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Can We Talk: Writing Contest Ethics in the Age of Social Media

An interview of a famous writer runs at a website with high visibility, the famous writer generous and personable, the interview conducted by a young writer with small press books. It feels good to see: the two writers reaching across generations to talk about literature. Then, a few weeks later, a small press announces the winner of their book-length writing contest on their Facebook page, and the small press writer from the interview has won, the contest judged by the famous writer. What had been good is sullied. The writers on Facebook quickly chime in with congratulations, and, in what isn’t exactly my proudest moment, I type: “Was it inappropriate for the winner to publish an interview with the judge while entered in the contest?” I know how I feel about it, but I am honestly curious about what others think. The writer hasn’t broken any rules, and the contest was read “blind,” where readers review anonymous submissions, so the judge couldn’t have known the manuscript was from the interviewer. Yet, this interview will be at the top of the Google search for anyone curious about the winner of the contest, and it is evidence of repeated personal contact.

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We don’t have a measure for this kind of situation. We live at a time when writers are more easily connected to each other through social media, and there’s such a thing for emerging writers as “Internet famous.” Many writers on Facebook and Twitter who may not know each other at least know of each other, and we call the annual get together of 6,000 writers at the AWP Conference “the Internet in real life.”

At the same time, writers are desperate for book-length publication, while small presses, with small staffs, often without university affiliation and with budgets that dip into the red, have taken up the important work of publishing debut poetry and short fiction collections. These editors who put in their own money and time—they can publish whomever they want. Yet, they bear the onus of fairness when they advertise a contest. While it’s much easier for writers to network today, it’s also easier for personal connections to be revealed via Google searches. The atmosphere around writing contests has changed, and the online writing community is past due for an open public discussion about ethics and responsibility.


Nepotism and the Jorie Graham Rule

The disqualification of contest manuscripts from writers of close personal affiliation to readers and/or contest judges is unofficially known as “The Jorie Graham rule,” as the result of a scandal that went public when Foetry.com revealed that Jorie Graham selected a winner for a book contest who was her student, who hadn’t even entered the contest, and who she would be married to a year later (the site has not been active since 2007, but archives are available at foetry.com). Letters between the judges were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and there were whispers of mail fraud, a felony offense, since money was collected through the U.S. Postal Service.

In an interview at We Who Are About to Die, Alan Cordle, the creator of Foetry.com, was asked about the impact of the whistleblower website, and he said:

Poetry publishing post-Foetry is a mixed bag. Countless competitions adopted the Jorie Graham Rule and/or the CLMP [Council of Literary Magazines and Presses] code of ethics. Few would credit those changes to Foetry.com. The CLMP code was a huge disappointment. I asked to be included in the roundtable discussion and Jeffrey Lependorf declined. The people who participated in the creation were some of the worst offenders…. The ethics code is a wishy-washy non-position–so as not to offend anyone, I imagine. Any press can claim to adhere to it and then do whatever the hell they want.

As someone who has entered book-length writing contests for years (including the infamous Zoo Press contest, where the publisher misspent the money and cancelled the prize), I have to say that CLMP’s Code of Ethics is vague. Inappropriate relationships are never defined, nor are contest models, nor what might be done when close relationships are identified, while the word ethic/ethically appears six times:

CLMP’s community of independent literary publishers believes that ethical contests serve our shared goal: to connect writers and readers by publishing exceptional writing. We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest. To that end, we agree to 1) conduct our contests as ethically as possible and to address any unethical behavior on the part of our readers, judges, or editors; 2) to provide clear and specific contest guidelines—defining conflict of interest for all parties involved; and 3) to make the mechanics of our selection process available to the public. This Code recognizes that different contest models produce different results, but that each model can be run ethically. We have adopted this Code to reinforce our integrity and dedication as a publishing community and to ensure that our contests contribute to a vibrant literary heritage.

It’s surprising how far some presses are willing to go to ensure contest integrity. The University of Georgia Press’s Flannery O’Connor Prize and The University of Nebraska Press’s Prairie Schooner Prize spell out every step of the selection process. It should be noted that these are blind contests, where the manuscripts are submitted anonymously, which is the norm, but for the Nebraska or University of Georgia Press’s book contests, if a reader even so much as recognizes the work submitted, they are supposed to inform the contest administrator so that the manuscript can be reassigned.

The reasons for these presses going out of their way to avoid any appearance of favoritism should be obvious: because careers can be made, because nepotism is a regular part of publishing, and because writers have paid contest fees. There are very few opportunities to publish poetry or short fiction collections and the small presses have mostly taken over this work. Since contests are self-funded, there’s little financial risk and the press will very likely come out ahead (even a lesser known contest will likely receive more than 400 entries, and with each entry bringing in twenty dollars or more, that’s $8000 to cover the $1000 prize and the publishing costs). What is normally a risky endeavor for a press, to publish a book of poetry or short fiction from an emerging writer, is paid for up front regardless of sales. For the writer, winning a book-length contest can give them the line in the vita that lands a teaching job. It can be the thing that gets a literary agent to take notice of their work. It can lead to more publishing opportunities down the road.

