WaLS: The New Literary Disease

There is a certain fragment of the literary world that drives me fucking bonkers. In my mind, it is epitomized by travel writers, freelance copywriters, Neal Pollack, Poets & Writers magazine, writerswrite.com, preditors & editors, and Nick Mamatas. This is the subculture within the literary community where the act of writing has become little more than a performative task that functions as a signifier rather than a craft that is merely a means to produce an end. In this subculture what matters is not that one has produced good writing but that one is seen to be writing productively. In this world the legitimacy of one's writing has nothing to do with its style or content or mastery, but rather that one can point to various facts that, separate from one's work, are taken to be markers of personal legitimacy in the claim to writerhood. Far from the true virtue of writing, ie the production of quality literature regardless of recognition or fiduciary recompense, this instead is a world of a different kind. Rather than the world of writing as artform, it is the world of what I have come to think of as writing as lifestyle, populated by a crowd of mental lepers suffering from Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome (WaLS). And I for one am totally sick of it.

The writing as lifestyle movement is something that I don't really understand the origins of, but my suspicion is that it originated from wonkish industry watcher types interbreeding with the sorts of poseurs and dilettantes that are to be found in and around the fringes of all creative endeavors. From much close observation, I have identified several markers of the affliction. To be sure, Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome is a disease and there are a few key elements that separate it from a more legitimate obsession with the world of letters. The symptoms are as follows:

1.) Writer as Artisan vs. Writer as Artist

Persons suffering from WaLS do not believe in art. This lack of belief in art comes from a deep and abiding failure to understand the purpose and impact of art which, at least in North America, seems to arise from a sort of basically Calvinist belief that one's works are unimportant and what matters is how one is seen to be the recipient of divine grace in the form of publication. For these people there is nothing more important than to bestow legitimacy on their claims to writerdom by any means necessary. To this end it doesn't matter if what they have written is any good, what matters is that they have a suitably lengthy resumé which they can point to as evidence that they are the "writers" that they say they are. As such WaLS sufferers then are much more interested in increasing their list of publications than they are in writing well. These are people who will, for example, try to get the same piece of writing published by multiple magazines, even ones that do not pay, just so that they can list these magazines on their publication CV.

2.) Free Market vs. Pay Market

WaLS sufferers do not refer to publications as publications. A newspaper is not a newspaper. A magazine is not a magazine. A journal is not a journal. All are called "markets" and nothing more. "Ok," you might say, "but that's just industry jargon, isn't it?" No, it isn't. Industry jargon calls things dailies or weeklies or magazines or journals. They break down the types and genres of different sorts of publications into much more specific terms. The only people who refer to all of these things collectively as "markets" are people who are obsessed with publication and are driven by a psychological need to get their work into them. Moreover, as an occasional publisher myself, I can say from personal experience that I got really annoyed by submissions that referred to whatever I was editing at the time as a "market." I know I'm not the only one, because WaLS publications like The Writers Market are always admonishing their readers to not use the term "market" in query letters and submissions. The term isn't even fitting. A market is a place where goods are bought or sold. The people who buy things in a market are consumers, or buyers, or purchasers, which is what the publications in question really are in this drooling oversimplified worldview. More important than this bit of bad English however, is the homogenizing effect that viewing all publications in this manner has. Because all markets are one and the same, merely a box with a different name written on it, it doesn't matter whether the "market" is any good or not. Just that it is there and one can say one has been published by it. By extension, then, if it doesn't matter if the "market" is any good, it doesn't matter if the content of the "market" is any good, ergo, it doesn't matter if one's writing is any good, what matters is that it has been printed. Work in print means validation is secured, and one can move on to starting all over again.

3.) The Feedback Loop

Given the existence of WaLS, there is of course all manner of advice available to the sufferer on how to make his or her case that much worse in the aimless pursuit of legitimately self-applying the word writer. And from here emerges the bullshit. Here is Writers Write, Poets & Writers, Preditors & Editors, The Writers Market, etc etc etc. And for all of these publications, each in turn becomes itself a market reinforcing their own now institutionalized belief in the legitimacy of publication. None of this gets at all questioned, of course, because these magazines... excuse me, these "Markets" are themselves published ergo de facto legitimate.

