Report from the Field: Struggling with Creative Nepotism

April 8, 2016 | by Dallas Athent | 20 | Tagged: , , , , ,

I’m sitting with my friend Ronna Lebo at a cafe. We’re talking about Boni Joi, a close friend of Ronna’s and a new friend of mine. Boni is also an accomplished poet.

I’m telling Ronna, “The thing that got to me about Boni’s work is her ability to electrify inanimate objects.” Ronna and I agree our work is more similar in the way that we both aim to describe humanity and the meaning of life through characters, but we both deeply admire how Boni’s able to do this by juxtaposing people to the things around them. They are two, very different poets, but both of these women have inspired me, and I’m able to tell them specifically why.

~~~~

I’m taking a break at work and submitting to literary journals. Half of them ask for bios detailing my background, but what it seems they really want to know is, does this girl have credentials? I wonder how much bragging I have to do and if it even matters. Do I tell them how many books I’ve sold? How often I get requests for new orders from stores? I decide to leave the metrics out and stick with the basics. If they like the work, it will speak for itself. A month later, I log in to Submittable to find more than half of my submissions haven’t been opened. Perhaps I should have filled in that bio after all.

~~~~

I’m doing a reading at a literary festival. A girl I know through the scene who’s been getting tons of write-ups and work published greets me after the reading. She tells me she “liked my work because it was strong.” Internally, I know she didn’t like my work at all. I know what fake compliments sound like. They’re always vague and use single syllable words. It’s okay. My writing is not for everyone, and I don’t think she should feel forced to compliment me in order to stay in good standing and feed my ego. I change the subject for her so we can go back to talking about real things.

Even those who are doing well feel the need to go through the motions. The motions of complimenting. Attending events. Buying copies of books we know we’ll never read so certain writers know we support them. Liking and favoriting others’ social media posts. All of it.

~~~~

I’m putting together a collection of stories. I get two submissions from writers who are more widely published than anyone else in the collection. I struggle.

The anthology, so far, is solid, but almost all of the submissions are from unknown writers. If I included these important people, it could help us all. But the important people’s work doesn’t go along with the other stories, and including it would not be agreeable from an artistic standpoint. It’s not that the work is bad, it’s just not stylistically in line with what it is we’re doing. But I promised these emerging writers I’d do everything I could to get their work out there, and simply having these bylines on the bill would help us get reviews.

This is the level of crudeness people deal with in creative communities where success is not measured in numbers, but instead, in recognition. Writers seldom expect to be compensated in money anymore. We write for the art—and sometimes the only thing you get in return is a larger audience reading your work. I was paying the writers for this book, but the royalties would likely not amount to very much due to printing expenses. Would having a better known person in the index serve as a different sort of reward for them? Would it help push the collection? Or would keeping the book one cohesive vision allow readers to understand it better and get them talking about it, pushing more copies to be sold? I had to wonder.

~~~~~

I hover my mouse over the “send” button before finally making the motion and clicking. It’s done. I have told these widely published writers their submissions will not be accepted for this particular publication. So sorry, and thank you very much for submitting.

I’m nervous, but there is no turning back now. I wrote my emails respectfully, but one of the writers writes back something that shows his dissatisfaction with my selection, questioning my ability to know what’s best for my own publication. I wonder if I have not only failed at aligning the collection with the right people, but if I’ve actually done damage on behalf of the collection, as this person is now considerably upset with me.

I wonder why I am even wondering about all of this. This is creative work, not Wall Street. It’s objective, and that’s exactly why dealing with it socially can be so difficult.

And so we are constantly asking ourselves, which do we choose? Integrity or opportunity? Because when it really comes down to it, opportunity for the underdog and the underdog themselves, is what fuels nepotism.

Nepotism, in any creative field, where value isn’t measurable by quantity, but rather by the feeling work gives you, goes beyond a person in power simply hiring or selecting people they know. It involves aligning yourself with people simply because you know of them and their status can assist in elevating you all. It involves an emperor’s­new­clothes kind of fawning of selected people’s work, based on the fact that they completed their MFA somewhere prestigious, or because they’ve been published already, and let’s face it, that’s what a lot of us are trying to do here. It involves a legitimate fear of saying no to people just because they’re more highly recognized and because everyone’s feelings get hurt so easily since work is personal. It’s the idea that you’re opening doors instead of closing them. It involves those with fewer connections including more connected people in their projects simply for exposure. It results in us seeing the same work over and over again, and nobody can tell if it’s because the work selected is the best work, or if it’s because it’s simply what we know to be good and nobody feels like sifting through every single submission or defying it.