I don’t believe that nepotism in publishing is necessarily a bad thing. Anyone who has ever gone through a slush pile knows that there are times when nothing excites enough to be selected, and solicitation isn’t exactly a dirty secret. Editors I knew personally have published my work. As a guest editor, I’ve also published friends. I can align my choices by what the CLMP Code of Ethics proclaims: I connected readers and writers by publishing exceptional writing. Nepotism in publishing can be defended since friendships often develop out of a mutual respect for each other as writers.


When it comes to contests, however, close personal relationships between writers and editors, or writers and judges, should come under scrutiny. Writers should know better than to enter contests when they are friends with the people making the selections. Conversely, the people making the selections should disqualify without hesitation once they discover the entries of friends.


The Appearance of Nepotism in Book-Length Writing Contests in Recent Years

When a writer receives that dreaded email or letter from the press that announces the winner of the contest they’d entered many months ago, there tends to be a sinking in the gut. The writer had been hopeful about the contest, and here was confirmation that they hadn’t won. To rub in the salt, in these letters presses tend to be overwhelmingly excited about the fact that someone else had won. It’s common for the language in these letters to declare that “one manuscript stood out above the rest” and/or that there was “a clear winner.” Writers pick themselves back up because they knew when they entered that the odds of winning were slim, and the selection of one manuscript over another always involves subjective taste no matter how objectively the contest administrators try to frame it.

In the Jorie Graham / Foetry era, people who knew about personal connections in contests outed the writers and judges via the Foetry website. We all kind of knew each other, even then, and there was hesitation by some presses to forbid friends of the judges from entering contests because they saw the poetry community as a small tightly knit group. Today, writers’ websites are mostly interested in pop culture and there’s tremendous pressure for writers to be supportive of each other online. With no forum for these kinds of discussions, there’s no reason to believe that the small universe of editors and authors would behave any differently from any other professional network, where the whistleblowers are punished.

I’ll use concrete examples to illustrate the problem, but I won’t name any presses or writers. I’m not out to smear these writers or editors. They made different decisions than other writers and editors would have, but there’s a lack of definition and no clear right way. As a community we need to strive toward an ideal, since “close personal relationships” will become increasingly more difficult to define when we’re all already Facebook friends and we engage with each other daily on Twitter, though we also can’t collectively throw up our hands and simply give up. The editors who run contests, and the writers who enter them, should approach contests with a greater sense of ethical responsibility.

I don’t want to give the impression with the following examples that a prize was awarded to a friend of the judge because of a friendship. I think it’s always more complicated than that. What I do believe, however, is that the contest result was ethically compromised, and that’s enough to matter. In order for a friend of the judge to win a contest, a failure of ethics had to occur on the part of at least two people, the writer who entered despite knowing the judge, and the judge who awarded the prize despite the friendship—each of whom could have individually put a stop to the submission. In that spirit, the instances that follow are not intended to be taken as accusations of nepotism, but to illustrate the appearance of nepotism, which in itself demonstrates a failure on the part of at least two people to strive toward an ideal and suggests that the processes or the people involved at that particular press during that particular contest were measurably ethically compromised.

In order to have a meaningful discussion, I’m presenting these examples anonymously. The press names that follow are made up, since small presses, by definition are noble entities and I really don’t want to take anyone down after they’ve done so much good work. These are presses I respect and the writers, editors, and judges were kind enough to allow me to quote anonymously from our email correspondence in the spirit of open dialogue, though they were understandably hesitant.


The “’Blind Reading Defense.

The winner of a recent Edible Crayon Prize (not the name of the press) was selected by a judge who went to the same graduate writing program, at the same time, as the winner. The judge and winner also remained in contact after graduate school as members of an online writing group. Edible Crayon is a small press with a small readership, but their prize has authority. When Edible Crayon was contacted about the contest result for this article, press founders Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna (not their names) said that they “were not, and are not aware” of the relationship, which would mean that neither the winner nor the contest judge ever disclosed it. Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna also said:

…one of the reasons we founded Edible Crayon Press was in response to our suspicion of cronyism in presses both big and small and how that determined what and who those presses published, and our desire to create a press free of that where we could bring to light new voices and genres, and promote that work. We’re proud that all of our books—aside from one anthology—have been by authors who were new to us and chosen out of a reading period or because of a query letter rather than solicited. We’re also proud that the majority of our books are the authors’ first or second book, and we’ve enjoyed seeing our authors’ careers take off as they gain a larger audience.

The Edible Crayon Prize was read blind, with the finalists sent to the judge anonymously, as is common for contests of this type. The press did what they could to keep the contest fair, yet this contest result carries the appearance of nepotism, despite the good intentions and practices of the press editors.