So what's the problem you might ask? Why should anyone be bothered by this at all?

It's a legitimate question. The answer is rather more complicated than one might think, however. Because what is not problematic is the pursuit of publication. Creating art, whether it be literary or not, is essentially a communicative act. Any work wants an audience, because without the audience one is just talking to oneself. For some I imagine that is enough, but for me as a writer, what matters is that I can be read and read well by people who will find something of value in my work, and in that way my work might marginally make their lives better if only for a moment of pleasurable reading. Note the distinction here between the desire to be read and the desire to be published. One does not need to be published to be read, and being published is no guarantee that the published work will get more than a cursory glance. The true sickness of WaLS is that it trivializes the act of reading, making it subordinate to the industrial process of print and distribution. Among the WaLSish, there is a definite prestige assigned to different tiers of "markets" largely based on circulation but also related to the intangible qualities of the age and reputation of the publication. The exchange is not between author and reader any longer, but instead the conference of prestige from the publication in exchange for content which it will then use to obscure its advertising. The reader is completely ignored in the process and all of us, even we writers who are first and foremost readers, suffer from the field of nonsense wherein we might hope to find something of value to appreciate. To be sure, there is good work out there, but because of the WaLSish we must now wade through endless tides of bullshit to find it.

Unfortunately, no cure is yet known for Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome.

UPDATE: Tim Green, the editor of Rattle and an excellent poet in his own right, wrote an interesting response to this subject today. His take is that WaLS is more like a fetish than it is a disease, and he makes the excellent point that fetishes are only pathological when they cross the line to start to do harm to the fetishizer or others. I agree that to a certain extent that's probably the case. At the same time, I have to wonder if maybe part of the reason that things are so bad these days, and as Wet Asphalt has lamented about at length that it is so difficult to wade through the masses of literary journals, is because there is some harm being done by the fetish in that it has largely taken over wide swaths of publishing. Of course, I'll fully cop to the fact that my anti-WaLS feelings are probably aesthetic and analogous to the sort of disdain one might have for someone who can't get off if he isn't looking at the feet of a woman in 5 inch pumps. That is, not really all that put out, but sort of dismissive of it in general of being worth all the fuss and bother that people put into the fetish. And maybe sort of annoyed that the porn rack is taken over by this particular fetish but there's so little available that plays to my particular fetish for good writing.



Was this supposed to make sense? Cuz, like, it doesn't.

"Because all markets are one

"Because all markets are one and the same, merely a box with a different name written on it, it doesn't matter whether the 'market' is any good or not. Just that it is there and one can say one has been published by it."


"Among the WaLSish, there is a definite prestige assigned to different tiers of 'markets' largely based on circulation but also related to the intangible qualities of the age and reputation of the publication. The exchange is not between author and reader any longer, but instead the conference of prestige from the publication in exchange for content which it will then use to obscure it's advertising."

So are they are incompetents who'll submit to any old place, or are they cynically targeting "good" magazines and polluting them with dross? Make up your mind, Jason, or be more precise.

Actually, be more precise even if you do make up your mind, please. What does it mean when you say that "The reader is completely ignored in the process?" I had a bunch of other semi-hypothetical questions after this regarding what you could possibly mean, but I've deleted them because I realised they were doing the work for you.

And for god's sake lift the screening. Having a conversation under these circumstances is absurd.

the distinction is perfectly

the distinction is perfectly clear. quality and the determiners of prestige ID'd in that second quote are clearly are not identical.

don't be so touchy. just because you suffer from the condition yourself doesn't mean there's no hope for you. we all go there at some point. what matters is if you get stuck there or graduate to a better place.

I had a good three paragraphs

I had a good three paragraphs of argument typed out, but then I thought, you know what? I'm about to head into exactly the same kind of exchange I and others have gone into dozens of times with Jason, when here, dozens of arguments and a decade later, is Jason, still as quick with ad homs as he is to accuse people of taking things too personally, still acting like some kind of underground philosopher-god-poet-king while writing arguments that often make no sense (please, tell me how the paradump under point 2 actually relates to pay markets vs free markets), still nattering on about the act of communication while not really giving a shit about what anyone else has to communicate. I don't believe in art? I see works of literature only as goods, magazines only as consumers, readers as non-existent? I'm obsessed with legitimising my identity as a writer? Are you thinking of the right person here? Are you even trying?

