Poetry as a Failure to Communicate

Literary Citizenship?

"Literary citizenship" is a concept that many writers apparently take quite seriously, as it has evolved from a metaphorical notion that writers should advocate on behalf of literature generally to a quasi-literal requirement that they be good citizens in the "literary community" at large, whose well-being they are expected to consider. According to Lori A. May in her book The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life (2015),

Literary citizenship takes the power of the individual and puts it to use in fostering, sustaining, and engaging with the literary community for the benefit of others. The concept is to pay kindness and skill forward, to offer something to the community so that others may learn, engage, and grow from combined efforts. And the possibilities for how that is accomplished are wide and varied, both in effort and in outcome. At the heart of literary citizenship, though, is one constant: contributing something to the literary world outside of one's own immediate needs.

The biggest motivating factor in the rise of literary citizenship as an ideal to which writers should aspire is likely to be found in that "constant" May identifies in the final sentence. "One's own immediate needs" in the literary world, are of course, to be published, to find readers, if lucky to make a career of writing. At a time when it has become harder to do all of those things (and when there even more writers trying to do them), "literary citizenship" and the "community" work together as appealing alternatives to the publish-or-perish ethos that dominated not just academic publishing but in effect all of publishing and the old "literary world" associated with it. While "contributing something" to the community free of self-interest is ostensibly the goal of literary citizenship, surely the ultimate benefit of such a contribution redounds to the contributor in some way (tangible or intangible), or it simply wouldn't be worth making. One's "immediate needs" aren't necessarily identical with one's long-term hopes.

Considered most generously, the creation of community through literary citizenship is a way of preserving a space for literature that isn't dependent on (although ultimately by no means completely separate from) a hyperactive capitalist economy that has so distorted social and commercial values as to otherwise leave little room for such a relatively nonprofitable enterprise as literary writing, except at the most crass and mercantile levels of the "book business." From this perspective, cultivating the literary garden as a whole is the only way to ensure that the garden survives to provide a spot for one's own harvest.

But while such an effort to affirm literary value for its own sake is both commendable and necessary, how many would-be literary citizens really are as dedicated to Literature in the abstract as the rhetoric of literary citizenship would have them be? Are there many who would be willing to cultivate the garden even if it wasn't going to be open to their own work, after all? Perhaps I am overly cynical in suspecting that the ranks of good literary citizens would thin out appreciably under those circumstances, that Literature as a sovereign territory worth defending would be a less compelling cause if one's loyalty to it were so purely conceptual. But even if what might be gained through exemplary literary citizenship is not careerist in the narrowly commercial sense, the urge for recognition and status can't help but dilute the purity of motive that supposedly underlies the practice of literary citizenship.

That in itself does not invalidate the call for literary citizenship. Human motives can never be pure, and none of the strategies for manifesting one's citizenship described by May—attending readings, starting a journal, writing reviews, joining literary organizations, etc.—are in themselves at all objectionable (although it is certainly possible to question the reliance on the Reading as the most visible representation of the "literary world"). There is a point, however, beyond which the breadth of responsibilities May suggests the writer might shoulder actually seems to appease the very market forces that literary citizenship is supposed to counteract. Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media "presence." Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, "Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being 'trained' to do."' (Salon)

If literary citizenship "takes the power of the individual and puts it to use" on behalf of all writers, what about the much greater power of publishers and publicists, who are surely in a much better position to be "fostering, sustaining, and engaging with the literary community"? Is the push for literary citizenship another way of acknowledging that the era of the publisher has come to an end? Is the logical extension of literary citizenship a literary world dominated by self-publishing as well as self-promotion, which becomes the only way to do business in books? Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably "business" would not be the center of activity: payment comes in "kindness and skill," receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to "learn, engage, and grow."

 But would real growth actually occur if all that was "paid forward" was "kindness"? Would the "skill" also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative? Is literary citizenship specifically about ensuring a certain kind of "literary life," as May's subtitle suggests, or should it also encourage a serious engagement with literary works that in taking them seriously accepts that some literary efforts are more successful than others? In the literary world that emerges from the congruence of idealism and the obsolescence of the old publishing model, will there be a role for literary critics, who sometimes are accused of something less than kindness, but from whom much can often be learned? It is hard to imagine that a "literary" culture (or "community") with any credibility and integrity could be sustained if frank but impartial criticism was unwelcome.

It is not exactly the case that readers seem to be unwelcome in the literary community as described in The Write Crowd, but as the title suggests, literary citizenship is practiced primarily by writers, although finding ways of "reaching out" to readers is certainly encouraged. Indeed, in addition to the decline of publisher support, an underlying assumption of  both May's book and the appeal to citizenship and community more generally is that there aren't enough readers to go around and thus writers need to support each other, offering themselves as especially dutiful readers who will not just content themselves with the reading experience but will supplement it through recommendations on social media, reviews, and attendance at author events. Writers act as readers on steroids, giving the literary community a semblance of vitality, even when most writers struggle to find readers for whom reading is not so freighted with external obligation.

What about the apostate, the writer who resists the call to literary citizenship, either through obstinacy or through a sincere belief that the writer's job is to write, not to network? Although May frequently insists that the writer's first responsibility is indeed to his/her own writing, those who might deny the value of literary citizenship when it is made into a de facto requirement of living a "writing life" would surely provoke resentment for not carrying his/her weight in propping up the remaining structures that make a literary life still marginally possible. More importantly, what about the true literary apostate, who violates community norms, who produces work even the best literary citizens might have trouble celebrating, or even understanding? What if the demand for literary citizenship had been made of Samuel Beckett or William S. Burroughs (or even a more conventional curmudgeonly type such as, say, Philip Larkin)?

The work of Beckett and Burroughs was surely abrasive (to some, incomprehensible) enough to its original audience that, absent some expression of solidarity with their fellow writers by each of them, it was almost foreordained to at first be rejected or ignored (or both) by the literary community of the time, however that would have been defined. Perhaps we feel that now the more self-identified literary community is inclusive enough that iconoclastic writers such as these would be acknowledged. Still, it seems to me that the inevitable tendency of a "literary community" expecting its members to be "good literary citizens" is an at least implicit regulation of what counts as worth supporting, what can be recognized as "literature" in the first place. Bad literary citizens are going to continue to disregard the exhortations to blend harmoniously into the growing crowd of writers, but will also manage to write what turns out to be great works of literature, nevertheless.


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