Beautiful Legs Contest, 1949 (11)

Burnt Sienna and Periwinkle asked me to contact the judge and the winner to let them know about this article. The contest judge didn’t deny a friendship with the winner, did not tell the editors of the press about that relationship, but instead used the common safeguard of the blind reading as a dodge of personal responsibility while possibly damaging the reputation of the press. The contest judge should have let the editors at Edible Crayon know about the friendship and left it up to them whether or not to move forward with the winner, a situation that the writer put them in, since the writer should not have entered. In a follow-up email, editors Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna informed me that, as a direct result of this contest result, “…we have made what we thought was a clear understanding with the judges more formal by including a note with the anonymous finalist manuscripts we send to the judge that asks them to immediately let us know if they recognize the work of any of the finalists as a friend, family member, former or current student or colleague, and any other close personal relationship. Once the judge selects a winning manuscript, we tell the judge the winner’s name and ask again if they know the writer.” While I have criticized the CLMP code of ethics for being vague, as this quote from the editors makes clear, all the relationships that might be suspect can lead to a long and growing list. CLMP has made available the roundtable discussion, “Creating a Code of Ethics for Competitions,” a discussion of ethical models and practices that can be used to govern the selection process of competitions, so that there are maps for this kind of detail-oriented approach. Except that the landscape has already changed and online relationships will elude definition.

Unfortunately, writers will very likely continue to enter contests where they know a judge, because they feel they can enter so long as their own relationship hasn’t been explicitly forbidden in the contest rules. They are eyeing book-length publication and everything is seen through that lens. After I rudely commented on the Facebook post where the small press had announced the contest winner who interviewed the famous writer / judge, this contest winner emailed me, upset that I would use the press’s Facebook page to smear. However, there is no public forum for this kind of discussion, and the facts were already out there for anyone to see. My mention of what the writer had done was seen by the writer as worse than what the writer had done. The writer had had a choice: enter the contest or publish the interview. The writer’s ambition, however, wouldn’t allow the writer to see the two options as exclusive, and the writer had to do whatever it took to advance. We went back and forth about this in emails, with neither of us conceding a point. The winner of the contest hadn’t broken any rules by publishing an interview with the judge – there’s no explicit rule against that. But decorum should dictate, and this writer should have held off with the interview until after the contest winner had been announced.

We live at a time when relationships are slippery and it seems that if we don’t have specific contest rules that define every possible relationship, writers will feel justified pushing the limits of what might be appropriate. The winner of the Edible Crayon Prize responded in kind, though more defensively. I’m quoting the email to me from the winner of the Edible Crayon Prize in full, in order to represent this issue from the point of view of an ambitious writer:

I’m sorry, but do you not like my book? Do you think it didn’t deserve to win?  It’s my understanding that it is the most popular title to date. Isn’t it a little late to worry about this?

I submitted my book because I had entered two previous Edible Crayon contests. As I’m sure you know, there are not a lot of contests, but the first time I entered I was a semi-finalist. I received positive feedback on the other manuscript as well. Also, Edible Crayon Press is known for genres that best describe my work. I prepared three separate manuscripts for the contest, before I knew who was going to be judge. When I found out who it was going to be, I considered not entering, but I had made a pact with myself to enter several contests. I realized I would be taking myself out of the running for a lot of contests if I didn’t submit to those where I knew the judge. Regarding the Edible Crayon contest, in the end, there was not a monetary prize, just publication, so it did not seem to be blurring any ethical lines. I felt that if anyone had a problem with my entry I would just be out the entry fee. I’d like to note here, that my BA is in philosophy, and I am a VERY ethical person who has actually gone to a great deal of trouble to actually STUDY ethics. The Edible Crayon contest was a blind reading. I decided to let my work stand for itself. 

Everyone seems to know everyone. You and I are Facebook friends. In a world as connected as this one has become, where should one draw the line? It would be almost impossible to enter any contests or have any work published if one became too hung up on relationships. 

Your first book was published by Atticus. Your wife is an editor at Atticus Review, right? Do you consider that nepotism? Just wondering.

As writers and editors we all tend to think of ourselves as ethical human beings, since writing and publishing are not entered into lightly. Yet, the defense that “we all know each other” is becoming common, and I feel like we need to strive toward a greater ideal, especially since it is likely that online networking will make it more difficult for presses to run ethical contests from here on.

For my own part, I’ll address this writer’s counter-accusation. Yes, I have a novel with Atticus Books and my wife was an editor at Atticus Review, but my wife became the editor at Atticus Review after my book was already published. My relationship with the press’s founder made it possible for me to recommend my wife to him when he was looking for an editor. You’re supposed to have a close personal relationship with the people you recommend for jobs. Nor was my Atticus Press novel selected as the result of a contest where fees were collected, but my book was sent via open submission. Writers behave publicly with effervescing positivity online, but there’s nastiness simmering under the surface. The winner of the Edible Crayon Prize uses the question, “Where should one draw the line?” as a way of dodging responsibility for entering a contest that many writers would have chosen not to enter.


Another Contest, Another Instance of the “We All Know Each Other” Defense.

Chemical Press (not the real name of the press) has been a springboard-to-success for fiction writers and their contests are important. Chemical Press has three editors (not their real names): Hydrogen, Helium, and Nitrogen. Each read and selected manuscripts for a contest where the winner was a writer Nitrogen went to graduate school with and whose work Nitrogen endorsed on a personal blog. Press founder, Hydrogen, had this to say about the contest result:

Chemical Press has rejected countless submissions by friends, colleagues and peers. For Chemical Press all that matters is the writing. We have rejected famous writers whose work would have made us money but what they sent to us was substandard. We have rejected good friends and people we work closely with. We’ve rejected students and people we admire. Nothing matters to us but the writing. It is clear in our guidelines to the contest that we won’t turn our back on people somehow connected to Chemical Press, tangentially or otherwise. The winner’s manuscript was by far the best.  

