Before I began my current job, especially when I was an undergraduate student, I was relentless in attending a wide variety of poetry related events–book or magazine launches, readings, and open mic nights–in order to network and learn the ins and outs of the literary world. At one point, I even ran a monthly reading series at the University of Toronto’s historic Hart House. The embarrassingly atrocious attendance for these readings did nothing to dampen my youthful enthusiasm.
Now, as a full-time ESL teacher and part-time martial artist, it is difficult to find time. On the rare occasions that I can make it to a launch or reading, I am typically in the company of at least one or two acquaintances that I made from my more ambitious days. Inevitably, the question always arises: “So have you been doing a lot of writing these days?” My response is almost automatic: “Writing a lot, but publishing very little.”
I began to wonder why I feel the need to distinguish between the two, or to qualify my answer at all. Why is it that “successful” writing is supposed to lead to mainstream publication?
1) External Value
The notion that publication from an established, third party confirms the value of the work is ingrained in many writers. It doesn’t matter that, in many cases, the writer may have personal associations with the editor who is selecting the work; the letter of acceptance is seen as impartial validation that the words on the page are of value.
Of course, having your submission selected from the slush pile by an established publisher lends credence to the quality of the writing. However, as print media continues on its path to extinction, the competition in the market also suggests that many worthwhile pieces (perhaps from more obscure or less connected authors) will be increasingly receiving rejection letters in response.
At the risk of admitting my own incompetence, I will admit that sometimes when I receive the magical words of acceptance from an editor, I am surprised–not necessarily by the fact that they chose one of my pieces, but more that they overlooked the ones that I felt were the strongest in favour of those that I felt were inferior. Perhaps thematically or stylistically they fit better with the issue of the magazine being compiled, or perhaps I simply don’t know my successes from my failures until an editor informs me of the result.
Very few writers produce work exclusively for their own satisfaction, however much they may claim not to care what others think. Writers need readers to be satisfied with their product. Publication is the easiest way to access an audience wider than one’s own circle of friends and family members, who may also be too polite to tell you that they hate poetry.
An unfortunate reality of the current market is that we have an excess of writers and a shortage of readers, especially when it comes to creative writing. Fiction is more likely to be read by many who don’t write fiction; poetry, especially, is not. It is also astounding to see how many authors will attend events but refuse to purchase books in support of the press they are hoping to eventually publish with. Naturally, from a financial standpoint it is impossible buy every book we encounter–we are poets, after all–but if we hope to utilize the industry to advance our own careers, we have to invest in it too, before it disappears entirely.
Although not in all cases, at times we may sit down to write with a specific publisher in mind. Themed issues of magazines especially provoke this kind of response. The illusion of the pure, unadulterated moment of inspiration is still powerful and widespread, but the reality is that most authors intend for their work to be published–either by a specific press or an anonymous one–when they are creating and editing it. This intention means that we are thinking about how work will be received by an audience before it even has one.
If the work is originally meant for a reader and doesn’t find one, this will naturally be disappointing. We all feel that deflating sensation when we realize that a response to a submission is a rejection rather than the acceptance we were secretly hoping far too much for.
It is difficult to know whether it is possible to feel successful without attempting to publish. If the goal is to write better, more meaningful pieces, who measures: the author, the publishing industry, or the readers?
It is both reassuring and frightening to know that, like me, publishers may not know exactly the value of their own decisions either. They may accept books or pieces that they think are works of literary genius, but get a mediocre response, and be on the fence about other works that turn out to earn universal praise and numerous awards.
It is also true that many authors are not fully appreciated in their own lifetimes, but their work resonates generations later. In the moment, it is difficult to know whose words will address the malaise of a future society that hasn’t manifested yet.