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Andrew Shaffer

Andrew Shaffer

Posted: January 17, 2011 12:50 PM

There's a virus going around the Internet right now that threatens to change the way you look at the world. It seems to be infecting unpublished and "under-published" (unsuccessful) writers at an alarming rate.

Once you're infected, everyone you come into contact with becomes an "arrogant gatekeeper" standing between you, the unpublished, hardworking writer, and the audience you so richly deserve. The MFA system is now "conformity-driven." The publishing industry is a "hype-machine." Successful writers are "prima donnas or untouchable mystics." Editors are "overpaid." Agents are "illiterate." Reviewers are "stupid."

At least according to HuffPost columnist Anis Shivani, who is urging writers to reject the literary establishment in favor of his "new rules for writers."*

Every published writer, myself included, was at one time unpublished. All writers know what rejection feels like. I understand what Mr. Shivani and tens of thousands of other writers go through every day when they walk through a Barnes & Noble and see stacks of books from seemingly untalented hacks. Or see that Snooki has "written" a novel. It's easy to feel spurned, especially when you return to your apartment and stare at the hundreds of rejection letters tacked to your bulletin board.

After finishing my undergraduate work at the University of Iowa, where I took creative writing classes taught by Writer's Workshop students, I applied to half a dozen MFA writing programs (including Iowa's). The rejection letters came back one by one, including a rejection from the Iowa Writer's Workshop (a beautiful, hand-signed letter of apology from then-director Frank Conroy).

Did I whine? Hell no.** Instead, I vowed to apply again the next year. And the year after. Until, finally, the Iowa Writer's Workshop accepted me for a summer semester of graduate coursework. Although my path to publication was similarly arduous, I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything in the world. For better or worse, they made me the writer I am today.

You cannot let the bitterness infect you. If you do, you'll be become toxic to the very same people -- readers included -- who you want to read your work.

The "gatekeepers" are not "overpaid fat-asses" trying to protect the gates of academia and publishing from assaults by unpublished writers. The agents, editors, and MFA "gatekeepers" I know live for the thrill of discovering the next great talent in the slush pile or in their inbox. "Nobody works in publishing for money," agent and novelist Jason Pinter tweeted. "They do it for their passion for books."

There are many ways to deal with life's disappointments. Calling editors "fat-asses," however, is not one of them.

****

*I'll leave it up to you whether or not Shivani's article is intended as satire. If it is satire, it fails in its intent to be humorous, and much of it his vitriol is in line with Shivani's previous screeds against MFA programs and the New York City publishing industry. As he explains on his website, Shivani is particularly concerned with "the decline of American fiction and poetry since the peak of high modernism and the current state of writing under the MFA/creative writing regime."

**OK, maybe I whined a little.

 
 
 

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