“Remember,” A. L. Kennedy, the Scottish novelist, once cautioned us, “writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”
Speaking well of writing, encouraging other authors, fostering work you love — this is the essence of literary activism, a mode of artistic being that understands the corporate paradigm of composing-as-competition should be replaced by one celebrating collaboration and support.
The distinctions between editor and writer, critic and poet, reviewer and novelist, academic and publisher and blogger and tweeter have become incrementally more fused and confused, if not in some circles erased entirely.
Nowadays, an author is a person who authors, sure, but one who is also committed to making culture happen. For the literary activist, writing is only one creative act among many that composes his or her textual life. Others include editing and bringing out fellow writers’ work in online and print journals and through book publishers, reading and reviewing that work, writing essays about it, teaching it, talking it up, urging others to launch journals and indie presses, running reading series, laboring in arts administration, coordinating innovative writing conferences, launching local writing groups, and posting about authors and texts one loves on one’s blogs or via other social networking media.
An apt analogy for this paradigm might be that of a tribal ecology, where authors easily move among multifarious clans and loose affiliations based on various forms of aesthetic and existential kinship that attempt to exist outside (and not infrequently in direct opposition to) the dominant cultures’ models.
A wonderful example I’d like to rejoice about here in Utah is City Art, a reading series hosted by the Salt Lake City Library and overseen by the remarkably generous and kind and committed literary activist Joel Long, a Salt Lake poet who teaches creative writing and art history at a local high school and donates his time and extraordinary energy to City Art simply because he cares deeply.
City Art itself is a non-profit, grass roots organization that reaches out both to the community at large and area colleges and universities to bring together those interested in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama, multi-media work, and other literary forms in order to foster a greater appreciation of various writing practices. Readings are held at 7 p.m. on the first three Wednesday evenings of the school year, and feature authors from both within and without Utah. Sometimes the invited readings are followed by an open mic where authors of all ages and predilections are encouraged to participate.
I’ve attended dozens of readings there, and presented there myself a number of times — most recently to screen a collaborative work by video artist Andi Olsen, Irish composer/sound artist Karen Power, and me, based on my novel Dreamlives of Debris, whose arrival in the world we were celebrating — and have always been wonderfully impressed by the welcoming, good-spirited environment Joel has created.
What I think I love most about City Art in particular, and literary activism in general, is that both make an argument to which we should all be listening, which will become increasingly strong in our culture, and which goes like this: the Romantic myth of the solitary artist, the narcissist in the garret, is dead, and that myth has been replaced by this challenge:
Ask not what publishing can do for you; ask what you can do for publishing.
Click here to order Lance Olsen's latest novel, Dreamlives of Debris.