The Bad Literary Citizen

This week, I turned down a request to serve as a juror for a foundation that awards grants to artists who pair creative work with civic engagement, and, despite the genuine understanding of the inviting grant manager, I came away feeling like a bad literary citizen. Having served as a judge for fellowships and writing programs in the past, I know how much work goes into doing a good job. Deciding who gets awarded money or program entrance, which will have a significant impact on their careers/ lives, can be grueling. Even in the case of small applicant pools, a few dozen writing samples (not to mention CV’s, Personal Statements, Statements of Need, etc.) in the range of 10-25 pages takes a toll that goes beyond the time it takes to read, re-read, note-take, systematize decision-making, travel to and from the granting institution, and argue on behalf of your favorite applicants. There’s an emotional impact. There’s a significant loss of headspace.

I didn’t ask whether this particular foundation offered anything in the way of compensation for their jurors’ time (most that I’ve been involved with don’t), because I knew that, in the unlikely circumstance that I was offered a token payment, there was no reasonable amount of money that was worth the time I’d be losing on my manuscript.

So, why the guilt?

I, like most writers interested in participating in the literary industry, have benefited from the selflessness of writers who serve on juries and editorial boards, in both times of fortune and times of rejection. These jurors have their own creative projects and time limitations, and without their volunteer work (since most work for little to no compensation) the industry as we know it would grind to a halt.

But then again, aren’t writers asked to give away too much of themselves for free?

This is just really bad timing, I’d said over the phone, meaning, I’m finally gaining traction with this draft, and I can’t afford to lose another month trying to get back here. Yeah, it’s really bad timing for the last few people I’ve asked, unfortunately, she’d responded. Please keep me in mind for next round, I said.

I believe wholeheartedly that someone who hopes to gain (publications, fellowships, paid appointments) from a system should contribute to it (it’s good karma), and I’ve tried to do my part, but how do we know when we’ve given too little or too much?

There may be no right answer, but I like to think of that airline demonstration, where you’re told to secure your oxygen mask before helping others. I like to think that by prioritizing your creative work and energy, in the long run, you’ll be able to contribute that much more.

Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 WROB Fellow

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