One essential question rises out of the hullabaloo of conflicting opinions broadcast in Cynthia Ozick’s philosophical essay in the New York Times on old vs. new writers and The New Republic’s Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s prickly response: Why do we write?
Both essays are well written, thoughtful, and make excellent points worth considering for writers of all ages and ilk regarding the difference between old writers and young writers, as well as between those who write for love of craft and those who write in the hopes of a paycheck.
Ozick laments the ways in which our publicity-crazed culture ostracizes “old writers” (her words) and instead encourages an ambition-fueled sense of entitlement amongst young writers, turning them into caddy entrepreneurs. She wonders at the end of her piece what kind of world we will have once millennials are themselves old.
Hers is a subtle, elegant, intellectually rendered reminder for anxious, over-eager young writers like me to question our original impetus for writing. Is it simply for attention? Fame? Careerism? Have we forgotten the simple pleasures of a blank page filling up with epiphany? Can we not employ a little better sense of trust and patience when it comes to the payoff of our craft? All of these are questions I as an already burnt-out second-year in a three-year MFA program needed to hear.
And yet, I can’t help but feel Bovy’s response is necessary to keep in mind, especially in today’s shifting economical context for writing. As she says, “It’s now stigmatized for a writer not to have practical concerns,” and there are new prescribed paths to a writing life that have nothing to do with the romantic ideals of a room of one’s own. Gone are the days of entry-level, apprentice positions being available to the literary-minded (except in the form of unpaid internships).
Instead, we live in a world where editors tell us at writing conferences that we pay to attend that we can expect not to try for a career in writing if we do not establish a social media presence by the time we have a manuscript. We live in a world where there is an influx of mediocre writers and an insatiable need for digital content. The market is over-saturated, and the odds of us living by our pen (or even teaching by it) are slimmer than ever. It’s enough to make me want to throw up my hands and in despair ask why I embarked on an MFA (so repugnant to Ozick and “old writers” of her mindset) and left a career in secondary teaching in the first place.Continue Reading
On December 30th, 2014, acclaimed independent publisher Melville House released a print copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program”—also known as the Senate Torture Report. Though the material is in the public domain (has been since December 9th, is only a summary of the actual several-thousand-page Report—which remains classified—and runs at about five-hundred pages) the publisher sold out of its first print run, a considerable fifty thousand copies, that very same day.
When I first heard this news, I paused. I mouthed to myself, possibly even said aloud, “Holy crap.” I hadn’t heard of something like this happening before—this sort of treatment and release. I didn’t even quite know what to make of it. But soon I couldn’t stop thinking about the role of the print book at large, our pledged allegiance to physical copy, the responsibility of a publisher, and the ineluctable importance of vision—because it takes a seriousness of vision to do something like this.
In The New York Times’ coverage of this, Alexandra Alter mentions that this approach to re-release is not an isolated case. “Other government reports,” she writes, “like the 9/11 Commission Report and the infamous Starr Report detailing President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.” So it’s not necessarily a surprise that this report, so momentous in its public release, has garnered so much attention, and so quickly. The Times also aptly captured the Report in labeling it “a portrait of depravity that’s hard to comprehend.” A mere fifty pages in—pushing past the many blacked-out words and phrases, the tiring lurch of long footnotes—I already found myself overwhelmed by the hard fact of that sentiment.Continue Reading
Whenever I drive to my real local library or the Barnes & Noble near my house, I’m always disappointed I can find a parking space so easily. Trust me, I love convenience. But where is everyone? What are they doing that’s more fun than browsing the shelves? Every man keeps a few secrets from his wife, and here’s one of my key ones: the line at the library checkout desk is never that long. Sure, I said I was just returning some of our kids’ books, but that shouldn’t have taken forty-five minutes. I’ll let you know, dear reader: I wasn’t really waiting that whole time. I was checking out three more books on behavioral economics, and I’m not even sure why. (But maybe there’s something in these books that can explain it!)Continue Reading
Early last month, PEN International publicly condemned the killing of Thai poet Mainueng K. Kunthee. The poet had been shot to death on April 23rd, presumably because of his public criticisms of the monarchy and Thailand’s lèse majesté law. Known as a poet of the people, Kunthee was immensely popular; his work “spoke of social justice, the rights of the poor, and in protest of laws against free expression.”
