Species of Literary Fraud

by David Radavich

The creative writing business, like the stock market, is booming in the '90s: in 1998, over 13,000 books of poems appeared in print, an all-time record. Whatever we may feel about the spiritual, moral, or aesthetic state of contemporary writing, it's hard to argue that the creative writing "corporate enterprise," as John W. Aldridge terms it, is not thriving. The situation couldn't really be otherwise, since our literature grows out of common American beliefs, experiences, and values, which, in the past three decades, has meant multi-national consumer capitalism. Recent years have seen explosive growth in corporate practices applied to literary wares: submission fees, contests with monetary prizes, mass marketing, targeted advertising, and on-line purchasing of books, among other business-style innovations.

For the dedicated or high-minded literary artist, trying to work through this mine-field of possibilities and pitfalls can prove daunting. It's not enough anymore to create a great, meaningful story, poem, or play. That won't take you very far if the piece isn't marketed--if you are not marketed--in some accordance with the latest corporate fashion. This is a sad truth of our time perhaps, but writers who value their imaginations, their commitment to integrity and social values, and the divine gifts of language and thinking can survive and prosper--provided that they keep a sharp eye out for the many kinds of deception and outright fraud lurking in the literary marketplace. Let me begin with the most flagrant forms of deception and move to the smaller, more insidious distortions of thinking that betray us all at one time or another.

1) The Writer Pays. In true corporate fashion, much of the costs of literary production in recent decades have shifted from the publisher to the writer. And many unscrupulous fly-by-night "publishers" have set up shop to fleece unsuspecting writers. Ordinarily, the most blatant forms of hucksterism are easy to spot: ads in student newspapers across the country tout the rewards of publishing in an impressively titled poetry anthology like "Poetry of America." Fledgling writers seduced by such ads find their work easily accepted--only they are required to purchase the volume in question for $29.95 or more, plus tax and shipping. That's quite a mark-up: a new form of the Wild West All-Purpose Snake-Bite Remedy. At least some vanity presses, advertising in magazines as prestigious as The New Yorker, tend to lay out their costs clearly in advance for writers who feel driven to see their work published at any cost.

Many fiction, drama, and poetry contests now demand hefty submission fees in exchange for a hellishly remote chance at publication and maybe prize money. More and more, we find ourselves surrounded by literary lotteries (like Powerball and the various state lotteries); we are exhorted, essentially, to buy a "ticket" and hope for a career breakthrough. Arts council grants represent another throw of the dice, sometimes with long odds and capricious standards of judgment. Implicit in this system, too, is a sharpening chasm between the literary "haves" and "have-notes": the "haves" are asked to judge contests and are paid for it, often handsomely, while the "have-nots" supply both the literary wares to be evaluated and the paycheck.

The more legitimate and ethical organizations offer something valuable in return for one's contribution: a year's subscription, or a copy of the winning book. Such literary exchanges are not necessarily unreasonable, since unconscionably few writers nowadays read or buy the work of others or even support the literary magazines in which their own work appears. As one of the "small names" out there, I use my own judgment with contests requiring submission fees: if it's a press, magazine, or organization whose work I support and approve of, I pay the fee, otherwise not. After all, if we don't support each other's work and enforce the values we believe in, then we cede power and influence to the less scrupulous contests and schemes that have become so ubiquitous.

2) False Advertising. With writing programs and workshops growing of late like weeds (often with hefty tuition fees), it's not surprising that some are making exaggerated claims for themselves bearing only partial resemblance to the truth. Some campuses advertise that Great Writer X was "in residence" during the past academic year, when she or he in reality only visited for a few days, gave a reading, met with students (perhaps), and departed. Some universities "discover" writers on their staff who some years ago published a few pieces and then promote them as part of a seemingly comprehensive creative writing faculty. In the worst such case of fraud I've ever heard, a university commonly thought to be in the "Top Twenty" offered a playwriting course for the first time in years--taught by a poet who had never written a play.

Deception also emerges at some writing conferences, where the Big Names appear on all the posters but then arrive only on the final day to give a public reading. Given the relentless challenge of making do with limited resources, which virtually all arts programs face on a daily basis, spot appearances by celebrities are fine, if disappointing, so long as they are properly labeled and advertised. But many workshops are marred by a two-tiered faculty composed of the Bigwigs, who play a magisterial if peripheral rôle, and the Wannabees, who do most of the face-to-face teaching. The better writers' conferences offer useful instruction and experience to attendees, while others provide more in the way of vacation and extra pay for their teachers.