Chemical Press uses the fact that they regularly reject the work of friends as evidence that the reading process is fair and objective.

Co-editor, Helium, repeats the fallacy:

I am well aware of the fact that the winner attended graduate school with Nitrogen (though will tell you that Hydrogen is horrible with names and until Nitrogen self-recused from the process, Hydrogen probably was not aware). The book was selected by myself and Hydrogen as the winner of the contest after we had moved it into the long list of finalists, as Nitrogen self-recused from the process due to this and many other manuscripts. Chemical Press has stated from the beginning of the book contest many years ago that we would not eliminate any potential entrants due to their knowing us or vice versa, that as years move forward that eliminates an incredible amount of fantastic potential manuscripts. For us, it simply comes down to the best manuscript. Chemical Press doesn’t use guest judges for our contest. The contest is judged by Hydrogen and Helium. Over the years since we began we have turned down (within and not within contests) numerous people that we both consider friends, even close friends. We’ve lost friends over this. We truly simply care about putting the best books out year after year and believe we’ll be doing so when we publish the collection from this year’s winner.

Whatever Hydrogen and Helium claim, I don’t think the writers who entered their contests were made aware that Chemical Press encouraged friends to enter. Should Chemical Press publish the work of a friend, those who entered should simply understand that the selection process was fair.

As Hydrogen explains, how could Chemical Press possibly disqualify when they know just about everyone:

With all due respect, between myself and Helium and Nitrogen we probably know 75% of all the working and writing literary fiction writers going today. If we removed everyone we knew from the contest we’d be down to 6 people and their illiterate cousins. Of the folks who entered our contest we knew many. We rejected all but one.

When writers who know the judges enter a Chemical Press contest, they enter as one of a large, if privileged, crowd of friends.

Nitrogen did not wish to be quoted in this article, but in correspondence Nitrogen explained that there were several entries that couldn’t be judged fairly and Nitrogen left those submissions for the other editors to read. Nitrogen self-recused once the finalist stage was reached without identifying any friends’ manuscripts or revealing the reason for stepping aside. Nitrogen didn’t believe that friends could be judged fairly, even though Hydrogen and Helium claim that friends were always encouraged to enter their contests.

As Hydrogen put it:

We at Chemical Press judge in house. We can’t then step aside or we’d have no one left to judge. The winner won fair and square. I am sorry the perception disturbs you but there is nothing going on that rises to the level of impropriety. I wish I could convince you but I fear I cannot. Perhaps when you read the winner’s work you will see how pleased we are to have our winner.

I want to repeat that I don’t believe anyone won these contests because of who they knew, but that these contests were ethically compromised, and appearances matter.

There’s simply not a blind process or easily definable category of “personal relationship” that is going to fix this. We all need to strive toward a more stringent ethical ideal, yet that clearly means different things to different people. The chance of book-length publication will continue to seduce writers into entering contests where they know the judges. The ambition of these writers allows them to ignore or make light of personal connections with the judges. Meanwhile, judges and editors claim that the “quality of the work” negates any personal contact, amidst an atmosphere were nearly all of us are making at least some contact. It’s almost as if self-regulation and striving toward an ideal are somehow counter to the aims of running a contest. Knowing this, writers should only enter contests by presses they wish to make charitable donations to, with clear eyes, and no expectations. Writers can’t rely on judges or selecting editors or even other writers to change the way contests are run without added pressure. However, the pressure is currently in the opposite direction, with writers encouraged to be more connected and more supportive of everyone, no matter what.

A writer airs a complaint about the personal connections between winners and judges, and the facts of the case are summarily dismissed in private correspondence, with no public forum. Most of the collective moral outrage of the writing community is reserved for the gaffes coming out of the pop culture, whereas the disgruntled writer is effectively silenced by the oppressive positivity of writers cheerleading online.

IMG_profile_cropJohn Minichillo is the author of The Snow Whale. His column, “How to Be a Better Teacher-Person Through Apathy,” will run at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency from October 2015 through October 2016. He teaches in Tennessee and lives in Nashville.

Seasoned with Salt: Adding Flavor to the Independent Press

1. Setting Apart the Independent Press

What attracts an MFA program graduate—or a current MFA student, for that matter—to an independent publisher stems from the dog-eat-dog world of big publishing. The competition to legitimize yourself as a published author is extreme. Some have a kneejerk reaction about indie publishing and think that those who choose to publish this way do so as a desperate, last resort–an attempt to reverse the failed MFA syndrome that stigmatizes the perpetually rejected writer. Publishing with an independent press insists that our stories must be told, that our prose is necessary for the world at large, no matter how small the reach may be. It is worth telling, and it is significant and doesn’t require legitimacy from big publishing to enrich its value.

