These days, there is an awful lot of attention given to writers that give advice. Writers at every stage of their careers seem to be more than willing to put in their two cents on craft-related topics: how to approach drafting and revision, what we should be reading (and how much of it), how we go about cultivating a writing career (whatever that is), and, occasionally, what we should or shouldn’t be writing about. And the literary audience appears to be clamoring for advice, especially when it comes from high-profile individuals.
I admit that I’m always suspicious of writers’ mini-manifestos. At best, they are inspirational, showing us new ways of thinking about writing and reading and thinking. More commonly, these documents seem rather arbitrary in their mandates. At worst—and all too often—they come off as snobbery. I keep asking myself: who has the authority to tell other writers how they should or shouldn’t be working and thinking? And how do you know, writer, that that person is you?
But Graywolf Press has a new—and satirical—spin on giving writerly advice. As part of their updated website and blog, Graywolf has launched “Ask A Midlist Author,” an advice column with questions from Graywolf readers. The answers come from J. Robert Lennon, who currently publishes with Graywolf Press. The questions he answers come from all areas of life, but there is one stipulation: they must not pertain to writing.
Issue #1 of Ask A Midlist includes a question about whether or not it’s okay to be friends with your ex’s family. J. Robert Lennon gives a bit of tough love here, along with a personal anecdote (of questionable authenticity, mind you):
For one thing, why on earth do you want to be friends with your ex’s family? What exactly do they do for you that your peer group doesn’t? The Midlist Author was tempted, once, by the charming family of a girlfriend he regarded with profound ambivalence. They were moneyed, yet down to earth; educated, yet unpretentious; successful, yet relaxed. The mom, I am forced to admit, was hot. And when the relationship went south, The Family expressed regret: Farewell, Future Midlist Author, we’re sorry to see you go.
I missed them more than the girlfriend, and I almost sent them a holiday card. But the fact was, it wasn’t really them I missed, but the delightful possibility that, if I hung around with them long enough, I might someday become them. I liked what I was in their presence, which is to say that I didn’t like what I was by myself. So I threw away the card I bought and invested my energy in soul-searching.
What I’m finding most enjoyable about the advice column is the sheer writerly-ness of the answers, which, like much good writing, strike a good balance between pathos, self-deprecation, and utter nonsense.
J. Robert Lennon tells me that the one problem with the advice column is that readers are being tempted to write in with Serious Questions About Writing. However, “Ask A Midlist Author” maintains a commitment to non-writing discussions.
You can ask The Midlist Writer a question at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I admit that we are the The Kenyon Review are jealous that we didn’t come up with this feature ourselves.