In the latest issue of Poets & Writers, Steve Almond contends that young writers have a Problem of Entitlement (he claims it’s “A Question of Respect”), and despite the title of his article, I was intrigued enough to give it a read. I probably should have known better, but having spent a semester in one of Poets & Writers‘ top 50 MFA programs, I saw a sample of today’s up and coming writers firsthand and was curious how much Almond’s experience echoed what I found at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
I have an incredible affection for every poet and fiction writer I had the pleasure of interacting with at SIUC, whether they left the program early (as I did), completed their MFA, or are still hard at work in Carbondale on some of the most brilliant fiction and poetry I’ve seen coming out of our generation. Our poets were mostly humble, aware of the fact that it’s a very rare poet indeed that is able to make a living off of their work, and our fiction writers were aware that they would likely have a marginally better time finding employment as a writer than the poets would. I saw little resembling entitlement.
What Almond perceives as some kind of active disrespect is actually an unwillingness to grant a default level of prestige to a writer who has been vetted by a system that, quite frankly, is falling apart.
Despite this, I have seen and heard of a kind of entitlement that pervades much of academia and the writing world, but it isn’t the one Almond claims is the problem. It’s the false high-art/low-art dichotomy taking the form of either literature/genre or poetry/spoken word, depending on what flavor of writer you are. It’s an elitist, ivory tower notion that serves as the backbone of an argument that I don’t believe Almond was aware he was making, that publication through traditional avenues in and of itself indicates that a piece of media is deserving of respect.
What Almond perceives as some kind of active disrespect is actually an unwillingness to grant a default level of prestige to a writer who has been vetted by a system that, quite frankly, is falling apart. The idea that a writer is somehow innately deserving of respect because they were fortunate enough to have an editor read their manuscript after a good meal on a good day or because just the right judge read their contest poem is simply preposterous, and oftentimes those are the kinds of things that get people their early publications: dumb luck and networking.
If good creative work is being produced and delivered to the masses despite circumventing well-established gatekeepers, how much can we trust the quality of what those gatekeepers have let in previously?
Most of us are not dumb enough to think that this situation is something new, either. Publishing through traditional avenues always has been and always will be an incredibly unpredictable game of chance that only gets easier once you’ve won a few times. Now we are simply fortunate enough that some voices that likely would have gone unpublished and unpromoted are able to find audiences thanks to the Internet, now that self-publishing and DIY is becoming a far more viable route, with poets like Neil Hilborn able to pull in over 8 million views on a single poem and release an album of poetry on Bandcamp.
He is one of many, and this kind of success poses a very important question: if good creative work is being produced and delivered to the masses despite circumventing well-established gatekeepers, how much can we trust the quality of what those gatekeepers have let in previously? If mainstream publishers aren’t publishing all of the best work from the best writers, how one can assume a publication credit is automatically worthy of respect?
I guess what I’m saying is that Almond’s title is right, but it’s aimed in the wrong direction. The true entitlement problem is rooted in the belief that publication makes a writer entitled to respect, which feels too much like an argument from authority for me to give it any credence at all. I shouldn’t be surprised, though; Almond climbed his way up the literary ladder the traditional way before briefly self publishing, why would he believe such a system is flawed?
We’re all just entitled kids who refuse to believe that the publishing world’s house of cards isn’t about to fall to the ground.