Unknown-1In a writer’s forum online, a fellow author recently said, “So many contemporary novels seem manic, agitated, escapist, goofy, fantastically un-serious, and concerned with nothing of lasting value.” I agree with this assessment because I’ve come to realize, as my family launches our independent publishing press, that little is expected of novels. This assertion is considered old-fashioned in the present day culture and for the few like us, the purpose of establishing an independent publishing press will allow writers to produce a fiction that removes itself from the pressures of a market that craves more vulgarity, more immorality, more profanity, and more cynicism.

To be keenly aware of our position in the culture and to notice what sets us apart or what makes us like the rest, to observe our environment and our behaviors can be the edicts that measure our success in publishing. A good sum of what makes one a successful author is credited to the achievements that endow them: their alma mater, their social circle, and even to a degree, their appearance. All this indeed is how the aspiring author brands herself in the 21st century, following an order, therefore canceling out the work of her words and the diligence of her hands.

Why are so many writers branded as angry, bitter, and abounding with self-loathing? Because the pursuit of publishing traditionally means withstanding the line of unfairness. Rather than continue to ponder what can be done, how this can all be reconciled, it is more urgent to define the present day landscape of publishing. American fiction is churned through a manufactured assembly-line. It is produced and reproduced, reused and upcycled. It is hard to imagine that the big presses will ever release their hold on what Americans are reading en masse, as it is a systematic and regimented industry, where commercial literature is ubiquitously available and lauded.

So what glory does independent publishing possess, given the pathologies we find in big publishing? What benefits are there for independent publishing after the MFA?

  • More deliberate representation of the writer’s work. The writing that an independent press can identify with will eventually be brought to life as it skips getting sifted through a commercial machine. A work is able to retain its character because the press is less likely to negotiate its integrity, as opposed to relegating it to a sales pitch of sorts, that difficult-to-sell-to perception commercial publishing is sensitive to.
  • More opportunities to write. The writer is less likely to continue submitting over and over again to all those possible markets that will never bite the bait. What ends up happening to a writer who is actively seeking a market is that he languishes. A writer doesn’t write when he is out to market. A writer’s greatest need is to write and he cannot accomplish this if his time is consumed at the post office.
  • More mutual engagement and participation. Publishing a book independently is all contingent on the writer partnering with the indie press. An indie publisher gets schooled more quickly and intimately on the project it is publishing, along with learning how to sharpen a writer’s craft and bring it to its full potential through the editing process in order for it to narrate a compelling story or argument. This appeals to writers who won’t perceive their work as a token of sales and instant gratification for a market hungry for trends that are temporal and that last as long as a vapor.
  • Independent presses stay connected with writers. We can experience the literary world despite what trends may be looming at any given season by connecting to several writers and other independent presses. This allows us to avoid growing stale and monolithic. Because we run on a short staff, the labor is intensive, yet is appealing nonetheless as we can help our writers grow in the environment that is writer-centered, not corporate-centered, rising above the overhead of mammoth infrastructure.
  • Independent presses carve themselves out of what not too many people are looking for. We are able to rouse from the stagnation of mainstream literature that is relentlessly intolerable of a worldview that isn’t our own. As a fledgling independent publisher, we don’t necessarily fall into the current trends of the day so we can focus on delivering the best literature to the niche market we hope to support. We exist not just to exist, but to attract those drawn to that niche, growing and gaining visibility in the process, opening it up to go reach beyond with our message.

Independent publishing as a post-MFA writer doesn’t promise the commercial attention and adulation to which many emerging writers aspire. Publishing with an indie press is a deviation from the eventual expectations of what a big publisher would warrant of a writer turned author: being put through channels of approvals and daunting performance standards. Writers who succeed in this atmosphere of expectancy have a lot to lose and much to risk for the propagation of branding oneself as an author. Shedding the moniker of writer in exchange for that of author is no small feat, for the habitual noise of growing a platform of followers and fans in the social media stratosphere breeds more competition for attention, saturating the marketplace of ideas with frivolous or trivial calls for action: click, retweet, like, etc. I find myself sucked into this monster, loathing it as a necessary evil to the industry we find ourselves in. But, ironically, it only compels me and my fledgling indie press to persevere, to write outside of the box, outside of the matrix of mainstream literature, and more importantly, to get out of the pigeonhole that besets us.

2. Epiphanies after the MFA

There was a time when writers wrote alone, solitary, reclused in a cabin tucked away in the wilderness. This has no place in the psyche of a writer today. We write in coffee shops, libraries (which no longer observe silence), and hotel lobbies where the noise levels of music are abrasive to the soul.

imagesAs I recall my days as an MFA student—now 15 years in the past—I wonder what would have happened to me if I had kept a pulse on the industry, on the ever changing market of publishing, if I hadn’t kept myself tucked away for so long. Now, I am regaining traction and mining information that was not readily available during a time when a small percentage of businesses had a web presence. I don’t pull my writing from the same well I did in the MFA and because of that, I am conflicted and find it necessary to choose where I want to go with my writing, and in what direction I want our independent publishing press to go in. Fifteen years of lost time was like being struck in something unexplained, like living in an episode of the X-Files, or the Twilight Zone. I could almost hear Rod Serling monologue my confusion, my apprehensive interest in the 21st-century literary world:

Erendira, a homeschool mom, who once burned the tip of her pen over the pages of black composition notebooks now finds that 15-year interval has left her frozen in time. Mobile phones, apps, cloud computing, and Google have turned many a writer’s writing process into a convenience store ready for the taking. These technologies—we’ll soon find—give Erendira a new lease on life and the much anticipated nudge she will need to recover the drought in her quill, ushering a renaissance that can only be found here at the confluence of the 21st century and the Twilight Zone.

