(An ode to) The Volunteer in the Literary World

I’ve been thinking of the volunteer lately, and I think they are, in a way, one of the most powerful groups in the writing world, and possibly society itself. And often, the most powerless in both.

An huge investment, of time, money, head-space and physical effort, comes from people willing to put their hands up and get it done. Rather than complain about a gap, a lack or a shortfall, a volunteer steps up and fills the void. If you don’t think there is enough opportunities for bi-lingual writers in Australia, then do something. Start a publication that caters to that, to whatever you think is missing – check out the amazing Red Leaves and Kirk Marshall, or the tireless work of Graham Nunn. That’s how most journals and publications start, it doesn’t come from funding bodies, those boards don’t get together and go, ok, let’s start a poetry mag. No, they reward people and groups who put their hands up and say, I want to start a poetry mag.

There’s some great discussion over at the Overland blog on this, and I can’t find the post. (It’s very annoying – if anyone has a link, please let me know. UPDATE – here it is, from Maxine) It was around the time Overland decided to stop publishing poetry on the blog (due to resources) and there’s an earlier post on volunteers and unpaid blogging there too. And great discussions all over the net I bet.

But basically, my rant was something to the same effect as the words above. It’s like the super-villain’s catch-phrase – if you want something done right, do it yourself. Now I wouldn’t go that far, because I love help, I love collaborating. But there is a lot to be said for taking action. Perhaps a better analogy would be the principle of direct-democracy.

Volunteers grease the poetry and literature machine, they are at times, hidden supporters of magazines, zines, journals, anthologies and websites. They post, they read, they sort, they gather, they spend, they count, they write, they edit, they draw, they paint, they press, they copy, they talk…the list could easily go on. And I use the word ‘machine’ on purpose. The writing world can grind you to dust with those giant cogs. One of the hardest things about being a volunteer is getting the balance. Trying not to take on too much and asking for help, because while you’re working to make things happen, you’re probably working to pay the bills too.

I’m not trying to give paid editors and publishers a hard time, because they burn out too, they are just as overworked. What is little different, is that volunteers are always starting from the shadows, and that’s where some of their powerlessness lies. A paid, recognised literary professional, when they move from project to project, they bring the muscle of having held a paid and recognised position with them. A volunteer takes the experience but not the recognition. Now, again, I don’t think this is the fault of paid literary professionals – I think that’s simply the way a capitalist democracy values certain individuals. The notion of paid work has a privileged place in society.

And it’s also not my intent to suggest that volunteers all want to move out of the shadows, not at all, it can be a great place back there. You can get stuff done! I love the work I do in the literary world. The work that isn’t paid – it’s too much fun not to. And the work that is paid or remunerated in some way, that’s fantastic too. Just being involved is enough, for me, anyway.

So thanks to those of you who jump up and get it done – I’ve relied on you just as often as I’ve been one of you.

The volunteer is, in a way, one of the most powerful groups in the writing world, and possibly society itself. And often, the most powerless in both.

An investment, of time, money, headspace and physical effort, comes from people willing to put their hands up and get it done. Rather than complain about a gap, a lack or a shortfall, a volunteer steps up and fills the void. If you don’t think there is enough opportunities for bi-lingual writers in Australia, then do something. Start a publication that caters to that, to whatever you think is missing – check out the amazing Red Leaves and Kirk Marshall. That’s how most journals and publications start, it doesn’t come from funding bodies, those boards don’t get together and go, ok, let’s start a poetry mag. No, they reward people and groups who put their hands up and say, I want to start a poetry mag.

There’s some great discussion over at the Overland blog on this, and I can’t find the post. (It’s very annoying – if anyone has a link, please let me know.) It was around the time Overland decided to stop publishing poetry on the blog (due to resources) and there’s an earlier post on volunteers and unpaid blogging there too. And great discussions all over the net I bet.

But basically, my rant was something to the same effect as the words above. It’s like the super-villain’s catch-phrase – if you want something done right, do it yourself. Now I wouldn’t go that far, because I love help, I love collaborating. But there is a lot to be said for taking action. Perhaps a better analogy would be the principle of direct-democracy.

Volunteers grease the poetry and literature machine, they are at times, hidden supporters of magazines, zines, journals, anthologies and websites. They post, they read, they sort, they gather, they spend, they count, they write, they edit, they draw, they paint, they press, they copy, they talk…the list could easily go on. And I use the word ‘machine’ on purpose. The writing world can grind you to dust with those giant cogs. One of the hardest things about being a volunteer is getting the balance. Trying not to take on too much and asking for help, because while you’re working to make things happen, you’re probably working to pay the bills too.

