The Rise of Friendships Between Writers
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The Rise of Friendships Between Writers

For all the excitement and drama contained in novels, few of them can compare to a great literary feud. Ernest Hemingway infamously trashed F. Scott Fitzgerald after the latter died: “I never had any respect for him ever, except for his lovely, golden, wasted talent.” Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer not only threw punches, but Mailer head-butted Vidal backstage of The Dick Cavett Show. Mario Vargas Llosa also threw punches—his landing on Gabriel García Márquez, who had advised Vargas Llosa’s wife to divorce him. Richard Ford shot a hole through one of Alice Hoffman’s novels and mailed it to her over a scathing review she gave to The Sportswriter. And don’t forget Wallace Stevens and Hemingway throwing down in Key West, or William Faulkner telling a creative writing class that Hemingway “has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb.” Hemingway was a reliable enemy to many prominent writers.

But in recent years, the bitterness churning through the literary world appears to have waned. While competition remains an inextricable part of a literary career—awards and end-of-year lists continue to pit authors against one another—it’s become more common to see writers rooting for each other. On social media, writers are just as likely to hype their peers as they are to self-promote: linking where to buy books, posting photos of readings, and sharing passages from galleys. Where once was envy is now admiration.

This new ecosystem is a departure from the reputation of writers being fueled by “unbearable envy.” And though this kind of support has been accused of being anodyne and false, I’ve gained a lot from having more friends than enemies. I am not an uncompetitive person (this is a generous way of putting it), but the frothy urgency of competition, I’ve had to accept, doesn’t make for good writing. It makes me miserable.

But what, exactly, has spurred this shift away from the envy assumed intrinsic to the writing life? Are writers clinging to each other for support because, as publishing houses consolidate and advances decline, other writers are all we really have for support? Have the crabs in the barrel begun to hold claws?

To get a better sense of the changing landscape, I spoke to a range of writers at varying stages of their careers. What I uncovered were signs that connection and collaboration among artists are often the best indicators of success in the field. I’ve suspected this since 2018, when I attended the writing conference Bread Loaf. That year, I was awarded a work study scholarship (the program offered emerging writers a near-full scholarship to the conference in exchange for working as servers at meals).

There were many problems with the work study program, which enabled racism, classism, sexism, and ableism at the conference. It exploited young writers, but cast this exploitation as an important opportunity to advance their careers. Facing overdue scrutiny, Bread Loaf ended the work-study scholarship in 2019 and replaced it with a scholarship that does not require service.

Conferences are already exhausting. Too often during my time as a work-study scholar, my shifts overlapped with lectures I hoped to attend—or I was simply too tired to go. But between us work-study scholars, there emerged an embittered and knowing sense of camaraderie. The program was taking advantage of us, putting us in positions where we were open to skeevy comments from conference attendees, where we were defined by our exhaustion, but we leaned into a kind of nihilistic righteousness that brought many of us closer together. Exploitation should not be a precondition for community. But the conference unintentionally created a model for the publishing industry as a whole. Writers came together to look out for each other, to hype each other, to keep each other motivated in the face of unrealistic and draining demands.

Over the past five years, my friendships with these writers have deepened as we’ve begun to publish books. I would rather we’d met under different circumstances, with fewer 6:00 AM shifts after late nights drinking in the basement of a barn. Other conferences successfully build community without asking participants to pick up dinner shifts. But I met my cohort how I met them, and I’ve been grateful to turn to them over the years, both to gripe about the industry and to gossip about our personal lives. Today, some of my closest friends are writers I met at that conference.

Nic Anstett, a fiction writer and lecturer at Stevenson University, told me she fell away from writing for a few years after undergrad but regained her passion for fiction upon attending the Clarion science fiction and fantasy workshop in San Diego. Clarion was an exciting environment for both her writing and her sense of self—in fact, her cohort at Clarion was the first group of people to whom she openly identified as a trans woman. Nearly everyone in her cohort stays in regular contact with each other, and last summer, they held a four-year reunion outside Asheville to workshop new work.

Anstett’s time at Clarion inspired her to apply to graduate school the following year. She decided to attend the University of Oregon. Like many writers who attend MFA programs, Anstett formed one of her deepest friendships during graduate school, where she bonded with the writer Mariah Rigg. “I don't think there's been a day in the last four to five years where we haven't talked,” Anstett told me. They connected as queer women at the University of Oregon MFA program, and in the years since graduating, they’ve come to serve as each other’s first readers and confidantes. Though they write wildly different work, being close with another writer has helped them feel less alone when wading through successes and setbacks.

Vanessa Friedman, a writer and editor based in Portland, feels similarly about the importance of having artist friends. “If your business is writing, there's an industry level of understanding that people outside of the industry, even if they love you, don't understand,” she told me. Friedman has friends she can call when she’s wondering whether it’s too soon to email her agent again, and friends with whom she can celebrate a rejection. She recalled reading a tweet by someone telling the story of receiving a personalized rejection from The New Yorker. The writer acknowledged feeling so excited about the rejection and telling a friend who wasn’t a writer. The friend apparently felt really bad for her and didn’t understand this was a step forward in the writer’s career.

