unfortunately it is also yes.

I’m almost unfailingly kind to people. As a writer, I have no trouble genuinely celebrating the successes of my peers. Where I falter is in the private recesses of my brain. A city dweller, I’ve spend many hours of my life on public transportation, and that’s usually where I hear it—the bitchy, judgy nattering that passes for idle thought.

Do you think we’re in your living room? I silently ask the woman fighting with the person on the other end of her cell phone.

How many times can you use the word like in one sentence? I imagine saying to the teenager chatting with friends in the seat behind mine.

Perhaps worst of all, I catch myself thinking something along the lines of, Are you really wearing those shoes with that outfit? As though I’m some kind of fashionista, which, believe me, I’m not

I don’t know why I have such a vocal inner troll, though I suspect it mostly points to my own insecurities. Whatever the cause, once I noticed the tendency, I worked to counter it by consciously making positive observations as I passed through crowds in my travels. Such soulful eyes. What an infectious laugh. And, yes, Nice shoes!

Not unsurprisingly, I got waylaid on my road to recovery during the 2016 election season. When, along with pollsters and nearly everyone I knew, I felt confident Hillary would win, I took pleasure in watching her opponent prove himself to be a bumbling, lying, hate-filled, scandal-ridden, racist, ablest, xenophobic, sexist buffoon. (Truth be told, I’ve taken genuine pleasure in lining up those adjectives just now.) “We’re so much better than this,” I scoffed, even as I relished the taste of disgust like a SweeTart on my tongue.

Certain his presence on our airwaves and in our consciousness had an expiration date, I allowed myself this relapse. But now that this bombastic hater actually holds the most venerated office in our nation, I’ve come to see kindness as a crucial act of resistance.

Meanness, after all, really is a virus. Once airborne, it quickly spreads. And if the Troll-in-Chief can be said to have any genius at all, it’s that he knows just how to spread that particular germ. We either rage along with him or rage at him. This may fuel us, but it in no way nourishes us. Compassion does that, as does community, as does sharing our stories. This, of course, is where we writers come in.

These days, there’s a vaccine for chickenpox, which is to say we can put a little of the illness into our bodies and it will protect us. Not so with hate. But what we can do—particularly those of us whose work involves sharing our experiences, ideas, and discoveries on the page—is make sure hate never has the last word.

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Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with my husband, Daniel Simpson.

You’re Not a Loser: Advice for Emerging Writers

November 30, 2018 § 16 Comments

tersonBy Jessica Terson

Years ago, I wrote a personal essay for Cleaver Magazine exploring why I persisted in dating total losers. Read the first few paragraphs of that essay and you’ll find a laundry list of questionable lovers. Whether I was dating a man with a heroin addiction or one with a tendency toward violence, I could always poeticize falling in love with a scumbag. And although I ultimately acknowledged that I dated losers because I thought of myself as a loser, I left out an essential detail. Why did I feel that way?

Writers often feel like losers too.

Last night, I received a distressing phone call from a girlfriend. She had just received her fourth rejection letter in a single day. “I feel like such a loser,” she told me between tears. “It’s bad enough getting rejected on Tinder.”

Then there’s my coworker. She never broke down crying. But she did mention that everyone from her old graduate school, besides herself, has a book deal. She said this while we laid out pastries at the coffee shop where we both make minimum wage. “I just keep thinking, am I wasting my life? Do I have what it takes to make it? Or will I be here ‘til I’m sixty?”

And it’s not just women who suffer from self-doubt. A man whom I went to graduate school with—over a decade ago, mind you—recently posted a Facebook status bemoaning his lack of success in creative writing. Thinking back to our graduate school days, I can’t help laughing at our naivety. I suppose I always saw myself winning the National Poetry Series straight out of school. Universities would line up outside my front door and beg me to come work for them. Sooner or later, someone would nominate me for the Nobel Prize. So you can imagine my horrified surprise when I spent the next decade blindly sending off work to literary magazines and receiving nothing but form rejections in return.

Maybe a professor should have warned me. A thesis advisor at DePaul University Chicago once told my girlfriend that she was more likely to get bitten by a shark than become a professional opera singer. Sound harsh? It is. But it’s also reality.

Luckily, in the last few years, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations. Like many other writers that I know, I aim to receive 100 literary rejections a year. That’s right: 100. One-hundred rejections means 100 submissions. And the more I submit, the more likely I am to find a journal that enjoys my work.

When I wrote my essay for Cleaver Magazine all those years ago, I hadn’t published anything in over a decade. Since then, I’ve received enough rejection letters to cover more than a wall in my living room (apparently, wallpaper rejections letters are actually a thing). But I’ve also had some success. Every year I add a few more publications to my name. And in December, one of my poems will appear in The Georgia Review. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but it’s a pretty good start.

