What is a Literary Citizen?
In recent weeks and months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of Literary Citizenship. To me, literary citizenship is the collection of actions one takes, to support writing and writers in your local area.
In some small way, it is like being a patron of the visual or musical or dramatic arts, by getting season tickets or a membership to a museum.
Actual patronage in the old days was something quite different. Think de Medici. Or the Pope in Michelangelo’s day. Or the indifferent Habsburg Emperor Josef II in the movie Amadeus. Those patrons had lots of resources to spread around and spent lavishly on the arts, as the crown jewels of their respective empires.
Amadeus is one of my favorite films. Perhaps I hold it in special regard because I first saw it with German dubbing in Wuerzburg, West Germany. Austrian German was the language of Mozart, so it felt more authentic to hear the dialog in German, rather than the English. I love the character of the Emperor, Mozart’s patron, who in the movie had a tin ear. To Mozart’s exasperation, he kept demanding that Mozart use fewer notes.
Apparently, the old system of patronage fell apart at some point. Resources concentrated instead in the hands of businessmen and industrialists, as well as private men and women of inherited wealth. These families and individuals still donate today, or at least appear to, according to the credits of my local public television station. But, as usual, lesser-known authors and artists receive little or no monetary attention.
The system of patronage apparently had other drawbacks, since help could be offered too late, or withdrawn at will. I found this quote on the subject, in a response to a question about the origins of the word “patronize.” It is attributed to Samuel Johnson in a letter to Lord Chesterfield, who was apparently offering his patronage, but a bit too late.
The old system of patronage is where the concept of being “patronized” comes from. We say we are being patronized, when we feel someone is looking down on us in a condescending way, with an element of insincere interest or false kindness. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5th Edition.)
When someone patronizes us, we often feel like we were being judged as a lesser being. A patron, of course, stands higher on the social and monetary ladder than the artist on whom he bestows his largesse. Patronizing words imply that we are incapable of living (or pursuing our craft) without such unsolicited advice. Perhaps this reflects the intrusiveness of patrons of the past, who meddled in the work of artists to an intolerable degree.
We are very much in love these days, with the idea of the free and independent -–if starving—artist. Our ideal is that the person does not follow the dictates or whims of anyone, just because they are paying his wages. This type of behavior could get you fired in any other line of work. And while some artists may get free reign and still find enough support to meet their daily needs, it is a rarity. Most artists must supplement their artistic pursuits with jobs. It is rare for any artist, much less an author, to be able to live off their art alone.
What Can We Do To Become Better Literary Citizens?
This is where it falls to all of us, to do our part, I suppose. My use of “I suppose” expresses my all-too-human reluctance, to do anything more than is absolutely necessary.
It is hard to support others, in the endeavor you pursue yourself. It tends to feel too much like competition. But unless you do, you remain an outsider in that world. A world, which may be vibrant and active and motivating and full of useful connections. And is sure to be all the more so, now that you take part in it.
If you fail to connect, you cannot really hope to receive support from those you know only tangentially. You’re either all-in, or you’re not. There is a punishment of sorts, a reckoning, for being faithless to those strangers who could have been your friends.
These are hard lessons I am learning as I wake up from my long literary slumber. My slumber was comprised of three exhausting decades, spent instead, practicing the humble arts of parenting and homeschooling.
Literary Citizenship is how mere mortals of average means can help lift up an artistic pursuit, that otherwise receives very little help or funding, from government or society in general. If you would like the literary arts to continue, and not only continue but flourish, you must be a participant as well as a creator.
I’m not sure where I first heard the term Literary Citizen. I know local Jacksonville writer Darlyn Finch Kuhn mentioned the concept, if not by name, at least by reference. At a recent talk at an FWA (Florida Writers Association) meeting on the subject of marketing your book, she and her husband Brad Kuhn—also a writer—said that writers have a duty to support one another.
These suggestions might seem a little overwhelming, to writers who remain true to the stereotype of the quiet and antisocial loner. But think how much fun those isolated individuals can have, when they get together!
Darlyn Kuhn’s list reminds me of when I first entered the blogosphere in 2015. I was a homeschool mom with two boys in middle to high school and we attended a great weekly homeschool co-op. That year, I had decided to try something related to my undergraduate degree (English, in case you hadn’t guessed.) I co-taught an hour-long journalism class once a week with another woman, who actually did have a background in journalism.
Since the kids would be writing stories for this publication, I decided we ought to get a website up and running. With much help from my technically-inclined youngest son, we set up a WordPress site and the rest is history.
As I managed the site over time and started exploring feeds like the Reader portal on WordPress, I began regarding the blogging world as at least mildly incestuous. It seemed that, for those who were successful at it—and I don’t count myself among them, by any means—it was very much an “I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine” kind of world.
If you were raised in a certain way, as I was, you tend to view dependence on other people as suspect. It is to be avoided at all costs. The preferred way is to trudge the road alone, no matter how long it might take. I found myself recoiling a bit at the convivial and mutually gratifying nature of follows, reviews, mentions, re-blogs. This was, of course, before social media really took hold in my age group.
