April 8, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Ross West
Is this thing on?
[Tapping on microphone]
Okay, welcome, welcome everybody—nice to see such a good crowd. The subject of my talk today is Farrah Abraham. You may remember how she rocketed to fame as a participant on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She followed-up with appearances on Teen Mom, Teen Mom OG, Couples Therapy, Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars Family Edition, and Celebrity Big Brother.
Now twenty-seven, her indefatigable commitment to cultivating and leveraging her name, her celebrity—her brand, if you will—is simply breathtaking. What I’m here to tell you is that Farrah Abraham should be a role model and an inspiration for every writer attending this conference. This is true whether you are promoting a book, building a platform, or curating your career.
Just this month Abraham added “book critic” to her already impressive résumé with a review of Joan Didion’s groundbreaking Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Demonstrating the attention-getting panache of P.T. Barnum, Abraham titled her review, “Joan Didion is a Gin-drinking Bore Who Writes Convoluted Books.”
[Audience gasps and hisses]
I should add—
People, please. I should add, this piece was not written on spec—a practice painfully familiar to many of you fledgling self-promoters. No, Farrah Abraham was commissioned to write the piece—by Penthouse magazine.
I can see the name of that publication has some of you fidgeting in your seats. But let me remind you of a few authors who were glad to have their work appear in Penthouse: James Baldwin, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and Phillip Roth.
Abraham is not without a certain amount of her own literary credibility. Her memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended, was a New York Times e-book bestseller. How many of you can say that?
[Indistinct comment shouted by an audience member]
Yes, I agree, it was absolute garbage. Her review of Didion’s book is even worse. As if Abraham is completely unfamiliar with the concept of an essay collection, she’s stumped as to why the pieces jump “from year to year, often for no rhyme or reason. The non-linear structure confuses me. I had to wonder, ‘Was Didion even trying when she wrote this junk?’”
[Audience gasps and jeers]
Yes, junk. Ahem. And then there’s this: “If you’re looking to find out what not to do as a writer, this is a great book for you.”
[Groans and hoots]
Look, I don’t disagree with you. Let me come right out and say it: Abraham doesn’t have, and never will have, the literary talent of Joan Didion’s toenail clippings.
But that is not the point.
Now please, people, can we all get off our artsy-fartsy high horses and get down to business?
Here’s the bald-faced fact: Success in this today’s publishing world is all about ambition.
So how do we learn from a fantastically successful self-promoter like Farrah Abraham?
Has writing your book landed you an interview? If so, great. But how can you make that interview work for you? In other words, ask yourself this: What would Farrah Abraham do?
Research shows that the more times a prospective buyer is exposed to your book’s name, the more likely she will remember it, google it, and buy it. So when the interviewer asks you a question, keep in mind the writer’s eleventh commandment: Thou shalt take every opportunity to flog thy book. Commit to memory such phrases as “As I talked about in my book…” and “I devoted a whole chapter in my book to that…”
Listen to how smoothly Abraham does it: “When you need a book to read and ponder your drug problems, pick up a Didion essay collection. If you’re looking for a book that discusses real issues, you are better off picking up my memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended. My life story is closer to the truth of life.”
[Sneering, derisive laughter]
Yes, it’s appalling, grotesquely so . . . and it’s brilliant. Don’t forget, her book came out in 2012—seven years ago. But she’s still out there hustling the merch.
Let me be blunt: If you want to build your platform, if you want to blossom your career, sell books, and make money, you need to hold these truths to be self-evident: The race doesn’t go to the talented, or the clever, or the crafter of the most elegant lines since John Milton. The prize goes to the most aggressive promoter.
What matters is visibility, publicity; any and all attention you can generate in print, radio, television, podcasts, and blogs—exploding across social media with the attention-getting energy of a lightening bolt.
Abraham knows this in her bones. Her formal education is an associate’s degree from a defunct cooking school, but when she saw an opportunity to crap on one of the literary titans of the past hundred years did she hesitate? Not for one second. She’s a minnow calling a whale puny. That, ladies and gentlemen, is audacity.
And does she allow herself to be hobbled by some misplaced sense of humility? No! She’s riding the galloping stallion of her career and she’s giving it the spurs for all she’s worth.
If Farrah Abraham is anything, she’s shameless—a quality I suggest you nurture. And if you don’t already have the word careerist in your vocabulary, add it immediately, apply it to yourself, wear it as a badge of honor.
Any of you have a problem with that?
Another of Abraham’s skills: she thinks laterally. She accompanied the release of her memoir with a tie-in album of her music—one song for each chapter in the book. Pure cross-promotional genius. Farrah Abraham: TV star, best-selling author, literary critic, and accomplished musician. Has a nice Renaissance-woman ring, doesn’t it?