After Kunthee’s death, free expression became even more suppressed in Thailand–thus the PEN condemnation six weeks later. “PEN International is deeply concerned for the safety of writers, academics and activists in Thailand,” the report states, “who are increasingly at risk of attack and imprisonment solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions…”
PEN’s report and condemnation recirculated the story on June 10th, with write-ups in LA Times and The Poetry Foundation, among others. As it happens, three days later, the New York Times published a piece entitled “Poetry: Who Needs It?”–in which the author summarizes and laments the overarching neglect–if not general loathing–of poetry today.Continue Reading
Last year, I was talking to a romance novelist who self-publishes her books. She had decided to go this route after submitting a manuscript directly to Harlequin and not hearing back from them for months.
What forced her hand was that she had kids, she had been working part-time, and her husband had just been laid off. If she could make a thousand dollars over the life of the book, she figured, that was better than sitting in the slush pile, and it was cash she could use for groceries.
In fact, she made a few thousand dollars. She kept writing and publishing and that turned into a few thousand a month, and then tens of thousands of dollars a month. By the end of the first two years she had made well over a million dollars on ebooks. I just checked, and she’s still ranked in the top twenty on Amazon for romance novelists. (She isn’t just lucky; she happens to write the best sex scenes I’ve read anywhere, by any writer.)Continue Reading
I found my voice relatively late in life—40—but once I started to write I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I took classes, joined writing groups, and wrote all the time. I published essays in my local paper and people stopped me in the grocery store to thank me for making them laugh. I felt complete. Before I got my MFA I wrote for the love it, whenever and wherever I could squeeze a sentence into my busy life.
When accepted into a program, I started to feel like a “real writer.” I went to school full-time, worked part-time, and managed a household of five, all as a nontraditional student (think old). I powered my way through doubt and thoughts of “Do I belong here?” towards relative successes. And that’s where the problem lay: after learning about craft and understanding what I did well and what innate skills I lacked as a writer, I silenced myself.Continue Reading
One morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.
Leaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:
We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…
Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?
Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.
But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-”activist” writers can take to dive in:
- Identify Our Stories
- Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
- Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”
If you don’t live within spitting distance of Boston, maybe you missed the sad news that the Boston Phoenix abruptly quit publication last month. This alternative newsweekly began in the heyday of the sixties, and quickly became the go-to source for more than just the other side of the story, spawning dozens of nationally recognized writers and critics along the way. For decades the Phoenix had the best and most comprehensive arts and entertainment reporting in Boston—even according to the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, who poached many Phoenix writers over the years. The Phoenix also had a pit bull approach to reporting that’s required when you’re breaking stories like the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. This foundation of excellent and intelligent reportage and writing was made possible in large part because—in addition to their desire to get to the heart of every story they published—the Phoenix had a paid staff.
Writers at the Phoenix didn’t get paid much, but they were able to hone their skills so finely because writing was all they did—or, rather, writing was all they had to do. Writers sure didn’t live in the lap of luxury, but they also didn’t need to teach high school English, they didn’t need to bartend or work construction or temp in a high rise office—they only needed to write.Continue Reading
In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on literary hoaxes.
We promise this post contains no hoaxes. It’s not a joke, like this infamous stunt pulled on April Fools’ Day in 2001 in Copenhagen regarding their new metro system:
All fake train wrecks aside, there have been many literary hoaxes over the years (yes, you’ve been fooled, this post contains many hoaxes). Which ones have you fallen for?Continue Reading
Plate VI from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
It took, it seemed, only a few seconds for the first response to appear. My heart plummeted as more appeared in my Twitter feed, each increasingly indignant, ticking off like a plunging stock exchange. I knew there had not been enough time for any of the commenters to actually read the article I linked to; they were simply responding to the post.
For many reasons—professional and deferential—I won’t repeat the exact content of the post, but it was the kind of thing that starts flame wars like dry underbrush. Blame it on laziness and a communal obsession with drama, but provocation sells. There is an art form to highlighting the main points of an article in 140 characters, especially one of a satirical nature, but if you do it “right” you have the chance to reach a potentially unsuspecting audience. At its best, a Twitter feed plays out like snatches of witty conversation heard on a subway while reading the newspaper. At its worst, it’s crude, manipulative.
So, I had a few options: I could write a rebuttal for the joke made in poor taste. Maybe accept that stirring controversy is not such a bad thing for web site numbers. Or, simply delete the tweet and hope no one noticed the blunder.
As Christopher Hitchens said in Love, Poverty, and War, “There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.” The thing is, I deleted the post.Continue Reading