Once I learned to make peace with the fact that writing was going to be hard, and that publishing was going to be even harder, I felt like less of a loser. Partaking in the various writing support groups available on Facebook also helps me to feel less isolated. It turns out that most creative types feel like losers, even the ones who find frequent success.

Success won’t happen overnight. The chances of winning a big prize or a book deal straight out of graduate school are probably slim to none. More likely, you’ll get enough rejections to break your heart (so take my advice and don’t double the pain by dating scumbags). There will be days—and these never completely go away—when you’ll consider giving up completely. But don’t give up. You’re not a loser. You’re just an artist figuring out the best way to proceed. It’s a hard road, but it’s worth it. And in the meantime, think of all the things you can decorate with those 100 rejection letters. I’ve seen way worse wall paper out there.
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Jessica Terson’s poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, New Orleans Review (web feature), River Styx, River Teeth Journal, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.

 

 

The Golden Ticket

November 29, 2018 § 11 Comments

Sure I’d love to refer you! I’m not freaked out by your in-person request to a stranger at all!

The first time I queried a book, I made a list of 100 agents and queried 35. Most were cold pitches: I found the agent online, researched what they represented and how to query them, and sent off my query+five pages. Or query+ten pages. Or +first three chapters pasted below. Or +fifty pages as a docx attachment and a synopsis of up to 500 words using only serif font and be standing in Virabhadrasana II when you hit send.

I jumped through all the hoops I was told to jump through. Most sent form rejections, or slightly personal rejections, or didn’t respond at all. Two agents asked for the full manuscript, and both of those agents were referrals.

A referral is:

A personal recommendation
From someone who has read your work
Preferably the work you’re querying right now
And knows the agent or editor well enough that their word is trusted.

Sometimes an agent who rejects your query suggests you try another agent, but most referrals come from fellow writers with a business or personal relationship with the editor or agent.

Referrals are little golden tickets to the head of the line. You may not make it out of the chocolate factory, but referred queries get read sooner and more carefully. The agent is more likely to ask for pages even if they don’t love the query, but they do love your mutual connection.

What isn’t a referral? Posting to Facebook:

I wrote a memoir about X can anyone tell me what agents might be interested in that subject matter?

This is largely futile. No-one wants to offer up a name and then the writer emails with Violet Beauregarde referred me because giving a name isn’t a referral. Plus, agents’ wishlists change. The agent seeking travel memoirs six months ago just got five good proposals in her inbox and doesn’t need more. For current subject- and genre-specific information, use the agent’s own website, Manuscript Wishlist and #MSWL on Twitter.

Just how many metaphorical chocolate bars are you going to have to eat to get your golden ticket? Maybe none—maybe you’re already close with someone whose agent is looking for exactly what you wrote. But most writers need to start unwrapping those Wonka Bars even before they’ve finished their manuscript.

1) Start making your agent list now. What writers do they represent, and do you know any? Look up writers you know or have studied with—who are their agents?

If you know someone connected to an agent you’d like to query, buy and review that person’s books. Does the writer teach? Attend their workshops and ask intelligent questions. Join their mailing list. Tweet about their work and retweet (with a positive comment) events and books they promote. If you know them in person and they aren’t your teacher, offer to read their work. You don’t have to be at the same place in your writing careers—it’s OK for newbies to say, “If you’re ever looking for a reader, I’d love to practice giving feedback.”

2) Finish your book. Your work reflects on the person who referred you. This is time for your best final-draft work, proofread and polished. Write your query, get feedback and make revisions.

3) Make it easy to say No. Your writer-acquaintance truly may not have time, or maybe Violet already referred three people to her agent this month. Phrases like “I understand you may not have time” or “if you think this might be a fit for Agent Gloop” or “I’m querying widely but if you’re able” let them off the hook. Even if Violet’s true feeling is, This is a dreadful book no way am I referring it, she might like the next one, so give her a gracious escape. But do ask outright: it takes more time to read between the lines than respond to a clear request.

4) Make it easy to say Yes. Paste your query and first 5 pages (or whatever the desired agent’s guidelines specify) below your email signature. If Violet’s feeling it, she can hit forward and it’s done. This also lets her skim your work to remember you’re a fantastic writer and she’ll look good by recommending you. If Violet would rather introduce you in a new email, she knows you’re ready to go while the referral is fresh in the agent’s mind.

5) Thank you note. Referring connects the other writer’s reputation to you, and it takes time from their writing day. Send an email or write a quick note. No gifts that cost, because that feels like pay-to-play. Write the email in a way that requires no additional response: your goal throughout this process is to take as little of the referring writer’s time and attention as possible.

Referrals are a golden gift. But they aren’t the only way to get attention. Steps 1 and 2 are basic literary citizenship, and we can all do them whether we’re querying soon or not. Sure, some of this feels like literary nepotism, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s part of being a writer, so get started—those WonkaBars aren’t going to eat themselves.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and currently in the query trenches again.

