The Internet is what you make of it, obviously. And there are aspiring writers who use digital technology to read and research and seek the counsel of their peers. But the Internet has also been a great aggregator of anxiety and an enabler of our worst tendencies. It has allowed us to trumpet our own opinions, to win attention by broadcasting our laziest and cruelest judgments, to grind axes in public. It has made us feel, in some perverse sense, that we are entitled to do so.
They didn’t seem to understand—they were too entitled to understand—that the production of great literature requires a deep engagement with great literature.
This, I suspect, is why so many of the discussions of the assigned reading in the nonfiction class I taught this past spring began with students talking about why they didn’t like the author. This one was sexist. That one was self-involved. And so on.
While I appreciated the critical acumen of my students—they often made excellent points—there was an air of entitlement to these judgments. They seemed reluctant to examine the aspects of craft and storytelling at which these authors excelled, and that they might therefore learn from them.
One day, Elizabeth Gilbert’s name came up and, well, you can pretty much guess what happened next: Students began slagging her for receiving an advance to write her memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia and for writing “from privilege,” a favorite complaint. I asked the student who was carping the loudest if she had read that book—or indeed, any of Gilbert’s other five books. She had not.
It might sound like I’m describing “snark” here. But while the Problem of Entitlement and the Problem of Snark are related, they’re not the same.
Snark is a conscious attempt to cast aspersion for narcissistic reward. Writers who use social media, or other public forums, to dis other writers are seeking to convert resentment into attention. It’s a tool of self-promotion.
Entitlement operates at a more basic and often unconscious level. It’s a kind of defensive snobbery, a delusion that the world and its constituent parts—whether a product or a piece of art or a loved one—exist to please you.
Americans as a whole have become more entitled as we’ve become more deeply immersed in consumer culture, with its insidious credo: The customer is always right.
This is why I often find it disheartening to eavesdrop on people at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ conference and book fair, for instance. So many of the conversations seem to be about why this panel sucked or that writer is overrated.
I understand the temptation to talk smack. It’s daunting to be surrounded by ten thousand people who all want the same thing: the adoration of readers. Especially given the dwindling audience for poetry and literary fiction and nonfiction. People wind up feeling powerless, which leads them to seek the cheapest available form of power: the power to judge.
But entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress, which requires patience and gratitude and, above all, humility. You don’t grow as a writer by writing off other people’s efforts. You grow as a writer by respecting the process.
A big part of that process is putting in the hours. But I also believe that writers must develop a critical faculty—the capacity to judge with ruthless precision and empathy. It’s easy to say you don’t like a story or poem or novel. It’s much more difficult to point to particular scenes or paragraphs or sentences, and to articulate exactly why they feel false or hurried or confusing. And it’s hard, also, to look past your own sensibility, your biases—to assess a piece of writing on its own terms.
A good workshop should offer honest feedback—painfully honest if necessary. It does the writer, and his or her colleagues, little good if everyone just plays patty-cake. But such criticism should be preceded by a discussion of what the writer was trying to achieve, and where the writer was most successful. Not just to flatter, but because this is how a critic earns the right to criticize.
Not everyone subscribes to this method, or this view. But the more years I spend as a writer, the more esteem I feel for anyone who writes—my students, my peers, and my betters.
There’s a passage in Tobias Wolff’s famous “Bullet in the Brain” that conveys this idea a lot more eloquently than I can. The story is about a once-passionate student of literature who’s become a burned-out book critic. Wolff writes, “He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate’s name on the jacket of a novel not long after they graduated, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.”
This is the Problem of Entitlement in a nutshell.
And it is the reason, as a teacher, I go out of my way to avoid criticizing other published writers in front of my students. Some years ago, a group of them asked me what I thought of a story that had run in the New Yorker, which they clearly hated. I spent an hour going over it with them, pointing out all the places where it succeeded. I did this even though, privately, I hadn’t much liked the story.
There’s a lot of talk these days about being a good literary citizen. But that doesn’t just mean tweeting sweet nothings to the world or showing up at readings. It begins with showing a basic respect for the larger struggle in which we are all engaged.
In the end, the students I taught this past spring will either get over their sense of entitlement or, at some point, abandon writing.
In my note of apology over my outburst in class, I tried to make this point less obnoxiously. “Every story has something to teach you,” I wrote. “You guys do a fantastic job in class of being generous with one another. The larger world of writers deserves the same respect. A story is important because a human being made it, not because it ran in this or that magazine or anthology.”
The next time you find yourself dismissing a piece of writing, please remember this: Entitlement ultimately corrodes your creative efforts. Generosity and humility will get you a lot further as a writer.
Steve Almond is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto (Melville House, 2014). His website is stevealmondjoy.com.