August 7, 2015
Dear Intrepid Readers,
Today, instead of taking on big, nebulous, difficult-to-pin-down concepts like social justice, or fostering diversity—we’d like to slow down and break those things down to smaller, more easy-to-maneuver concepts: our public faces as writers, and what it means to be a good literary citizen.
One thing that we’ve noticed in any number of conflicts at various literary magazines in recent history is the involvement of social media. Social media is a boon for independent publishing, because it’s more or less free advertising that has the potential to reach a wide audience. But its benefits are not without their drawbacks. Social media allows for people to build connections, networks and communities that are not related to geography. It’s a fantastic benefit, especially for writers who are not located near an urban hub. The flipside is that social media allows us to fire off hasty comments that we would not say in a person-to-person interaction. It allows us to shirk accountability for the things we say, to say poorly thought out, ill-advised things in a fit of emotion—things that before, we’d have either not said at all, or written out in a Letter to the Editor, where we would have had time to collect our thoughts and articulate them clearly.
But because we now have a forum where we can vent in the heat of the moment, writers have an additional consideration outside of the scope of our body of work. The modern writer now must contend with the consideration of public persona, and how that reflects upon the writer as literary citizen, as well as how that public persona affects the writer’s work, its placement, and its readership. Literary citizenship means that giving back to this community of writers, as well as benefiting from the collective knowledge of the community. In short, pay everything forward. This is because none of us achieves any success on our own. In being good literary citizens, we share resources, knowledge, connections and skills to help others the way that we would want other writers and editors to share these things with us.
We all aspire to live by the writer/editor mantra “let the work speak for itself.” But as I’ve posited in the last few editorial letters—letting the work speak for itself is not enough. It is not the only thing modern editors take into account. Here’s a scenario that we run into repeatedly as editors and working writers in the modern world of literary publications: The Problematic Public Persona.
The PPP is the writer (or editor) whose work (or publication) you love, but who cannot stop presenting a public face that is damaging to themselves or to the greater literary community. The PPP is the editor who gleefully posts about ripping a new one for writers to “toughen them up and make them better writers.” Who makes jokes in public forums at the expense of authors they’ve declined. They’re the writers who troll online threads to chime in on conversations, claiming to “just be playing devil’s advocate.” The writers who complain that their work isn’t getting a fair shake because a publication is attempting to promote diversity and actively seeks work from traditionally marginalized groups. The members of the literary community who insist that feminist writers/editors/publications are biased against men and are therefore hypocrites. The PPP is the persona who seems to think that equal opportunity comes at their own expense.
You know That Guy. Don’t be That Guy. (That Guy can *also* be That Girl.)
There are so many ways that the PPP is damaging to the community: they are the commenters who derail conversations and degrade discussions into flame wars, straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks. This kind of behavior contradicts the whole idea of a literary community and asks us to form cliques. It is a sticky situation when we love the work of a writer, but their public persona causes us internal conflict. Our associate editor Jilly Dreadful has been writing a series of blog posts for us at Rhizomatic Ideas about how we can detangle the person from the art and still enjoy work from problematic authors—but how do we translate those principles when the problematic authors are our own peers? Is it even possible?
There’s no easy answer to this question. At times, we have all been guilty of firing off something hostile, negative or hurtful simply because technology allows us a means of doing so. Most of us regret this. (Gmail even developed the “Undo” extension to reel back e-mails sent in haste!) For most of us, these are embarrassing, isolated incidents, and we learn from them what not to do. The higher your publication’s profile, the more you, as an editor, must be aware of your public persona, and accountable for the things you post in a public forum. Though we can delete things, the internet never forgets, and all it takes is a screen shot of an ill-advised comment to crash a reputation that takes years to build.
As a working writer, you must understand that your work is not the end of your involvement with an editor or a publication. Your public persona can directly affect your ability to professionally reach your goals. Because of the internet, the literary community as a whole—already pretty small—has shrunk so that working writers are aware of one another in ways that they have never been before. If the PPPs are editors themselves, many writers will skip submitting to their journals, regardless of the quality of the work published there. When you engage in social media as a writer, you might be “auditioning” for editors engaged on the same platforms. By no means are we advocating self-censorship, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from accountability. You’re welcome to say what you want, wherever you want, but other writers and editors are also free to find your public persona problematic, and to choose to avoid working with you because of it.
So, what’s the takeaway here? In the new literary landscape, being a great writer is a good start, but it’s not enough. Would Hemingway or Bukowski have gotten as far in their careers if they had the ability to publicly post their every problematic idea? The modern writer not only must demonstrate mastery of their craft, but they must also—at bare minimum—be decent literary citizens. I’ll leave you with three keys to literary citizenship that I wouldn’t say are foolproof, but they’re certainly a good place to start.
- Find magazines you like and read them—your work being published doesn’t matter if you’re not reading the work of others. Place less emphasis on the prestige of being published and more on the reason you started writing in the first place—to connect with the world you live in through the art and craft of writing. Since you’re here, we’ll assume you’re already reading the work of others, through Alphanumeric features, book reviews or guest blogs at Rhizomatic Ideas, or even just the weekly editor’s letter.
- Make connections. When reading publications, look for work that is similar to your work, or work that impresses you. Follow those authors, and if you’re comfortable with it, reach out to them. Follow their publishing history. If there’s a common thread between their work and yours, the markets that publish them might be a good fit for your work, too. Here at Zoetic, we have a special social media forum for our contributors to connect with one another. Not a contributor? Start a group of your own, and watch it grow.
- Practice internet decorum. Anything you say on a personal blog or social media platform can be connected back to you as a writer, and your words (especially about journals, peers, editors and mentors) will make an impression on others. Make sure it’s a good one.
Want to practice that first point? Download our app for iPhone or iPad and enjoy everything we’ve published, completely free. Or practice making connections by following us on Facebook (Zoetic Press, Lithomobilus), Twitter (@ZoeticPress and Litho) and Pinterest, or see some of our authors reading their work on our YouTube channel. If you’re interested in hearing more from us, sign up for our monthly newsletter. We’re serious about your privacy, and promise not to flood your inbox. Want to be a guest writer for Rhizomatic Ideas, or to profile one of our contributors? Send us a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a book you’d like to tell the world about, or know a writer that everyone should know? Send us your reviews and author interviews!
Next week, we’ll be checking in with you from National Poetry Slam, hosted in Oakland, California—so get ready for some fun pictures and posts from that multi-day event!
Until next week,