In point of fact, the reviews of her record were brutal; one used this phrase: “the most horrible combination of sounds to ever be assembled in the history of audio recording.” Doesn’t matter. Self-promotion is not a rearview mirror enterprise. What matters is what’s new and what’s next.
So ask yourself this: What am I going to do and how far am I willing to go? Abraham went all in, starring in the adult films Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom and Farrah 2: Backdoor and More. You might not want to promote yourself quite so, well, nakedly. But people, one way or another it’s all about exposure. You need to act and act aggressively. Your books are not going to sell themselves. Your career is not going to spontaneously generate.
Let me leave you with this thought. Being a writer is, first and foremost, about pushing, plugging, hyping, branding, merchandizing, and in every other possible way advertising your work and yourself. It’s not a career for the timid.
Are there any questions?
Ross West earned an MFA at the University of Oregon, where he worked for nineteen years as science writer and editor of the research publication Inquiry then as senior managing editor of the university magazine Oregon Quarterly (circ. 95,000). His essays have been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest; Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and The Best of Dark Horse Presents. They have also appeared in Oregon Quarterly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Recent publications include an excerpt from his novel in Embark (October 2018) and a short story in Spank the Carp (February 2019). He served as the text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and the Atlas of Yellowstone.
March 22, 2019 § 5 Comments
We’d love to see our readers and writers in Portlandia, and we’d love you to see us. We don’t have a table, but we’ll be around plenty. Maybe buy us some avocado toast?
Here are some scheduled events featuring Brevity‘s finest:
THURSDAY, March 28th
- Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore will be part of the panel Que savent-ils?: What Classic Essays Can Teach Contemporary Essayists even though he can’t pronounce part of the panel title (10:30 am to 11:45 am)
- Dinty W. Moore is also reading and speaking as part of the 25 Years of Creative Nonfiction: An Anniversary Reading and celebration, alongside Lee Gutkind, Brenda Miller, and other fantastic writers and surprise guests (1:30 pm to 2:45 pm)
- Nonfiction luminaries Phillip Lopate and Michael Steinberg, along with Assistant Editor Ana Maria Spagna, will debate the proper role of “I” in CNF (3:00 pm to 4:15 pm)
- The panel The Yellow Wallpaper: Women Writing Mental Illness in 2019 includes Assistant Editor Penny Guisinger, who promises that she will be “showing up with all her crazy” (4:30 pm to 5:45 pm)
- Penny Guisinger is also part of the Incite: Queer Writers Read event from 6 to 7:30 pm at Literary Arts, 925 SW Washington Ave.
- Assistant Editor Colin Hosten will participate in a reading and reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown, featuring numerous Woodhall Press authors, co-hosted by Hosten’s MFA alma-mater Fairfield University and Woodhall Press, which Hosten co-founded in 2016.
FRIDAY, March 29th
- Assistant Editor Ana Maria Spagna signs copies of her latest book Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going Friday noon to 1 p.m. at the Artsmith table T10095
- Founding Editor Dinty W. Moore will be signing copes of Flash Nonfiction Funny on Friday, from 3 to 4 pm, at the Fairfield University/Woodhall Press Booth 3013
- Social Media Editor Allison Williams will be reading at the Hippocampus/Under The Gum Tree/River Teeth/Fourth Genre offsite event at the White Owl Social Club, starting Friday at 5:30 pm
SATURDAY, March 30th
- Social Media Editor Allison Williams will be keeping it brief on the panel The Most Versatile Essay: Flash Nonfiction in Any/Every Classroom (10:30 am to 11:45 am)
- Five women writers will get Back to Basics in order to untangle environmental truths, moderated by Ana Maria Spagna (12:00 pm to 1:15 pm)
Be there, or be square.
March 14, 2019 § 11 Comments
As the name suggests, Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is faaaaaaaancy. There was an author lounge with a buffet of cute little snacks, swanky hotel meeting rooms, professional A/V services, and an army of volunteers shepherding writers to panels and readings. (Emerging from freight elevators to dodge carts of petits fours and deconstructed salads wheeled through industrial grey corridors by white-clad chefs: rock star!)
The arts scene in Dubai is two-faceted:
- A scrappy group of expats beg, borrow and/or pay exorbitant rent for space to hold an artistic event.
- Someone royal loves a particular art form and throws money at it until the dream happens.
It’s astonishing to be in a country where someone with immense money and power is deeply interested in literature, and a large government-owned corporation sponsors a ten-day festival devoted to books. The festival is held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, The Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. His Highness is an author himself, and his books appear prominently in bookstores across the United Arab Emirates.
