There was a great post yesterday on Wet Asphalt by J.F. Quackenbush, a former Rattle contributor, about the latest pox on literature, which he calls Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome (WaLS). Symptoms include valuing the artist over the art, referring to all publishers as “markets,” and seeing publication as the only means of legitimization.
Wet Asphalt has always been one of my favorite literary blogs, even though they tend to talk more about SF than poetry, because of the curmudgeonly way they present cold hard truths, both entertainingly and honestly, and yesterday’s post is no exception. WaLS has been spreading across the writing community for decades, and can be seen most acutely anywhere academics congregate — MFA programs and AWP conferences — maybe it’s all those shaking hands.
I’ve written about it before, without knowing the proper diagnosis, and first encountered its most virulent strain a few years ago, at a small conference put on by PEN West. There were scantly attended panels and readings throughout the day, featuring some great poets no one seemed to care about. Later that afternoon I was on a panel about how to get your poetry published, and suddenly it was standing-room-only — people were piling up on the floor, hanging from the heating ducts, and leaning in through the open windows — all in search of the secret to being published. I have no idea where they came from, but I was surrounded. I kept saying things like, if you want to be published, write good poems, you know, read a lot, and learn what poetry can do… Then they’d raise their hands and ask another question about how to format their cover letter. Should they staple their poems together or use a paperclip?
It’s everywhere you go. People care more about publishing than they care about poetry. Every editor says the same thing — just look at the numbers. 10,000 annual submitters, to a magazine with a press run of less than 5,000. Obviously they aren’t all reading us. It’s particularly apparent when we receive fiction submissions — you’re telling me you can’t even bother to read the subtitle?
Quackenbush can only speculate about where the disease came from, suggesting that “it originated from wonkish industry watcher types interbreeding with the sorts of poseurs and dilettante’s that are to be found in and around the fringes of all creative endeavors.” While this is probably true, I think we can get a little more specific. One of the main symptoms is the use of the word “market,” which can easily be traced back to the Writer’s Market, the annual resource book for writers that’s been publishing continuously since 1921. As Quackenbush points out, calling magazines a “market” doesn’t even make sense — while the magazines might be “buyers” of your writing, they’re not places where writing is bought and sold — but the Writer’s Market is. As a collection of consumers, a kind of literary yellow pages, it’s named appropriately. So it’s likely that the word “market” mutated for the WaLS-afflicted from this source.
What’s more, having a book like the Writer’s Market, as it was originally intended, makes sense. The book listed paying markets for freelance writers trying to make a living — if you write an article on new trends in seafood recipes, it’s nice to be able to find a magazine that might want to buy it. The problem is, Writer’s Market saw there was a niche for this kind of thing, and split it into nine different books, including Poet’s Market. But poetry isn’t a career, it’s a fine art — no one’s ever been able to make a living selling poems. If you became the staff poet of The New Yorker, and they published nothing but your two poems in every issue, you’d still qualify for food stamps (your annual salary would be about $15,000, I think).
So there’s this reward-based infrastructures set up, with no reward to give. People think, I want to be a writer, and this is what writers do, they go to the library and write down addresses from the Writer’s Market, and they send in their submissions and wait for a response. Stripped of its original reward, the publication itself becomes the reward, and the WaLS-afflicted poets are able to continue the ritual.
This is what it really is: Fetishism. In every sense of the word. A whole subset of writers today have fetishized publication — they’ve ascribed value to an object where no such value inherently exists. As with a sexual fetish, they receive gratification from the artificial object as a replacement for the gratification that normally comes directly from the sex. By pursuing publication, they become writers by proxy. That’s why it doesn’t matter how obscure a publication credit is — it doesn’t matter if no one ever reads the magazine, as long as you can list it on your resume. Think about it. If what really mattered for a poet was just the audience, there would be no need for Poet’s Market at all — no one would care about publishing in magazines they’ve never heard of, because the unheard-of magazines have no relevant audience. Poets would only send poems to magazines they like to read, in hopes of providing enjoyment to others with similar tastes.
Once you see WaLS for what it is, not so much a disease as a fetish, it becomes harder to get so worked up about it. A sexual fetish is only considered a disorder when it causes psychological or physical discomfort for the person afflicted. People all over the world simply embrace their fetishes, and moreover, find happiness and fulfillment in their lives because of them. Do I really care if some guy happens to have a shoe fetish, and a whole closet full of hooker boots, if it makes him happy? No, not at all. And besides, aren’t I just a shoe saleman, in the end? Don’t I do more business because of him?
Of course the writing would be better if they payed as much attention to crafting poems as they did cover letters, but at least they’re writing.