Purging the Unhealthy Value System of the American Literary World

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

When searching for a publisher for her sixth book, Janice Lee realized she had internalized more of the commercial publishing economy’s value system than she wanted. In a brilliant essay for Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Lee interrogates the way America’s cultural values push against her own values and have influenced her behavior, and she narrates her efforts to dismantle the dominant linear idea of progress, success, artistic development, and “making it” that many of us writers inherit. The concept of success, even the subtler concepts of big versus small presses and breakout novels, are wrapped up in authors’ self-worth, desire for external validation, past trauma, and capitalism, which has turned art into products and human beings into resources. This is a searing, crystalline essay, as practical as it is beautiful, and in it, Lee’s cut a path for other writers who want to free themselves from indoctrination. “It is difficult to see how we are restrained by our own internalized oppression,” she writes, “and then, to blame the systems we participate in when we don’t feel supported, understood, heard, seen.” She asks: What if books were bridges and not products? Can’t they be something other than commodities?

How can we all heal from the trauma of a publishing industry that is just another extension of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? How might we move beyond the myths of meritocracy and the capitalist paradigms where legitimacy and success are so closely linked, casting so many of us as undeserving, mediocre, invisible? Publishing “success” often looks like the escape we are looking for, especially when we have trained our entire lives to survive in this system. Everything has taught us that this is how we survive and get ahead, to jump on the train and go along with it, along with everyone else, and so when we get left behind, we feel shame and humiliation, we think that we must have done something wrong, that perhaps someone forgot about us or made a mistake. There has to be another way. We have to be more conscious of the ways in which we have all internalized publishing supremacy, the harm of unconsciously assigning more worth to books or authors that have had more commercial success, of using language that feeds the idea of linear progress and hierarchy.

Read the story