On Good Literary Citizenship
Plus: Moving virtual houses
Hello and welcome, friends new and old! This month’s letter is about cooling down in this record-setting summer heat. A slow-burn 15-minute read.
State of the Suyiverse: Gone west
From the Desk: Moving virtual houses
Essay: On Good Literary Citizenship
From the Grapevine: 2023 Ursula LeGuin Prize shortlist
For the Road: Drowned cities
(If you’d like to ask more questions about anything you see in this letter, come by our water cooler AKA our private Discord and do so!)
State of the Suyiverse
As of the time of writing this letter, I’ve jetted off to the North American west to spend some time with family. It’s a surprisingly cool 16C today, compared to Ottawa’s sweltering 31C which I thankfully don’t have to endure. I’m chilling outside and nursing a warm beverage, something I haven’t done in a bit. Come take the empty seat by me, if you will.
I have unfortunately brought some work along. My calendar may be currently sparse, but my deadlines sadly are not, so it’s really like I never left. However, I’m trying my best to insist on time for a few extra-murals: drop into a few local cultural events, meet up with friends old and new, play at least one football game. It’s a juggle, but a feasible one. Especially since a larger household means that more than four eyes are on the youngling’s antics at any point in time. I can afford to look away for more than a hot second, which it turns out, is a really long time.
Listening: Between The Covers, a podcast by David Naimon and Tin House
Reading: Luster by Raven Leilani
Watching: Sisters (featuring Sarah Goldberg of Barry fame), wherein two half-sisters—of Canadian and Irish heritage—attempt to find some grounding in their upended lives by searching for and locating their biological father.
From the Desk: Moving virtual houses
You can now find me in the sky!
I’ve set up tent Bluesky, the latest locale for mass bird app emigration. I’ve also parked my username over at That Other Instagram Place (aka Threads) but you’re unlikely to ever see me posting significantly there. I don’t intend to invest further time/energy in any alt-Twitter social spaces—parking my professional name is more of a security measure than anything else. This newsletter will continue to be my primary space for any significant public engagement (the only other place where I’m active in any useful way is Instagram).
If you message me privately on any of these social apps, old or new, it’s unlikely I will see them in real time, as I have none of these apps downloaded on my phone. I will likely get back to you if/when I spot your message when I log in on the web every other week. The best way to reach me directly is to either email my assistant via the address on my contact page, or join our private Discord channel, where you can get direct and unfettered access to me (and to which I will respond in real time because I have DIscord on my phone).
On Good Literary Citizenship
You have to pick the space you want to occupy, and really occupy it; noisily, obnoxiously occupy it.
I was listening to the most recent episode of The Publishing Rodeo Podcast by authors Sunyi Dean and Scott Drakeford, cheekily titled The Mayonnaise Buffet. Guest author Ella McLeod makes the very fascinating comment above about how to survive as a Black person in a global publishing industry seemingly devoted to catering to the white gaze. This is one of many insightful comments she makes, but this struck me particularly because I realised: this is also, exactly, how to be a good literary citizen.
I’ve been thinking quite recently about a spate of events, both public and private, that have occured in the general reading and writing world in the past few years, and what it means to be good in this “literary nation”. There are some people and institutions of literary import whose actions we’ve come to accept as good in this sense, e.g. a professional from a historically marginalized community suddenly coming into a useful position and swinging open the doors to those who’ve been systemically kept out (Toni Morrison at Random House, Chinua Achebe at Heinemann’s African Writers Series and Sheree Renee Thomas at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction all come to mind, amongst others). But what does good literary citizenship look like for us normies?