One of the hidden bargains of paying to attend conferences is that new writers will get to brush elbows with Important Persons and thereby improve their career chances. The M.F.A. program at Saint Mary's College of California advertises itself as "a gathering of well-known authors side-by-side with upcoming writers: sharing and comparing!" Another claims, "At Antioch, you don't just take a writing class . . . you build a career." Such come-ons are bound to pry some bucks loose from aspiring writers, since they tap into everyone's desire to share personal experience, hobnob with the famous, and achieve success overnight.

3) Credentialization. The collecting and marketing of literary credentials has become rampant in recent years. We all do it; we all have to do it. It seems the only game in town, part of the corporate packaging and bottom line of the literary marketplace. After all, a book, like a bar of soap or bottle of beer, sells as much due its cover and advertising as to its actual content. And nothing can boost sales of individual titles like the winning of a prestigious book prize, so it's not surprising that more and more book contests (like the Independent Publishers Book Awards) charge ever more hefty fees for what is essentially a captive market. Readers and buyers of books love prizes and best-seller or year's best lists; such marks of distinction make shopping and decision-making much easier. Most of us rely on these market-driven designations, which are often monopolized by the well-heeled larger publishing houses, more than we realize in our book-buying. Unfortunately, many worthwhile books are left out of this system, marginalized to a remote fen of literary fiction or free verse that can freeze the authors' creative blood.

Credentialization in fact starts early: in university-sponsored creative writing programs. I have nothing against learning writing techniques and sharing ongoing work with fellow writers in a classroom setting. After all, I teach college-level creative writing. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that completing a course or graduating with a degree guarantees that we are Writers. All too often the courses, degrees, and prizes come to substitute for the value of the writing itself. The biographies of too many contemporary authors treat awards and quantities of titles as a mysterious emblem of significance or quality.

One of the late Howard Nemerov's dust jackets trumpets no fewer than twenty-four volumes of poetry and any number of prizes and honors, including Poet Laureate of the United States. Yet surely the poetry must live and breathe and move people on its own, as Nemerov's certainly does. His cheeky poem, "Make Big Bucks! Write Poetry in Your Spare Time," parodies the entire business sharply and wittily, indicating that Nemerov understood the self-deluding insidiousness of our ever-expanding literary enterprise. Luminaries of the past like Donne and Gray and Whitman were content (so far as we know) to be represented by a single volume of poetry. Nowadays the creative writing degrees and prizes continue to proliferate, even as the public reads fewer and fewer quality books.

4) Corporate-Think. This related form of mental deception afflicts us all at one time or another. In a culture that sees money and sales figure as a primary marker of significance, creative writers not surprisingly get caught up in evaluating themselves in corporate terms--or against such terms. It is difficult for poets and dramatists, particularly, not to feel defensive and to rail against mainstream America like Adrienne Rich or August Wilson. Such writers regard their work as a weapon in a larger cultural struggle over power and values. Fiction writers are probably more subject to schizophrenia, since poets know they will never make money at their art, whereas that novel you have been struggling with for over five years could become a best-seller--if only you could find the right agent, the right contact, the right literary "ticket."

Amazon.com's policy of featuring sales figures for all books in its inventory can be especially damaging to authors who work outside the mega-chains. Michael K. Pastore's "Reflections on Writing a Worst Selling Book" describes with refreshing, even charming candor the personal turmoil involved in the assessments we make of our (lack of) book sales and their significance. In a society based squarely on consumer capitalism, writers can easily over- or under-estimate the value of their work based on external signs and appearances, internalizing outward judgments in a way that stifles creativity and well-being.

5) Self-Expression. This is a tricky one. At first glance, self-expression is wonderful. It feels good, everyone can do it, it's so American. (Guaranteed by the Constitution.) The problem is, self-expression does not necessarily mean communication. Nor is it necessarily interesting to anyone but the expressor. That's because communication requires two-way communication between writer and audience, give and take on both sides. At open readings, I've witnessed far too many poets breeze in with windy self-importance, read their ruminations ad nauseam, far beyond the time limits established by the group, then exit Byronically without waiting to hear any other voices. Too many self-proclaimed authors hardly bother to read any more; they're too busy producing their own work and sending it out. They don't care much about the writing of others, and they don't care enough about what audiences expect and need from them in terms of vision, clarity, or coherence. Self-expression in this country too often is perpetrated as an end in itself rather than a beginning toward full participation in a wider dialogue of communal significance.