That seems to sum it up for me. A confluence. I am merging and emerging (again) and identify myself with the writers that are coming out of the MFA and forging onto a mainstream literary culture that is unforgiving and relentless.

Today, I regret to disparage my past published stories, urban worlds inhabited by young people—unmarried, unhurried and torn between their bicultural sensibilities. I am grateful that it was a period in my life when I was able to explore the world of publishing on a fundamental level, and at the time, as an MFA graduate, it was quite rewarding to have been published in succession.

I have never forgotten where I was in the MFA: fear and curiosity in one hand, surrender and renewal on the other. At present, I have completed two short stories that I began to write ten months ago—in between teaching my kindergartner how to read, and teaching my fourth grader how to dress-up his sentences. Nothing has solidified yet. Two stories that are autobiographical in style as my past stories were, however, more notably this time with an influence from the writers I’ve been reading—the lush prose, the non-linear direction with a plot narrated in flashbacks, long sentences that encapsulate character-centered stories. I’ve found that once I completed these works, I went to market and wow, was it hard to find a home for them! I know the old adage: Short story collections are a fairly tough sell these days as publishing tightens and fewer break through, including those classified as a novels-in-stories. This, along with other deviations from what the MFA is expected to manifest, has opened my eyes to the rigors of being a writer, enough so that I am motivated to launch, with my husband, an independent publishing press.

Post-MFA Expectation #1: The expectation to teach.

In the MFA, we were encouraged to become writing teachers. We followed along, exhausting ourselves with grading papers. Repeat the cycle and if you’re one of those few, you’ll make it to the faculty at a community college, after paying your dues as an adjunct.

It appears, then, that fiction writers are professors, lecturers, and faculty. As teachers, we like to think of ourselves as agents directing traffic. Write this way, avoid that, explain the other, and omit the former. What is your point? What can you use to support your thesis? We direct the traffic of words spinning on the road map of a wilderness lost. It is wild and it is noble to help others learn to write. Just like helping others read. I do this every day with my children. But likewise, as teachers, we can identify bad writing and then find out that habitually reading dull writing has made our critical thinking lose its luster. An MFA recipient that continues in academia as a teacher will grade papers and relinquish time devoted to craft and writing of their own. If a writer follows the sequence determined for them in the MFA, they will perhaps settle for being an adjunct, like I did, and be in no hurry to pile on more commitments that would put a dent in their writing.

I was heavily distracted with the job of correcting others’ writing, of scouring through compositions riddled with memoir and opinion and no critical thinking that engaged or inspired a response. I lost my passion for writing after reading and teaching the mechanics of a good sentence, all the way through demonstrating a premise and following it to its logical conclusion. I still meet people today that aspire to write, but don’t want to do the work it takes to write well. They are not practicing their craft, let alone honoring their writing in truth. There is an absence of integrity in the writing as writing begins to look more carelessly drawn and slack in execution.

Aside from teaching writing, the writer may pursue all the edibles the writing life has to offer: awards, grants, fellowships, conferences, colonies, and other similar prestigious consumables that revel in the competitive market. Although these milestones in the writer’s life give them an edge in the marketplace, there is much to be gleaned from them nevertheless. Ultimately, rejection is what the writer learns—and they learn it well.

The indie writer is likely to be concerned with the number of projects she needs to juggle rather than with the market she needs to please and all that will entail, thus she has the bandwidth needed to focus on craft. That is why telling a good story is a serious feat and is not for the faint of heart. Writers who trust their readers enough to give them the best they have to offer—the best they’ve assembled from writers that support an aesthetic that bewilders, that moves and provokes a response to their writing—are the writers that will have a solid niche that can embrace them best through independent publishing, devoid of the marketing machine that pressures them to comply to a trend.

Post-MFA Expectation #2: The expectation to fit a mold.

I read in Anis Shivani’s essay entitled, “American Fiction in Dismal State,” that writers today are “polite, sociable, inoffensive, wanting to spark no controversy, staying clear of any dangerous, big, meaningful ideas, even at the cost of their own increased commercial viability. To win the game by making a large statement, and thus causing discomfort within one’s established social zone, is not worth winning the game at all.”

This is a wretched consequence for the MFA alum who, like me, has run through the mill of a writing program only to discover that the market is saturated with mediocre new writers who are very savvy in the fields of self-promotion, of acquiring a platform of followers, likes, mentions, and all other adulation, turning them into billboard wordsmiths. They are witty and charming, but vacuous in advancing the cause of literature because it is instantaneous and necessary to plug in and become visible. Where is the time invested to write, if trends and information sound bites are in order throughout the entire day? Reaching people is urgent in these cases, thus writing and crafting become secondary.

