What is Literary Citizenship?

The Loft is looking for a new Executive Director

This weekend I was back at one of my favorite places, the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Loft program manager Sherrie Fernandez-Williams organized a pair of great events starring two of my favorite people: Rebecca Kanner (author of Sinners and the Sea and Esther) and Chrissy Kolaya (author of Charmed Particles). On Friday night they had a reading and a Q and A about the ins/outs/ups/downs of book writing and publishing. On Saturday, they had a kind of mini-seminar, followed by an informative discussion, on what it means to be a literary citizen.

Chrissy and Rebecca brought along an excellent bibliography of literary citizenship. One link was to writer Cathy Day’s website, where she defines literary citizenship this way:

For those of you who have never heard the phrase before, I’ll say that it’s more of a vague philosophy than a concrete definition, and that many writers you meet will have slightly different interpretations. My beginner’s description might be something like: One part of living as a self-identified writer is trying your best, whenever possible, to help make this world a better place for readers and writers. It involves becoming a part of, or building and nourishing, a literary community.

One element of literary citizenship I know I need to work on is to curb my amazon.com habit. #11 on Chrissy and Rebecca’s list of good literary citizenships ideas is just that: “Volunteer and shop at a local, independent bookstore.” In Minneapolis, that’s easy: Magers and Quinn. It’s definitely not as convenient (nor, sigh, as quick or as inclusive of publications) as amazon.com, but neither will amazon.com EVER, I believe, sponsor a local author reading. 

A fair amount of conversation time went to just this concept: Is good literary citizenship tit for tat? Does shopping at Magers and Quinn mean they’ll sponsor your reading?  Most people at our weekend gathering felt the notion of immediate reciprocity misses the point of literary citizenship. I can shop at Magers and Quinn and I can hope that some day Magers and Quinn might sponsor a reading of a book I’ve written, but good literary citizenship is not primarily about that expectation. I think the consensus on Saturday was that the “pay in x, get back x” model isn’t ideal. Rather, writers are working toward a more collective outcome, a manifestation of literary karma, in a way. Shop at a local, independent bookstore because it’s the right thing to do to foster good literature in your community. When the day of perfect literariness is achieved in the world–or maybe just in your community–undoubtedly that goodness will rain down on you, too. In ways you may have hoped, and others you didn’t expect.

Roxane Gay in @awpwriter (courtesy of aforementioned bibliography) has also weighed in on the question, Are you a good literary citizen? “How we move through the literary world…matters,” Gay writes. Subscribe to a literary magazine or two, attend a reading, volunteer, she suggests. Mostly, good literary citizenship, she says, is “remembering that no one is alone in the writing world. Conduct yourself as such.”

Gay emphasizes that “Literary citizenship is certainly not being disingenuous, uncritical, or falsely affirming about everything you read and every writer you encounter.” Our weekend Loft group chewed on this a bit: What are the limits to literary citizenship? For those of us who have obligations to newspaper book reviews, the issue of professional integrity and responsibility is real. For the rest of us, however, could we weigh the value of our opinion with all of the many factors that come into play when we have or have not enjoyed a book? I guess my take-away, from Roxane Gay and my own experience, is “to remember you are not alone in the writing world, and to conduct yourself as such.” Sure, write an honest book review of a peer. Just remember we’re all in this together.

Not everyone, of course, is in love with the concept of literary citizenship. At salon.com, Becky Tuch writes:

It is here where I must make a confession: I really detest the phrase “Literary Citizenship.”

By evoking such positive qualities as citizenship and community-mindedness, the message behind Literary Citizenship seems to be that writers should embrace this new dawn. We should accept it, perhaps even celebrate it. In doing more work (editing manuscripts, reviewing books, interviewing writers, blogging about writing, sharing news about books, etc.) for less pay, we will become good citizens.

Point taken. For example, I still have my amazon.com habit, and I just exercised it (in spite of above mentioned promise) this morning. I couldn’t find either Lori A. May’s The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life, or Sherrie Fernandez-Williams’ memoir, Soft, locally. As a result of literally five minutes online at amazon.com, they’ll be in my mailbox Wednesday. Our time as writers is valuable, and if we don’t claim it as such, no one will.

In the end, all we can do is what we can do. My kids are grown, I work part-time, AND I am a really fast reader. One thing I can do is offer to read fellow-writers’ manuscripts; for obvious reasons, readers for full-length manuscripts are notoriously difficult to find. Even so, I can’t read one a week. I can’t even read one a month. There are more encroachments on my writing time, as we all know, than there are words in the world.

I think what’s most important to remember is the element of trying our best to help make the world an easier, better place for readers and writers. That’s good literary citizenship, and good for all of us.



  1. Um, I think some writers want it both ways by selling their books on Amazon but then encouraging readers to only shop at local booksellers. If writers feel that strongly about this, maybe they should only sell their books at brick and mortar stores? I don’t know. All I know is that I love to write and read and that convenience and cost are also important to me. It’s weird. I love the library but I still buy books. Some good “literary citizens” only borrow books. What’s the right answer? Answer: there is now one right answer. Writers want to be widely read. That means offering books wherever readers want to find them. #rambling

    1. Obviously, I have some of the same mixed feelings about amazon vs. Magers and Quinn. And as far as buying books goes, I do buy plenty–more, in fact, since I’ve considered myself a writer. That’s how writers make money, right? From people buying their books! I guess I understand the value of the local bookstore but the convenience and breadth of collection at amazon simply can’t be beat, and my time is worth something.

  2. Such a great discussion here. I’ve weighed in the past with my own twist of an issue I see . . . probably similar to some of what Tuch said. I wonder about the all the favor exchanges that go on as part of this citizenship . . . the book reviews on Amazon and Good Reads for reviews in exchange— things like that. I pretty much do not trust reviews online as they are often filled with favors. But as for your points, Donna, I try to do what you and Gay said, too. I try to act how I would want to be treated one day should I ever have a book, AND you said, I like to help perpetuate a “literary culture.” So I buy books (from store AND Amazon), I talk about books online and everywhere I go, I give books as gifts, and I keep my reading log up to date on my site. I think I rambled way more than Angela did.

  3. Lots to think about here, for sure, and there’s no ONE answer — at least, I don’t have it! Thanks for gathering and sharing these thoughts (and adding your own).

  4. Nice post! I love that you vowed to do less book buying on Amazon and then bought a book on Amazon. Such are the dilemma’s of our writerly lives. I do the same. As a writer I kind of hate Amazon for forcing down book prices but also love Amazon because, as a reader, I can afford to read books I wouldn’t have otherwise read.
    However, I won’t read free books and also try to stay away from 99 cent books, too, because I think that every author deserves more than that (I mean, a cup of coffee is more than that).
    Thanks for making me think.

  5. Thank you for reading and commenting, Cinthia. I know a woman who is selling her books as ebooks for something like 99 cents each and that hurts, I agree. I think she just got a contract to print publish a new title, so maybe she’d say it was worth it.

    Always happy to encourage thinking about/discussion of issues.

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