On Writing and the Business of Writing
How the book isn't done, until it is.
A very long article about the Jumi Bello plagiarism scandal has come out from AirMail. In brief, if you aren’t familiar with the story: a debut author had her book canceled by the publisher because it contained a significant amount of plagiarism.
The article, which is about what happened and its antecedents and aftermath, is… not great. The journalist focuses on odd, salacious details, fails to draw some obvious points, and misses big questions about the commodification of marginalized identities, the responsibility of due diligence from agents, editors, and publications, how authors often take the fall for systemic industry failures, and the lack of education around the ethics of influence and inspiration1.
I’m not going to address any of those points, though I hope someone does because I think they’re important. But I do think there is something hugely instructive to be taken from this incident—something that teachers of writing and emerging writers alike can learn from—about the business of publishing and the fragility of the creative life.
I should make a couple of disclosures. I appear in the article twice, somewhat incidentally. I also fail to appear in another way: I was Jumi Bello’s professor her final semester at Iowa. The journalist who wrote this piece never reached out to me, and I’m not going to be writing about my experience as her workshop leader or as someone who she plagiarized, albeit briefly. (On this latter point, it’s actually not that interesting of question to me, and like Carole Maso2 I really don’t care.)
But I do have a lot of feelings about the role of the MFA program in an emerging writer’s life, and by extension the relationship between the art and business of writing. (With, I guess, another set of disclosures: I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 2010 to 2012, and director Sam Chang was a teacher and mentor of mine, and remains a colleague and friend.)
There are two parts of the article in particular I want to unpack. First:
While Bello was now somewhat socially isolated at Iowa, she was still outspoken, particularly in her belief that practical matters such as how to get an agent should be openly discussed in the program. But Lan Samantha Chang, the first woman, and Asian-American, to serve as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, saw things differently. She “wanted to do as much as she could to protect this time that we had,” says a former student.
Bello felt that by keeping the publishing process shrouded in mystery, Chang, under whose leadership the program had become more diverse, was inadvertently “replicating the inequity in the system she was trying to combat.” And so Bello went ahead and did it anyway, hosting a series of publishing talks over Zoom called Black Tea, with Black Iowa alumnae such as Dawnie Walton. “I was ambitious,” she says. “I wasn’t just a victim.” … “Money is power in New York,” says Bello. “Writing is power in Iowa. It’s a currency.”
There’s a lot of language here worth parsing. Ambitious. Victim. Money, power, currency. It’s almost exclusively the language of capitalism. And writing is, in certain circles, power. Sure. It is the thing whose presence will (hopefully) serve as your currency and earn you money or power, thus satisfying some of those ambitions. But writing is also writing. It’s an art form3. And a book—specifically, a good one—is also a thing that money and power and ambition can’t give you. None of the trappings of literary success—which can be quick, and flashy, and very exciting4—can substitute for the (singular, difficult, slow, and at times unbearable) work of writing.
The word “victim” in this context is curious in its own right; the idea that the delay of the tools of material success render one a victim. Because that’s true kind of—we all have to eat, we all have to have a roof over our heads; capitalism is our reality and to deny that can render one precarious—and not at all. Writing without an agent (or ten) lined up isn’t allowing yourself to be victimized; it’s simply letting the work percolate without outside pressures.
Which brings me to the second quote I wanted to talk about:
“Not only did I get a top agent, but I got a top publisher and the top editor,” [Bello] marvels.
This is a story about plagiarism, yes, but it’s also a story about something I see so much of—in my capacity as a teacher, a mentor, and just someone who gets asked about publishing literally constantly. That is, how easy it is to let the desire to be published (and by extension obsessed over by name-brand agents, editors, and publishing houses) completely outstrip the act of writing a good book.
Plagiarism is a shortcut, but there are many kinds of shortcuts. This story happens to be a very public and clear-cut example of how confusing the creative work and the business can completely invert your priorities, but I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met who want a ton of advice about publishing even before they’ve finished a single draft of a novel, or even started one5. They want to be published more than they want to write, or sit with what they write. Or revise, or research, or return to the page. Or read.
And honestly it’s easier to cite juicy clickbait publishing scandals around plagiarized books—or, say, racist books like American Dirt or The Continent—as evidence of this phenomenon than come to terms with the sheer number of books that get published and just… aren’t done? And aren’t good? I can’t tell you how many books I pick up and think, “Man, I wish the author had been able to spend another year or two or five with this project.” (Far more frequently than I think, “This book is morally objectionable.”)
I keep coming back to a term I learned years ago from this (be warned!) extremely devastating article about the phenomenon of parents forgetting small children in cars.
British psychologist James Reason coined the term the “Swiss Cheese Model” in 1990 to explain through analogy why catastrophic failures can occur in organizations despite multiple layers of defense. Reason likens the layers to slices of Swiss cheese, piled upon each other, five or six deep. The holes represent small, potentially insignificant weaknesses. Things will totally collapse only rarely, he says, but when they do, it is by coincidence -- when all the holes happen to align so that there is a breach through the entire system.
