In defense of anonymous work

Or, why I’m OK with trading my name for 20 bucks.

Two main factors motivate us young writers to publish: the pursuit of clips or bylines, and the pursuit of payment. We know getting both at the same time is a real long shot, left for the very best of best case scenarios.

I was reading a small press’s blog post about its successes over the last year—new titles and awards and nominations and fancy blurbs and good reviews—and there it was, a pull quote from a review I’d written for a big deal reviewer. I loved the book in question, and I spent some real time and thought crafting what I hoped (nay, dreamed!) would be the blurbable part of the review, and presto. They pulled my favorite part of a review I’d been especially proud of, and they were using it to blurb the book, just as I’d hoped they would. But my name wasn’t on it, because it was an anonymous review I’d sold to the publication.

Reviewing is a weird game, rife with debate over the merits and uses of negative reviews. Blurbing is a weird game, too, an avalanching domino effect of pulling favors and pulling favors.

Anyone who’s ever published in 90% of lit mags knows the deal: you don’t get paid, but you get read. Getting read=exposure. Exposure gets you taken more seriously. Being taken seriously gets you more exposure, which maybe gets you more publications, which maybe gets you more exposure, which maybe gets you taken more seriously… which maybe, but not always, gets you noticed in the way we all want to be noticed. The way of book deals and NEA grants and fellowships.

It’s the same principle at work in internships, that the experience you gain equals or outweighs the value of your time or the work you produce. That it evens out to a fair deal in the end. The counterargument says: if you continue working for free, no one will pay you. See: episode one of Girls; when Hannah sucks it up and says she won’t work for free anymore, the problem is that someone else will, and her boss says so long and thanks for all the fish.

So, internships are slave labor, and I’m making money on my writing. Something I thought might be a categorical impossibility (like disgusting chocolate chip cookies). And now I’m bummed my name’s not on it. Because I want the recognition for having written such a GOOD blurb (trust me, it’s good). But I know what I really want is the pre-recognition that comes from being ASKED to blurb something. Not only because the asker knows the blurb will be good, but because my name will carry the sway that currently comes from The Famous Review Mag’s Name.

In a field that’s so, at its heart, performative, the success of a piece is fairly dependent on its reception. In an industry that’s so networky, the success of a writer is also fairly dependent on her reception. We talk about literary citizenship. About buying people’s books, in hardback, on the day they come out. About going to readings, subscribing to journals. We blurb each other. We review each other. We publish each other. We promote each other. In an industry full of starving artists, we pay each other in hype.

And into this world of self-consciousness, self-awareness, and the relentless press to self-promote, I introduce to you the review without a byline. The copyedit sans acknowledgment. The thankless proofread the author never even sees.  This is the world I’m dealing in, in my dayjob and on the side. This is the work that pays.

My freelance paychecks bought my plane ticket to Seattle to attend AWP. So I can listen. So I can buy and learn and shake hands and pay compliments and be a literary citizen. And while working to support this trip that will support my writing, my freelance jobs sucked up the time I’d meant to spend finishing draft three.

Not that twenty bucks is nothing, but if money were the motivator, I’d have found a more lucrative profession. If I were only in it for the plane ticket, I’d hand the red pens back now that it’s bought.

What I’m writing about is the something else I’m getting from the anonymous work that makes it worth doing.  which is, I think, that it forces a level of professionalism and quality for professionalism and quality’s sake. It’s money, and it’s experience, and it’s free books, and it’s a line on the resume.

Before I go much further, I will say that if you’re getting neither byline nor money nor new experience nor practice, the questions to ask yourself include:  is this worth the time it’s taking away from my writing, and what am I learning, and am I underestimating the worth of my work?

But what’s so good for me about it is the opportunity to be one of the professional faceless cogs in the literary machine.

I spend a lot of time crafting a voice—not only within my own creative work, but within my critical work, as a student and teacher and always-learner, and as a reader and commenter. What do I want to share with the people who listen to me? How do I want to talk about the things I want to share? What dialogue is interesting, productive, thought provoking? What vocabulary encourages precision of praise over blanket good vibes? What filter can insist on honesty and righteousness without a de facto posture of indignation?

There’s something honest and solid in the transaction of having writing a review I know is true and beautiful and may help sell a book, and getting nothing out of it besides my twenty dollar bill. The writer won’t know; she won’t owe me a blurb. The press won’t know; it won’t make them take my chapbook more seriously. It’s not a way to build a career, nor really a way to pay bills. But for me, it’s a way to keep my head on straight, a good balance of practicality and ambition. A brief reprieve from promotion and self-absorption, where  the beauty is that anonymity within the machine is freedom from the machine.

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