In an industry where recognition, and not always money, is currency, we cannot divorce ourselves from nepotism.

~~~~~

I’m scared as I write this. I’m scared that it may actually be published. That I will be the person who put the words to the thing we all know to be true. I’m scared that this admission will cause a slew of accomplished people to come out against me and say it’s not real, just to prove their success isn’t as a result of nepotism. The truth is that success definitely can come from talent, but that doesn’t mean that nepotism isn’t ever involved. So here I am, stating it.

And here’s why: because even though it’s real, creative nepotism should never take away from you doing what’s right for your work. At first I thought being selective would hurt me, and in many ways, it probably has. I’m sure there have been people who did not book me for readings or review my work simply because I did not do the same for them. There is certainly a “one hand washes the other” unspoken rule in the creative world, because we’re all trying to get booked, be published, get ahead. I think it’s unsaid that many hope by booking or publishing a somewhat-well-known writer for something, that writer will do them a favor when they need it. They’ll make an introduction to an agent, or submit an essay to a popular blog on that person’s behalf.

But getting hung up on aligning ourselves with those who are the most recognizable keeps us from looking at the big picture. I can honestly say only investing myself in things that are 100% right for the work that I’m doing and saying no, not only to friends but to associates, has not only made my work stronger, but it has given my work an even greater integrity. Thus, when I speak to Ronna Lebo about the writing of Boni Joi, she knows I’m really talking about her work, and not just mentioning it to be slick because they are friends. She knows I’m speaking with sincerity, and that the conversation is sincere. That I don’t just say things just to say them. My words are specific. In turn, it allows such women who inspire me to be able to work with me honestly. Our work then becomes better.

So yes, while standing behind my convictions in the past two years has probably gotten me shut out of many things, I’ve been succeeding more and more every year, by getting signed to an agency, having more stories published as well as personal essays.

I am not saying this to brag or show that I’m the best. I’m saying it because I don’t want people to be scared like I was when I first entered the literary world, and feel pressured to do things due to creative nepotism. I want people to understand that real success can also come from staying true to your work and that taking down this social norm is actually what opens doors. You let more people in who may not already be part of the literary scene. You get a different point of view. Your work becomes better, and people start getting what it is you stand for. This is what being honest does. The people you work with creatively are people who make you better. You should always hold yourself to that standard.

I have not written this to make anyone feel bad or to point fingers. We’ve all done it. We’ve all included someone just because we knew them, or complimented someone we didn’t support just because we didn’t have to have the strength to keep it real. We have all done it. I have done it.

But if we were all just a little more honest with ourselves going forward, you’d see something shift in the literary world, and within your own work. You’ll read more zines that don’t all feel the same, or blogs that don’t all have the same buzz-words. You’ll have people pushing your work harder than ever before, because they’ll be people who truly believe in you, and not just people who expect something in return. You’ll hear more voices of under-represented writers being spoken. You’ll find yourself being involved in projects that you feel you can be more than proud of, but amazed that you were included. So while everyone is naturally afraid of change, this change wouldn’t be so bad after all.

~~~

6266260a-b9eb-4572-9a12-e5b31e0c306eDallas Athent is a writer and an artist. Her work has been profiled in The L Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Bedford+Bowery & more. She is represented by The Rights Factory who is helping her publish her forthcoming novel, “The Queen of Pentacles & The Grail.” She lives in The Bronx with her adopted pets.

20 Comments to 'Report from the Field: Struggling with Creative Nepotism'

  • Marta says:

    Thanks for these insights. You’ve said things I’ve suspected to be true but felt uncomfortable expressing. Anyway, I’m going to share it with some writer friends and see what they might say.

  • Anara says:

    To me, this is one more reason why we should insist on blind submissions. If the work is strong, why the hell does an editor need to know beforehand who wrote it?!

    • Dallas says:

      I agree. Blind submissions help, but often places that do blind submissions also curate the majority of the content they publish (like they’ll publish 4-5 blind submissions per issue but the rest is content they chose). I understand it’s hard–running a small zine and sifting through submissions and getting to a cohesive product is A LOT of work, so I’m not coming down on anyone. But I also think people in literature need to come to terms with the fact that we have all done favors/ published/ booked someone etc, because we thought they’d do something for us in return. Admitting and addressing it helps us move on and be better.

  • Margot says:

    I can see what you’re up against putting together a collection – good on you for going with your gut! And don’t worry about hurting the piece by not including some well known writers. You’ve got to keep the integrity of the collection – that’s the most important thing. This may be naive but I have to believe that good work will stand out and be seen. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually. xoxo

  • re: your comment “Writers seldom expect to be compensated in money anymore. We write for the art—and sometimes the only thing you get in return is a larger audience reading your work.”… I find it horribly sad. I wrote for two different newspapers for over 10 years … and when they decided they could no longer pay for columnists – but they’d love to have me continue for free – I thanked them politely and said heck, no. Tell me what plumber will fix your pipes for free? Or electrician? Or the new car you want to buy? Until writers demand to be paid for creating content that sells advertising for someone else, then the trend to treating writers like dirt will continue. Say not to writing for free – unless it’s for yourself or your personal blog. Do yourself – and all other writers a favor. STAND UP FOR THE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK. STAND UP FOR YOURSELF AND THE REST OF US!

