Friday, September 30, 2016

The Myth of Democratic Content

Like figure skating, writing fiction seems effortless at first glance. I, too, once believed in this optical illusion. Since then, I've come to realize why it appears that way. Practice. Constant practice. But like good athletes or musicians, some God-given skills and talents arrive fully formed and could never be taught. In ten years, I've become a very competent short essayist and op/ed writer, but despite constant revision, self-scrutiny, and a very necessary hint of OCD, my short stories need additional seasoning. 

I've had to accept that I need to continue to hone my craft. I know I can't make any further progress by myself. If that were the case, twenty revisions would have been quite enough. This is not an uncommon problem. Once upon a time, writers consulted editors to make substantial changes in a written draft. Now these professionals are called "writing consultants", a catch-all, but mostly meaningless term that makes me laugh. Everyone's a consultant for something these days, and the term is meant to emphasize the importance of the specialized labor performed. 

As I said, there is no shame in consulting a writing specialist. Some writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald being the first that comes to mind, required constant guidance from an editor. The Great Gatsby would have been a much lesser work without it, and would likely not be taught extensively in high school English classes as a result. Think what you will about Fitzgerald and his inherent abilities with the written word. If a raging alcoholic with a high-maintenance and self-destructive wife can make his way into the Great American Bookcase, many more can. 

I'll reveal another optical illusion, another romantic fantasy. Very few writers can emerge from obscurity to produce a note perfect work of singular symmetry and beauty. This is why screenwriters have utilized this premise very successfully over the years. It is a rare creature who can write acceptable and even superlative work on lunch hours or stolen moments on weekends. Publishing even a short story, as I have learned, requires money up front to win an audience. 

Let's use an example. I produce a short story draft that has promise, but needs lots of work. I pay a writing consultant to examine it, and he or she takes three hours to provide an detailed critique. At $85 an hour, that ain’t cheap. 

Let's say I work on the same story for six months. After sending it around to seven separate publications, a literary journal agrees to publish it. However, like most literary journals, it provides no monetary compensation whatsoever. They retain publication rights. I have the right to add this effort to my writing CV, but now it is time to think up a new work. Now the process resets and begins again.

Writing contests do exist, but they, like most contests, are immensely competitive and highly subjective. Some offer prizes of $500 to $5000 to winning entries, but a $500 prize only recoups the money already put into it. As you can see, writing is not an egalitarian exercise. It is, in fact, a very elite and exclusive one. It requires the capital to fit the parameters that publications desire. And those desires are often vastly different from each other, or they are nit-picking to an annoying degree. In addition, few people have the time to devote to writing full-time, which further complicates the situation and often eliminates writers without financial means.
If one wishes, one can hire other consultants to show how to utilize social media and the Internet to publicize a person's work. Over time, as the technology has developed, I've become fairly competent at this aspect. Many people reading these words now have at least an understanding of the multiple platforms for self-promotion. Those will no doubt change considerably over the years and have already changed in the last five to ten years.

We live in a time caught between epochs. We span the gap between an electronic publication world and an old-style print medium. Writers in these days have to tip their hat to both of them, and find some way to grab attention amidst the other distractions. Writers need hands-on advocates more than writing workshops and meet-and-greets. And they also need money up front, much like putting an investment forward in order to reap the benefits to follow later. Few of us have that luxury, and unless changes are made, publication will be predominantly white, middle-class, and well-educated. 

That's fine for some, but alienating for others. If we are looking for a reason why the voices and written words of minorities are not appreciated more frequently, here is one of them. Though I am white and middle-class, I was raised in Alabama, not Boston or Philadelphia or Los Angeles. As a bookish child, I found similar themes and motifs repeated over and over again. Most novels and stories I read were not set in the American South of my upbringing. Many had their onus in New York City, the Northeast corridor, or California.

True Southern literature was birthed as a reaction to dismissive attitudes from elsewhere, alongside charges of banality and sub-standard quality. The books of my native region often focused on small town attitudes, an attitude of defiance. The world they described was almost fully fifty years out of date, if it had ever existed that way in the first place.  

Writing is a nice dream to entertain, but success in the medium goes beyond the Protestant work ethic, far beyond the American Dream. Toil and sweat and talent are simply not enough. I know that it may be a while longer before I win any sort of greater recognition. Until then, I have a few honorary mentions to my name, some magazine articles that bear my byline, and the attention of those who follow my online writings.

Contrary to how it might seem, there is not yet any such thing as the Democratization of Content. And there may never be. Anyone can scribble banalities on a website or a Twitter feed, but real success comes with assistance and relative wealth.

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