Here we have something similar—a writer’s desire to do (or not do) the work, the publishing industry’s desire to rush or overlook flaws in a book if it otherwise suits some purpose, a program’s willingness (or not) to protect the creative space for its students. One of those things can fail—maybe two—but when the holes align, it all comes crashing down.
In 2017, Sam Chang delivered remarks at the One Story Debutante Ball—later edited and published in LitHub—in which she addressed the distinction between the writer’s life and the writer’s career. It’s a wonderful essay—I honestly believe it should be required reading for all emerging writers—and I think gets at the root of one of one of our practice’s most tricky contradictions.
We don’t have any real infrastructure to support artists in the United States, and so the work of supporting writers through the process of completing a book falls to things like MFA programs. It’s ridiculously complicated. On one hand, you’re getting funding to write6, which feels like a goddamned miracle; on the other, you’re still entering into the maw of an institution, which is both a place of learning and education and replicates all of the power structure bullshit of the world, and does so as your employer. In many ways it’s a nightmare of labor because it’s easy to forget the employment angle. (And of course it goes without saying that another side effect of this whole thing is that we’ve come to think of MFAs as a necessary part of a writer’s success—either as a writer or as a teacher of writing—instead of simply one path of support for a creative practice.)
Every program is different, in terms of how they manage this reality. Every director has their own relationship with the institution that houses them and is capable of protecting their students to a different degree. The same is true of the industry. Every director is going to (hopefully) have their own philosophy around what their student’s relationship with the business end of publishing should be within the confines of the program. And for some, it’s going to be: let this space be sacred. Just for now. Two years feels like forever, but in the scheme of things it is nothing. Treasure this time, and use it.
I remember the first moment I heard (but did not understand) this point. I was at Iowa and feeling low because none of the agents or editors7 who came through, who it felt were scooping up my friends and colleagues by the handful, had any interest in me. Sam, in her distinctly Sam way, assured me that when she was here as a student she’d avoided the agents all together. “Just write,” she said. “Everything else will follow in its own time.” Easy for you to say, I thought. You’re a renowned published author. You’re the director of the most prestigious MFA program in the world! Of course you can tell me to be patient.
But years later—twelve years after arriving at Iowa, eleven after teaching for the first time, seven after selling my first book, five after that book being published—I can say with confidence that it was literally some of the wisest advice about writing I’ve ever received, even if I didn’t exactly take it. Instead, I spent a lot of time fretting about the fact that no one was placing bets on my success; no editors or agents wanted me; no one was beating down my door or trying to wrestle a manuscript from my hands. And then I graduated and worked at a soap store and adjuncted for practically negative dollars and cried so hard when I didn’t get a teensy tiny minor fellowship and picked away at my book. And it sucked and I was broke and scared. And then—years after graduating—it was done. The book was done. Not done as in, I’d filled it the requisite number of pages. But done as in finished.
I was lucky. Jesus was I lucky. Because there’s an alternate universe where I was writing a (more obviously) commercially viable book in grad school and agents fought over me and I published something not done, something closer to my thesis, which had the seeds of a good book but was not, in and of itself, a good book. Instead, I was forced to sit with Her Body and Other Parties until it was ready. I am so fucking grateful that I got to write the book I needed to, even if I resisted that process at every turn.
It’s true that keeping professional information a secret absolutely can reinforce existing power structures. But keeping it a secret is not the same as not letting it dominate a space8. There is a time and a place for professional development. In theory, we could do both! But in practice, there’s no controlling emerging writers’ emotional relationship to the business end of things, which ranges from profound anxiety to out-and-out careerism, with a lot of bad choices and hurt feelings in between. Treating the MFA as a creative space and doing your best to defend the students in that space from the ravages of a problematic and capricious industry is a highly defensible and cohesive philosophy.
Am I saying that emerging writers need to be protected from themselves? I don’t know. Maybe. I certainly did. Again, it’s one of those things where in theory, no. But in practice it plays out this way so often—both in obvious and non-obvious ways—I can’t help but wonder if it’s a pedagogical issue, and one that all professors and programs should be thinking about very seriously.
I’m not naive. I’m aware that the question of publishing a book can feel like, or be, a matter of survival. Publishing books can open all kinds of doors. Even if the book doesn’t get a massive advance, or sell in blockbuster numbers, there is a kind of cultural cache that accompanies publishing a book that opens the door to other opportunities. Fellowships, residencies, jobs, gigs of all kinds. And people who are, say, independently wealthy are not going to feel the same time pressure as people who aren’t. Capitalism is bullshit. Our country is broken.
