One of the best things about being behind a book stall at an event or convention is the conversations with fellow stallholders and interested browsers. At the start of December I was at the Nottingham Print & Publishing Fair and I had several fascinating discussions with people I’d never met before about publishing and the world of poetry. One young man who paused to look at the books my press has published noticed that there were several poetry titles on display. We quickly struck up a conversation about “poetry world” and how an aspiring poet would go about getting their pamphlet published by a reputable publisher. “Well,” I began, rubbing my hands in glee, before launching into a shortened version of my ‘How to Get Your Poetry Published’ workshop that I occasionally run at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. I won’t run through that monologue now – as fascinating as it is! – but I will expand on what I found of interest in the conversation, which was this: the young man’s response to the proffered information.
Now, obviously, not being psychic I can’t predict what the future has in store for this young man, but I felt that he had the potential to be successful in the world of poetry. Why was that? I hadn’t read any of his poems so couldn’t assess his work. So what was it about him that made me think that his chances of success were enhanced? Was it to do with his sex or the colour of his skin or his class or his age? No, it was to do with his personality, his individuality.
To those involved in writing and publishing “The Big Five” are the five large traditional publishing houses that produce the majority of English-language books published each year. But I’d like to expand on “The Big Five” in terms of psychology. Interestingly, researchers discovered the big five personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism – through a lexical approach i.e. studying language (something which should pique the interest of writers!). As you can probably guess ‘Openness’ is about being open to new ideas and experiences. Those individuals high in openness are more likely to be a creative. ‘Conscientiousness’ is usually discussed in terms of industriousness and orderliness. ‘Extraversion’ is about sociability and energy and how comfortable one is in the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, most writers would consider themselves introverts rather than extraverts. ‘Agreeableness’ is about sensitivity to conflict and concern about others’ opinions. Extreme agreeableness makes for someone who may be thought of as compliant, submissive or self-sacrificing, yet extreme disagreeableness makes for, well, a rather unlikeable person! Finally, there is ‘Neuroticism’ (an oft-misunderstood term) which is again, more to do with sensitivity to negative emotion, and anxiety/risk aversion.
As I wrote in an earlier post, publishers are looking for high-quality writing, but they’re also looking for authors who act professionally and who have (or are willing to build) a following. This young man clearly displayed that he was high in the traits that predict success in being a professional author. He listened attentively to my tips for how to get his poetry published and made a note of them (i.e. he displayed ‘Openness’ to learning something new and of benefit to his career, and showed good organization and ‘Conscientiousness’ by making a note of my tips). When I spoke of the importance of getting involved in the local poetry scene and performing work he told me that he was already busy organizing poetry events (thereby displaying that he had the necessary amount of ‘Extraversion’ to be in the spotlight and to happily gather people together in sociable poetry events – all brilliant for building a tribe and following). He was thankful and positive about the information I’d shared (‘Agreeableness’) and appeared to be low on ‘Neuroticism’. Finally, he bought a poetry pamphlet which displayed his seriousness, and commitment, to the pursuit of getting published. (For more on why poets need to invest in poetry publishers, please do read this post by the small press Fly On The Wall Poetry.)
This positive discussion brought into sharp relief recent social media interactions I’ve witnessed in which some new-to-the-scene poets have shown a remarkable lack of professionalism. Some have been low on ‘Openness’ to the idea that editing is a necessary part of writing poetry; other individuals have been very low on ‘Conscientiousness’ with plagiarism being the most obvious case. Not good. Some, high in ‘Extraversion’ and low on ‘Agreeableness’ have been quite happy to publicly give voice to their contempt for editors who reject their work. I’ve never once met an editor or agent who relishes sending out noes but unless a poet is open to that insight, as well as open to learning the value of being able to separate one’s poetry from one’s self-worth, there’s no point in offering up that useful lesson. Lastly, I’ve seen high ‘Neuroticism’ come into play, bringing with it low confidence and the sense that one is a victim and that literary magazines and editors (sometimes even other writers) are the big bad baddies who are prejudiced, or maliciously hurting them.
Thankfully, these instances of unprofessionalism are still in a minority, and the kind of positive discussion that I had with the young man at the Nottingham Print & Publishing Fair is in the majority, and one of many that I’ve had over the years with writers, irrespective of their class, sexuality, gender, race, neurodiversity, disability or age. Leading me to the conclusion that it is the “open” writers, the “conscientious” writers, the “agreeable” writers, the “confident” writers i.e. the professional writers, who are the ones achieving the success they want.