If we are to succeed in making good writing available and meaningful to a larger public, we must expand our horizons and think in terms of "other-expression": that is, writing for others as well as for ourselves, writing out of and toward dialogue, exchange, and interaction. That requires good listening, giving up some self-oriented prerogatives, celebrating the work of our competitors sometimes, welcoming the feedback and input from readers who may differ widely from us in background and assumption. Too much of recent literary communication has been one-sided and monologic by authors convinced by their own credentials and assessment of self-worth. This is partly the result of living in a me-focused culture, and also due to rapid expansion of writing programs out of touch with readers and their needs.

6) Political Relevance. All literature is to some degree political, whether consciously or not, but recent writing has tended to bifurcate into political extremes. On the one hand, engaged activists like Audre Lorde or Tony Kushner have tended to let politics drive their message, using language as a sharp-edged weapon against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes they deem to be retrograde and inhumane. I like political writing and approve of it. But the danger is that artistic values can be sacrificed to further the larger social cause; Allen Ginsberg's ranting "Howl" is clearly more of a cultural document--albeit a significant one--than a coherent literary work.

On the other hand, the confessional poets of the '60s and '70s--Plath, Lowell, Sexton--and practitioners of what Gregory Orr calls the "postconfessional lyric" tend to seek escape from politics and social issues in the merely private. Yet this too becomes a political act that, at worst, can exclude readers and listeners from other social perspectives and walks of life. Both a preponderance of politics and its absence in writing create distortions through over- and under-emphasis. In truth, the political cannot be divorced from the personal, in life or in art, without distortion. One can see in the more radical activists a use of writing as a tool rather than a means to express human experience; in the confessional writers an escape from social obligation and interaction with otherness.

7) Substitute Religion. Religion and literature don't keep very good company these days in the mainstream literary marketplace, but a number of artists mistakenly believe that they have a special calling as cultural shamans or myth-makers, often of themselves. Writers who try to incorporate traditional religious belief into their work risk derision as "dupes" of church-sponsored bureaucracies and frequently must publish faith-based stories and poems in specifically identified religious periodicals (see the Jan./Feb. 1998 issue of Poets & Writers). Non-believing writers often latch onto like-minded writers, artists, and social movements in order to create and sustain a mythic space for themselves. Hence the rise of post-modernism in our time, whose stance is playfully fragmentary and second-hand in an era of pervasive doubt and socially-sanctioned skepticism. It seems the perfect outlet for a millennial fear of commitment and belief.

Yet even though literature does share elements with religion and mythology and uses them freely, it does not replace either. The arts are where religion and politics meet, the self and the not-self, the community and the outcast, the minuscule and the grandiose, the everyday and the supernatural. To mistake the rituals of workshops, prizes, or "group-think" for literary theology leads ultimately, as it must, to disillusionment and dis-belief. Literature accomplishes most by being what it is: a forum for all the ideas, emotions, values, dreams, complexes, and experiences of a culture, from all quarters, high, low, and middling. Trying to make writing substitute for something missing elsewhere doesn't help us in the long run. Writing is neither religion nor politics, though it shares affinities with both. It is both self-expression and performance for an audience. It is both a creation of the body and mind and a commodity that can be bought be bought and sold. It is where many human contradictions and truths and falsehoods rub elbows one with another.

At a time when corporate and social forces push to reduce literature to a convenient formula, to make a profit at the expense of unwary consumers, to squeeze our imaginations into some kind of consumerist or ideological box, we have to keep our eyes open for all manner of deceptions that seek to distort what we say and what we write for. In order to live honest, healthy lives, we need to unmask the many untruths out there in creative writing, as well as the untruths in ourselves. Otherwise, at some time in the future, the truth debt, like the federal debt, will catch up with us and exact its harsh payment. Those of us who care about the world community and its survival must fight against fraud of all kinds as demeaning, debilitating, and dehumanizing. None of us can be free from participating in life that is murky and confusing, but we can try to check in with our core values on a regular basis and attest to our beliefs and commitments when we find ourselves going astray.

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