Years ago (October 1999 to be exact), I read Bruce Holland Rogers‘ wonderful essay, “Peacemaking at the Barricades” in an issue of the long-gone-and-lamented Speculations. It was one of the first issues of Speculations I received–possibly the very first–and I shudder to think that I might have come *that* close to missing this piece. It made a very big impression on me and caused me to deliberately change the way I looked at other writers–particularly those who wrote things that, frankly, I didn’t appreciate, understand, or even simply “get.”
The essay begins:
You can’t stroll very far in the City of Literature without coming to an intersection where writers stand at opposing barricades. From behind toppled desks and stacks of books, the two sides hurl erasers and slogans at one another…
The opposing sides Rogers talks about in the original essay spring from debates over such issues as Popular fiction versus Literary fiction, Authenticity versus Money, Process versus Product, and Writing to Inspire versus Writing to Entertain; in short, how we as writers choose what to write and how we define personal success. However, fast-forward to 2011, and I think we have to add another set of barricades: traditional publishing versus self-publishing.
Which is interesting in itself because that is a debate that has been had before, and has been ongoing ever since I first set foot in the City of Literature. But it has been more of a back-alley squabble, a simmering pot on the stove. The last year or so of sea-change in the publishing world has brought the pot to a full rolling boil, and the squabblers front and center at the main intersection barricades. The old debate is new again, dressed in new clothing mainly due to the advent of ebooks.
There’s a lot of…let’s be kind and call it “discussion”…these days about the future of publishing, the future of writing, and the choices and decisions writers should be making. Everyone seems to have an opinion on these matters, and it’s very, very easy of course, in our Internet-centric world, for writers to…let’s be kind again and say “share their opinions.”
Okay, that should be a good thing, right? Because sharing knowledge, experience, and advice with other and newer writers is something that the writing community as a whole is very generous with. Unlike some other professions, where insight and understanding are hoarded like precious secrets from “the competition,” writers in general like to help other writers succeed. And because we’re used to doing that, we want to share our knowledge, experience, and advice on the whole future-of-publishing issue.
However, I think it’s time to take a step back and make sure that what we are doing really is sharing knowledge, experience, and advice, and not trying to re-define other writers’ definitions of personal success. Because when we do that, that’s when the barricades go up and the spitballs come out and suddenly we’re choosing sides and throwing erasers again.
So how do we do that: offer opinions and advice without causing the barricades to go up? In his essay, Rogers offers three bits of advice, which I’ll paraphrase (I would love to be able to point you to the whole essay, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere online).
- First, respect the feelings of other writers and don’t make “sweeping, self-justifying pronouncements about what success is.” You can offer your advice and expertise without disparaging those who hold differing opinions.
- Second, when you want to lash out in the debate, stop and think about why you care so much. As Rogers says, “you wouldn’t rise to the bait if the bait didn’t appeal to you.” Make sure you understand why you want to argue your points so strongly.
- Third, think about what the other side might actually be able to teach you. Don’t just knee-jerk into defense when they hit a sore spot. Think of it like getting a story critique. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but maybe there is something you can learn from it.
In this current Great Debate, you may think the “other side” (whichever it is for you) is desperate, ignorant, foolish, selling out, just plain wrong, or fill-in-your-favorite-epithet-here. Whatever you think, of course you should feel free to share your knowledge, experience, and advice. But there’s no need to indulge in any of these epithets to do that, and when we do, we undermine the very advice we are trying to proffer. The more…let’s say strident…we get in making our case, the less likely it becomes that anyone is going to put credence in what we say, let alone be swayed by it.
We are all making our own way through the City of Literature as best we can, and we can’t really choose anyone else’s path for them. We can show them signposts and point out obstacles that we’ve encountered, but each writer is following his or her own map–and we have to let them do that.
Rogers sums it up better than I can:
The longer we stand at the barricades, flinging erasers and recounting the myths of how doomed and deluded the other side is, the harder it becomes to cross the street and find out what those other successful writers know that we don’t.
And that’s a shame