The literary 1%

Regardless of your persuasions as they relate to the larger realm of politics and the social order, you have to admit that there is still something of a literary elite in this country.

I’m referring to the lucky people—of which I am nominally one—who can afford to spend many hours a day engaged in non-paying “work.” These people have the luxury of devoting themselves to something that will, in all likelihood, never earn them more than enough to cover contest entry fees and ink and paper for their printers.

a gathering of Chinese literati sitting in a b...
A gathering of Chinese literati sitting in a banquet composing poetry, eating, and hearing music. Would I have been at home here? (Credit: Wikipedia)

I was reminded of an even more elite “elite” recently when I inquired about Narrative’s four-day intensive workshop. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity to dive deep into my next novel and get feedback from literary peers and professionals. Then I encountered the price, which is—to save you the bother of inquiring—$2,700, not including travel and lodging if you live outside the San Francisco Bay area.

I’m not saying the workshop isn’t a good deal. I have no doubt that attendees emerge from those four days inspired and with more finely honed manuscripts. But for me, other interests are competing for that $2,700. (Health insurance. My kids’ college funds. Car repairs. Groceries.)

It would be a different story if attending the workshop were an investment like that in a trade certificate program at the local community college, from which I’d emerge ready to take on a job as a tax preparer, say, or a green building engineer.  The literary workshop offers no such official imprimatur.

And that’s what makes this workshop—and other, less expensive (because shorter) workshops in which I’ve participated over the years—seem not so much an investment in professional development as an indulgence for a pampered snob.

Am I, really?

I have seen the 1 percent, and she is me (I am she?)

I recently read an as-yet-un-but-absolutely-must-be-published memoir by a good childhood friend. I don’t want to reveal much about it here, but I can say that I found her story awe-inspiring. And it got me thinking about a schism I have always felt in my own life between my identity and my actions. I have never thought of myself as privileged. But thinking is not reality. I must admit I have lived—and continue to live—a privileged life.

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Diss...
A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Dissonance reduction can be accomplished in various ways, broadly including the addition of more, consonant elements, or else changing the existing elements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My fiction has become the place where I wrestle with the cognitive dissonance between who I perceive myself to be and who I actually am. Rather than covet material things, I write about the dangers of materialism. Rather than attend $2,700 writing workshops, I blog about how they are only accessible to a small, elite cadre of writers.

My $6 investment

sixfold.jpbIn the spirit of keeping things egalitarian—and perhaps as a buffer to my cognitive dissonance—I have instead decided to spend $6 to join the next round of Sixfold’s completely writer-voted contest instead of attending the workshop. This investment promises to bring many comments on my writing from fellow writers and a corresponding amount of work for me; I will be reading a lot of manuscripts during November.

What about you? Are you a completely integrated person, or are there parts of you that clash dissonantly with the rest?

8 thoughts on “The literary 1%

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  1. That’s a lot of money for a writing workshop. I’d blanch at that and run. It’s one thing when it’s a conference where you can pitch agents and editors and attend workshops and network and sell books. Even then I try to find conferences that are in the $200-500 range. I also have done presentations so that my attendance is comped.


    1. I suppose it’s like all areas of commerce–there are budget brands and luxury brands. My problem with luxury brands is always value. Will you really get ten times more value from a $2,000 vs. a $200 conference. And then there’s the matter of affording it!


  2. Ha ha! Is there such a thing as a completely integrated person?

    I’m with you. $2700 for a writer’s conference?!? No way. Maybe $2700 for a semester in Iowa. OK, that was a joke.

    Let’s make ourselves another hot beverage of choice, wrap our fingers around the steaming mug, and stare out the window at the changing leaves. it’s hard not to feel funny sometimes about the luxury of writing, but we’re all just taking up air, so we might as well take it up for something we love.


  3. Over the years, Writers’ “Conferences” and “workshops” have become a business – and the promoters make money. (One “featured author” once she depended on the money the workshop “company” provided between book releases…and she published a whole bunch of them)
    It’s hard to pick and choose between what is just flattering then taking money from the naive and the ones that offer real help and insight.
    Sounds like you found a real deal. Another possibility is colleges/universities/CEU courses offer writing/publishing courses – sometimes well know writers are involved there and will take an interest in you if you show promise.


    1. Yes, conferences are big business these days, though I don’t think most of the conference organizers are getting wealthy off their writing workshops, despite the fact that said workshops cost more than the average writer might be able to afford–and I don’t fault anyone for trying to make a living. It’s really part of the age-old relationship between art and commerce. I’m not sure there’s every been a satisfactory answer!

      I’ll let you know how Sixfold works out…


  4. I think my mind has never really caught up to where I am today. In my brain, I’m still that cost-conscious college student who prefers Target to Nordstroms, even though I can actually buy things at Nordstroms now. And attend a writer’s conference, thank goodness, though a $2700 fee would send me running in the other direction. That even beats the priciest medical conferences. By far!


    1. Thanks, it’s good to have outside confirmation that $2700 seems like a rather steep fee for a four-day workshop! I think what you’re describing is the old “I-feel-like-I’m-20-even-though-I’m-more-than-twice-that-old” phenomenon. I am definitely prone to that!


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