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1000 Black Lines

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Write Stuff : The Economics of Writing

For some reason the term "economics" really spooks writers into silence. Why?

Weekly I post something on Write Stuff about writing or the craft of writing or anything relating to the writing process. I began a series on why writing contests are bad business for both writers and publishers. Here's part one, two, and three.

The premise is this: economics is the study of production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. Poets and writers produce literature that is distributed via publishers and booksellers to readers, book buyers, librarians.

I began the series of posts as a way to study what I do and why I am continually disappointed in writing contests and the works that win writing contests. For example, the Walt Whitman Award, presented by the Academy of American Poets (of which I am a member), is considered a prestigious contest. The Academy has published many fine poets. However, much of what wins and is published is considered informal personal narrative. That's fine. It is a dominant form in America. But, as I discussed with a fellow poet at the Flood Fine Art Center poetry reading last week, it isn't new--it's the same tired narrative lyric every other professional poet is turning out. It's like poetry in America is stuck in a rut and it can't get out. Tony Tost's Invisible Bride is one Walt Whitman Award winner that I recall in recent times that really pushed the vehicle of poetry in a new direction. But I'll explore that more in this week's Write Stuff post.

I'm not sure (because I've received minimal comments on the topic) if I've either struck a nerve with the folks at Write Stuff (they run a writing contest) or I'm being completely obtuse. What do you think?

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  1. Anonymous michael | 8:36 PM, March 23, 2007 |  

    I don't know that you've struck a nerve, or are even obtuse. I do think that your audience may be far more pragmatic about the entire issue.

    Think of it this way: person writes, person has hard time getting published, person thinks "I'd do almost anything to get published (to be validated as an author, etc)."

    As result, when person sees the information about the competition, he or she does not dwell on whether it actually helps the writing (and reading) communities, but rather will it help him/her to achieve what might be interpreted as rather selfish goals.

    To put it another way "What's in it for me?" For many people, they are simply looking for that first published book so they can start building a published works resume. Sure, if they think about it, they may consider that it's a bit of racket, but then again, "somebody's got to win, it might as well be me."

    For similarity in thinking, view early episodes of any season of that show which takes a number of people who may or may not be able to sing and ridicules them in a rather posh English accent. (Sorry, no specific names used on purpose.)

    The point is that they are willing to contribute substantial time/money/effort to this endeavor even though they know that they are involved in a contest which has the dubious value of providing the Western world with the next absolutely unremarkable pop vocalist.

    Ok, gotta take a breath.

  2. Anonymous DM | 7:23 AM, March 24, 2007 |  

    I have the same love/hate relationships with songwriting contests.

    Despite the fact I generally feel the best writer (or songwriter) usually doesn't win, I reconcile it with the fact I have made some REALLY GREAT contacts through these sort of events.

    Even the organizers of the events sometimes acknowledge these "competitions" as really "networking event" in disguise.

  3. Blogger Britt | 8:55 PM, March 25, 2007 |  

    ok - I've been thinking about this one for a while - since your last post on this subject, so here's what I've been mulling:

    What's the difference between entering many contests (when you're "not good") and buying a lottery ticket?

    What's the difference between entering many contests and spending an equal fortune to receive an MFA (which many argue churn out conventional poets in the vein of what has been written before and not sending poetry to new horizons)?

    Why not tackle the "economics" of MFA programs? or the economics of poetry (aside from fiction and non-fiction)?

    Further, many contests' entry fees give entrants a year's subscription to their literary magazine? (how many literary magazines do most poets subscribe to anyway? they're more interested in if the journal will publish their work than they are the journal and the others' work within)

    And ultimately, what do "economics" and "art" have to do with each other anyway?

    If you're trying to create "art" then you have to let go of "economics" - and if you're about the "economics," by all means, continue to follow the conventional trends.

    Anybody who writes poetry already knows (as was said at the AWP writer's conference "A piece of paper is probably worth more without a poem written on it") that poetry is not going to earn a person any money.

