There is complex life in the sea of attendees: impenetrable reefs and atolls, circling tight-knit schools of young. From the choice of venue (packed, dark, hyper-loud) to the glib Facebook event copy, the organizers have attempted to make it all feel straightforward and informal, but a few things preclude that—
The host mounts the stage, troubles over the microphone stand while applause swells and wanes. When he introduces whatever is being launched this night, his tone is light, free of the gravitas newcomers might expect. He’s self-effacing to an extent that leads one to wonder why he’s even here. He speaks of working thankless hours/years on a little thing that all will soon forget. He speaks of this Literary World (and we can hear it capitalized like that) with a certain jocular, docile irreverence. (Many in the room seem to feel most at home in the mode of ‘irreverence’.) He expresses amazement at that so many of us, including many celebrated writers, are at This thing, instead of at the thing put on by Those Guys down the road (though many of Those Guys are here, too—can be counted among his personal friends).
A breeze of conceit blows through the room, whispers over our ears: At least we’re not at That thing, with the boring people. The host, and others later on, feed us platitudes-masked-as-rallying-cries like, They’re so out of touch. They’re dying. This is the place to be right now. Tear it down. Our time will come. We’re the future. This is it. But who are these for?
(Imagine how often we would hear the verb ‘disrupt’ in this scene if we were all wearing nicer jeans and making money. Count your blessings—)
Throughout the speech, and the one that follows it, a false equilibrium is alluded to. The falsehood becomes most clear when the revue of readers kicks off. If it isn’t all cis- and straight, white and abled, it’s pretty close. And the work of those who are cis- and straight, white and abled, is given the time and space and patience to be what it is, unquestioned. One or two of Those Guys read. Perhaps they make polite jokes about their being there, or perhaps they grumble and ignore the host’s polemic altogether. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, one writer who may not be cis- and straight, white and abled, rises to share their work. Hopefully, they’re fine up there, but it’s more likely that they’re uncomfortable, thoroughly aware of how the room falls a different kind of quiet before they’ve even said a word. They know exactly what kind of applause to expect. They ask themself: am I here to share my talent, or to lend this whole thing credibility? Who is this for?
Some overtures are made. Maybe the host stumbles out an announcement that the venue is equipped with a gender-neutral bathroom, though we’ll nonetheless need friends to walk us there to feel safe. Maybe he makes a sympathetic joke about the UBC Accountable letter, so we can pretend as though this room is free of its supporters (and, for that matter, free of predatory men). Maybe he rushes through a copy-pasted statement expressing that the organization he represents especially welcomes work from women, people of colour, trans and queer people, disabled people, and every other box he’s had to check. Most clap. Others sip their drinks to mask discomfort or resentment. Again, some of us are left asking: who are these platitudes for? Are they for the benefit of the marginalized people in the room, to assure us that we’re welcome here? Or are they a new form of indulgence, purchased with buzzwords to soothe the vague and distant guilt that irks such men when they read the news each morning; to mask the fear that grips them every time they see another ‘call-out’ of a colleague’s ableism or racism or exploitative or predatory behaviour and think, Well, it would fuck my career right up to be accused of That—
Everyone in this loud little room wants to feel like they belong to, and are fostering, an inclusive community. But there’s a vast disconnect between the narrative this event is trying to create for itself, and how it’s being experienced by those of us who might have agonized for days over whether to come, whether we would feel (at least relatively) comfortable and safe here. The hosts, and the majority, want to feel like they are facilitating an inclusive, diverse community without actually doing the work that that would require. Whether or not they realize it, they’re hiding behind two convenient rhetorics—
The first is this: They’re so out of touch. Those dinosaurs. We’re the future. Tear it apart, tear it down. But what is being torn down, really? The same power structures as have always been around are on display tonight as every night, even if they’ve read a few threads on Twitter to learn what they’re not allowed to say anymore. The only difference I can see is that the current crop of 30-something people in power—who have replaced presses, magazines, event series with new ones of their own, which in turn will someday be replaced—seem at least to recognize, to some degree, that change is needed.
