“The writer is the person who stands outside society, independent of affiliation and independent of influence. The writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government…American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous. Writers in repressive societies are considered dangerous. That’s why so many of them are in jail.”
To celebrate the launch of the new Solstice website and winter issue, I thought I’d revisit the idea of literary diversity and writers on the margins. Past issues have included work by an Iraqi war vet, a former migrant worker, and released death row inmate Damian Echols who was part of the West Memphis Three triple homicide case featured in the Academy Award-nominated HBO documentary series Paradise Lost. This issue includes photography of death row inmates by Lou Jones, a story of a woman in prison, and an essay about parole, among other pieces. As Solstice makes good on its mission of promoting “underserved writers…from writing groups for those on probation or parole, or from writing groups in prisons, in shelters, in rehab programs, in veteran centers, in churches or in libraries,” the importance of such literature becomes all the more apparent. Seemingly democratized, mass-produced technology and pop culture has ensured that the majority of us pretty much share the exact same life experiences, give or take, comme ci, comme ça.
As contemporary Americans we either watch Parks and Recreation on our iPhone while driving to Starbucks in an aerodynamically shaped foreign car, or watch Larry the Cable Guy on a Blackberry while driving to Dunkin Donuts in an aerodynamically shaped American car. We’re either Coke or Pepsi. Brooks Brothers or Banana Republic. Joyce Carol Oates or Jodi Picoult. Vice versa. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
Oh, and for the record, listening to Bookworm on Sirius while driving to an all-organic/fair trade coffee shop in a boxy eco car is also homogenization but of the soy variety. It might also be the very demography from which contemporary literature must stray. No more stories of middle/upper middle class sociology. No more literature professor protagonists. Just because these are the kind of people who read books doesn’t mean they’re automatically worthy of literary characterization, especially not if they also happen to have an MFA in creative writing.
These days it seems as if a writer on the margin or outsider would consist of anyone who hasn’t sat in an MFA writing workshop. Someone who doesn’t have either a Duotrope or Submishmash account. Someone who’s never purchased a Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. Someone who’s never picked up a free copy of The Writer’s Chronicle. These publications and organizations have done great things for writers but I fear the literary world has become too insular, too self-serving and self-referential. Too, dare I say it, masturbatory?
I am looking forward to reading more stories about people with life threatening contradictions, written by said such people, two peas in a pod, the pot calling the kettle black.
Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University’s Piper Studio. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Solstice Literary Magazine, and dozens more.