“We have all known the long loneliness and
we have learned that the only solution is love and
that love comes with community.” — Dorothy Day
On last count, Rebecca Makkai’s Ploughshares column, “Writers You Want To Punch in the Face(book),” has been shared almost a dozen times on my Facebook newsfeed today. I have to wonder why. Are we really all that passive aggressive? Each time someone posted it, I couldn’t help but wonder who they were silently jabbing at. (I can guarantee they each had at least one person in mind when they hit “share”—otherwise why share it if they hadn’t seen it themselves?)
In the column, Makkai invents a hypothetical writer, Todd Manly-Krauss. Our dear Todd is described as a “good enough guy in real life,” but his Facebook presence is depicted as insufferable. He’s the guy who claims to be “so utterly humbled!” at everything, keeps count of the nonsense “best of” lists he’s made it onto, hashtags about how great his “writing life” is. He gives canned literary advice, brags about each page he’s written, namedrops the poets he’s hanging out with. I get it. Upon reading the article, at least one particular person on my newsfeed popped right into my head. I’m sure we all know our own version of Todd Manly-Krauss.
& don’t get me wrong—the column’s hilarious. The kind of person it’s poking fun at so needs to be poked. What’s been bugging me all day, though, are the kinds of conversations I’ve seen pop up in comment threads on it, conversations that bring up things that seem pretty counterproductive to the formation & sustenance of a literary community. The kinds of things “Todd Manly-Krauss” is doing in the article are terrible, annoying, awful. I agree. It’s self-aggrandizing & obnoxious. The problem is the fine line between self-aggrandizing & self-promoting. I’ve read tons of comment-criticism of the latter today—something that’s really bothering me.
We’re writers. Especially for those of us who are poets, very few people give two shits about what we do. Most of us can’t rely on the New York Times or Barnes & Noble to promote our work. Most of us don’t have agents who can worm our names into ad space. What’s left? Self-promotion—& taking a negative, bratty approach to that is dangerous for all of us.
Of course, there are tactful, non-irritating ways to self-promote, & some people do it really wrong. But in the grand scheme of things, sharing links to your work, sharing your big accomplishments (publishing in a good venue, releasing a new issue of your journal, getting into an MFA or Ph.D. program, getting a job) isn’t something we should have to worry about people being catty & passive-aggressive about. None of us want to have to second-guess whether people will be talking about us behind our backs because we celebrate something we’re proud of.
So many writers (especially in the poetry world) pay tons of lip service to this big idea of COMMUNITY. We want to expand our readership, we want editors of our work, we want to make drinking buddies & poem-a-day compatriots. We want to visit each other for readings & review each other’s books & send to each other’s journals. We want friends.
But so much of the behavior I see facilitates absolutely the opposite of community. Cliques form, rumors & drama start, people are blacklisted for absolutely asinine reasons—or for no reasons at all. The other day, I was having the conversation with a couple of friends about Facebook’s “algorithm” change, as we noticed that the “seen by” numbers on one of the publications we run had suddenly taken a steep dive. (If we paid to promote the posts, they shot back up, FWIW.) Roll your eyes at the “algorithm” discussion all you want—that’s fine—but I’ve had discussions with lots of other editors & they’ve noticed similar things. The numbers don’t lie.
If even our platform itself is working against us, don’t we owe it to one another to put in a little bit of work to make this whole “community” thing happen? Doesn’t that happen by supporting other writers in their accomplishments, not by ignoring them, passive aggressively attacking them, or flat-out belittling them?
As my friend Chelsea astutely noted, there’s sometimes a tone-deafness when it comes to Facebook writer interaction. I’m always confused by the number of people who can’t even go to the one-second trouble of clicking “like” on a publication by one of their colleagues, but then make 422 posts a week about every tiny writing-related thing they’ve done, expecting applause. Do the “likes” mean anything? Maybe not. They don’t have to mean, “Wow, I love this poem! It brought me to tears & I’m printing thirty copies right now!” or “Damn—it’s made my life significantly better that you’ve gotten into a Ph.D. program!” They can just mean, “Hey man, I know how hard it is to succeed in this world. Good on you for doing it.”
It mirrors what applies in the creative writing classroom. I had a reputation for being critical in the MFA workshop setting. Sure—I was critical, but I was also almost always the first person to speak up & totally gush about a poem I loved. I don’t feel threatened when someone else submits a good poem to workshop—it doesn’t make my poem any less good! It just means there are two good poems in the room that day. & isn’t that something we should all be celebrating—good poems?
The same goes for Facebook. It doesn’t take much to open someone’s link & read a poem he or she is proud of. It takes even less to click “like” or make a congratulatory comment, to metaphorically say, “Hey, I see your achievement in this tough, competitive world!” If we’re really a community, let’s engage like one. There’s this awesome quote by Dorothy Day—“We have all known the long loneliness & we have learned that the only solution is love & that love comes with community.” We’re ignored. Our families don’t get it, our non-writer friends don’t get it, the media doesn’t get it, the government doesn’t get it. But we get it. We need to stick together & stop ignoring one another out of petty jealousy or passive aggressiveness or selfishness or ego.
I’m egotistical. I’ll be the first person to admit that. I’m also a huge misanthrope. I think of this interview I read with (my some-other-phrase-for-spirit-animal-because-I-hate-the-phrase-spirit-animal) Mary Karr. She says straight-out, “I don’t like most people. I’m a little bit of a misanthrope,” & goes on to explain, “My natural reflex is that I’m being attacked. […] My sense of other people as the enemy is a constant threat to my being able to love them.”
I feel that so hard, & I bet lots of other writers do, too. This world is tiny. There are only a handful of poets in each issue of a journal. There are even less Ph.D. spots in each program. There are even less tenure-track jobs out there. There are only so many awards we can win, so many presses that can publish our books. Those things are finite, & they’re harder than hell to get.
But someone getting one is not a direct insult to the rest of us. It’s not a direct threat. It’s a sign that a member of our community is excelling. And if they can do it, why not us? Isn’t it more productive to be encouraged by our colleagues’, our drinking buddies’, our Facebook friends’ successes & moments of pride than to ignore them or cut them down?
“Ugh, that person got another poem picked up—I’m not going to click like on that!” or “My CV is better than that person’s; they shouldn’t have gotten that job—I’m not going to say congratulations!” don’t build community. They build resentment & isolation.
Guys, we’re all on Writer Island together. Let’s stop chopping it into smaller islands before we whittle ourselves into the sea.