I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our society is structure these days and how unsettling certain trends are.
I started submitting some of my work to poetry contests, specifically ones where winners get published, and the contest administrators have started posting results. This got me thinking about the nature of publication and the nature of genres such as poetry. Our society puts a lot of weight on “literary” fiction and most people I discuss poetry with think of poetry as maybe a bit pretentious. I’m not going to lie – I also have some internal bias about a lot of poetry. I don’t really see much “fun” poetry out there, but I do see a lot of lines using “big” words and presented for very specific target audiences. From my perspective, the target audience for most poetry is not really your average working class person.
I guess this goes back to the early days of colonialism and such when books were, in fact, written and published for a largely white middle-class person. Looking back on all the English literature classes I’ve taken throughout my life, and listening to other students talk about books taught in those English literature classes, you do see a lot of old dead white guys as required reading. I remember reading Henry David Thoreau, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, etc., and being generally bored by most of it. If my memory is even remotely accurate from classes I took over 20 years ago, I remember a class discussion becoming rather heated because I said I didn’t see the point of what we were reading. My comment was something along the lines of, “this dude is just spending months or years or whatever living in the forest and doing what, exactly? Like. Why are we reading this?”
We were reading it because it was considered “classic” literature. From my perspective, a lot of what the English-speaking world considers classic literature was written by people who had the time and money to spend in pursuit of “hobbies” such as writing. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, of writers living in poverty and fluffing up their word counts so they could get paid more (when writing work was paid by the word).
I’m just going to caveat this whole thing right now by saying I’m not an economist nor a historian and have not conducted any research about how writers lived, what they paid for housing, etc., and most of my thoughts and feelings are based around things I remember reading or seeing at some point in my life.
I feel like many poetry contests these days are perhaps a similar situation as early publication. Many of the poetry contests require between $15-$30 for submission, which means people who don’t have that, can’t afford to submit. Then people who have the time and money to submit are the ones who get selected and win the publication prize. The contests are then judged by published poets, which probably also means those with the time and money who submitted their work to contests like these. So then they are perpetuating the cycle of only those with the time and money to spare are those who get published.
I very much understand that poetry is absolutely not mainstream. I understand poetry is a very niche field where many poets won’t make a living from their poetry. It just seems like a circle to me, where you have to pay to play and only those who can afford it are those who get published, which means those without finances have voices never heard.
I dunno. It just seems like a weird circle to me.
I’m also a little uncomfortable with how libraries do not have as many books in them as they used to, and what books they do have are the popular and the most read ones. So many libraries are becoming community places (which is great!) because it’s the only place in our entire society where you can exist without spending money. But as the world digitizes, those things that would survive if something happens to our electronics or the internet would only be the popular, mainstream physical items found now. And that … I dunno. Bothers me a little, I guess?
The library thing is such a big deal and totally calculated by the powers that be who hold the money card. It is disturbing. When cities, counties, states, and countries shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, libraries everywhere shut down. We didn’t know anything about the virus and keeping people safe was the primary responsibility of the public, but even librarians knew they were the only place for access to current news for many people, or even just for a quiet place to spend the day in warmth that has bathrooms. Even when the restaurants were opened back up the libraries stayed closed.
The money is being quickly stolen from library funding. People are disenfranchised with voting in general and many of the mainstream entertainment platforms which spout misinformation are doing everything they can to shut down public services and public spaces because “they don’t make a profit.” Places like libraries and the United States Postal Service are not about making profits – they are about providing public services. They are not supposed to be run as a business. The same way roads, fire stations, schools, and basic infrastructure are public services, so are libraries and the USPS. And the worse part is that people don’t even understand libraries. They just see them as a money mooch because capitalism says everything costs money and any free space is a waste of resources.
With less funding for libraries and other public services, libraries mostly only have popular books on their shelves. Libraries I’ve seen have fewer and fewer books in them as more of the space is occupied by computers, meeting spaces, and technology. All of which are good things! But I do spend a lot of time and energy thinking about a future without technology or access to the internet. All these great, diverse writings with positive content or happy endings (mostly as fanfiction on the archiveofourown / ao3) would be inaccessible unless someone had downloaded or printed a copy and stored it somewhere. All those stories with non-cisgender, non-white, non-heterosexual characters would basically be lost, as they exist only as digital content.
If something happened to our electronic capabilities, all that would be left would be whatever is on the shelves right now. What would that say about us as a society, that only those things which make money are allowed to survive? What would that say about how we view people and equality if only the things accessible are those the financially stable created?