Against Professionalism

Behaving in a professional manner, for writers, is really quite easy. Professional behavior basically means writing publishable work, meeting deadlines, not plagiarizing, and not libeling anyone with one’s work. The problem with discussions of professional behavior is that this brief list really is pretty much it, and if one is not yet writing publishable work then none of the rest matters. Well, that’s no way to become a publishing guru, or to sell aspiring writers all sorts of goods and services! And so was born “professionalism” which is running especially rampant in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

Professionalism is a complex of supposedly mandatory and proscribed behaviors that makes a writer “professional” regardless of their ability to write interesting material. Recently, at a science fiction convention I met a former student of mine, and he was very concerned about…his blog. Which he does not have. He was told, however, that today professional writers must all blog, but that these blogs must not offer up controversial political opinions, or negative reviews of popular books, or “ruffle feathers.” Everything must be “politically correct” he believed—to use that famously meaningless term I try so hard to get my students to stop using. I’d told the class Ronald Sukenick’s famous dictum, Use your imagination, or someone else will use it for you over and over.  Maybe one day it’ll stick. So, what to blog about? he wondered. What does a professional blog look like, and how does it lead to publishing deals? I recommended that he concentrate on finishing his book first, and making sure it was as good as it could be.

A few weeks later, at a different convention, the mildest of acquaintances fell into my arms, chagrined that she was drunk at a party, and that some editor or agent might also be at the same party. She’d already ruined herself professionally, and it was only Friday! Ah yes, a writer who enjoys a drink at a party. Very unprofessional; unheard of, really. Editors would surely be scandalized by the sight, had any actually been in a room and not themselves inebriated.

My two poor friends were much more concerned with “professionalism” than with professional behavior.

Why would someone want to be a professional writer? Rejection is constant, cash flow unpredictable, audiences fickle, and the publishing industry is falling apart. It’s easy enough to write for one’s own edification, or for some non-commercial community, if personal expression is one’s goal. There’s only one real reason to write professionally—no boss! All you need is professional behavior. Professionalism, by way of contrast, makes everyone a writer’s boss. Every Facebook friend, Twitter follower, newspaper reader, and book buyer is one’s employer, and what do they pay? Royalties on a hardcover are what, ten percent of cover price? Two dollars and fifty cents, payable somewhere between eighteen months and three years after the purchase of a book, and that’s if one’s publisher doesn’t go bankrupt. At least my real boss could rook me out of tens of thousands of dollars a year, and he doesn’t read my blog or check to see if I’m wearing dress shoes to work.

Few writers would care about the demands and declarations of these new bosses—tweet this, don’t talk about that, how dare you not like Dr. Who!—except that so many beginning writers themselves have joined the cult of professionalism and have begun to police one another. Not only do they believe in the supposed rules of professionalism themselves, they propagate the nonsense through their own social networking. It’s all rather nightmarish: don’t complain about rejection letters or reviews, don’t talk about editors and agents on Twitter or your blog, wear khakis and not blue jeans to conferences and bring plenty of business cards, keep away from politics except for the fannishly correct (and legitimate) concerns about diversity in publications in your public utterances. This advice is the new currency in the community of aspiring writers because it’s easy to give and easy to follow. What’s hard is writing.

And those are the at least reasonable demands of professionalism. I’ve heard people earnestly report that they never use American flag stamps when mailing submissions because liberal editors may take such stamps as a conservative political statement. I’ve eavesdropped on serious discussions about the userids of one’s “professional” email address; don’t use hyphens or underscores between first name and last! There are writers who hate writing short stories, but write and try to publish them anyway because it’s “expected” (by whom?) and  to “build their brand.” (Brand of what? Crappy writer?) I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve read that warn in a little preface of ranting and possibly losing friends and letting it all hang out…that turn into a jeremiad against, say, littering. Nothing controversial, remember! (On the other hand, blogging requests for people to act as personal unpaid valets during a convention appearance is not only “professional”, it’s in vogue.) My favorite is the person who somehow decided that it would be “unprofessional” to strike up a conversation with a certain editor at a writer’s conference—instead he just followed her around all weekend, hoping that she’d eventually turn around at some point and say hello.