I’m not trying to give paid editors and publishers a hard time, because they burn out too, they are just as overworked. What is little different, is that volunteers are always starting from the shadows, and that’s where some of their powerlessness lies. A paid, recognised literary professional, when they move from project to project, they bring the muscle of having held a paid and recognised position with them. A volunteer takes the experience but not the recognition. Now, again, I don’t think this is the fault of paid literary professionals – I think that’s simply the way a capitalist democracy values certain individuals. The notion of paid work has a privileged place in society.

And it’s also not my intent to suggest that volunteers all want to move out of the shadows, not at all, it can be a great place back there. You can get stuff done! I love the work I do in the literary world. The work that isn’t paid – it’s too much fun not to. And the work that is paid or remunerated in some way, that’s fantastic too. Just being involved is enough, for me, anyway.

So thanks to those of you who jump up and get it done without a pay check – I’ve relied on you just as often as I’ve been one of you.

16 thoughts on “(An ode to) The Volunteer in the Literary World

  1. I agree with you, volunteering is an excellent way to get experience and get things moving. I would add a note of caution however. There is, particularly on the internet, a phenomenon known as ‘working on the eternal promise basis’, whereby one expends time and energy in the never-fulfilled hope of eventually being rewarded. It is the end point of a capitalist democracy, a term which may well be an oxymoron.

  2. Volunteers are most definitely the oil for the machine and without them things would gring to a halt… the best thing about being a volunteer or independent mover and shaker is that you are not aligned to any one particular organisation, magazine etc… you are free to create, to build things from scratch… the DIY ethic is something very dear to my heart.

    • I agree, Graham – that ability to move in and out of groups, events, places, and still do good work, still help so many folks.

      And you’re the perfect example too, you know!

  3. Great opinion piece Ash. Volunteers are indeed the quiet heroes hiding in the dark corners. I’ve been commenting lately on the need for more journals, or rather an increase in readership to support journals. I love the feeling when I open the mailbox and there’s a new journal waiting for me (just received Untitled #2, waiting on Ampersand 0 & 1, and Cottonmouth Anthology), the crisp covers promising the freshest voices in Australian Literature. However, I confess, I have never stopped to think about all the work that went into the publication, rest assured I will now.

    To all the volunteers who have contributed to the journals that have given me so much pleasure; thank you.

    • Thanks, Mark – it’s only the 2nd one on this blog, whipped it up last night and it seems ok, might try tighten a few things still!

      I agree, we need more readers, always, always! Don’t feel guilty – you’ve got to be one of the best supporters of literature I know!

  4. Hi Ash.

    I find myself divided on this one. It’s a little like that sentiment ‘love the soldiers, hate the war.’ More and more volunteerism and less and less paid work seems the trend. So I applaud those tireless souls like Nunn and Marshall (and yourself of course).

    The alarming trend is for volunteerism to keep increasing, and what with the emergence of E-Literature, it seems writing is never again to be a profession. We will tell our children it is actually impossible to live from writing, not merely very, very difficult. In the future it might be a daydream to even earn their equivalent of pocket money.

    As I said, it makes me love the dedicated spirits in our writing community all the more, but I grow proportionally appalled that we are a part of a society that treats all of us as beggars and thieves.

    I was part of that blogging discussion you referred to at Overland, which was in itself part of the larger Blogging Legitimacy debate. My Overland article can be found here–> http://web.overland.org.au/2010/01/25/buskers-and-hawkers/#comments

    It’s a debate that will continue to subside and to roar into life as we struggle to survive as artists in a culture that relegates our profession to the level of newspaper routes given to children.

    I love your spirit Ash. I just can’t help wishing it was appreciated more widely.

    • Thanks, Alec! That’s a good point actually – it’s part of that business/economic-rationalist mindset I think, more volunteers because they’re cheap? And I do fear that – no longer being able to even claim pocket money from writing would be painful.

      Thanks for the link too – still chasing one more, unless I imagined it.

  5. Hey Ash,

    I’m compelled, here, to extend you an immediate thanks & gratification for referring to myself and “Red Leaves” in your latest weblog post! I’m also complicit, in this realm of insightful discussion, to agree directly (not without frustration at the local culture’s larger implications) with A.S., and concede that editorial & literary volunteerism appears to constitute the community lubricant that effectively oils the contemporary Australian publishing apparatus — but more than that, the role in the present culture seems to be viewed as the cipher or interstice exclusively through which marginal, tangential and experimental literary work is produced, and disseminated into the wider community.

    Ronnie Scott, independent editor of Melbourne’s “The Lifted Brow” bi-annual attack journal, referred to this in passing in his recent online interview with Justin Taylor, — online features contributor to “HTMLGIANT”, America’s pre-eminent forum for discussion relating to stylistically deconstructivist indie literary publishing, — but it’s a simultaneously disconcerting & promising thesis to recognise that most challenging, experimental modern literatures and poetics from Australia can singularly be identified as the major content of publications born from volunteer editorship.

