Last month we discussed how to locate mentorship outside of academia and how recent creative writing graduates may want to consider passing on their own accrued wisdom to beginning writers. We might call the mentoring of another writer an act of literary citizenship, which just so happens to be the topic of this month’s email. But what is literary citizenship? How do we go about practicing it? Why should we? We’ve collected a range of thoughts on the subject from a variety of accomplished writers to help make sense of it all.
To define exactly what we mean when we say “literary citizenship,” we turn to Cathy Day, who teaches a course on literary citizenship at Ball State University. On her website, she outlines her working principles of literary citizenship. It’s a great place to start in order to understand how to foster community among writers and to support the work you love.
As Day says, Blake Butler’s article “Be an Open Node” was a source of inspiration for her working principles. She echoes a lot of what Butler proposes here—write reviews, interview writers, develop outlets for putting work you admire out into the world. It’s definitely worth a read if you are contemplating what belongs on your own list of principles.
PEN America is an organization focused on protecting free expression and “standing at the intersection of literature and human rights.” In “Freedom to Write? Our Obligation to Protect Expression,” a panel of writers and representatives of PEN America ask and answer questions such as “Are writers being silenced around the world?" "Are our first amendment freedoms at risk here at home?" "How do current affairs affect the rights of writers to practice their craft?" and "What is the role of self-censorship in a culture of real or imagined threats to freedom of expression?”
Butler and Day both identify writing book reviews as a powerful way to be a good literary citizen. Day says, “Remember: no matter what happens to traditional publishing, readers will always need trusted filters to help them know what is worth paying attention to and what’s not. Become that trusted filter.”
Have you written a book review that needs a home? Check out Poets & Writers’ database of book review outlets for guidance. Before submitting, research the publication so that you know whether it accepts unsolicited reviews or simultaneous submissions, what kind of reviews they typically publish, and how to format particulars.
Emilia Philips gives us something else to consider before crafting a review. In "The Book Review in Review," Philips questions our motivations for writing negative reviews in general, as well as the perspective from which we assess a book's merit. She says that whether a review is positive or negative, "reviewers cross the line when they make assumptions about a poet based on their work and/or when they make value judgments based exclusively on aesthetic, demographic, or other personal biases." In this important essay, she examines her own gaze as a reviewer and how her identity and experiences shape her response to a particular work.
In "Kurt Brown and What You Can Do for Poetry,” David J. Rothman examines the impact Kurt Brown had on Rothman as a mentor; on the world of poetry as a poet, an organizer, and a critic; and on the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, as he compiled the first list of writers' conferences and centers, leading to a new department for AWP. Rothman's reflection is an inspiring read, recognizing how Brown "saw a need that no one had met, and he set out to meet it, because it would help our art and because it would help others make it and keep it vibrant."
So far, we've reviewed a variety of writers singing the praises of literary citizenship. But as our next two voices point out, there are limitations to writers' abilities to thoroughly engage in the practices outlined above. In "Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship?" Jane Friedman asks and delivers an engaging collection of thoughts from voices across the literary landscape that raise interesting questions about the economics of literary citizenship, especially as the publishing landscape evolves.
Friedman's thoughts on the subject were inspired in part by Becky Tuch's "More Work, No Pay: Why I Detest 'Literary Citizenship'." Tuch recognizes the value of the work of literary citizens—book reviewers and blurb writers, patrons of local bookstores, interviewers, and reading attendees—but she asks, "Why do writers need to do these things? In what context are these activities so necessary?" Tuch makes a compelling case that at least part of this answer lies in the slashed marketing budgets of major publishers.
We will leave you, for the last time, with wise words from Wendy J. Fox, who, in “Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices,” argues that one way established writers can be good literary citizens is to be open about their own experiences with rejection and endurance:
"Perhaps the most transparent thing to say to emerging writers is to be open. Listen to the overworked editors who have taken time to offer a sentence or two of feedback—yours is one of hundreds if not thousands of submissions; it’s a big deal to get even nominal comments. And listen if you keep getting the same kind of observations; I definitely did not rewrite my first novel so that the protagonist was male instead of female, but I did rework it, several times, and while the main character isn’t more 'likable,' it’s absolutely a better book for this effort."
You don’t have to get numb to rejection, and you don’t have to accept that it’s always going to be the default response. You should certainly never feel ashamed by it.
If you believe in your work and you push yourself to make it better, if you’ve researched your markets, if you are an active reader, if you are paying attention to what editors ask for, your work will find a home. Maybe you’ll have to endure the one hundred rejections scenario, but I really hope not.
When you do get there, shout your wins, but don’t forget to be transparent—for instance, this essay has been through eleven drafts, and I’m still not sure it’s quite right—and loud enough in sharing your failures so that emerging voices can hear you.
That's all for this year's Life after the MFA series! Thanks so much for joining us on this journey through the first year of your post-MFA life. If you have enjoyed receiving these emails, please feel free to opt-in for the next year! The next series, which will begin in August, will feature new resources and advice.
Please look out for an upcoming survey. It may also be time to renew your membership, which you can do on our online store, through email, or by calling us at (240) 696-7700.
We wish you the best of luck and good fortune throughout your continuing writing journey!