This was my first festival devoted more to readers than writers, and it’s almost three festivals at once. Their Youth Program brings busloads of students onsite for big-deal children’s authors like Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Sandhya Menon (When Dimple Met Rishi), and a fringe of student performances, as well as sending authors into schools. Adult readers enjoy literary lions, writers of books-you’ll-definitely-find-in-the-airport, and local authors presenting panels, readings and workshops. Finally, Arabic-language writers draw a fervent audience of Arabic readers. Panels were simultaneously translated—everyone wore headphones, each panelist spoke their most comfortable language, and we all heard our preferred listening language. (Individual live translators handled both Arabic-English and English-Arabic for the same panel—I was in awe!)
Over 400 million people speak Arabic, and Arabic culture holds a strong oral tradition and love of poetry. Surprisingly, there’s no giant publishing industry catering to all these potential readers, and a stream of festival events focused on building the Arabic book pipeline. I moderated a panel on contracts, with a hybrid publisher, a traditional publisher and an attorney from the Emirates Publishers Association, and the sense was that right now publishers set the terms, but there’s a move towards educating authors on their rights, particularly foreign-language sales and digital/audio platforms.
A panel on literary agents featured Dubai’s sole agent alongside UK agents from Susan Mears Literary Agency, and the audience was happy to discover that writers don’t pay agent fees; the agents get their cut from selling your book. The panel also suggested that agents here build an ethics code similar to the Association of Authors’ Representatives in the USA or Britain’s Association of Authors’ Agents.
Writing workshops included all-day manuscript-focused intensives and shorter talks on dramatic structure, social media and authorial voice. I found the ones I attended to be clear, basic information great for the audience of budding writers.
Many UAE writers are expats from India, Europe and North America, and a concern for all was book vetting by the government. One British writer mentioned the difficulty of observing cultural mores that aren’t a formal list, and non-Emiratis often don’t know what may be offensive. His middle-grade book included a girl daydreaming in her bathtub, a setting that had to be changed for publication in his Arabic country of residence.
Other high-priority topics included translation (Who pays for it? Who does the actual translation? How do you know it’s any good?) and distribution. Self-publishers and publishing companies alike face a huge hurdle in the UAE in that there is no unified sales-tracking system. In the USA and 9 other countries, BookScan compiles point-of-sale data. Here, booksellers must be individually billed for money owed the publisher—a paperwork challenge to say the least.
Fascinating to me as an American is the fast-track publishing process. Most Arabic books receive little or no editing from the publisher; many aren’t edited beyond the author reading their own work. While this means a book can be on the shelves mere weeks after submission, it also leads to errors and omissions. Sometimes, a translator told me ruefully, “I spend hours figuring out a paragraph, finally contact the author, and it turns out a typo changed the meaning.” On an editing panel, my fellow speakers seemed mixed on the value of editing versus speed, some saying they only publish the most polished manuscripts submitted, but authors in the audience were eager to find out how, why, and whom to contact for editing.
Festival organizers have seen in these issues a unique opportunity to help shape the book industry in the region. The Emirates Literature Foundation is actively planning year-round workshops, courses, and development opportunities for the emergence of a robust, ethical, and wide-ranging UAE publishing industry. As a festival guest, it was a fantastic opportunity to see this initiative beginning—and the crustless sandwiches and mini-desserts were pretty fabulous, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her next Rebirth Your Book full-manuscript retreat will be October 13-20 in Tuscany.
March 7, 2019 § 57 Comments
by Sandra Ebejer
Ever since publicly declaring myself a Writer, I’ve had well-meaning friends and family express interest in my work. This is a far cry from the days of yore, when no one in my orbit understood what I, then a nonprofit grant writer, did for a living.
But once I began publishing my creative work online, suddenly it clicked: Oh, she’s a Writer. Cool. To the uninitiated, the title “Writer” conjures images of successful novelists — the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the world — who publish at breakneck pace, giving the impression that all it takes to pen a bestseller is a few free hours and a laptop. So, naturally, people are intrigued.
The nice thing about the Writer title is that, for the first time in my life, people want to talk to me about my work. The unfortunate thing about the Writer title is that, well, people want to talk to me about my work. Like most writers, I’m introverted and not particularly fond of talking about myself, so questions about my writing make me uncomfortable. I smile and offer up some terse response, though my internal monologue offers a glimpse into how I’d really like to reply.
The question: “How’s the writing going?”
What I say: “It’s fine.”
