Bryan Furuness teaches at Butler University and is author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson. In a guest blog post, Bryan gives his thoughts on encouraging and cultivating emerging authors.
By Bryan Furuness
IU Press asked me to write a post about an Indiana writer. "Sure!" I said, forgetting to mention that I am not great at following directions.
Instead of writing about a single Indiana author, I'd like to think about a bunch of Indiana writers you've never heard of, writers I've never heard of. Emerging writers.
This is as good a spot as any to say that the views expressed here are my own; they do not reflect the views of the press, etc.
What do I mean by "emerging?" According to the Indiana Authors Award, an emerging author is someone "who has published no more than two books."
Two books? Criminy. Look: If you have two books to your name, you done emerged.
Let's lower that bar. For the purposes of this post, I'll define an emerging writer as anyone serious enough to be working on a book-length project but has not yet published one.
A lot of Hoosiers fall under this designation. How do I know? I've seen them at the IU Writers' Conference, at the Gathering of Writers sponsored by the Writers Center of Indiana, at the Steel Pen Writers' Conference up in the region. I see them in the Butler MFA program in creative writing that grows every year. Empirical evidence abounds.
Why should you care about emerging writers? This is the talent pool, people. If you care about literature and you care about our state (and because you're reading a post on the IU Press blog, I'll assume that you do), then you should care deeply about nurturing this group that is writing the next generation of stories and poems and novels.
The problem is that we don't care. We don't nurture. What we do, in this state, is grab onto the coattails of front-runners.
A few years ago, I was at an Indiana Authors Award reception, where I watched John Green take home the top prize, which came with $10,000. Nothing against John Green—he seems like a deeply decent human and I am glad to count him as a Hoosier—but I walked away thinking, Why give him that award? Who did that help?
Part of the award's stated goal is to "[attract] greater attention to 'home-grown' literary greats," but did anyone really think they could do that for Green? The idea that the award would raise the profile of the guy who wrote the bestselling The Fault in Our Stars is laughable.
The money must have been nice, but it didn't make a bit of difference to Green's writing career. Time is the most important resource to a writer, and that money did not buy him a single second more of writing time than he had before.
So what was the point?
Maybe I'm being churlish here. Maybe the real point of an award is to say HEY WE THINK YOU ARE GREAT. But if you attach money to it, wouldn't it be nice if that money did some good? Otherwise, aren't you missing an opportunity to make an actual difference?
More on difference-making in a moment. First, another example of coattailing.
$10,000 seems like a lot until you put it up against $750,000. That's the amount of money the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is raising so they can move to nicer digs in downtown Indianapolis. The heart of the library's mission is to champion Vonnegut's legacy.
Vonnegut needs a champion like Oprah needs a publicist. If only Oprah could get her name out there!
On one hand, the Vonnegut Memorial Library is doing no harm and I should just shut up. On the other hand, I'm concerned about opportunity cost. Every dollar donated to the Library is a dollar that won't go to an organization that could nurture the next Vonnegut.
Also, consider the cost/benefit ratio of that $750,000. How much will that money really enhance Vonnegut's legacy? Will it make a difference in how he's viewed?
Probably about as much as the Indiana Authors Award lifted John Green's profile.
So why do we keep throwing ourselves at these frontrunners? My suspicion is that it has less to do with raising their profile, and much more to do with raising our own. Our state is taking selfies with Vonnegut and Green so that everyone will know we're with them. Later we'll probably drop their names loudly at the hotel bar. Which is actually kind of pathetic. Come on, Indiana. Show a little self-esteem.
But what would happen if we invested those literary dollars where they would actually make a difference?
As I mentioned earlier, time is the most important resource for a writer—and money can buy time in the form of childcare, or a retreat, or to allow someone to go from full-time to part-time employment. Money can pay for schooling or mentoring to hasten an emerging writer's development. Sometimes, it turns out, you can actually throw money at a problem.
Don't coddle the emerging writers, you might say. Ignore them! Hardship will weed out the weaklings, and the truly talented and dedicated ones will rise to the top as they always have. The strong will survive.
It's more likely that the privileged will survive. The ones who make it through the literary thresher won't necessarily be the ones with the most talent or the most interesting stories to tell; it will be the ones with means.
I have about a million other things to say on this subject, but this essay's already too long by Internet standards, so I'll bring my point home. Indiana, level the playing field. Let's support a diverse chorus of developing voices, so writing isn't just a game for the privileged. Let's celebrate our Greens and Vonneguts, but let's also invest in the next generation of luminaries. And if we don't have the time and energy and money to do all of this—if we have to make a hard choice—let's choose bootstraps over coattails.