Tilting at Windmills

Rather dramatic title, I know. But that’s how I feel.

I have been contemplating how to boost my visibility in today’s world of publishing (as I’m sure the majority of struggle writers do with regularity). With so many writing-related internet articles dedicated to the question of “MFA or NYC?” as the end-all, be-all of literature, lately I’ve also been contemplating wrist slitting (on a purely theoretical basis, of course).

If the answer to getting the attention of the publishing industry is that one must have either a Masters in Fine Arts or an address in New York City, then (to quote one of my favorite baseball personalities, SF Giants announcer Mike Krukow) I have “none chance.”

I find the MFA-NYC question daunting and discouraging on so many levels:

First, how can it be that those are the only two choices for recognition as a writer in America? Can it really be true that a “neither” response will elicit a shrug from the publishing industry? Who is it that determines what consumers want to read?

Second, what is this two-party system doing to the world of literature? Is it any better than the two-party political world? Are bookshelves to be populated only with MFA-approved novels or those set in New York City and its environs (or at least filtered through the prism of NYC attitudes)?

Third, I don’t have the option to enter this “elevated” world, even if I can overcome the other issues. MFAs are costly and time-consuming (between $27,000 and $65,000 by last count, spanning 2-1/2 or more years – if one can even get into the programs, given the current climate of fierce competition). All that without any guarantee of success. And NYC is out – I have no interest in disrupting my life or forcing my ambition on my husband – he was happy to gawk at Times Square and Radio City Music Hall, Ellis Island and the Statute of Liberty once, but a permanent residence isn’t in his (or my) DNA. I don’t particularly like big cities any way.

At a recent book fair where I was hawking my wares, a woman stepped up and asked what qualified me to write a book. I thought she was rude – now I think she was, perhaps, just reflecting what American publishers want to know. “MFA,” I could have lied (unless I redefine it to mean an altogether crass epithet for the Inquisitor or as “Mighty Fine Artist”). Or “Just visiting from NYC,” I might have said, further perjuring myself.

Since the truth is “neither,” what DOES qualify me to write a book? What I said to the MFA Inquisitor was “I’ve always loved writing, and have an abiding interest in people and the impact of historical events on them.” Not surprisingly, she didn’t buy either of my books. Gotta work on that elevator pitch.

So where does that leave me?

Exactly where I was before I began this exercise in futility: I will write, as I have been. I will publish, as I have been. And my work will languish in obscurity, as it has been. The obstinacy of the publishing-industry windmills will probably never abate – but neither will I leave off my fight. I am a writer – I can do no less.

For a closer look at the MFA/NYC question, try http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-nyc-both-probably

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About Lori Hart Beninger

Lori Hart Beninger is a native California writer with three critically acclaimed historical novels (Embracing the Elephant, A Veil of Fog and Flames, and A Peculiar Peace) that follow two 19th century young adults as they struggle with survival and acceptance in the pivotal era of the California Gold Rush up to the American Civil War. Please visit www.ontrackpublishing.com for synopses, availability, reviews, and more.
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