What I’d like to say: “Well, today I spent 45 minutes watching cat videos on YouTube because the personal essay I’m trying to write isn’t coming together and it’s easier to ignore the work than accept the fact that I might just be a hack. I took a break to get a snack and while eating, I read a story in a Pushcart Prize collection that was so moving it made my chest ache and I sobbed from the realization that I will never, ever write a piece so well-crafted. After that, I went back to my desk and stared at my essay for a while, wondering if maybe giving up my grant writing job wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve made, and then just before my son arrived home from school, I churned out a listicle of silly writing memes for my blog. I feel pretty overwhelmed and terrified most of the time but otherwise, you know, it’s fine.”
The question: “What are you writing right now?”
What I say: “Oh, I have a few things I’m juggling. Nothing I want to discuss in detail just yet.”
What I’d like to say: “Everything and nothing. I have drafts of numerous essays, blogs, and short stories saved on my hard drive. I have an excel document with hundreds of ideas and a long list of places where I’d like to submit my work, but I suffer from an overwhelming case of impostor syndrome so very little is shared with the world. I’m nearly done with one piece that might be okay once it goes through a couple dozen revisions, so I’m guessing it’ll be ready to submit to literary journals in six months or so, and then who knows if it’ll ever actually be accepted.”
The question: “Have you been published?”
What I say: “I post my work on Medium.com and my own website, and I have a piece coming out in Boston Globe Magazine in the spring.”
What I’d like to say: “I have a piece coming out in The Boston Globe, which is really exciting because it’s a publication my friends and family have actually heard of, though I don’t anticipate having additional work published anytime soon because that one Globe piece was clearly a total fluke. I’ve since tried writing for similar columns in The New York Times and other outlets, but my pieces are all terrible. I mean, who am I kidding? I’ll be lucky if I get a story in an unknown, soon-to-be-shuttered literary journal. That is, if I ever finish writing something, amirite? Have I mentioned I have impostor syndrome?”
The question: “How would you describe your writing? Any authors you can compare it to?”
What I say: “Well, a friend described my fiction as ‘slice of life with a dark edge,’ which I think sums it up nicely.”
What I’d like to say: “Oh, I don’t know. Unfinished? Look, I’m doing all I can to write decent stories in various formats. Please don’t ask me to compare my work to that of critically-acclaimed authors you’ve read in some book club. That’s just embarrassing, especially for the critically-acclaimed authors.”
The question: “Where do you get your ideas?”
What I say: “Just from day-to-day life.”
What I’d like to say: “Most ideas come to me when I’m unable to jot them down. It’s usually right as I’m drifting off to sleep that the most incredible narrative forms in my head and by the time I wake the next day, it’s long gone. When I try to consciously think of ideas, nothing happens. At all. Literally. You know how Homer Simpson gets dancing monkeys in his head when Marge is talking to him about something important? That’s me, trying to come up with plausible story lines.”
The question: “Are you able to make a decent living as a writer?”
What I say: “You know, that kind of thing takes time, so right now I’m just focusing my efforts on building an audience and working on my craft.”
What I’d like to say: “No. No, I’m not. Thanks for pointing that out. Can you pass the vodka?”
I’m hoping that as time passes, I’ll learn to accept that these well-meaning (albeit uncomfortable) questions are just another aspect of my fledgling writing career. But for now, my inner voice continues to rant as force a smile, a few polite replies, and subtly change the topic.
Sandra Ebejer is a writer living in upstate New York with her husband, son, and two cats who haven’t figured out how to get along. Her work has appeared in numerous publications on Medium and will be published in The Boston Globe in March 2019. Read more of her work at www.sandraebejer.com.
January 14, 2019 § 1 Comment
Our January 2019 Issue contains brilliant, powerful, surprising flash nonfiction from John Skoyles, Richard Hoffman, Abby Mims, Dustin Parsons, Susan Jackson Rodgers, Rajpreet Heir, Sam Kiss, Amy Stonestrom, Rebecca McClanahan, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Bryn Chancellor, Niya Marie, Jennifer Wortman, Lisa Fay Coutley, and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher. You’ll never look at yoga, string, or constellations the same again.
In our Craft Section, Nicole Breit reveals the power of the literary diptych (with writing prompts), Susan Bruns Rowe considers the elusiveness of voice, and Michael Downs shows how “a single sentence or detail or image – even a particular word – can act as a ‘vein of jade’ that makes the whole work glisten.”
And stunning artwork by Dev Murphy.
Come have a look: https://brevitymag.com
December 19, 2018 § 14 Comments
by Lesley Heiser
“Now listen to me. This is a love letter…
This is writing whose wage no one wants to pay”
~ Nicole Walker
Not long ago, I made my first appearance at an AWP Conference. Arriving in the gray, I felt cold, tired, excited, amazed at the cost, guilty about flying a thousand miles, and shy.