Fuck you, Jason. I'm out.

Ok, that was out of line and

Ok, that was out of line and I'm sorry, but I really don't think there is that much to argue here and I don't see the inconsistency in what I said that you're pointing at.

Hee hee!

Nicholas Liu is a very correct and right-on observer, "Jason" — if that is indeed your real name. Plus also, do you realize you're spouting this hokum alongside the most absurdly half-assed attempt at titilation I've ever seen, masquerading as an ad for "Union of Renegades," a free ebook in the "Rys Chronicles Epic Fantasy Series." The blurb provided by the "publisher" for this book reads as follows: "Dreibrand Veta has killed for his country. At the frontlines of imperial expansion, he seeks to rebuild the fortune of his noble family. In his daring travels he encounters the rys, a race far more powerful than the human empire that bred him. Dreibrand cannot defy the rys Queen Onja nor defend his companion, Miranda, and her children from the wicked tyrant Queen.
Desperate for help, Dreibrand and Miranda join Shan, a rys with emerging powers who plans to challenge Onja. In Shan’s pursuit of the rys throne, he exerts his magical powers, gathers his allies, and incites rebellion among Onja’s human subjects.
Great wealth and power will reward the kings, warriors, and spies that align themselves with the rys pretender, but defeat could mean worse than death. Onja can imprison souls and her genocidal rage is legendary. Everything is at risk for Shan’s union of renegades."

It's the bomb, Jack!

Dude, make an account for

Dude, make an account for yourself and you can post without moderation.

this is like

an emo rant against scenesters and hipsters, or a goth rant against emos.


Is creating art really as much a communicative act as is commonly supposed? I've spent a lot of time thinking about what happens as I write, and I find that the rest of the world vanishes, and I'm wrestling with a substance which feels as real as clay or paint. And often, I'm listening as deeply as I can - to parts of myself, perhaps. The communication only comes much later, when the work is released, and then I may be happy for it to be appreciated - who isn't? - and to learn that what I've made has found a reader. I've come to wonder whether focussing on the communicative aspect of art actually hinders the process, from the point of view of its creator.

I think so

There's a tendency when working in an inherently isolated act like writing to disappear up one's own asshole. Whenever I do that, I feel like i have failed in some way. My best work by my own appraisal is generally those things where i have taken the time to work out how it communicates and what I am trying to communicate before I pull the rectal vanishing act to do the work.

@ Quachenbush, Of course I

@ Quachenbush, Of course I can't speak about your feelings - or your arsehole, and its powers of attraction. And while I wouldn't claim that appraising one's work for its communicative force is unnecessary, it's not primarily what interests me, if for no other reason than readers tend to vary enormously. What works for one won't work for another; what Harry expects, Sally tosses out with the cat litter. Naturally, someone can choose their market and write to it, but it's not what I care to do. Maybe playing is a better way of putting it: I simply play with my words, something like a jigsaw puzzle. The point is to get it right for me - any and every reader will rebuild the text differently no matter what. I reckon readers have to look after themselves.

(All of which helps explain, of course, why I don't bother to flog my wares.)

I don't buy it

Just because aesthetics are subjective that doesn't make them entirely relative. More importantly, I think that people can be wrong about an appraisal of a work, and to that end, the fact that some people will be wrong doesn't seem to me to be a reason to avoid trying to get it right. When I write well, i'm not writing well just by my appraisal, but according to standards that I hold myself and all other writers to. I think those standards are correct and I'm willing to argue for them against people who disagree with them. Just because all texts are "lazy Machines" as Eco put it, it doesn't mean that their gears will turn just any old way. first and foremost is the act of using language which the reader, for all the freedom that he or she has in interpretation, cannot escape from. The utterance is first and is always already meaningful before it ever gets to a reader. Which is to say Barthes and the Death of the Author types are wrong. The author is present in his or her work, and the text is an act of communication.