Now, we may problematize the ideas underlying the expression “literary citizenship” and what constitutes the moral concept of presumed “good”, but I like to think of good literary citizenship as existing under the same banner as any kind of good citizenship. A shrewd understanding of the existing social contracts, and an effort to engage with them in a way that benefits others as much as it benefits the self. So, we could draw a map around, say, the writer who gives blurbs, teaches public workshops and weighs in on the prevailing human concerns with an even hand, and the book reviewer who reads titles and gushes about them on blogs and microblogs and videos. We may say these people are practicing good literary citizenship. We may expand this map to include all others who contribute to the reading and writing world in a similar manner from within and without, e.g. professionals in the publishing industry who step outside of their nine-to-five roles to contribute willingly to the literary community, or that elderly couple who are always at every bookstore event regardless of who the author is, asking questions, engaging, buying a book or two. Underlying all of this is an ideal that promotes investment of the self toward a collective betterment, whether that is through the more obvious things like charity, mentorship, awards, etc or the more invisible kinds of personal devotion to literary good.
But things are barely this neat, aren’t they? We live in a world of competing loyalties, where the purveyors of the very literary products that form the bedrock of this nation have duties to others that trump this ideal. Whether we’re talking about company shareholders or historically-exclusive institutions or just a singular person’s sense of self-importance, it’s hard to wholesomely participate in a literary nation that runs up against how you want to invest yourself. McLeod, the British YA author who makes the comment above, remembers making a Black History Month post about current traditionally-published Black YA authors in Britain and coming up with only about…five? (Herself included). She describes choosing to work only with publishers who were willing to put her in front of the kinds of people she wanted to reach—young Black kids like her who’d grown up never being handed a book by a Black author with a Black character on the cover, and being told, “Here, this is for you, about you.” You may believe that in this ideal literary nation in which we all want to be good citizens, the very idea of not catering to a select group of young readers, for whatever reason, is abhorrent. Yet such is the state of this quite imperfect nation.
How do you become a good literary citizen, then, when the nation you have unwittingly signed up to be a part of doesn’t have space for you or specific others? You pick the space you want to occupy, and really occupy it; noisily, obnoxiously occupy it. You write that book, you blurb that debut author, you start that mentorship program, you launch that review blog or channel or podcast, you contribute to that library’s services, you volunteer at that local book festival. You invest in the self, toward collective betterment, and hope for the best.
However, I have a follow-up question for McLeod, and for all of us: What happens, then, when you run up against bad literary citizens?
Good stories are not the eminent domain of good people.
A friend during my MFA days told me this on a random drunken night, and I remember the discussion was about the morality of characters in stories. But I’ve returned to this statement again and again whenever I learn of or experience an author or other person or institution in the writing and reading world doing something morally appalling.
The reading and writing world, like any other, is awash with drama and incident, and with that comes the voyeuristic tendency to watch things come crashing down while chomping on popcorn. We’re wont to do this in the salacious manner of tabloids and in the age of ballooning social apps we’re all hooked on. I worry, though, that there is a danger in flattening everything to “drama” and “incident” without looking at the costs of bad literary citizenship.
There are some things we can all agree are choices that will negatively affect members of any such literary nation. Banning books or systemically restricting literature based on political interests. Systemically excluding certain groups of people from being unabashedly represented in literature, for reasons economic or otherwise. Committing a crime or major moral failing that comes with significant consequences of harm for others, whether in the course of professional duty or in the course of simply being, for lack of a better expression, a capital T tool.
Labeling these people the Bad Guys is easy, and most of us are happy to get on this train. It’s trickier with the semi-grey areas, though. The author who punches down in chastising a reviewer. The professional who invests only in opportunities that contribute to self-aggrandizement. The publisher who attempts to rectify decades of systemic inclusion by suddenly showering a token few with everything but the care and attention every author deserves. Everything from “honest mistake made in public” to “person/institution behaving badly” sits somewhere on this scale of minor infraction to abysmal behaviour.
None of this is helped, of course, by our online lives being a removed reality that’s unequivocally linked to our real one. One of the major fails of Big Internet is its collapsing of most people’s ability to compartmentalize matters that require such nuance. Therefore, Bad Literary Citizen of the Day could be anything from a writer calling for the genocide of a real-life community to an agent giving a debut author bad advice. The fact that one will find hand-wringers on both matters is a testament to another of Big Internet’s fails: a democratization of opinion. Therefore, every possible bad actor can weigh into this marketplace-like chatter and be given equal standing, muddying the waters purposefully, so that among the cacophony of voices, you, a Good Literary Citizen, may find it challenging to participate in useful discourse, and may think, Well I’ll just not wade into that. And that is how we end up with a literary nation where “children's books are eight times as likely to feature animal main characters as Black, Asian or other minority ethnic people” or a major awards body featuring genocidal apologists on their guest-of-honor list.