After returning to the current literary scene, I’ve come to realize in greater detail that the fight for even morality in the marketplace is paper thin. Shivani writes:

The individual fiction writer would have to be strong enough to take the moral offensive against writing that deludes the reader into thinking that his private ignominies are worth celebration and memorialization. He must buck the trend by going against the monopoly on career rewards currently held by the writing industry (which for all intents and purposes blacklists and boycotts real outsiders, although of course the terms of the game can’t be framed so bluntly), and by fighting the herd mentality of publishers whose interest is no longer to discover great fiction and build writers’ careers, but who only want to replicate the last great sensation… To come to writing from a strong moral position, some belief in universal values that makes one sleepless and distraught, will be like a fat, bald, ugly man crashing in on a slumber party of blonde supermodels. [Emphasis mine]

It is true, we want to be the next [enter your favorite writer here] and that is impossible to attain. Sure, we are influenced by our favorite writers, but it appears the big publishers want to fit a square peg into a circle, or vice versa. Remember, big publishers are for what sells, and what is trending, and right now, it looks like immorality is the soup du jour. The independent publisher, as I see it in my own purpose, will work hard to demystify this, to make room and to lend space for those writers that are weary of the same flavor of soup that the big houses are serving. Personally, we have found as an independent press that the mainstream only has in small doses what we like to read, but as hungry as an audience is, it cannot live on soup alone, soup that has lost its flavor. We will feed the niche market that we serve with what the soul hungers most: a wholesome diet of goodness that quenches its thirst during this scarce season in the literary world.

Post-MFA Expectation #3: The expectation to speak the same language.

Far too often, we see work that is immensely agenda driven that it no longer seems original or challenging, but rather trite and predictable. I read what many may think is a politically neutral stance on subject matter, but in reality it is not. It is riddled in fear. Writers become so afraid to be honest that they believe doing so may offend and become incendiary, thus pegging them as a prude or as preachy and fundamental. I remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”

I’ve experienced a fear to speak about authentic truth in light of morality and faith because it may be too political, and does not align with the group-think mentality of the present day literary market. I ask myself why most markets are unwelcoming of Christian themes, or conversations of a Judeo-Christian framework in the context of literature? Why is it that these areas of subject matter become too uncomfortable for the masses, enough so that they blacklist their writers as controversial, and antagonistic? I can relate to what Shivani eludes to when he says that taking a strong moral position ruins the party.

The mainstream literary market praises the many varieties of profane fiction manufactured today. Over a decade ago, one particular emerging writer whom I corresponded with on several occasions via postal mail (yes, writers wrote letters back then) was lauded as the new voice of our generation, a breakthrough for writers of color to take note of. Although I do not take any of that away, I regret that writers of color seem to be communicating in the same voice that is define for us today. It is not hyperbole. The liberal culture considers this shift as new and fresh, evoking a new type of literary expectation, outputting it to the mainstream. When this happens, when there’s no more room left in the echelons of debut writing, new talent, new voices, as it were, it in fact perpetuates the obscurity of that voice which doesn’t roar for attention, lest it be controversial, political, ambitious, and disobedient to the indulgences of what the establishment expects of a minority writer. In other words, it’s as if a writer of color is told: you’re a minority, thus, your characters need to curse, blaspheme, and more importantly, they need be fighting their way through racism or misogyny or any other hang up. And they need to be immoral.

This is not to say that all characters depicted in our fiction should be goody-goods or oversimplified, but off-the-page implications of character flaws don’t short-change a story. Let the reader work. Let the reader think for themselves. Let the reader interpret the complexity of why characters do what they do—or don’t do.

It is disconcerting that in the literary world—when it comes to matters of a Christian polemic—depictions of morality and faith continue to be over- simplified or else are ignored all together. These approaches to writing—or editing a faith-filled piece—stumps the work’s full potential. Because critical thinking is a necessary tool to use to read this type of writing, it is work, and readers don’t want to work. They want to be entertained. They want to off-load analysis and symbolism to the workshop space, or to literary criticism—but not to publishing. Thus, the work is dismissed.

I think this is why many writers who do not want to oversimplify their faith seek publishing with an independent press. Case in point: I can only surmise that because my characters walk on the periphery of a Christian faith, they are deemed irrelevant to the culture, or are marginalized for political reasons. They are not worthy of attention for their source of influence is relegated in society. Editors don’t offer full disclosure as to why these types of pieces get cast out early, or later in the tier—and understandably so, they have feedback parameters in place, okay. But when you read literary journals devoid of these themes, you realize that indeed there is a deficit, there is a need, and more importantly, there is a reader for this type of work seeking literature that shares this sensibility. For too long, since I was an MFA testing the trends of the day and then living outside of it for a while, there has been an exception to the banal call for diversity. Writers treating on Christian themes are not invited to participate in any discourse that is mainstream—unless it defames the biblical institution—so an independent publishing press that can deliver to this niche market is in a critical position because it undoubtedly will imprint itself in the reading repertoire of these types of writers seeking to share their work with those that will find it significant.

