Literary Commerce

I was reviewing a thick semi-monthly called Poets & Writers, which, among a few other things, catalogs all the writer resources, workshops, programs, seminars, retreats, and contests it can find during the next few months. It’s also chock full of ads for same.

(To put things in perspective, if the associated application forms, brochures, ads, and resources were all placed a 300-gallon Vita-Mix blender with a hogshead of mulled wine and fifteen gallons of Elmer’s Glue-All, and blended for at least five minutes on High, the resulting mulch could make an imposing papier mâché statue of Mark Twain. The rest is unclear.)

What sprang to my notice was that virtually everything in this vast compendium of writer stuff was aimed at either obtaining credentials (largely MFA degrees) or practicing (or just sitting and listening) in the proximity of successful authors. The obvious consensus is that ‘successful’ means commercially successful, although in fairness, successful poets are merely published—nobody actually buys poetry. But there are prizes! Innumerable cash prizes. So even though you can’t sell a poem, you can win with a poem, and if you win often enough, you could probably afford to buy books by successful writers in other genres (fiction or non-fiction).

I wondered, briefly, why so many readers of this magazine would need masters’ degrees in writing, since, presumably, they already are writing things, but it appears that an MFA after your name means you can become a teacher of writing, and therefore, at least in some ancillary sense, successful. Once you are published, of course, the MFA becomes less critical, but having achieved both is thought to optimize your chances of landing a plum teaching position. The others—those with degrees but unpublished, and those who have been published but lack a degree—still have a handsome spectrum of opportunities in workshops, programs, seminars, retreats, contests, and as editors or screeners for workshops, programs, seminars, retreats, and contests.

But the most exciting discovery of all was that—although seldom mentioned in their ads or classifieds—the myriad contests almost all require a Nominal Submission Fee. A few quick calculations revealed an important mercantile dimension in the business of writing. If a little journal (let’s say, Dunderhead, which might be published quarterly to keep costs down) has a readership of, say, 1,000 people (which is optimistic), and sells subscriptions for a plausible $24, it will gross $24,000 a year. Allowing for production costs, promotion, website maintenance, etc., very little of that might be available for the publisher, assuming she has no employees. With one employee, of course, Dunderhead would immediately be running deep into the red.

Now consider Dunderhead’s annual literary prize. If half the readership (500), combined with about 10% of the circulation of Poets & Writers, were to enter the contest (4,000 in all) with a Nominal Submission Fee of $25, the Dunderhead folks would gross another $100,000! That ain’t hay. One quarter of the entry fees would easily pay for an employee who could launch a vigorous campaign to attract even more entries. The American Dream begins to emerge.

These numbers aren’t realistic, of course, but they do show how lucrative these contests can be, especially if the award comes from a publication or institution with significant visibility. Writers abound, especially starving and/or unpublished ones. Sadly, this is true of most of the arts, and there’s always some comparable mercantile operation skillfully mining the meager resources of the starving ones.

But the lure of big bucks has obscured my point. What I find disturbing about this proliferation of programs and schools and business opportunities is that they are all about writing. Only the retreats & fellowships (whose enrollment is either expensive or sparse) actually involve doing writing. If I were a writer (some say I am, but the jury is still out), I could spend the rest of my life attending lectures, getting degrees, reading books of criticism, analyzing plot structure, fawning at the feet of literary luminaries, and outfitting my attic with the latest LED lighting and top-rated writing software. Oh, and I’ll need a new computer and color laserjet.

It reminds me of my painter friend who is still setting up her studio. She’s been at it for several years, and it’s almost perfect—an inspiration for, well, studio designers. But she’s almost ready, and any year now she plans to begin painting again, really painting, serious hard-core actual painting.

It’s hard enough to sit down and write. Reading about a thousand “opportunities” to get better at my craft, or get awarded for my craft, or commune with fellow craftspeople, or hobnob with masters of my craft, affords me a succulent quagmire of tempting alternatives. I suspect, perhaps with undue cynicism, that if the writers applying to all these programs spent the same amount of time writing that they spend filling out forms, surveying institutions, and reading up on visiting lecturers, they might write something wonderful.

Of course they might not, but at least they’d have more time to write.

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