The answer is yes. You may be David ready to fight Goliath or take on the world, but it would be helpful to have, say, Brad Pitt to fight for you. Remember that opening scene in Troy where he jumped up and stabbed the big guy and then turned around looking for someone else to fight? Yeah, that's what you need.
Reasons you want a literary champion:
1. It's a lot more believable when others tell people that you are fantastic than when you do.
2. You want to become part of the literary conversation and the best way to get that started is for people to be talking about your work and talking it up.
3. You need people to advocate for you to teach and speak and be reviewed and become a significant part of the literary scene.
Qualities you should look for in a literary champion:
1. They have a lot of connections and can help you get readings, reviews, media attention, critical attention, significant appearances, and jobs! This one is a must.
2. They love your work. Also a must.
3. They have known you for a long time or understand you deeply and would like to see you succeed. Very important.
4. They owe you something. This isn't necessary but when you are thinking about your list of literary champions, and most of us need more than one; it would help to think about who feels you've done great things for them, and if there isn't at least a short list, you're doing something wrong.
5. They are a person who operates with grace and generosity. Sometimes someone should be able to be a literary champion, but isn't because they don't think beyond themselves.
6. They have the bandwidth to be able to think beyond what they are currently doing. This sounds unimportant, but it is absolutely vital. If they just had a new baby, probably not a good time. If their mother just died, leave it alone. Beyond the personal, these are the elements that provide bandwidth -- the ability to think beyond your own needs and set of tasks to do something for another person that may never actually benefit you.
a. You have a secure job and if you lost that you could easily get another secure job.
b. You have enough reserves to support yourself in a crisis. This usually means you have heard of stocks and bonds and you have some. You may have even heard of retirement accounts. (This is not true of most poets. I've heard of stocks and bonds myself.)
c. You have parents/uncles, aunts etc who could help you in a crisis. Stop here for a minute. I don't have any of these three. And many of the people who ask me to champion them have all three of these so they should not be asking me to help them! Most of the people who are asking me to use my personal time to help them get a leg up in the literary world wouldn't cross the street to buy me an ice cream cone on a hot day.
d. Because of all this, you have time to think beyond what is already on your plate.
What if you're on my side of this, you need your own literary champions, but you've spent far too much of your own creative and intellectual capital being a champion for others. Back the truck up. It's not too late to change your ways.
People you should continue to champion:
1. People who have made it possible for you to live and write. I would lay down on the tracks for three writers I know who have loaned me a place to write and edited my work for years.
2. People you have known a long time and feel kinship with. Douglas Kearney is always going to be someone I champion but his kids have chased my chickens; I've known him for fifteen years and I am crazy for his work.
Beyond that, I would say that in my line of work, I end up advocating for writers often, but at the point I'm meeting with writers and being handed a list of what they want me to do for them, I'm doing something wrong. Especially if they can't spell my name. That's the first rule in favors of all kinds, What's my name, Mitch? What we should do is focus on our own work and championing the few writers who we feel connected to and not try to do so much that you feel overwhelmed.
It's not my job to champion other writers. My job is to write and to teach. I'm also lucky enough to be the editor of Red Hen Press and to work on development, foreign right sales, events, publicity and galleys. That's actually enough for me. Here is my advice to other literary champions out there. Do everything you can for those you love. For other writers who just want you to work for them? Give them the name of a good publicist. I've always said that my cup runneth over, and that may be the problem, if it runneth over too much than for me, there will be nothing left.
And for all you choosing your champions? Choose those that have breathing space. Breathing is always a good thing.