There will always be an establishment; we can’t help that. It’s in our nature to organize as such, into structure. If you’re tearing apart the system, you are, in that process, creating a new one. Instead of blindly reveling around a Tear it down, tear it apart rhetoric, it’s important to wiggle an ear out of the echo chamber and acknowledge that we’re all—simply by virtue of existing as a generation following another—creating a new establishment, and we must consider our responsibilities accordingly. What we can do is try to form one that is better, more transparent, more equitable, and more welcoming to all.
The second rhetoric behind which many hide sounds like this: We’re the underdogs. We’re just a little indie thing. This shit doesn’t matter to anyone else, etc. ad nauseam. Versus the first, this one is more often used in self-effacing jest—but that doesn’t make it less real or deserving of investigation.
Things usually start off like this. A magazine, press, reading series, blog, podcast, column, or bookstore sets out with starry-eyed sophomoric dedication to the promotion of emerging, unpublished writers. At first, it’s slow but steady: ten people show up to an event and that’s a victory; others send work who haven’t been begged to. Generally, the project quietly perishes here, or remains at this point on the fringe forever—not to imply that that’s necessarily a bad thing, or makes it any less worthwhile!—but on rare occasion, it continues to grow. (“You either die in obscurity, or live long enough to become the establishment.” — Harvey Dent, probably.) Whether by abandoning its mission for the sake of vanity and working with more popular creators as it gains momentum, or by making prudent investments in emerging talent and earning a reputation as a fertile ground, the project becomes a thing people know about, until it gets as far as it can go under its circumstances (mostly financial and geographical). Now, it stalls and joins a frenzy of fish just beneath the surface at the shore, all trying very hard to evolve feet. Under late capitalism and in the shadow of corporate publishing, it’s profoundly difficult to overcome the obstacles that must be overcome to achieve even the lowest reckoning of mainstream success.
This scene, as most of us experience it, thrives in overlapping radial matrices around these not-quite-mainstream organizations. They’re more relevant to many of our lives and interests than, e.g., publishers like Penguin—especially for those of us relatively new to this world, who feel we must find our footing at this level before we can imagine moving on. But because the people behind these organizations—these new, non-traditional gatekeepers—aren’t having their efforts validated in conventional terms of success, they can have a hard time grasping the fact that legions of people not only admire their work, but rely upon it to inform or empower their own. Wary of heights, they’re disinclined to look down and accept that they’re not at the bottom of the ladder anymore. This permits a denial of the fact that independent, poorly-funded things can wield power, too. And when one operates under the assumption that what they do doesn’t matter in any big picture, one becomes more forgiving of their own mistakes, less likely to avoid repeating the same ones that made this all feel so stale in the first place.
Initiatives and individuals alike: are you respected? Do people want to impress you, or be published by you, or work for you, or in any way have their work and presence in this scene legitimized by you? Do you have enough followers to feel like your presence on social media makes a difference? If you announce a call for submissions, who will answer? Who is in your contact book? Who is at your parties? Consider the position you’re in; is it enviable? Would you have envied it, ten or five or one year(s) ago? If so, I have written this for you. If you have power in this community, acknowledge it and consider how you may begin to use it more responsibly. If you have a public voice, be mindful of who you speak for, what you lend it to. Don’t allow denial of your position to enable the avoidance or deflection of accountability.
ENDNOTE: For the duration of its writing, I’ve been mentally referring to this as ‘Baby’s First Industry Piece’. Because I’m a marginalized person who cares about leaving this world a little better than I found it, writing one of these felt inevitable as first steps. If you can relate, maybe it’s inevitable that you’ll write one, too. Many have done this more comprehensively than I have done it here, but you know, voces clamantium in deserto, or whatever. In the hope that ours will be the one, at last, that’s heard.