5 Ways To Be a Good Literary Citizen

A term I’ve heard with increasing frequency is “literary citizen.” It is usually spoken of along with an admonition to be a good one. But how exactly are we supposed to be good literary citizens, and why should we try? Writing is often thought of as a solitary occupation, and it’s true we writers spend a lot of time alone. However, we write so people can read our writing—a writer is inherently part of a group. Yet even in graduate school, surrounded by other emerging writers, I didn’t think of myself as part of a literary community. Of course, community meant something different in the pre-social-networking nineties, but the idea that I was a writer within a larger writing community didn’t dawn on me until I was well established in New York. But if you’re writing, you’re a literary citizen, so you should make the society a nicer place to live. GIVEAWAY: Allison is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rmonk won.)
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A term I’ve heard with increasing frequency is “literary citizen.” It is usually spoken of along with an admonition to be a good one. But how exactly are we supposed to be good literary citizens, and why should we try?

Writing is often thought of as a solitary occupation, and it’s true we writers spend a lot of time alone. However, we write so people can read our writing—a writer is inherently part of a group. Yet even in graduate school, surrounded by other emerging writers, I didn’t think of myself as part of a literary community. Of course, community meant something different in the pre-social-networking nineties, but the idea that I was a writer within a larger writing community didn’t dawn on me until I was well established in New York. But if you’re writing, you’re a literary citizen, so you should make the society a nicer place to live.

GIVEAWAY: Allison is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rmonk won.)

allison-amend-author-writer
a-nearly-perfect-copy-book-cover

Column by Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and
author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection
Things That Pass for Love as well as the novel Stations West, which was a
finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma
Book Award. Her new novel, A NEARLY PERFECT COPY (April 2013, Nan A.
Talese/Doubleday). In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said of the book,
"Amend makes her characters immediately real, depicting their complicated
desires and decisions in a highly enjoyable, nearly perfect novel." Allison lives
in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College and
for the Red Earth MFA program. Find her on Facebook or on Twitter.

Here are some five ways, and reasons, to be a good literary citizen:

1. Say yes, unless you mean no.

I was recently gathering blurbs for my new novel, and who agreed to read and comment on it? A single parent, a writer under deadline, and someone I admire whom I’d never met. They could have easily have claimed they were too busy (because they were too busy) but instead they made time. A few said no, but right away, and with believable regret, promising to praise my book by word of mouth. Knowing how difficult it is to ask for blurbs, which are, let’s face it, a few hours of unpaid labor, I plan to always say yes to those who ask. Of course, I’ve only been asked three times, so this policy may have to change, but then I plan on being among those who say no with believable regret, and then I will praise the book by word of mouth. This also applies to reading your friends’ work in progress, giving them feedback, and perhaps suggesting an appropriate outlet for publication. If you can possibly do it, do it; if you can’t, don’t promise to and renege. Someone will do the same for you.

(How to Sell Pieces to Magazines and Newspapers.)

2. Put your money where your mouth is, or your mouth where your money would be.

If we want there to be outlets for literary fiction, we need to buy the magazines and support the publishers we beg to accept our work. I will admit that there have been times in my life when the cost of a new book seemed prohibitive, but if you can gather the $26.95, it’s one of the best things you can do for your future career (and the career of the person whose book you bought). If such a thing still exists in your neighborhood, buy books from an independent bookstore (you can find the closest one here) or at Powells. Or subscribe to your favorite literary journal.

If you’re a teacher, consider using journals in your class instead of or in addition to textbooks or anthologies. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has a great program where journals adopted for class use are sold at half price to students, and are free for their instructors.

In my family, we’ve started a holiday tradition where everyone buys one hardcover book to give to someone else. We read the book and pass it among ourselves. Thus, we have something to do during family vacations (instead of argue), we have someone to discuss the book with, and we don’t have to worry about what to get each other (because who needs another scarf?).

There are other ways to support the book industry even if you’re flat broke. Recommend books on your Twitter or Facebook feed (or whatever the next social networking trend is). Read library books in public so people can see the covers. Become the person people ask for book club recommendations. Go to readings--it’s supportive to be in the audience, asking questions. A few years ago a well-known literary writer whom I’d met once at a conference braved a snowstorm to come hear me read in Newton, Massachusetts. I was (am) incredibly touched.

3. Flattery will get you everywhere.

When you read something you like, contact that person and tell him or her you liked it, especially emerging writers. Remember when the first stranger said she liked your story? Be that person for someone else. If you can’t find the writer online, editors and publishers will usually pass along compliments. Even established writers like to hear from intelligent, thoughtful colleagues.

4. Establish your own literary community.

One of the most important things my graduate program emphasized was finding the readers who will be with you your whole life. It took a bit of searching, but now I have two or three people who understand what I’m trying to accomplish and will drop nearly everything to read the drafts I send them. These days, children and careers sometimes get in the way, but I know that as soon as is humanly possible they will give me honest and constructive feedback.

A few friends and I created a literary sorority. Though we’re scattered all over the country, we support each other virtually. Once a year we get together to remind ourselves that someone is rooting for us and excited about our work.

(Should you mention self-published books when querying an agent?)

5. Rejoice in others' successes.

This one can be challenging for those of us who are prone to a bit of envy. But I try to remember that every best-selling literary novel means that more people are likely to read. More people are likely to go into a bookstore to get that novel, and therefore find mine nearby. More people will seek out that author’s other work, and find my story alongside theirs in a literary journal. There is not a finite number of successful writers—someone else’s success is likely to make yours more probable, not less, especially if it’s someone you know, who might nominate you for a prize, or introduce you to her agent.

If you are that successful author (good for you. I’m really happy for you. Really I am) think about who you can boost along with you on your way up. If Jack had brought someone else up the beanstalk perhaps they both could have sold the movie rights.

GIVEAWAY: Allison is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rmonk won.)

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