But, I am also reminded of the bleating of writers who insist that they “need” to be on social media for their careers, even when social media is draining them of time and energy and the will to create. Even when it makes them miserable and crazy. They are told by their publisher or their peers that they need to be “engaged” and “have a following” in order to sell books (or, at least, they insist their publisher or peers have said this), and so they end up turning over their thoughts and words, for free, to a corporation that doesn’t give a shit if they live or die, instead of writing the book that burns inside of them. What a fucking tragedy. What an absolute waste.
I feel the same way about obsessing over a career, and everything that leads to it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a writing career—just like there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, or on Twitter—but when it comes at the expense of the thing, the fucking thing you’re here to do, then you’ve gone about it all backwards. At some point, you have to ask where the question of survival ends and the question of ego begins. Are you making decisions to satisfy your craft? Or the part of you that wants to feel good about yourself?
The business end of writing is unavoidable9, if you want people to read your work. But you must resist it, until you’re ready. If someone is handing you the tools to do so—to resist the siren song of an industry until the last possible second—you should take them. I am begging you: take them.
There’s something else that Sam told me when I was a student that sticks with me; for many years, I thought about it at least once a day. She said, “You only get to debut once.”
You only get to debut once. I cannot tell you how often I’ve repeated this my students; it’s probably the advice I deliver the most. Because it’s true! Would you rather rush a first book to publication and have it be, I don’t know, just okay? Or would you rather it be described thusly:
Here's a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life, waiting for it to form itself.
That quote is from Anatole Broyard in the New York Times, reviewing Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping. I remember seeing that quote on my copy of Housekeeping, which I bought right after I moved to Iowa, and being really taken with the idea that a debut literary project is an expression of a specific kind of self that will no longer exist after the debut comes out. That you spend a lifetime with a book gathering up inside of you, and you only get one chance for that book, specifically, to emerge. And that book is special in the sense that it is, to paraphrase Sam, the writer’s life untouched by the writer’s career. And that is a rare and precious thing, and should be protected at all costs.
Publishing is a business10. It is a business that intersects with culture, and even shapes culture. But it is still a business. And being a part of that business isn’t bad, as long as you, the writer, are clearheaded about what publishing can give you, and what it cannot. It can open doors and make careers and distribute your work. But it cannot create good art; only amplify it. To quote Sam, again:
Learning not to worry too much is crucial, not only because we have very little control over the book after it leaves our hands but also because this kind of worry is toxic to creativity.
We can’t control the currents and trends of the industry, the business decisions of agents and editors and publicists, the nature of capitalism, the habits of readers. We can’t control book sales or who gets picked for what prize or fellowship or grant or residency. But we can write beautifully, meaningfully, interestingly, completely. Either you believe that what you’re doing is art—and is worthy of being treated as such, by you—or you don’t. That decision is yours, entirely.
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Poets, I suspect, have a far more robust education in how to manage influences and borrow ethically (Collage! Found poems! Erasure!), and I think fiction writers would benefit from a similar one.
She doesn’t explicitly say she doesn’t care, but I think her response seems healthy and I’m more or less in the same boat.
For the purposes of this piece I speaking strictly about literary fiction; not the narrow genre people often confuse with realism, but as the opposite of commercial fiction.
They can also be slow, deceptive, and painfully rare, but that’s another essay entirely.
I really like Summer Brennan’s perspective on this phenomenon:
Most of the would-be authors I encounter in life or on social media who loudly bemoan the fact that they are not yet published have a few things in common. For starters, they often cite an arbitrary age-related deadline. They want to become a published author by the time they are 40, or 30, or even 25, and feel like a failure if they don’t. This is not an ideal creative environment in which to write a book. Maybe they do have a particular book they are working on or querying, and maybe not. Either way, the focus of the complaint isn’t usually on the work of writing, on the success or failure of a particular body of work that they are passionate about, but on wanting or failing to achieve the identity of being an author. (emphasis mine)
(Also, the whole essay is worth reading!)
And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you aren’t getting funding to go to an MFA program, do not go. Keep working on your writing, apply again next year.
Another bit of advice a working-writer professor gave to me that I’ve never forgotten. She observed that we were all scrambling for the attention of the agents and editors coming through, and said, mildly, “You treat the agents like they’re gods, but they work for you. They can’t exist without your creative labor.” It was one of the more useful reframings I’ve ever experienced.
This I don’t understand. Iowa has traditionally permitted agents to come through and have meetings and Q&As with students, and as far as I know that has not changed. It’s always been treated very casually—if you want to go, go. If you don’t, don’t. It’s not clear what else Jumi Bello wanted to happen, exactly, and I am not sure why the journalist who wrote this article did not follow up on this point.
And before anyone comes into the comments yelling about self-publishing: if you think self-publishing is somehow free of the business end of things I have extremely bad news for you.
I feel like I also need to be clear that there are wonderful people working in publishing. (I’ve had a chance to meet many of them!) But as an industry it’s a mess, and if you have any intention of interacting with it at all, you need to learn and understand the many ways in which it has, and continues to, fuck up.