    Yes, I would love the recognition of having won a poetry prize, the validation, because I will not likely have an MFA behind my name to lend me (due or undue) credit. I know that behind each contest are a lot of volunteers who don't get paid - and a lot of struggling journals/magazines. So, yes, I will enter a contest every now and then - partly because it's like entering a lottery (and I know that) and partly because I'm willing to support contests that give entrants something in return (the winning chapbook, anthology, or a year's subscription).

    I figure I have to risk something to gain something.

    I could go on... but I have been thinking about this issue, and I can't say that I come out at the same place that you do on it.

    I think you need to deal with poetry on it's own when it comes to economics - not lump it in with fiction and non-fiction - to form a clear argument.

    I should post this to the WriteStuff page too, eh? : )

    or not?

    bk

  4. Blogger 1000 black lines | 10:48 AM, March 26, 2007 |  

    michael,

    I think you know me well enough to sense my struggle and that I too felt like a validated poet upon publication of a few poorly written lines of poesy. However, the conquest provided very little affirmation in my own abilities in the craft of word play. Initially, my first published works were, as you stated, resume builders. But I became critical of my own work and how it relates to the community of readers/writers--and further to the historical discourse with dead poets (i.e. philosophical discussion transcends time--here's a feeble example: Nietzsche relates to Heraclitus who relates to Hesiod).

  5. Blogger 1000 black lines | 10:51 AM, March 26, 2007 |  

    dm,

    I see how the two communities (poets and singer/songwriters) parallels. For poets and writers, I think a writers conference/workshop provides a better opportunity for networking than a contest.

  6. Blogger 1000 black lines | 12:00 PM, March 26, 2007 |  

    bk,

    Based on what I've read, there are a lot of "not good" poets and writers who win contests. Like DM, some of the poets and writers who inspire me are not published (at least not yet).

    If I were to spend $14,000, I would spend it on an MFA writing program. In fact, I am considering applying to the Warren Wilson MFA Writers Program. Herein rests my struggle (chalk it up to the tortured poet syndrome, TPS for short), do I want to be part of the MFA manufacturing system and try to impact the literary community from that angle or do I want to work the edges as an outsider to the literary community? I'm genuinely torn over this issue and have been trying to come to some sort of conclusion or decision for years. That's why I've been exploring this idea of the economics of writing.

    [BTW, good point... I should focus this discussion toward poetry and not lump it in with fiction or creative non-fiction]

    The inclusion of year's subscription to a contest entrant's fee is a relatively new development in the literary contest machinery. I recall, Main Street Rag's editor pondering this a couple years ago, in his monthly newsletter, when he noticed a decline in MSR contest submissions. I must admit, I am more inclined to submit poetry to a magazine contest if I know I'll get a year's worth of fine literature in return for my fee (investment).

    Regarding economics and art: within the last three or four generations fine arts (literature, painting, music) has devolved into a celebrated lifestyle rather than a result of technical training and aesthetic exploration. Part of this may be due to the rise of the middle class and consumerism. For example, within 50 years of van Gogh's death, the general public could purchase reproductions of his greatest achievements.

    I ponder the risk involved with submitting to poetry contests. For myself, I have limited time and financial assets to submit poems to contests. It costs roughly $10 to $15 per day to feed my household. It costs the same amount to enter most poetry contests. Further, in order to secure more business it requires a large amount of time meeting and networking with current and future clients. So now I must consider whether or not investing my time in pursuit of poetry and submission of written work is wise. Again, that's why I am exploring the idea of the economics of [my] writing.

    I have often considered giving up on poetry entirely... sometimes telling my wife it is a complete waste of time. I know it is an emotional response to the struggle that churns in my gut. She insists I keep at it even though I don't see any results.

    Then I am invited to read some of my work at a Fine Art Center and realize that poetry is a lifelong pursuit--not a career. Maybe that's where my reasoning falls apart. American poet Anthony Hecht once stated in an interview that poetry doesn't make money, that's why he teaches literature. Teaching was his career. Poetry was his passion.

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