Gotta Pay the Toll to Get In


A lot of burgeoning writers search out the rules of writing. They'll hungrily lap up advice from seasoned veterans, from idols and respected peers. I'm one of those burgeoning writers. I've spent a fair amount of time searching. I've taken a few classes with people I respect a great deal. I've had enlightening conversations about craft. I've read the meta-books on writing: Stephen King, Annie Dillard, Ray Bradbury. I've combed interviews. Workshops are a part of that, especially in genre fiction: a chance to dive deep into the field, to rub shoulders with established authors and editors and agents. I was recently accepted into the Futurescapes Workshop, which offers the sort of opportunity I've always wanted to pursue, but, frankly, haven't had the funds for. Futurescapes is only three days, and the cost is reflected— much cheaper than more extended workshops like Clarion, Odyssey, Viable Paradise and the like. There was no submission fee. That being said, I've never gone to any of these workshops, or applied for them. I already can't afford to pay to submit, much less pay tuition.

That got me thinking about fees and the obstacles they present to artists. Submission fees, tuition fees, travel fees, etc. How does a poor artist cope with all this?

I won't delve into any real discussion of classism (this is, after all, a stream-of-consciousness rambling blog post, and nothing more), but a lot of this stuff troubles me on the daily.

Submission Fees

In the world of writing, nothing bothers me more than submission fees. That isn't to say I don't understand why they exist, just that they rub me the wrong way. I'm a strong believer in the aphorism that money should flow towards the artist.

Submission fees are especially common in literary magazines (I'm looking at you, Glimmer Train), and generally more frowned upon in genre fiction. The reality is that a lot of modern day readers are also aspiring writers, and so the easiest way to pay published writers is to use money from aspiring ones. From a business perspective, I guess I can see it. It's the community eating itself. Er, supporting itself. Whatever. Frankly, I see a similar (if much more diluted) effect in the world of music. Musicians are the ones who go out and see live music the most. That's not a bad thing, really. It's just odd to see festival promoters and bookers and magazine editors and contest organizers make a living out of this sort of thing.

It feels a bit like a lottery. It's the carrot, dangling just out of reach. If you pay, you get a chance for it, but why are you paying? Isn't the purpose to convert this labor into capital? To convert your words into cash? After all, by the time of sale, the artistry is done. You shouldn't be paying for the chance to get paid (although I guess that happens all over the place, in many fields.)

On the other hand, I guess it has benefits. Is it worth it to charge 100 artists $5 so that you can pay one artist $500? I guess it depends where you're standing on the ladder. And on whether you can afford the $5.

Tuition Fees vs. Scholarships

The reason I'm most bothered is by the way I see scholarships set up. Over the past couple years, I've had a number of opportunities to pursue the craft of writing in workshop or class setting, in places that offer scholarships, even. But they're set up in ways that make no sense if their purpose is to truly help poor people. For example, it seems to be common to ask for tuition fees before awarding scholarships. If you can't afford to pay tuition without a scholarship, it's a scary thing to dive in. What do you do? Crowdfunding? Take out credit? Pray that the scholarship is finally awarded to you at the end, rather than another soul with the misfortune to need it even more than you do? The practice of demanding tuition before awarding scholarship is a practice that rewards the wealthy and inhibits the impoverished. It's frustrating, because there's no reason it needs to be in that order. If the goal of scholarship is to even the playing field and help talented people, offer it first! Offer it up front! Don't charge fees!

Anyway...

Another aphorism I stand behind is the old "don't self reject". Sometimes, though, it's better to self-reject than to burn money into the system. Also, after rambling about this for a few minutes, I feel like I should qualify my statements. I'm all for the infrastructure: the talent agents, festival promoters, educators, and organizers who offer services to the art community. These are the glue at the edges. They make it work as a business. Sometimes it just makes me feel weird. Maybe that's just capitalism.

So yeah, that's some more rambling for you. I'm still new to this whole blogging thing (and notoriously incoherent). This isn't an essay, and I'm glossing over some topics that are certainly better served by deep dialogue rather than a quick skim. But you get what you pay for, and this is free.

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