A New Literature Network

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 28, No 2 (Summer 2017)

Amy Stolls

In many ways, it has been a heartening year for champions of the literary arts. To nurture and preserve the beauty of the carefully written word, the power of the spoken word, a healthy dialogue among varied voices, and a cultural legacy worth leaving to future generations — these are the ultimate goals of publishers and presenters, service organizations, and other literary entities that in the past year, in unprecedented numbers and with an invigorated interest in cooperation, have joined The Literary Network, or LitNet, a newly reimagined coalition of nonprofit literary organizations from across the United States.1

The heads of many of these organizations volunteered without pay and on their own time to establish LitNet’s new goals and governance, and now, on a shoestring budget, it is off and running. Whereas other arts disciplines have benefited over the past decade from having a nonprofit membership organization that speaks for and represents the interests of their entire field, literature has not. It stands to benefit tremendously from this new direction.

How It Evolved: Literature’s Unique Challenges

LitNet was, in fact, founded in 1992 by Poets & Writers and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). At that time and throughout the 1990s and 2000s, it remained a relatively small group of invited participants who mostly represented the larger literary organizations, and was spearheaded by Jim Sitter, a passionate and effective advocate for literature.

For a small operation, it made great strides. In 1995, for example, it helped save the National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for creative writers, currently the only individual grants the NEA is empowered by Congress to make. Other issues it weighed in on included intellectual property rights, tax laws, and freedom of expression.

By 2014, however, the effort was proving difficult to sustain, and LitNet nearly disintegrated, until a core group of field leaders discussed resurrecting it but in a different form. They decided, for example, that membership in the coalition should be open to all literary organizations. Members of the new steering committee then researched national field-wide organizations that act as hubs for various sectors of a discipline — for example, the Association of Performing Arts Professionals — to assess how LitNet might best be structured and what services it could provide. (Certain sectors within the literature field, like literary publishers, have their own service organization, while others, like presenters and literary centers, do not.)

As current philanthropic trends show movement away from discipline-based funding, and “literature” is increasingly seen as an integral part of other art forms (plays, screenplays, and lyrics, for example), it is important to ask why the literature field needed — and still needs, perhaps now more than ever — a group like LitNet. There are many answers to this question, but three spring immediately to mind. The first has to do with debunking common myths among the general public (for example, no one reads poetry, poetry is for the elite, nothing much happens outside of New York).

The second is the literature field’s lack of accurate, or at least consistent, data and the difficulty it has of demonstrating impact. Presenters can count ticketed seats, and online endeavors can count hits, but publishers of poetry and prose in print reach individuals who consume their art primarily in private and not always right away. Quantifying how many people have read a book, therefore, is no easy task: book sales are a start, but they do not account for copies shared or lent out through libraries or acquired at a used bookstore and read a year later. But even more important is ensuring that the field has the qualitative data to show literature’s intrinsic value. “We hope to gather data that shows the true breadth of what our community accomplishes,” explains Jeffrey Lependorf, who heads up LitNet’s research committee.

The third answer has to do with the budgets of most literary organizations, which are significantly smaller than the budgets of organizations in many other arts disciplines and therefore lead to different needs and priorities. Literary organizations do not absorb the kinds of costs that a large symphony orchestra or a multitiered museum might, of course, but they do have to keep up with changes in technology and marketing strategies, among other things, which can be a drain on staff and resources. Granting programs like those run by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund helped literary organizations stabilize and grow in the 1990s, but today the only national granting program with an open application process targeting literary organizations is through the NEA. One of LitNet’s primary goals is to assess the collective funding needs of its members (which jumped from sixteen to sixty-eight, as of March) and tailor its efforts to help address them through support of public funding.

Who the Members Are

So who are the members of LitNet?2 They are rooted in both urban and rural settings across the country and serve local, national, and international audiences. Their programming supports readings, retreats, craft workshops, discussion groups, poetry slams, podcasts, career advice, mentorships, festivals, writers conferences, and the publication of books and journals, both in print and online.

They place poems in public spaces, distribute and review books often overlooked by mainstream presses, and help teachers teach writing. They bring authors into communities that would not have access to them otherwise and provide a welcoming environment and support for emerging writers who do not yet see themselves as writers. And they build community through conversation. “Literature encourages people to discuss their differences in more thoughtful and flexible ways,” wrote Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So in the Guardian last October in a piece titled “Study Shows Books Can Bring Republicans and Democrats Together,” which described the results of a study that examined reading behaviors on Goodreads.3 “We might disagree on a number of issues, but literature helps create a space where we can compromise.”

A Focus on Poetry

Formed under the LitNet umbrella is a smaller coalition of members who primarily focus on poetry. The group, called the Poetry Coalition,4 has no designs to become a separate membership organization with a dues structure; rather, it is a more informal, albeit well-organized, subset of roughly twenty-five organizations across the country that see the benefit of working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.

In March 2017, the Poetry Coalition launched its inaugural collaborative effort, Because We Come from Everything: Poetry & Migration.5 Each member of the coalition presented a program or event during the month on the theme of migration. Many of the efforts included poetry readings and the commissioning, publication, and broadcasting of new poems. Other projects were more offbeat. Mass Poetry, for example, used a biodegradable, water-repellent spray and stencils made by local artists to place poems throughout the streets of Salem, Massachusetts, which were visible when it rained or they got wet. O, Miami wrapped a Miami-Dade County bus with original poems written by elementary school children about the concepts of home, migration, and transit.

Recent Accomplishments and a Look to the Future

“One of our main achievements last year was structural, i.e., creating working committees and actively engaging all members of the steering committee in LitNet’s work,” said Elliot Figman, longtime executive director of Poets & Writers and one of the original active members of the coalition decades ago. In the past year, LitNet produced and distributed its first few newsletters to members and created a website and Facebook page, and its members are working together on advocacy issues.

Last September, the NEA hosted a meeting in Washington, D.C., for steering committee members that featured guest speakers from within and outside the agency who have experience in other arts disciplines. Discussion topics throughout the day included education and messaging, the nuts and bolts of running a field-wide service organization, the challenges of arts funding, community outreach at the state and local levels, and research (data gaps, trends, challenges, and opportunities).

In March, LitNet elected its first group of officers, including steering committee chair Britt Udesen, executive director of The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. In the coming months, LitNet plans to position members as regional representatives around the country to expand its outreach, as well as become part of CLMP in order to allow the coalition to hire its first part-time director and raise funds. “This is an incredibly exciting time for LitNet,” said Udesen. “I’m hoping in the next few months you’ll notice our efforts and see the ways in which we’re amplifying the work of our member organizations and the power that literature has in our communities.”


NOTES

  1. For more information about LitNet, see its website: http://litnet.org/about/.
  2. For a list of LitNet members, see http://litnet.org/members/.
  3. Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So, “Study Shows Books Can Bring Republicans and Democrats Together,” Guardian, October 12, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/12/goodreads-study-books-bridge-political-divide-america.
  4. For more information about The Poetry Coalition, see its website: https://www.poets.org/academy-american-poets/poetry-coalition.
  5. The Poetry Coalition, Because We Come From Everything: Poetry & Migration, https://www.poets.org/poetry-coalition/because-we-come-everything.

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