I recently had the privilege of attending the inaugural Autumn workshop at Tin House in Portland, Oregon. My own workshop experience was great, of course. I met new writers, attended craft talks, wandered Portland in the rain, and got excellent feedback from my peers and the workshop leader. While not a generative workshop, the feedback helped jump-start some new writing ideas for me, which is a relief after a year of being unable to write at all.
The Tin House workshop also coincided with the Portland Book Festival. I attended a handful of panels and the crammed book fair, speaking with other presses and literary organizations—Tin House among them—whose commitment and presence have helped Portland’s literary community thrive.
At one panel, discussing her newest novel, Lidia Yuknavitch spoke about art’s capacity to connect people: “Art is the bridge.” At another panel, the founders of the Ghetto Gastro collective discussed the community-focused aspects of their new cookbook: “Break bread to build bridges.”
Two different artists in two separate panels came to the same conclusion about their respective crafts: We do what we love to build bridges between us, to create and strengthen our connections to each other. That connectivity has a lot of social benefits, too. It helps us practice cooperation and grounds us closer together.
At Tin House, I found a little of that grounding, a little of that third space that writing has been for me. In the past few years, much of my writing community has been on the Internet, in one form or another. Most of my publications have been in online journals, and most of the new writers I’ve encountered have been through online channels. While social media has been helpful for many writers, it has its obvious setbacks. Jenny Odell writes about the adverse effects of social media on community-building, describing “the attention economy” and the dissolution of public spaces and relationships outside work and family. With the new owner of Twitter making increasingly alarming decisions about the website and its participants, many writers are concerned the platform will only be useful for tearing bridges down.
Online or in-person, literary spaces amount to what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory cultures,” in which “communities begin to produce media to share ideas amongst themselves.” Tracing nineteenth century printing presses to comics, zines, and blogs, Jenkins argues that cultural production in these spaces is a way of reaching out to others about shared interests, to collectively “geek out” about something.
The workshop and book festival felt like that. I was surrounded by people geeking out about literature and craft and dialogue and publishing gossip, tantamount to the fan theories and chat rooms and conventions that fans organize around works of popular culture. This kind of cultural production has to be participatory because the creators are necessarily consumers as well.
Literary Twitter is its own participatory culture, using an online platform to share in cultural production. It’s easy to share online publications and read my peers’ work, with truly global reach. At the same time, many writers have used Twitter to unpack the literary community’s ugly side, with conversations about money and representation coalescing around #publishingpaidme and #ownvoices. I genuinely have learned a lot from simply listening to what other writers have to say. What is the cost of my attention, though, on a platform run by a cartoonish villain siding with other cartoonish villains?
I don’t have much to contribute to discussions about curbing the flow of misinformation and combating hate speech that other scholars haven’t already described with more expertise and insight. What I know is that literature is a bridge for me, and literary Twitter has been a helpful tool in building that bridge. But it’s not the only one.
I find some hope in the lineage Jenkins articulates between participatory cultures, from printing presses to comics to zines to blogs. If literature is such a culture, then its ability to move from one modality to another depends on the active participation of those engaged in its production and reproduction. Maybe the best way to keep the literary community thriving is to expand the ways we participate, the people we listen to, to keep our love of literature at the forefront of every platform we utilize.
Photo provided by the author.