The New Yorker is quite possibly the hardest place for writers to publish work. Normally, an editor won’t even respond to a submission they don’t like. If they do respond, they are likely to send a boilerplate rejection. But a personalized rejection means the editor admired a writer’s work enough to want to read more. This can become the foot in the door, potentially leading to future publication. Friedman remembered this anecdote so fondly because a writer receiving a personalized rejection is a reason to celebrate. Success in a writing career is incremental, built on dozens and hundreds of almosts in the lead-up to yeses. Marking wins that might not ostensibly appear like wins is vital for maintaining momentum as a professional writer.

At other times, Friedman has turned to writer friends during moments of professional stress. When she was applying for academic jobs, the novelist A.E. Osworth offered to hop on a call with her to work through her C.V. and application materials. Friedman said it never occurred to Osworth to withhold materials. They already had an academic job, and the only fitting action was to share their insights and application materials to help Friedman find work as well. Sharing resources and building relationships has made it easy for her to inoculate herself from jealousy over others’ successes. “I genuinely do not feel jealousy for my friends when they succeed,” she told me.

Anstett felt similarly. When asked about competition and rivalries, she admitted that her rivals tend to be writers who have been mean to her friends. Whatever competition she does feel with her friends keeps her motivated and ambitious, as her friends’ successes have proved that her goals are possible. ”They made it and I love and respect them,” Anstett told me. “And we’re at similar places, [which means] I could do this too.”

Some writers, however, are naturally more competitive than others. Admittedly, I’m one of those writers, and at times I’ve taken steps to befriend writers I feared I might naturally try to compete against. Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of the story collection Heads of the Colored People, has taken similar steps in her career. She told me she intentionally worked to fend off feelings of jealousy before her book came out in 2018. “I knew that I was a competitive person and I was likely to be jealous of other people who had books coming out,” she said.

Knowing they would all be vying for the same awards and speaking engagements, Thompson-Spires organized a dinner with other Brooklyn writers releasing books that year. They bonded with each other as peers, and when their books were published, rooting for one another became second nature. In building these friendships, she was able to see more clearly the distinction between writers and the writing industry. The industry pits writers against each other. The industry is publishing houses deciding which books to promote. The industry is award ceremonies; it’s reviews and parties and magazines choosing who to profile. But writers are not the industry. “The industry was going to do what it was going to do to our books,” Thompson-Spires told me. “It was sort of out of our hands, and the more I could bond with those other people, the more I saw us as individuals and our work as individuals. That made it difficult to feel any kind of competitiveness with them.”

Over the last five years, Thompson-Spires has become closer with a few of the writers who debuted in 2018, trading work and keeping each other accountable to finish new projects. Those professional relationships have become more personal, as well, which seemed like a common theme among writers who originally connected over professional work.

This is apparent in the friendship between Idra Novey and Angie Cruz, two established authors who’ve known each other for nearly twenty years. I spoke to Novey and Cruz jointly over the phone, right after the two of them had left a museum. They met when Novey was an undergrad at Barnard and Cruz was in the MFA program at NYU. At NYU, Cruz started an organization called WILL (Women in Literature and Letters) to bring together women of color and “writers who believed writing could change the world.”

Their friendship has a mythic quality to it. When Novey’s future husband asked her on a first date, she declined—she had plans with Cruz she wouldn’t break. The two lost touch when Novey moved to Chile to teach after college, but when Cruz saw Novey’s first novel, Ways to Disappear, on bookshelves, she invited her to read at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches. “And then I came to read for your students,” Novey started, “and we just picked up [where we left off],” Cruz added, finishing Novey’s sentence.

Ever since reconnecting ten years ago, their friendship has deepened beyond literary admiration—though the admiration is undoubtedly there. From Cruz, Novey has learned just as much about being a person as she has about being an author. “There is something beautiful about seeing someone whose work is so brilliant and I admire so much go through her day,” Novey said. Cruz has shown Novey “that it's possible to be a really present parent, and really present friend, and also an incredibly talented writer.”

They also share the experience of being writers and mothers. “Motherhood is something we don't talk a lot about as writers, because somehow speaking about our children makes us seem anti-intellectual,” Cruz said. “But what's beautiful about having a friendship with Idra is that we can talk about how to raise children that are kind and thoughtful and also how to be ambitious in our work.” To this, Novey added that it’s easy for them to jump between topics like high school and Italo Calvino in the same sentence without feeling self-conscious or insecure. They’re able to talk about all the things that make up their lives—and thus all the things that make up literature.

When discussing their writing, though, it’s clear that they love pushing each other. Novey recalled a time, during a makeshift residency at Cruz’s mother’s house, when Cruz encouraged her to read aloud from work she’d written that day. “It felt like showing somebody the hair in your clog,” Novey said. Hearing her read, Cruz pinpointed the voice of Novey’s character in a single line; when it was Cruz’s turn to read, Novey did the same for her. Having known each other so long, the two were able to really hear each other in their first drafts. “It did feel really safe,” Novey concluded.