The Art Versus the Artist: On Authenticity in Creative Writing

November 28, 2018 § 10 Comments

zoeBy Zoë Bossiere

Amid the Twitter controversies in the writing world this past summer about grifters like Anna March and serial harassers like Junot Diaz, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz about Anders Carlson-Wee and his now-infamous poem, originally published in The Nation in July of 2018. Carlson-Wee, a white man, wrote “How-To” from a black dialectic persona, instructing the reader how to survive on the streets as a homeless person. The backlash online was quick and incisive. Within three weeks, both Carlson-Wee and The Nation had publicly apologized for “the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.”

For many, the Carlson-Wee poem was but a blip on the radar of an already scandal-packed few months. But the phenomenon is worth examining further, especially considering how, even just ten short years ago, “How-To” would not have incited nearly as fierce an outcry as it did this past July. This is in part because the use of social media as a platform for activism has grown (there are more of us, and together we’re louder than ever), but the response to this poem is also indicative of a broader trend I’ve observed in the literary world as of late.

To preface, historically, writers—and especially white writers—of fiction and poetry have appropriated other cultures, classes, and perspectives in their own writing without much thought to the ethics of this practice. And for a long time, they were highly successful in doing so. Many of these works were (and still are) hailed as masterpieces, taught in high school curricula around the world. The place of these works in western literary canon has never been called into question before.

Now, however, poetry like Carlson-Wee’s offers us an opportunity to discuss how we as readers should evaluate a piece of writing, with consideration for how the writer’s identity affects the authenticity of their work. In the literary world, as in other spheres, the conflation of the art and the artist is beginning to hold some real currency in the question of which work gets published and by whom. Agents and publishers are more interested than ever before in the identities and backgrounds of the writers they choose to represent. The gap between an artist and the art they create is beginning to close; readers are less and less willing to suspend their disbelief for a black persona poem written by a white person, or a novel with a female protagonist written through the male gaze.

The most common argument I’ve heard against this trend is that if a story or a poem is well-written, it shouldn’t matter who the author is. Writing sages like Madison Smartt Bell and Francine Prose have both critiqued this change within the last year in their essays “Policing the Imagination” and “The Problem with ‘Problematic,’” respectively, lamenting what they might call an unjust limitation of writerly creativity. They, and others, insist “good” art can (and should) be considered separately from the artist who created it. That otherwise, we risk stifling the imagination and, thus, the productivity of our favorite (mostly white) writers.

But, I wonder: at its core, is the idea that art and artist are intrinsically connected so very different from the expectation that a writer’s experiences in memoir be rendered truthfully, or that a journalist’s facts in an article be checked? Isn’t this expectation why readers (and especially Oprah) felt so betrayed when we learned James Frey had fabricated most of his wildly successful memoir, A Million Little Pieces? And also why readers demanded an explanation when The Nation chose to print “How-To” without checking Carlson-Wee’s privilege? The art was “good,” yes—but it wasn’t true.

And as readers, we crave authenticity. Learning a piece we love wasn’t written by the person we thought not only spoils the enjoyment of the art, but also forces us to ask questions about what a writer has to gain in attempting to capture an experience that isn’t their own, as well as what other, less privileged, writers may have to lose.

That’s why, as readers, we have a responsibility to understand there are experiences that a writer observing another community cannot—by virtue of being an outsider—faithfully replicate or accurately represent in their work. We must recognize that in attempting to do so, more privileged writers risk depriving marginalized writers, who are more qualified to depict their own experiences, the opportunity to publish their work.

The stakes are high, but there is some good news, too. As a community, writers are beginning to prioritize the voices of actual women, people of color, and queer-identifying folx over those simply writing as them. I’ve never seen so many literary magazines sending out calls for submission specifically seeking underrepresented voices, or such a diverse range of memoirs and essay collections currently on (or soon slated to hit) the market.

Of course, this awakening has been coming for the last several years, and not just in the literary world. Whether it be a work of comedy, film, fine art, music, or literature, modern consumers value authentic experiences in art, now more than ever before. The uptick in memoir and general nonfiction sales reflect this trend. As does the #MeToo push for work by women breaking the silence of harassment and abuse, such as former Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl, and the success garnered by queer comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette Netflix special.

And while I understand this change may give some poets and fiction writers pause, all this makes now an exceptionally exciting time for nonfiction as a genre. Because a world that demands authenticity—where artists are required to draw from their own bodies of research and experience—is a world that reflects what we essayists have suspected all along: that nonfiction is not only inclusive of all art, but that all art is, on some level, a work of nonfiction.

** The above has been adapted from a paper I submitted for the NonfictioNow húslestur discussion on “Writing for Social Change” in November of 2018. The húslestur, an Icelandic “family custom of gathering at night to read aloud and discuss ideas,” is a themed roundtable-style discussion on the nonfiction issues of our time.
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Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere

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