    • Barbahaiku says:

      Well said. I wrote a theater play, and a good one too, that this certain theater loved and wanted to perform – but they were surprised when I asked about my writer’s compensation!

    • Dallas says:

      In a nutshell about payment, my thoughts are this: If the publication makes money, I expect to be paid. If it’s not a money maker, but is producing work that I believe in for the sake of creativity, I’m willing to write without getting paid. While I get paid for articles at places like The Gloss, I’d be lying if I said I was compensated for this very essay. But what I was discussing in this article was nepotism and handshaking within literary magazines, anthologies, publications, literary websites, etc, not newspapers. Getting paid for writing is a completely different essay I’d like to dedicate an entire conversation to, separate from the topic I wrote about here.

  • I agree with the notion of blind submissions. let the work stand on its own.

  • Brian Wright says:

    This was awesome, you can’t get where you want to go, if you are not being yourself. I would like to stand up for risk taking though. As important as it is being yourself, how can you ever get to the desires of your heart, if you don’t try something new. It’s moments like jumping out on the dance floor and making a fool of yourself, where people make the best discoveries. And it’s okay to keep making a fool out of yourself, but sticking to what you’re good at isn’t a solution. Most of us (people) have a misconception about outside influences. They are seen as foolish, however the person with the misconception is often the last person to recognize that they are the fool. I’m not saying don’t stick to your gut, but be open to the possibility that your gut is wrong. The gut feeling is designed for detecting fears.

  • Rodney Gantt says:

    That’s about the most punk rock thing I’ve ever heard anyone EVER say :) It was SOOooo cool and completely void of any influence of capitalism.

  • Crystal T Norman says:

    Really enjoyed reading this post about this dirty little corner of the publishing world. As I consider the experiences recrecounted above, I’m reminded that professionalism knows how to take a rejection. There is arrogance in expecting to be published, regardless of how many times one has been published before. A work jammed into a collection that it doesn’t fit with may stroke egos, but ultimately it doesn’t really do anyone any good, even the “big name.” Those who like the theme won’t enjoy the extraneous material, and the “big name” will be just a bit tarnished for that reader. A poor frame around a lovely painting will detract from the enjoyment of the piece. It is the same for writing, and I’m glad to hear that integrity has proven such a blessing for you.

  • Cas says:

    Go Catherine! Writing is a job, and like any job where the work is examined, critiqued, used to sell ‘space’ – it deserves to be paid work. I will go the way of creating a path I am happy to walk down; a path where others will not determine what or how I write; a path that is not trod down by people with egos based on author bios. It is only the work that counts, and if it counts, make it pay.

  • Robert Clyde Cox says:

    People always have and always will bestow favors upon whom they are closest.

  • Elaine says:

    Thank you for this. This came straight from the heart. This article inspires more people to write and inspires more newcomers to take on the challenge in writing. I’ve shared this on my blog. Hoping you’ll find what you are looking for inside the boundaries of your perspective.

  • Egbert Starr says:

    What you write about is both well known and worth writing about. The upside of this nepotism is that it bespeaks of that very human thing called “trust.” Trust in people, over algorithms, is a good thing. And having someone you trust and who trusts you pass your work onto to someone who’ll read it, is, basically, a good thing. The downside is that persons in charge of such decisions may not really be the best for making them, and the so-called literary scene itself isn’t much to speak of. So, the ideas of remaining “true to your work” and what “you stand for” become the main issues. In lieu of this, there is option of caving in, going along with the terrible run-off of so-believed and well-established dictums and rules and principles of writing that are not valid or true or which even count (if followed) as being a responsible artist, even if they might win you acclaim and cash. Nevertheless, not being able to “break through,” assuming one really has something to say, remains eternally frustrating. Anybody who has stopped writing because they couldn’t break through to the other side, they really haven’t had that much (or only so much) to say. Persons who have, some of them do. Many who never do, but who continue to write, my bet is they might really have something to say, too.

  • Thank you for being true to yourself. I wish more publishers were like that. Anyone who is struggling to get their work published knows all too well the words, “Obtains most new clients through recommendations from others”. It’s frustrating but I remain positive that there will be that one person that will recognize my creative talent for storytelling. I agree with Stephen Davenport comment submissions should be blindly read, as wine is blindly tasted. ;)

  • What a great and powerful post. It’s sad that creativeness and talent is measured by the connections you have and the favours. But I think that it’s the way society tragically works today. You don’t get noticed and valued unless you have sucked up to the right people and done something for someone, losing your integrity in the process. A name or a brand comes before talent.

  • Refreshing to read your writing.

  • This was a very well thought out and honest post. Congrats to you for being so honest with yourself and us. I appreciated your insights.

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