author – activist – faculty – mom
Ever since I got my book deal, I feel disoriented. As if I had turned myself into a battering ram and for the last five years, and my biorhythms have adjusted to the steady pulse of me throwing myself against the wall of the literary industry, trying to break through. Steady as a heartbeat. But now, I’ve made it in. Grateful but dazed, and with a metaphorical concussion.
This is the precise disorientation that Courtney Maum describes in her fantastic BuzzFeed article on being a debut author. We are the envy of other authors who are trying to make it happen. We are deeply privileged in comparison to those who have never felt entitled to seek a platform for their voices, have been fully silenced, invalidated, or whose lives are so close to the edge that creative expression isn’t even an option. In this world of war and economic crisis, it’s a privilege to write and an even greater privilege to get institutional backing. We debut authors should be having the time of our lives. In the article however, Maum reveals the seamy underside in a social media era where people airbrush their photos and post updates that make their lives sound like a top 10 list.
I can see how there is an escalation of alienation and competition as people move from #amwriting (encouraging each other to keep at it) to #amquerying (the angst of looking for a literary agent). After I got an agent, and she was sending my work to editors, there was a need to become stoic about the process. Previously, I could kvetch all day on Twitter about the angst of querying agents, but once I had an agent, I needed to look professional and not like a whiner while editors were considering my manuscript. And Maum relates clearly how the next step in the process, the debut author, is under even more pressure to smile and be gracious through all the debut craziness. The silence of being on submission was painful. But at least being on submission was a private anxiety fest. I could lay in bed in my sweatpants or schlep to class (in same sweatpants) and keep refreshing my email in desperate hope for news. In contrast, the debut author must look put-together. Must not only function in the world, but be witty, poised, and read her work. She must graciously answer questions that are at times invasive, insulting, or just look interested when she answers the same damn question for the hundredth time.
The process of professionalization for writers is deeply bittersweet. Like stories of upward mobility out of the old neighborhood, or first generations of kids in college. We gain the dream, but we lose the homies we used to play with in the street. We enter the hallowed halls and are excited for the knowledge they contain, but are not prepared for their silence.
The process of going from querying to submission to debut comprises a triple initiation into the industry–at times an unintentional hazing. This process teaches us to put on our game face and to understand our disappointments and jealousies as our personal failures and weaknesses. This is not to blame the individual gatekeepers in the literary industry. If I were to place blame, it would be on our country’s lack of support for the arts and artists. Ultimately, it’s a labor issue: how can we get people to work at Wal-Mart for sub-living wages, no benefits and lousy conditions if we make it anything less than brutal to follow your bliss?
I would also point to the contradictory history of the publishing industry. On the one hand, it has historically been incredibly elitist, defining who has value and deserves to be heard. On the other hand, it has also exploited any trend that would make money, no matter how overdone or cliche, not to mention oppressive.
Bravo for Maum for defying the prescription for silent angst behind the smiling author photo, for telling the truths about competition and jealousy. I agree with her conclusion that these quests shape us, and can be profound opportunities for personal growth. Thinking about it from a labor perspective is important, as well. As an active member of my teaching union, I’m learning to think about how workers can be more united. Maum’s bold revelation is an opportunity for writers to strategize about how to fight isolation and competition. It inspires me keep building relationships with other authors where we fully invest in each other’s success, and can cheer for and cry with each other over the long haul.