On the National Writers Union’s New Website and Solidarity Among Writers

home_pageOriginally, I planned to begin this post about the National Writers Union’s new website by saying that, though I have been an NWU member since 2001, I continue to pay my dues out of union solidarity and because I want to be a part of the labor movement. In truth my freelance work involves only occasional writing jobs, and a lot of the writing I do is for my own blogs. As a result I don’t think I’m as much of a “professional” writer as some of my fellow union members are.

But when I described my proposed opening to my partner Greg, who is also an NWU member, he said it was rather a weak and idealistic explanation for why I stay in the NWU. So I asked him why he keeps paying his dues each year, and he said, “Because I’m not a fool. I think that everybody who knows what’s what also knows that it’s important to be part of an organization that advocates for your profession/ trade/ line of work, and freelance writers are no exception. I would certainly also argue that being part of a trade union allows you to be part of a larger struggle, and there’s strength in numbers. But I’m trying to be practical here and not just idealistic.”

I liked his answer, and I agree with it. I guess I justify my union membership the way I do because I sometimes feel a little underwhelmed by my own writerly resume. Other writers in the NWU have many published books to their credit (as does Greg) or have had their freelance work appear in lots of major publications that pay in dollars per word. As for me, most of what I’ve had published is short, literary fiction that only occasionally pays anything, and then it’s usually an honorarium. So I identify myself within the union as being a part of the Biz Tech division, which incorporates business and technical writers, as well as “all other writers who are not book authors or journalists.”

In any case, I decided to write a piece about the NWU because a few days ago (July 13) they rolled out their new website, which has been in the works since the 2013 Delegate Assembly. There’s much to like about the new site, including a “Hire a Writer” page that will allow you to search the union’s “talent database” to find a union writer appropriate to the job you have in mind. Or, if you are an NWU member, you can add your profile to the database and possibly pick up a freelance job through the new site.

But what I liked even better about the site is that it contains some real messages of solidarity, encouraging writers of all types and skill levels to join and giving them good reasons to do so. Part of the answer given to the question “Who Can Join?” which is given a prominent place on the home page is the following: “The National Writers Union (NWU) represents all types of writers working in print, electronic, and multimedia formats… As writers’ work moves online, we will continue to support all writers. All are valuable economic participants whose labor as creators is the driving force behind the new age of digital content.”

OK, I thought, that sounds very welcoming and inclusive. Then I went to the Frequently Asked Questions page and looked at the answer given to the question of why a well-published and experienced writer should join the union when it’s “open to both professionals and writers just breaking into the field.” Because, says the reply, “[i]n our experience, more established writers aren’t treated less well when less experienced writers demand better treatment. We all gain.”

And finally, in answer to the question of why a writer who writes for pleasure and considers herself to be an artist, not a worker, should join the union: “Yes, some of us write for pleasure and don’t depend on writing income to support ourselves. Yet our writing has value: since publishing is a profitable business, we deserve to be treated with respect and consistency and to receive a fair share of the proceeds. We all need to ask for what we deserve so that we don’t become a society where only the wealthy can afford to write.”

If I had to make one criticism of the new NWU website, I would say I was disappointed that it’s not a whole lot more vibrant-looking and colorful than its predecessor. So many members asked for more of an eye-catching design that I was surprised to see the same old limited palette of blues, greens and greys and a continued lack of photos and graphics. But the message of solidarity and the reminder about “strength in numbers” lets me know that I’m making the right decision when I pay my dues and continue to be a member of the National Writers Union.

A Community of Critics and Readers Benefits Literature

Summer in Kathy's GardenQuite frankly, I bought the latest print issue of Harpers because the online site has a paywall and I wanted to read Caleb Crain’s “Counter Culture: Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms.” (I decided that if I had to pay I’d rather have a paper magazine.) Though I was less impressed by the issue’s other content, particularly a commentary in praise of bloodsport (falconry) and an article that damns with faint praise the Affordable Care Act, I found Crain’s piece on literature in the digital age to be very worthwhile reading.

Crain begins with a description of a “new kind of disenchantment [that] has come over literature” that affects how people determine which works deserve to be considered literature and which should endure. Then he describes the “revolutionary advance in counting,” by which he means computerization, that has led to algorithms that claim to be able to recommend appropriate reading matter to you, depending on what you say you have read (e.g., on Goodreads) or what you want to buy (e.g., on Amazon).

After taking a quick look at counting — and literature — in a historical context Crain discusses how we see things we judge to be countable, such as “likes” on Facebook or the number of stars in an Amazon review. We tend, he says, to see instances of a countable thing as interchangeable, and when we apply this interchangeable status to works of literature, why should we chose to read one work as opposed another? Why should one single instance of a countable thing matter more than another? Asking such questions can lead us to “equate the value of a thing with the popularity of it,” as the number of clicks or views seems to indicate the worth of an online article or video.

Some say that paying attention to what is popular is more democratic than adhering to a rigidly determined canon of great literature, which was extant when I took my first Survey of English Literature course in the 1970s. And in fact present-day readers are more open to a diverse array of voices partially because the canon is no longer sacrosanct. But Crain says, “The canon is a mystical sum, which can never be tallied: its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts./ This myth of unknowability is being replaced today by an illusion of certainty.” And that certainty is based on quantifiability, such as the Amazon sales rank of a book or how many stars it got in reader reviews.

But if the internet, at least in theory, gives everyone a voice, who are the influencers in the internet age? And why should we value the opinions of critics at the New York Times, for example, over other voices and opinions? Crain says, “It’s impossible for a critic to judge a book unless she holds it to a standard, which may take the form of a rule, such as ‘Language should be no fussier than what’s needed to convey its message,’ or of a personal touchstone, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. But where does the authority for the standard come from?” He notes that in the past a critic appealed for her authority to her shared community, i.e., those who regularly read the publication she wrote for. And if she no longer reflected their views and tastes, she would no longer be able to influence them. Now, however, readers of reviews aren’t necessarily readers of publications and are more likely to find reviews on Twitter and Facebook. (And in fact, though I’m at least occasionally a part of the Harpers readers’ community, I came upon a link to Crain’s article on Twitter.) Crain says that, though most critics are cut off from their community of relevant readers, new communities of “critics and readers with borders that are porous and expansive but nonetheless meaningful” could be just the thing to help literature survive.

Though I prefer the term “reviewer” to the term “critic,” I’m heartened by the implication that community is more important to the future of literature than either saving the canon or bowing to inevitable algorithms. In fact I usually choose what to read based on reviews in trusted sources or on recommendations of friends whose tastes I share, so for me community is already the most important influence. And that community does not usually include an unknown group of people posting reviews on Amazon, whose values and point of view are otherwise unknown to me.