Rupi Kaur is the break-away poet of 2017, and the term “break-away poet” isn’t even a thing. She’s bonkers-popular on instagram, is the author of The Sun and her Flowers and is basically livin’ the life most writers dream of: fame, fortune, recognition (not to mention beauty, youth, creativity). Traditionally, poetry books don’t sell very well, but people are fawning over her stuff like she wrote the first poem ever written. More books are coming.
Kristen Roupenion had less than 200 followers on Twitter until about two weeks ago when the New Yorker published her short story, “Cat Person.” It went viral and now there’s a bidding war over her short story collection, which will be bought for at least a million dollars. Traditionally, short story collections don’t sell very well, and now people are fawning over the story like it’s the first short fiction piece ever written. I’m sure more books are coming.
Both these things make me think: Fuck.
These things have made others feel the very same way. So much so, that it seems like every time I go on social media someone else is expressing negativity about the writers or their work, and how unfair it is that they have been chosen for such good fortune, or judging Rupi especially for the instagram hustle that’s garnered so many fans.
would have been me was me about a week ago over lunch with Margaret Macpherson. We were talking publishing and its accompanying frustrations when I said I kind of felt bad for literary agents.
“I mean, imagine you go into the job with this dream of signing star geniuses that actually have something valuable to give the world, and then you’re stuck representing 50-Shades-of-Whatever because that’s what sells? It’s got to be depressing for them, too.”
(E.L James, I am so sorry)
(Also, I’m comparing Kaur and Roupenion’s work with James’ in popularity terms, not in terms of literary achievement)
“Actually,” she said (I’m paraphrasing), “did you know that those big sellers basically pay for the house’s ability to publish the quiet award-winners? When publishers produce big, important books that won’t sell well but could change the world, they’re taking a financial hit and covering the loss with the income from best-sellers. Basically, it’s popular books like Fifty Shades of Grey that fund award winners.”
And I thought, interesting…
And felt like an asshole.
(If someone out there is hustling on instagram and producing a thing that’s going to fund my work someday, thank you, thank you, thank you. We’re in this together and I owe you at least a future coffee… which will probably be all I can afford.)
Secondly, as much as criticizing another writer’s good fortune might make me feel a little less ‘fuck’, in the year of #metoo, when America has a serial molester/mysogynist/internet troll in its highest office, I simply don’t want to talk shit about other women, especially those who risk, who create, who speak up, or otherwise put themselves out there. Of course there is room for actual literary criticism, but what I’m reading in newsfeeds feels a little more personal than intellectual discussion. There are enough willing to claim someone’s too big for her britches without me joining in, and I won’t be part of adding to another woman’s imposter syndrome.
Thirdly, as much as I sympathize with the argument that writers should just write and not have to deal with social media, that’s simply not reality anymore (in fact, it hasn’t been reality: Charles Dickens was an avid self-promoter, albeit offline, which sounds even harder than online for the standard introvert). I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for convincing up-and-coming writers not to find their own audience, or shaming them into silence – how is that helpful?
And finally, personal preferences aside*, both writers created things that connected so deeply that people started sharing the work with their friends, and their friends likewise. So many people! So they win a prize. That’s how it works. It might not be fair, but life’s not fair.
In fact, let me tell some stories about ‘unfair.’ A few times I won the life lottery while other, worthier people took a shit kicking:
- Six years ago, my best friend’s husband died. It didn’t matter that Angel was better at being a wife than I was – she didn’t get to be one anymore and I did. At six am, the morning after The News, I sat in her driveway with a box of muffins on my lap, terrified to go inside the house. What if she screams at me, or hits me, I wondered. What if she asks why it wasn’t my husband – an actual firefighter – who died in that fire? “You fight with him all the time,” she might have said. “You don’t deserve him!” But when I did go inside, she just pulled me into a hug and cried. Then she spent the next few holidays with Freddy and I, and talked me down when I fumed with marital complaints, never accusing me of undue fortune, just loving me anyway.
- About three years ago, my friend was suffering infertility after the birth of her first child. It didn’t matter that Courtney was better at being a mom than I was – she couldn’t get pregnant and I had two children already and jokingly called myself a ‘Fertile Myrtle’ after a pregnancy scare. Asshole move. She could have asked, “Why you?” Could have said, “You don’t deserve two. You had an accidental pregnancy for god’s sake. You weren’t even trying! Why is it so easy for you?” She could have judged my every mothering move, could have told the whole world she could do it better than me and point out all my flaws. But she didn’t do that. She held my babies, never accusing me of undue fortune, just loving me anyway.
- About a year ago, my friend was dying of cancer. It didn’t matter that Drea, a wife and a mother and gold-hearted advocate, was better at living than I was – she didn’t get to live and I did. Drea was so good at living, in fact, that she wrote blog posts thanking her cancer for showing her her true self. The last time I saw Drea was at her healing circle, and part of me worried maybe she would be able to see my true self, too, which felt pretty broken and shitty right then. As I waited in line to say goodbye, I thought how easy it would be for her to hate me. Our children were the same age; our husbands worked together. “It wasn’t fair,” she might say. “Why do you deserve life more than I do?” But instead, as I pushed mala beads into her hand, she held me, never accusing me of undue fortune, just loving me anyway.
At least three embodiments of grace have shown me how to deal with this very minor ‘fuck’ feeling. Therefore:
Congratulations Rupi Kaur and Kristen Roupenian and E.L James and everyone else winning the literary lottery! I’m jealous of you, but happy for you. It would be great to join you some day, but if that doesn’t happen, I can love you anyway.