Having friends and being social in real life is one thing. But reaching out to be friends with strangers you’ve never even seen, based on a common interest? That seemed to me, too much like trusting someone to catch you, as you allow yourself to freely fall backward. Some of us are a little short on that kind of trust.
But that is how networks work. (See historian Niall Ferguson’s book on networks if you want a primer on how networks actually work.) A network of writers is no different. It’s true, you may not be able to make any money as a writer, if you rely exclusively on the community of fellow writers to buy your books and read your work.
But they have friends. And they have friends. And so on. And so on, as the Faberge shampoo commercial from the seventies reminds us.
Sometimes we just have to get over ourselves and do the right thing. The thing we know is in our best interest, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Even if we’re shy. Or proud. Or afraid to expose our secret predilection to write.
Given a choice, I would naturally tend to just keep to myself. Instead, I need to get out there in the wider world, even if it is a world full of competitors for the very prize I covet.
The need to change myself, in order to be more myself, reminds me of working as a lawyer. You can’t be a lawyer and not speak up, when it’s your turn. You need to butt in on other people’s sentences. You need to dress up in suits and pantyhose, even when a t-shirt and jeans would be much more comfortable.
I did change myself to fit that job, back then. But it didn’t feel like “me.” This is the same feeling I get, when asked to wax social, for the sake of other writers.
Assuming I find it possible to get past my natural inclination to crawl under a rock and hide, what do I plan to do, to earn my citizenship in the literary world? Is there a citizenship test I must pass, whereby I prove my knowledge of the history, the geography, and the common truths held self-evident by the group?
I decided to join the Florida Writers Association and attend a few of their events. One was the marketing talk I mentioned above. The other was a small gathering in a library meeting room in Ponte Vedra. The local author Sohrab Homi Fracis, whose personal and geographical history and outlook are anything but typically local, was reading from his new book of short stories, True Fiction.
The reading had just enough of his own words, spoken in his own voice, to give you a feel for his style of writing. Instead of reading one story in its entirety, he read the first page of each story, and discussed them as he went. I liked this technique. It whetted your appetite. I was also impressed by his skills in reading slowly, with feeling and with appropriate inflection. At the end, there was plenty of time for Q & A and a chance to obtain a signed copy of the book.
I had not been to a reading in quite a while. I want to say my last one was a Daniel Boorstin lecture on his book The Discoverers, back in the early nineties in Fort Lauderdale.
Scratch that. I have been to the JaxbyJax Festival since then. I was especially pleased to hear Tim Gilmore, a local author of history and architecture and the supernatural, read from his book Channeling Anna Fletcher, a few years back, before COVID. I follow his blog, JaxPsychoGeo, with religious fervor. He is an initial founder of JaxbyJax, as well.
Fracis shared a number of insights about working with a university press. He won the Iowa Prize for his first Short Story collection, called Ticket to Minto, Stories of India and America. He also told us about his experience, working with a German translator. The author encouraged us in our writing but reminded us that excellence, by itself, is no assurance of financial comfort in the literary world. He shared that he had been told by a New York City agent that publishing was not a meritocracy.
I have read most of True Fiction now, a week later. I found the experience something like going to the ice cream store and asking for a scoop of each flavor. Some stories are so spare as to be experimental. Some feel like walking down a sunny sidewalk and people watching. The last story is full of epic grandeur. In his first story, the mention of local streets and bygone institutions, such as Cozy Tea in Five Points, made me smile with recognition and nostalgia. I look forward to reading more.
In the past few years, my time has been filled with the duties of watching kids and ferrying them back and forth. I always seemed to find an excuse, not to attend to literary things. Much as I frequently found an excuse not to write.
My ambivalence about jumping into this pool may stem from the fact that I was brought up in a strange blender of viewpoints. My mother felt toward the arts as she did toward the air that she breathed. My father was more practical, a man of the earth. He focused on real things. He looked with scorn and suspicion on people he thought were putting on airs. Often, that included artists.
No pretense could evade his stinging wit. Under those prickly and unpredictable conditions, it was best to keep my writing to myself. It would either not live up to what my mother regarded as “Art,” or it would be lampooned to death by my father.
Now that I am freed of both childrearing obligations and parental oversight, I feel “the call” to get involved. In homeschooling, especially among the more religious types, they used to call it “discernment.” Knowing, the right thing to do, ostensibly, because God has “told” you.
Having come rather late to the game of serious writing, I always thought I was better off, using every moment I had, to put pen to paper. But if you do anything a hundred percent, you are bound to burn out. Life is about variety. Variety feeds the soul. Hearing different voices, doing different things, being valuable in different ways: all of these grow our network, our self-esteem, and our desire to participate.
The beauty of putting yourself out there, even if you are just a bit player in a much bigger show, is that people see you and come to trust you. And they will likely show you the same courtesy of time and attention and energy, when and if it ever comes your turn, to be in the spotlight.
For a few verses on this topic, to the tune of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, “Modern Major General” read my parody-poem, The Very Model. For another community I belong to, the WordPress community, read Fifteen Candles.
Copyright 2023 Andrea LeDew