I just watched the first two episodes of the show “You” on Netflix, and it has me thinking about what it means to be “literary.” One of the main characters, Beck, is an aspiring poet earning her MFA in New York City. She graduated from Brown University and hangs out with the granddaughter of J.D. Salinger. She also meets the narrator at the bookstore where he works, and they bond over Paula Fox (while hating on the plebs who read Dan Brown). In other words, she is a literary person.
I’ve been wondering what this means for a long time. Does it mean going to parties with other literary people? Does it mean reading a certain number of books from the English canon, and understanding references to them? Does it mean calling yourself a writer, editor, or publisher? Does it mean getting an MFA, or being published and having a long list of award-winning books under your name (or being friends with people who have those things on their websites)? Or does it simply involve sitting in your local coffee shop with a book you enjoy?
First off, there is no getting around the recent debate re: the English literary canon. Traditionally, if you want to even begin approaching “literary” territory, you need to read (and enjoy reading?) the works of everyone listed on this page, which is unfortunate, because a good amount of them are not enjoyable, even for people who consider reading one of their hobbies. Although the canon is beginning to include more writers of color, no one seems to have successfully argued for the deletion of any of the (old, white, male) works already on that list. Those texts are here to stay; the number only grows from here.
Actually reading this mass of work takes thousands of hours, which is probably why so many of the people concerned with “literaryness” have English degrees, so we can get away with pretending we’ve digested most of this stuff. These people probably also enjoy writing poems, plays, or short stories, and the most ambitious of them might write novels. However, “literaryness” seems to be so much more than actually reading and writing; its foundation appears to be making sure that others perceive you as a well-read, talented writer. Instead of writing and then putting your work out there, you start with the intention of becoming a well-established author, and craft pieces in order to fulfill that goal. Maybe this is because writer earnings have fallen 42% over the last 10 years, and the median annual income for authors is now around $13,000. Considering how writers never made that much to begin with and the relatively new invention of the MFA (Masters in Fine Arts, the terminal degree for many creative professions), it makes sense to have the following attitude: If I’m going to take this writing thing seriously (and potentially pay tens of thousands of dollars for an MFA), it better give me dividends. I need to have my eye on the prize, or else there’s no way that prize (a stacked resume and paid opportunities to further my craft) will ever materialize, right?
This focus on “productivity” and “clout” for writers can hamper the very thing that drove them towards literature in the first place: creative spark and a love of language. Austin Kleon has a great blog post about this:
“I actually kind of hate writing books. I often tell people I became a professional writer so I could be a professional reader, and I feel like they never believe me. What I really, really love is reading books.
Everything I do has its origins in being a fan first. I was such a fan that I desperately wanted to join in the fun, you know?”
This precisely sums up how I feel towards the “literary” world as I understand it today. At one point, I wanted to be the author in front of the room giving a reading, selling copies of their work. I confused my love for them, with a desire to become them. I’ve since discovered that the act of publishing a poem is only mildly gratifying for me (not that I’ve done much of that), and I’d much rather read fantastic poems written by others all day long.
Maybe “literaryness” can be found in simply taking joy in reading, writing, and sharing your adventures in these things when the time feels right. I’m finding myself caring less about reading the books and poems that I’m “supposed” to have read, and simply reveling in whatever catches my eye. Instead of feeling anxious that I’m not writing “enough,” I can take joy in the fact that I have this urge to write in the first place, which is a beautiful and precious thing. Instead of comparing myself to other writers, I can re-focus on the many pieces I’ve read that inspire me to live more fully.
I’ll close out this post with another great quote from Roxanne Gay:
“Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work.”