‘These questions for me are prompted in part by a current literary culture that seems devoted to creating an impression of great collegiality among writers. The most immediate and influential form of literary criticism–book reviewing–is dominated by novelists and poets, some of whom are also perceptive critics but many of whom have been assigned to write reviews under the apparent assumption that fiction writers are best situated to judge other fiction, poets other poetry. This assumption is dubious at best, but the primary effect of this practice is that most reviews dispense abundant praise, often long on superlatives and short on real analysis.
In addition, almost all books now come heavily “blurbed” by other writers, who often seem determined to outdo each other in the rhetorical excess with which they praise their fellow authors. The literary corners of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook liberally engage in various digital versions of handclapping for writers especially admired and frequently feature explicit appeals to “community” among writers, as if literature was a civic organization, or a team sport in which one pledges one’s mutual support for teammates. Perhaps it is in this context that we can understand the controversy over “negative reviews”: Some writers, and many critics, fail to fully join the team, venturing to question a team member’s accomplishment and disrupting group camaraderie.
In surveying literary history, it is hard to identify another period in which serious writers expected to be, or indicated any desire to be, part of a literary community. Paris after World War I is often discussed as the setting for a gathering of like-minded modernists, but Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ought to be evidence enough that whatever friendships that might have formed at this time were laced with barely suppressed resentment and condescension, examples of writers suffering other writers. It seems to me that the push for “community” among writers is a direct function of the “program era” in American literature, the relocation of literary life to the academy, where it is administered in creative writing programs, where other writers are indeed colleagues, and where the wheels driving publication and recognition are greased by the spread of literary magazines sponsored by creative writing programs themselves and the substitution of tenure for commercial success. Under these circumstances, it becomes much easier to think of other writers as fellow members of a community (the community of creative writing teachers and students) rather than rivals, although also much easier as well to write safe but duly crafted, convention-approved fiction and poetry rather than challenge the hegemony of craft and convention by following inspiration where it leads.
“Literary citizenship” is a concept that many writers apparently take quite seriously, as it has evolved from a metaphorical notion that writers should advocate on behalf of literature generally to a quasi-literal requirement that they be good citizens in the “literary community” at large, whose well-being they are expected to consider.
What about the apostate, the writer who resists the call to literary citizenship, either through obstinacy or through a sincere belief that the writer’s job is to write, not to network? Although May frequently insists that the writer’s first responsibility is indeed to his/her own writing, those who might deny the value of literary citizenship when it is made into a de facto requirement of living a “writing life” would surely provoke resentment for not carrying his/her weight in propping up the remaining structures that make a literary life still marginally possible. More importantly, what about the true literary apostate, who violates community norms, who produces work even the best literary citizens might have trouble celebrating, or even understanding? What if the demand for literary citizenship had been made of Samuel Beckett or William S. Burroughs (or even a more conventional curmudgeonly type such as, say, Philip Larkin)?’