    It’s disconcerting because it means that arts funding & contractual remuneration in Australia are only being proliferated and offered to independent magazines that comply to the historically-established *pro forma* categories synthesised by the particular funding bodies in question — funding categories which demand all creative content included be Australian in origin, for example, and that the stated “ethos” of said journal be to further the careers of Australian writers from recognised creative writing programs (“Red Leaves” was roundly rejected) — and such criterion inhibits the democratisation of power to those individuals who volunteer their time to produce new, editorially lateral and challenging projects. Since commencing editorship of “Red Leaves” in 2009, I’ve discovered that the collectives most actively interested in the journal are those deeply involved in voluntary publication, themselves. I’ve only recently turned twenty-five years of age, which affords me the unflagging capacity to assert this with definitive clarity, but both “Voiceworks” and Express Media — which commonly extoll the vitality & significance of the emerging writer in Australia’s literary landscape as their organisational mission — have avoided assisting me in promoting “Red Leaves”, even to a state whereby my multiple requests to be included in their online list of Australian cultural publications has gone unactioned. The inherent paradox, here, is that whereas I’ve developed an independent publication whose inaugural-issue production costs amount to $6,000 and isn’t supplemented by annual stipend, arts funding or commercial advertising, “Voiceworks” is generally curated & proofed by a body of paid part-time staff — and yet it still claims to represent a litmus of Australian emerging writers, though its editorial choices are dictated to by a style guide that hasn’t changed for at least seven years. It’s evident, then, that hundreds of writers who are of age are systematically being refused inclusion — because “Voiceworks” isn’t an innovative DIY magazine (it’s funded bi-monthly; how could it be?), though it loves to endorse itself as one. Personally, I think it’s necessary to have publications such as “Voiceworks” in Australia to showcase a certain brand of creative expression, and its not my intent to discredit how germane its role is in having shaped the community of emerging writers (particularly in Victoria), but it’s aesthetically problematic for the local funding culture to validate (and finance) “Voiceworks”, and not “Red Leaves” — or “The Lifted Brow”, or “Torpedo”, or “stop drop and roll”, or Vignette Press, for that matter — because it works to position “Voiceworks” as THE magazine for emerging writers in this country: there’s no possibility for equable market share or cross-acknowledgment, because to ensure regular sales to financially justify the funding, “Voiceworks” needs to present itself to the public as the face of youthful literary publishing. The independents, whose editors are consistently toiling in the margins, remain in the margins, disinvested of recognition. The silver lining of this operation, here, and why I earlier referred to the circumstance as promising, is because it’s the seeming *lack* of funding, and the need to viably sustain your publication as an underground artefact, that *produces* brilliant and divisive things like “Ampersand” magazine, and “Cottonmouth”, and Black Rider Press.

    So there doesn’t yet seem to be a satisfactory way to reconcile the disparity between the role that creative volunteerism plays in legitimising marginal creative expression in Australia, unless that solution is the reader. Because it’s the reader who’s consistently equipped with the power to make the choice between acknowledging or deligitimising all the efforts of industrious volunteers like you and I. It’s the reader who may be our agent of change.

  6. Was this the overland link ‘blogging, payment, the ABC and Overland’ http://web.overland.org.au/2010/01/22/blogging-payment-the-abc-and-overland/ I take my hat of to volunteers in all capacities and good on you for blogging about it. I do think Alec has a good point though and it is easy to take advantage of unpublished or emerging writers – there will always be someone willing to do it for free for the exposure. It is a complicated debate and I also think it depends on the type of organisation (big difference between the ABC and the Overland) and the type of volunteer work (eg., mailouts, helping a conference vs writing blogs or articles for free).

    • Thanks, Gabrielle! With you & Alec that’s two down – and still one more I can’t find, unless I’m wrong, which I certainly may be.

      Good point, volunteers can definitely be taken advantage of, and the volunteer work & host does make a difference. As you said, mail-outs vs writing material, or being on an editorial panel etc Quite different.

  7. I don’t know much about nuthin’, but I do know:

    Mississippi Kirk Marshall lays it down for the soul squad for life! Bring out the Zydeco.

    Gabrielle Bryden flows knowledge like a wisdom well!

    Alec Patric stamps and claps and is an original hyperdub minstrel! (Tho’ contra to his position, gettin’ cast as a beggar and a thief ain’t so bad in my book. But I’m takin’ it outta context…)

    Mark William Jackson is an omni-directional bridge and shows us all how and how and how!

    The G.Nunn is the lantern I use to see this roadmap of the far side of Imagination!

    Paul Squires cuts thought-clusters like a DJ does records!

    Ash Capes knows! He knows!

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