Like everyone else, I wanted to bump into fabulous writers, introduce myself to strangers, inveigle myself into editors’ lines of sight and converse with them, and sit in marvelous audiences. All of this I did.
On the afternoon of my last day there, I sank into a seat at the back for a panel whose title I think was “Literature and the End of the World.” I sat somewhat fearful. This seemed like a morbid end to three exciting days, yet what could be more compelling?
I somehow expected a deluge of facts. I may have expected a deluge of emotion. But my notes from most of the panel consist only of this: we have to write about the environment extremely well, as well as we write about anything else or better; we have to bring the full range of our emotions to writing about the environment and not our stances of sentimentality, moralism, or didacticism; we can aspire to connect and engage, even to warm and inspire.
If that had been all I learned, it would have been enough.
But the last presenter on the panel—I was also there for him. He happened to be the person I’d fallen for when I was in college. It had been so long ago–more than half our lifetimes. He saw me in the back, approached me, and opened his arms, and all of a sudden I felt as though I remembered all of it. Then he went back and sat behind the table.
As it turned out, his particular topic was a bit more edgy than that of his co-presenters: he talked about the strengths of humor-writing on the environment including on environmental degradation and loss and our possible doom. Twain had been funny about the stuff he wrote about, my friend reminded us. Thoreau was also pretty comical. Humor could precipitate the sympathy of the reader or listener. When it landed, it invited people in.
From that point of mutual openness anything could happen including the good and really good things that we need to have happen like conservation, innovation, reduced consumption, and other forms of caring for the environment—this was my friend’s implicit point. Also funny writing can make for great art, unlike preaching. The audience really responded to his focus on reaching the reader in a humble, intimate, enlivening way. He was talking about something that I hadn’t expected, something that was paradoxical, but it wasn’t cavalier.
Somewhere I’d read something he’d written that was similarly paradoxical and, listening to him, I remembered: it was about the actual and potential beauty of some forms of natural destruction. A desert is beautiful even as it grows larger. A riverbed gives us striking patterns when the water is gone. Pollution makes the sunset more vivid to the human eye and more memorable to the human heart.
These are difficult thoughts or they are difficult truths yet even if they are truths, we can hold them somewhat lightly or we can hold them in different ways at different times.
Sustainability: A Love Story by Nicole Walker
For me, Nicole Walker’s new book takes off from what I learned in 2016 and goes in myriad directions in a coherent, beautiful way. It’s got plenty of humor, yes, but also other modalities from awe to rage to deep commitment to laugh-out-loud moments of admitted craziness to arduous moments of depression and of course to love. I’m pretty sure it’s not a book about the environment or its looming destruction. Rather it’s a beautifully crafted, enter-anywhere, narrative and lyric poetic manifestation of one person’s engagement with the environment and with the all-too-apparent ruination in the right-now.
In terms of art, the book for me is an installation whose spaces I can enter in my own undisciplined way, recalling my own loves and dreams, losses and nightmares.
It’s a diary whose narrator struggles to protect her home and family from worsening fires, considers a family friend’s suicide, raises bright and wonderful children, consumes cheese, meat, oil, clothes, and a lot of other stuff, pollutes and throws out and otherwise gives up, tends her marriage which is also an environment, and finds ways to start over every day.
It’s a map, a normal fallen person’s rendering of her way forward and not the idealized and didactic written tracks of an environmental saint. As such, this book invites me in as no perfect book could do to create my own full and fuller and yet more full way of engagement, my own personal, love-centered, quirky, broken, and therefore sustainable-for-me path of thinking and doing in order to save something, even the world, despite my own depression and enormous imperfection or because of them, as I can, and in my own corner.
Finally, the author says her new book is a love letter written first and foremost to her husband Erik.
Love: A Sustainability Story
Love Is a Battlefield
Love Is All You Need
Coda: First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke, 2018
Synopsis: “The pastor of a small church in upstate New York spirals out of control after a soul-shaking encounter with an unstable environmental activist and his pregnant wife.”
I watched this movie last night. It’s on the Amazon channel and elsewhere. The New York Times just called it one of the ten best movies of the year. It’s grim for a long time on the environment and on the prospect of renewal and on human prospects but it has a very strong, vivid arc. For me the value came from watching it through until the end. Twenty-four hours later, I’m still amazed.
Lesley Heiser is a Maine writer whose work appears in Boulevard, Puerto del Sol, Ms., Taproot, The Rumpus, Stirring, and elsewhere. She has a lot of hope.
November 28, 2018 § 10 Comments
By 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.
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