It’s also worth noting that these rules regarding professionalism often only go one way—feel free to mock, insult, sneer at, or slander someone not in a position to help your career. Say, someone who is just as poorly published as you are, or someone who currently only edits work in translation and thus isn’t in a position to buy a short story or acquire a book.

Now some elements of professionalism have merit. Whining about negative reviews and rejection letters is unattractive, though nobody has ever been harmed by doing so, not even when every fan in the blogosphere swore to never buy a book by Anne Rice or Alice Hoffman or whomever ever again. You certainly shouldn’t send anyone threatening letters, but that’s true whether you want to be a writer or not. But here’s the dirty little secret about all the rest of it, speaking as an editor and the friend and colleague of many other editors. If your Twitter account is named JoeBlowWriter or we see a Facebook friend request from someone named JaneDoe_Author, we cringe. We laugh at “official” websites—get enough fans that someone makes an unofficial one and then we might care. We’re not concerned if you pumped your fist when Osama bin Laden was assassinated, or if you like to dress in short skirts. Your bookmarks and business cards generally tend toward the amateurish, and are rather secondary anyway. When the conventions are over, 95 percent of them go right into the trash. If we want to contact you, it’s generally pretty easy to figure out how to do so…even if you put an underscore between your first and last names in your email address. Here is what we care about:

Can you write well? I mean, really write well. Note, not write well enough—we have plenty of folks who can do that, and they’ll change their names every five years on command and write whatever we like, to order. Can you write well?

Are you ready to say “Yes” to a solicitation? Not “Maybe.” Not “But I don’t know if I’m any good at that”, but “Yes”?

Can you meet a deadline?

You know, not professionalism. Professional behavior.


24 thoughts on “Against Professionalism

  1. Hi, I am a pretty talented young writer with a markedly unprofessional website and no desire to hand out business cards. Once, a famous writer got very mad at me and called my former thesis advisor because I said something mean about her on twitter. I am consistently underemployed and currently work in the service industry. I can really write well, really. I don't even want to get a book published right now because I don't want to drop a half-assed contemporary novel shitshow right out of undergrad. I am the opposite of the "professional writers" you've described. Would you like to give me a job? This is not sarcasm.

  2. Hi Mae. I think your website is pretty neat, actually. Gen's attitudes toward piracy are a bit more nuanced than you give him credit for: there's the piracy of liberation and the piracy of commerce. Gen has been ripped off a lot, mostly by corporations. I'm afraid I don't have a job for you, and I live in California these days anyway. When I was your age, I went knocking on a door on the Lower East Side and found myself involved with Soft Skull Press. I'd recommend something similar for you. Who is below the radar, who is putting out the okay-looking zines and books in the consignment section of St. Mark's Books? Check them out and offer your services.

  3. Like many important things in life (marriage, parenting, caregiving, changing the world) I would argue that it's clear-cut, but it's not easy.

    The secret is that there is no secret, yes?

  4. See, to me (and I don't think we're in disagreement on this) another significant problem is the half-assed culture of "entrepreneurship". Instead of focusing on work, people are obsessively focusing on Building Their Brand and suchlike. It's a cargo cult sort of thing; if you mimick the activities of people who are getting what you want for yourself (fame, money, critical acclaim, whatevs), it will come to you.

    Of course, this does work to some extent in the corporate sector. People mistake activity for work all the time. But when churning and posturing replace coherent on-task labor, you get a big pile of nothing that bursts and then where are you? (see also: stock market).

  5. Or a big bubble of nothing that collapses. Kids, don't mix metaphors with Vicodin!

  6. Surgeons, waitresses, chefs, marathoners, preachers, landscapers, housekeepers, auto mechanics, knitters, attorneys, florists–these are a few of the wide range of pursuits that don't have non-working people fretting over whether or not they're professionals who must embrace professionalism. If I ever need heart surgery and the potential surgeon tells me they're a professional, even a "trained professional" with a straight face, I'm out of there because it'd better be a given that's not up for debate. (And even then, they're not talking about whether they trash people on Twitter, they're talking about the job itself.)