How can one be a Good Literary Citizen when: (1) there are so many Bad Guys around; (2) the grey areas get even greyer and we can’t get a useful word in; and (3) at any point in time, we ourselves may be victims in this cacophony of voices, opinions and bad actors?
These are questions I’ve struggled with for a while too. My hopefully useful, if not satisfactory answer is this: perhaps the aim is not to invest in ticking all the boxes that label you a Good Literary Citizen. Perhaps the aim is to do the only things we can do in such a nation, literary or a real-life nation: you draw a line, and occupy.
Combining the two statements above may give us the best insight on how to proceed. First, we have to always remember that Good stories are not the eminent domain of good people. Imperfect and sometimes shitty and sometimes outright dangerous people can be equally skilled in stellar prose or strong professional acumen or be great critics of literature. We must learn to, at every point, stop and parse. A person or entity may bring joy to the world as well as bitterness. A person or institution may wilfully contribute to causing harm to some while uplifting others (and I use wilfully here to say that, no, this often does not include having only tangential relation to said harm-causing event or entity). This is a fact of life, but we must not let it become the fact of all things. We must draw a line somewhere, and I draw my line at whatever is known to me that wilfully causes irrevocable, unrepentant harm—to me or others, in whatever way.
And then, just like surviving in any real-life nation—even the nations that don’t have space for you or specific others; especially those nations—you pick the space you want to occupy, and really occupy it; noisily, obnoxiously occupy it. You stand in the space that you have created for yourself and you let others in. You venture into other open doors and you share—yourself, your work, your light. You invest—aloud or quietly, take your pick—without a focus on elevating the self over others. You give and receive in equal measure, as much as you can. And then, when you are full, whenever that is, you rest and watch good fruit spring forth, basking in the knowledge that you did the best you could with what you had.
From the Grapevine:
(news from the press & the interwebs)
“Lady Koi-Koi: A Book Report,” my latest short story, is finally available to read online at Apex Magazine.
My forthcoming weekend virtual workshop with the Carl Brandon Society, “How To Author Like a Strategist,” still has a few scholarship spaces available (I think). Check out the details.
The Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction has just announced its 2023 shortlist. On this stellar list are some faves: The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez (which I blurbed) and Drinking from Graveyard Wells by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu. I’m aware the list skews to the more “literary” side of the SFF genre divide, but I’m glad the opportunity exists for works outside of the popular SFF zeitgeist to gain some recognition. As some major SFF awards have begun to fumble the ball in ways small and large in recent times, it helps to know that there are other level-headed opportunities for works that dare to be different. Congrats to the finalists, and I really hope and wish that more international awards of this nature spring forth.
For the Road:
(a miscellaneous column for useful takeaways) | Last month’s takeaway: Five Tools That Make My Author Life Easier
You may be aware that my forthcoming novella, Lost Ark Dreaming (Tordotcom, 2024) imagines a future where whole nations around the West African coast are underwater. I never imagined that I’d be so close in my speculations, but if you’re following any stories about small communities near coastlines around the world, you’d see that these speculations are not so far-fetched. I recently read an intimate portrait of a Lagos shoreline community, Okun Alfa, which I think is important for us to see and realise how major and not-so-far-from-home these environmental changes are. It also gives us a bit of perspective into how a people may respond to these changes, employing interventions ranging from the scientific to the spiritual, all of which feature in this Guardian expose, as well as in the imagined world of Lost Ark Dreaming.
If you’d like to ask a question that’ll be featured in a future letter and answered in an essay, you can drop your question in our private Discord channel. Feel free to share this letter with a friend who may find it useful. See you at the next go-around!