The connection Novey and Cruz originally formed as students is the kind of camaraderie the novelist and teacher Gene Kwak is trying to create at Oklahoma State University, where he recently took a position in the MFA program. Graduate programs inherently place people in competition with each other, but his goal as a faculty member is to make graduate school a place that encourages support and collaboration, where young writers can build their careers alongside each other instead of against each other.

For most of his career, Kwak has been driven by a very DIY mindset when it comes to building community. As a young writer in Omaha, where he grew up, he often threw house parties for writers passing through the city; during his time in graduate school at UMass Boston, he frequently hosted authors on book tours in New England.

Kwak’s history of community building became especially important in 2021, when he published his debut novel, Go Home, Ricky! He found something heartening about the surreal disappointment of publishing a first book in the pandemic. “It wasn't what we were dreaming of in terms of publicity and getting to tour,” he told me. “But writers were organizing Slack groups and it felt like every debut novelist was rooting for each other.” One such Slack group—perhaps the debut author slack group—was created by Cheat Day author Liv Stratman in 2020, and it served as one of the most important resources for debut authors during the pandemic. I was a member, and I repeatedly turned to the group for questions about publication. The group offered a venue to share event details (nearly all of which were on Zoom at the time) and to ask whether certain anxieties were normal. The answer was nearly always: they are.

Kwak, who is Korean-American, also attributes a lot of his success to mentorship from Korean-American writers who came before him. Alexander Chee, Min Jin Lee, Krys Lee, and others have worked hard to open up pathways for younger writers like Kwak, making a point to pass along the information they’ve gleaned from years in the industry. Thompson-Spires has received similar mentorship from established writers like Kiese Laymon and Mat Johnson, who have helped her navigate the intricacies of publishing and TV writing.

Like his mentors before him, Kwak has been working to share his literary insights with younger and emerging writers. Alongside Joseph Han, author of Nuclear Family, he started an online writing group for Korean-American authors called Tiger Balm, where they’ve held conversations with writers like Crystal Hana Kim and Gina Chung to speak about their careers. “Even though [Han and I] only have debut novels out, we wanted to take any information we could and pass it on to the next generation,” Kwak told me.

Like Kwak, the essayist Catherine LaSota believes deeply in the value of community building. With a background in music and performance, she enjoys being on stage and bringing people together. Upon moving to Queens ten years ago, after fifteen years in Brooklyn, she created the LIC Reading Series, which paired well-known published writers with debut and unpublished authors. Rather than centering readings around a headliner, each reader read for the same amount of time, and the heart of each event was a panel discussion. This non-hierarchical structure allowed writers at all stages of their careers to learn from and inspire each other.

Community building is an integral part of LaSota’s creative practice. As important as it is for her to see her essays in the world, she’s just as invested in creating spaces for writers to share their work. For her, community building is a feminist act that requires “pushing back against a very American individualist morality, pushing back against systems that are set up to make it more feasible for people with certain resources and privileges to achieve ‘success.’” It is an antidote to the racism, misogyny, ableism, and transphobia rampant elsewhere in society. It forms spaces for diverse writers to reach their audiences and peers.

Isaac Fitzgerald, author of the memoir Dirtbag, Massachusetts, has a similar community-minded perspective. Over email, he told me he feels lucky that he’s always had a “‘more the merrier’ philosophy when it comes to writing.” He continued, “There's room at the table. Just because somebody else is feasting doesn't mean there's nothing to eat—or that there isn't a feast coming your way sometime down the line.”

It seems fitting that this shift in perspective is coming during a time of parallel shifts in the literary industry and beyond. Earlier this year, the HarperCollins Union went on strike for three months and successfully earned a new contract—and, as of now, the WGA has been on strike for nearly four months. Over the past few years, Instagram accounts like xoxopublishinggg and publishersbrunch have offered publishing employees a space to anonymously share concerns about the industry, including wage gaps and toxic work practices, all in the service of making the industry safer.

The support between writers follows a similar impulse. Undergirding every conversation I had was a common desire to ensure that other writers can not only survive, but thrive in an industry that increasingly reduces the value of creativity to sales numbers. As sales figures turn artists into numbers, a fitting reaction is for artists to treat one with a greater sense of humanity, to create friendships and communities defined by enthusiasm and mutual aid. And perhaps most importantly, these relationships are what help writers thrive.

Time and again, the authors I spoke to noted how indispensable these relationships were for their careers. The publishing industry, as many reiterated, often placed them in competition with each other, whether they wanted to compete or not. The solution isn't for writers to buckle in and compete harder. Instead, the avenue for success lies in sharing resources and inspiration. Fitzgerald summed it up nicely: “My closest friendships urge me to write more. Maybe that's a type of competition, but a healthy one. Looking at all the cool shit the people in my life are doing and saying to myself, ‘Hell, maybe I can do that too.’”

Isle McElroy is the author of the novels People Collide and The Atmospherians, a New York Times Editors' Choice.

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