    Professionalism seems to only come up in situations where lots of people involved are worse at the job than they think they are. They're trying to convince themselves because they're uncertain (which can be perfectly valid, I just would argue that working hard will fix that uncertainty far more effectively than claiming one plays by inconsistent, presumptious, and self-generated rules).

    Even music, dance, and acting seem to have more of a "working (or trying to work)" versus "gave up" mentaiity. You hear that someone who moved onto accounting after two seasons in opera "could've been a professional" but there's no sense of mandatory requirements or strictures. You're either working or you're not. (And, of course, you already just said most of this. Well said and great post.)

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  8. I agree. The real work is in improving craft and continuing to make yourself the best writer you can be – and then making sure you can meet demands once they appear. Having a blog has been a real boon for me in terms of feeling like I'm offering something unique to the sf/f writing community, keeping me from feeling isolated from other writers, and also helping me work through ideas that I'm using in my writing. That's why I do it, and not because it makes me look good somehow. I'm laughing, though, because I just got an email address with the word "author" in it…because my name alone wasn't available and I wanted to keep it separate from my home emails, I swear! ;) Thanks for writing this post and starting a good discussion.

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  10. I feel profoundly grateful that I read this post before this "professionalism" business so much as crossed my radar. Is it specific to certain genre communities? You mention sci fi writers in particular. I do YA fantasy myself, and I'm just wondering if professionalism ain't a thing in those parts, or if I've just missed it by not reading enough blogs. (Which, absurdly, does give me a twinge of guilt now and then. I say absurdly, because I was using the time two write two novels in a year instead. Sometimes I think I've mastered the art of not giving a fuck, and then my socialization rears up.)

  11. I've seen a lot of anxiety about "professionalism" (especially around blogs and reviews) in YA fantasy. Good thing you missed it, and good luck!

  12. I'm very, very glad to read this. I'm dreadful at PC and the best part about social media as far as I can tell is the shared experience of occasional bitchery: there is nothing more lovely, when in a funk, than knowing I'm not alone.

    Good to know I'm not screwing myself out of a potential career in a rapidly-dissolving and endlessly-fascinating field simply by snarling on my Twitter feed.

  13. Oh, this was a good post to read. This 'professionalism' thing has had me worrying over my 'brand' now and then. I really needed to be reminded that that won't matter until I've finished my current projects to a standard I feel comfortable submitting, and even then, not until long after that too.

    It's also good to hear that my 'professionalism' won't be called into account because I don't have enough blog or Twitter followers.


  14. I think the problem with labelling activities like blogging as "professionalism" is that implies that anyone who doesn't do it is unprofessional, with all the negative connotations of that word. Yes, it's practically essential these days to have _some_ kind of web presence, but for most wannabe fiction writers it's insanely hard to build any kind of "platform" that is going to impress an agent or editor. For me it's about making – and keeping in touch with – friends, who may perhaps turn into readers one day, as well as connecting with other writers and publishing professionals. The internet makes networking so much easier and cheaper than it used to be, and it makes sense to exploit that if you want a career as an author.

    Social media is just one weapon in my career armoury, though. Mostly it's about writing good books, turning them in on time and being easy to work with. Professional behaviour, in other words. I do have business cards, but mostly I hand them out to other writers at conventions – it's an easy way to swap email/Twitter addresses. I don't think I've ever given an editor my card, though one or two have given me theirs. Until they've seen my work and decided if they like it or not, they don't particularly want or need my contact details.

    I have no qualms about posting negative book reviews on my blog – I'm a picky reader. As long as the criticism isn't a personal attack on the author, what's the problem? I'm a real person with real opinions – deal with it :)

  15. Enjoyed the post, and I agree with much of it. I socialize on Twitter and Facebook (and sometimes Kindleboards) with a gaggle of independent writers, some of whom have achieved varying degrees of success. Many of the things you discuss here are clearly visible amongst them, but that does not necessarily negate the value of consorting with such folk. I take from them a tremendous sense of encouragement, even if I leave the advice of many of the individuals alone. In all life's situations, we are innundated with advice offered by a mixture of people who can be well-meaning, apathetic, domineering, intentionally cruel, or any combination of the four, depending on the day. The most important thing is always to sift through the advice, harvesting the best bits for future use.

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