Friday, August 6, 2010

When Everybody's a Writer and Nobody's a Reader

My favorite question to ask someone who tells me he/she is also a poet is what poets do you read? Often, there is a look of surprise on his/her face and he/she mumbles something about not really reading poetry. Over the last few weeks, I've read and heard various stories discussing the strange status of the writing and reading world. It seems there is a huge increase in people wanting to write. MFA programs are popping up all over the country and thousands of people are applying. Every other person you meet has a blog (including me). There has been an increase in self-publishing. People are writing Facebook notes, tweets, and status updates everyday. We are in a time of great sharing. Everyone wants to put their thoughts and ideas out there. But who is reading all of this material?

It seems everyone wants to be a writer, but nobody wants to be a reader (obviously, when I say everyone, I don't really mean everyone, but it sounds better). Why is this? I don't hate technology, but I always look at it with a critical eye, and I have to say that technology has a lot to do with this issue. In the last few years, we have hit an all-time high of sharing personal information through technology. Within minutes, I can go pull up the contact information, photos, and latest feelings of someone I went to middle school with, but haven't talked to since. The internet and social networking sites have encouraged this idea of sharing your personal information and writings. The spread of blogs, which anybody can have, and various online publication sites has turned everyone into a "published" author. Not that long ago, publishing was very difficult. If you wanted someone to read your work, print was the main option. Print is still a good option and for many the preferred option, but the internet has opened the floodgates. No longer does someone have to accept your work, you can just put it out there.

When I tell someone I'm a poet, nine times out of ten they launch into their own writing interests and how they have some work published somewhere (typically online). I'm not trying to sound elitist, but, at the same time, I've worked hard for my poetry career. I went to a good MFA program. I've mailed off submissions for years, I've waited months for replies, and I've had tons of rejection. I have had a lot of success in the last two years, but that's after a lot of hard work. It seems this issues is also a product of people wanting something faster and quicker without putting in the work or time. People won't send their poems out to magazines that might take months to respond, they just slap their poems on a blog or Facebook page. It is a shortcut. People might be writing more, but the quality is questionable.

All of this material is out there, yet very few read most of it and many of the writers themselves don't read anything. This blows my mind. I'm not sure how you can be a writer and not a reader. I try to read as much as possible. Working forty hours a week, having a social life, and trying to keep up with my poetry career makes it challenging, but I still do it. I don't read as much as I would like to, but I try to read a book every couple of weeks if not more. I do spend most of my time reading poetry, because that is most helpful to me. I'm not sure how you can write poetry and never read it. It's vital to knowing how you fit into the great tradition. I find inspiration and enjoyment in all of the wonderful poems out there. I also try to read some literary magazines and other blogs. Obviously, I want you to read my blog, so I try to read and interact with other blogs. It is a sharing, which means back and forth (we seem to have forgotten that). I've been surprised, honestly, by my blog. In the last few months, I've been averaging 50 visitors a day. I'm sure some are accidental, but I'm happy to know someone is reading it.

Part of me wants to go back in time when writers were respected and people put hard work into what they wrote. There are still a few of us out there, but we might be getting lost in the pool of self-expression on the internet. I'm not saying it's all bad or that I'm against the internet. There are some wonderful online publications out there (like PANK), but they aren't a free for all. There are also some great blogs about so many topics. The more opportunities people have to publish, the more variety we have, which can be a good thing. There is, however, a sadness when I think of a world of writers and no readers, and I don't think that should be the goal of the internet.

As a poet, one of my greatest pleasures is knowing someone has read and enjoyed my work. Writing is a way of connecting to each other, which is why I love to both read and write. Like I have said many times before, we are in a world that has provided all these ways to communicate faster and more often, yet it seems we have forgotten how to truly connect. Everybody is talking, but nobody is listening. Perhaps this comes from how chaotic the world is (I won't say "has become," because I don't think the world is more chaotic than it has been, but we simply just know more about the chaos everywhere than people did centuries ago). In that chaos, we all want to feel like we have a voice, and we should have a voice. I'm just advocating that we polish our voices a little before we send them out into the world and that maybe we learn a little more about that world through reading.

-Stephen (Writer/Reader)


  1. Excellent post, as usual, Stephen. One of my pet peeves (in life) is when people tell me they want to read, but that they don't have time. I think if you have time to blog/tweet/facebook/watch TV, then you probably have time to read a few pages of a good book in a day.

    Remember, reading is FUNdamental!

  2. An interesting post. You had me when I read those first sentences -- a poet doesn't read poetry? What?
    And kudos to you on your good mix of serious literary reflections like this one with some light-hearted commentary at times. Makes for nice (and literate) surprises on your blog.

  3. What Jaclyn said.

    I just don't get it. I mean, I read like a BEAST. Sure, it takes a little's so much easier to get caught in a Facebook loop or watch crap TV...but it feeds your writing so much. Reading other books is your primary mode of instruction/apprenticeship as a writer, no matter what your skill level.