If you’re associated with a creative writing program in a college, if you read journals related to creative writing, if you have a lot of Facebook friends who are writers, or if you try to keep up with what’s happening in the world of creative writing, you’ve likely heard the phrase “literary citizenship.” It’s been around for a while, but over the past couple of years has become part of the lexicon. It has become so popular, in fact, that there is already a backlash against the concept and/or the practice of being a good literary citizen.
But first things first. What do literary citizens do? Here are a few answers from articles on literary websites:
“Literary citizens work to create a world in which literature can thrive and is valued.” — LiteraryCitizenship.com
“Literary citizens work to nourish, cultivate, and engage with a community that values and supports the arts.” — Renegade Writers Vermont
“…anyone is a potential literary citizen, and [ ] everyone who takes on the mantle of said citizenship should be interested in making sure excellent books of every kind continue to be available.” — BeyondTheMargins.com
You probably already practice being a good literary citizen, to use the parlance, but if you’re looking for ways to be more involved, think about the basics: literary citizens support writers and readers. You can start by subscribing to a literary journal or mentioning a book you love in your Facebook status. Attend a poetry reading and let the writer know you enjoyed his/her work.
More ambitious projects: start a blog where you publish your own book reviews; be the catalyst for a cash mob at your local bookstore(see part II); join a book club or start a writing group.
On a local level, you can support your town library and make sure they can afford to buy new books. And be a book activist – talk about reading, give your friends books for their birthdays, read to local school children or at senior care facilities or hospitals…
Those are practical suggestions – things you can do. There are also ways to reflect on or consider aspects of literary citizenship. If you’re a writer – particularly a writer who wants to publish your work in literary journals – are you subscribing to those journals? If you’d like to sell your book(s), are you buying books? If you are buying books, where are you purchasing them? There’s a difference between supporting an independent bookstore, shopping at a large chain, or ordering books through Amazon.
As a literary citizen, you will find ways of participating in the network of readers, writers, publishers, literary journals, libraries, and booksellers. You’ll seek a balance between what you want out of the literary world and what you can contribute to that world.
Austin Kleon (Show Your Work) writes: “If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector. . .If you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice.
I teach at a state college, and recently created a course in Literary Citizenship. Undergraduates visited an independent bookstore to learn how it works, how it competes with chain stores and Amazon, and to hear what the challenges are in keeping a small business not only afloat but vibrant. They were surprised to hear that they, as aspiring writers, could make an impression on a bookstore owner by introducing themselves or writing a personal note. They learned that they could order ebooks through Kobo and they learned about IndieBound.
Later in the semester, the students publicized an event to support the bookstore. Called a cash mob, it was simple in design and effective in its mission. For a cash mob, community members meet at a small business with the sole intent of spending a little money to support that business. We set aside two hours on a weekday for students, faculty, and community members to visit the bookstore and buy a book or two. (Students who were short on cash bought a magazine, a notebook, or even a postcard.) For the duration of the cash mob, there was a steady line to pay for purchases. While waiting, patrons mingled, laughed, shared book recommendations and reveled in an atmosphere that supported writers, readers and our treasured local bookstore.
Also as part of the class, students wrote several book reviews over the course of the semester and published them to a website they created. They organized poetry readings and other writing-related activities. They created book-related or writing-related blogs. They practiced writing cover letters to literary journals, which they first researched thoroughly to see which might be “good fits” for their own work. Rather than just attempting to find out how those literary journals might benefit them, however, they wrote summaries of their research and published them as recommendations for other students to peruse.
Here’s what we all learned over the course of the semester: literary citizenship, for most of us, is an extension of our everyday lives. We already are promoters of writing and books, we already buy books, we already let other writers know that we admire their work. But I think everyone became more aware of how we can extend our reach and, perhaps, our influence. If we can afford it, we can subscribe to another literary journal. If we have access to an independent bookstore, we can shop there instead of clicking on Amazon. We can further educate ourselves about the scope of the literary world and realize that we can be more active participants in that world.
Literary citizenship means we recognize our own agency and, perhaps, our own responsibility. It asks that we look outward at what we can give rather than merely wondering what we can get from this world. (Can I get a poem accepted by this lit journal, can I get an agent, can I get my book published, can I get reviewed….) Those are not unreasonable desires; however literary citizenship encourages us all to consider, as Kleon suggested, that reciprocity and generosity are of great value.
As for criticism, even backlash, some have suggested that literary citizenship is just another way that writers are taken advantage of by the publishing industry. If writers are now “expected,” for instance, to promote one another’s work by writing book reviews for which they are likely underpaid or not paid at all, isn’t that detrimental rather than beneficial? The more time we spend promoting others, the argument goes, the less time we have to work on our own writing.
Other critics claim that literary citizenship is just a hypocritical and crass way of promoting your own work and/or your own agenda. The writer Stephanie Vanderslice addresses this misconception when she says that literary citizenship is “about completely saturating yourself in the literary culture—and then curating and promoting the work that interests you, so that other people will find it and care about it as much as you do.”
These critiques are worth contemplating. For now, for me, literary citizenship is not a trend, it’s a choice… It’s pretty simple: Share what you love. Be a part of things. Do what you can.
Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems. Her essay chapbook, Elements, was released in 2013 by Sweet Publications.