3. Closing the Gap Full Circle

The independent press fills the void. As an independent press, we need to decide what we want to publish. That decision doesn’t come from the demands of a market that wants to continue reading about cannibalism (vampire books) or sexual immorality and escapism (chick lit, romance novels). Are readers debased to such a degree that they don’t ruminate on matters of a global scale, matters of consequence? I am comforted by what Shivani says:

The greatest concern is that the astute reader of fiction will disappear altogether – again, not because movies or the Internet or cable television are working in a zero-sum game, but because writers are too small-minded to understand that with every acceleration in the profusion and vitality of media comes a reduction in the word-for-word quality of production, which is the gap the writer must rush to fill in.

Since I completed my MFA, my language and my inspiration and fire has come from a different source than that of the past. Debuting a writer’s work in literary journals and presses remains at the hands of interns, volunteers, present MFA students, and transitory managing editors. I am sure not much has changed since 1999 when I completed my MFA. The industry continues to lean towards a certain flavor of literature; trends continue to define what gets published.

Now, as opposed to in 1999, MFAs grow platforms which promise them a future in publishing. It is the writer at work, creating their market base full-speed-ahead of what the publishing entourage would have been devoted to doing themselves before the turn of the century. Platforms are palpable and visible. They are the new resumes, an appraisal letter of the modern day emergent writer, where numbers matter to the profit of one’s worth. It is a popularity contest, the present day high school yearbook autographs.

The virtual platform makes the writer accessible to her followers. I remember what Michael Hyatt tweeted not long ago: “Activate your fans. Don’t just collect them like baseball cards.” That is the way of the social stratosphere. Collect and display and interact just enough. Because after all, it’s about numbers and reach.

I am dating myself. I am aging in an industry in which millennials wield incredible force, a commodity that requires little effort to promote and develop because the adage is just be yourself. Just get in the game and build yourself up. It seems effortless, it seems magnanimous to create community in this manner.

I cannot say that in the span of fifteen years since I finished my MFA that I’ve published two or three novels; that I actually called that agent who wrote me a note in the year 2000 and praised my work, who now, 15 years later, would be too busy to even talk to me since her novel is currently on a bestseller list, gracing the aisles of a Barnes & Noble. I cannot claim that I’ve journeyed through the teaching circuit, although I am a former adjunct—a freeway flyer who once found herself between three separate campuses in one semester teaching writing courses and grading papers up to the wee hours of the night during my first year of matrimony. I can’t tell you that I’ve conformed to the hopes of MFAs that have workshopped their treasured stories in between full time jobs and spouses who reluctantly left what they knew in order to support their beloved’s dream of being a novelist.

I just can’t say it. So much time has passed. So much has changed this century.

During the MFA, I was consumed in my notebooks, writing my stories and my character vignettes by hand on index cards rich with ink, even using paper bags to draw out timelines of my characters’ chronologies, since I didn’t have a white board in my Oakland studio flat by the Lake. I typed on a small Macintosh Classic with the screen as wide as the palm of my hand—antiquities!

Years and years went by and I never wrote a single story as I involved myself in other activities, acquiring skills that could pay for the needs of a growing family. When I returned last year to enter into the literary World Wide Web, it felt like I had just returned from a cabin tucked away in the wilderness and had my stomach punched. I had aged. I realized I was not caught up. I looked for the editors of the journals that had published me and found a few in the industry.

But why do I mention this here and now? The MFA is programmed to set us up to pursue a certain way a life. It is no wonder it is called a terminal degree. It ends there. But once we are done and are furnished with an MFA degree which compels us to take our manuscript to another level, we are challenged by what happens in real life. For some, they stay on course. For others, they deviate due to the urgencies of life.

In the MFA, we were trained to pursue teaching careers or to aspire for the big publishing houses that would put our name in literary history. It was the Holy Grail to have your manuscript picked up by a big publishing house. Armed with an MFA—it was perceived—greases the skids for garnering the attention of the big five.

It almost seemed possible. There is hope for the writer when she sees that MFA programs are the ones who spawn the editors, teachers, and authors of our day, those same institutions that are positioned to reflect the broader world. But likewise, we can believe that the MFA programs are dooming the art of writing, while neglecting the vehicles that sustain the industry—the mass media weakening the allure of literature and deteriorating the mind that it takes to work through a story. I remember in workshop, some of the opinions of my classmates in relation to my stories were that they needed to work to read it. The prose was lush, the sentences long, and the stories were character driven. As readers, we can process our world with a fine tooth comb in order to dig more deeply into our perceptions, or we can get bored with work, and dumb down our thinking with fragments of what is here and now, and what we enjoy spontaneously and superfluously.

We can choose each time we read, to stay in the moment, to let it simmer, to let it change us. Or we can shift our gaze to the next best thing that we can readily find available anywhere.

IMG_20150703_113944pm2squareEréndira Ramírez-Ortega is co-founder and managing editor of Burning Bush Press and blogs at RejoiceBeloved.com.  Her writing has appeared in The Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Santa Clara Review, Other Voices, and Calaca Review. She’s a new contributor to The Review Review and Front Porch Commons.  She lives in southern California with her husband and three children.