The even better news is that, unlike class or race or age or sexuality, which we have little control over, the “Big Five” personality traits are more flexible. A writer may have a tendency to introversion rather than extraversion, preferring to stay in their writing shed forever and a day, but if they’ve got a book to launch and they’re aware of the long-term benefits to “getting their book out there” then they can consciously go against their inclination, and do the thing that they don’t particularly want to do i.e. participate in events. Most of the time “the thing” doesn’t end up being as scary as it seemed, giving the writer much-needed ammunition for the next time they need to do a “big scary thing”. Likewise, the other four personality traits. We’re all far more flexible and adaptable than we think. And just like writing high-quality poetry or prose, professionalism – along with the skills to build a following – is simply another thing poets and writers of any background can work to develop.
I have to admit, I found this post depressing. As a (German) transplant into the Anglosphere, I found that some aspects of British culture are a bit uncomfortable, and the way politeness is sometimes fetishised into a definition of professionalism that becomes a bit dishonest is near top of that list. I’ve spent many a meeting baffled by people going along with a bad idea (which they would privately say were bad ideas, before and after the meetings) just to be agreeable and open and adhere to their definition of ‘professionalism’. At the same time I have seen people who acted in ways that do not fit the agreeable-open definition drive some things forward and scupper and sink others, through force and aggressive assertiveness (regardless of they were good ideas or bad ideas). The scary result was that those (often very conscientious people) working hardest to be professional are sometimes the ones least likely to shape the world, and that those who ignore “professionalism” sometimes have a stronger effect, both for good and for ill.
Of course, it is also notable that many people apply very different personas when interacting with those who have more power than they do among peers or those they perceive as having less power. So an open, agreeable persona presented to the boss could be accompanied by a closed, draconian, persona for the underlings. Hierarchy is a really, really big thing in the UK. That, too, never felt very comfortable to me.
In comparison, the two worlds of academia and writers / creatives always felt a little more tolerant about people’s personalities being allowed to shine through (perhaps because the “maverick” stereotype tended to be revered in both), and I always thought that people’s greater authenticity in those sectors was a positive thing on the whole, even if it sometimes led to outbursts, feuds and drama.
Which isn’t to say that people should just dig in their heels, launch personal attacks on each other, apply keyboard warrior behaviour to real life, launch into public spats, form tribes and re-enact Lord of the Flies. It should be possible to curb the worst excesses without encouraging everyone to become cloned personalities.
(If I had to choose between an anarchic dystopia of mavericks forming postapocalyptic biker gangs and hunting each other down with torches and spears, and a conformist postapocalyptic dystopia of suit wearing clones politely signing death warrants for entire populations who meekly walk into machines to become soylent green, I’m fairly sure I’d prefer the anarchic one.)
I guess I’m trying to say that as a human, I would prefer interacting with people as themselves most of the time, even in a professional setting, if I am expected to work with them for more than 2 minutes. Self-moderation when one has tendencies towards harmful behaviour is sensible, and good manners are essential, but everyone striving for some supposed ideal professional persona is something I find terrifying and dystopian.
Finally, I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – I think modifying one’s personality is a pretty massive intervention to make, and something which goes to the substance of what makes a person themselves. I wouldn’t change my skin tone, or wear a wig / makeup, or saw off bits of my body to better fit a ‘professional’ ideal, so my personality would have to be clinically broken for me to apply a similarly radical intervention to it. A bit of personality deodorant is par for the course, but when the personality scalpel and bone saw start making appearances, there needs to be a very good reason, such as one’s own desire for making a change to benefit one’s own happiness, rather than conformity to someone else’s ideal.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment – and sorry you found the post depressing.
I agree with an awful lot of what you say. Inauthenticity, and play-acting a sort of idealised version of “professionalism” is a bad plan. I think the heart of the matter is your point:
It’s that self-moderation that’s key. People who naturally fall in the mid range of the “openness” and “agreeableness” traits will find it easy to get the balance right between artistic creation (stifled by too much agreeableness and too little openness) and working effectively with agents and publishers (difficult for people who are too disagreeable or too closed to new ideas). The definition of professionalism that we were aiming for is not “suppresses opinions for the sake of harmony” but rather, “is respectful of other professionals, and open to learning from them”. If you fall on an extreme end of the traits (i.e. highly disagreeable or highly agreeable), you are going to have to recognise that, without self-moderation, it is going to be hard to have a successful and productive business relationship with a publisher.
The phenomenon of disagreeable people railroading bad ideas through committees of agreeable people is very familiar to me – ironically, given your comment, in my job as an academic. In many ways, that is a good illustration of our point: in a large institution or company, disagreeable people can dominate and subvert decision making, and they are hard to avoid (without sacking them). However, as an independent author, behaving as a disagreeable bully will very rapidly lead to publishing professionals avoiding you, even if your prose is golden. They don’t have to work with such people, there are lots of other talented writers in the world, and so they would obviously prefer to work with someone more collaborative and, well, professional.
In terms of adapting ones personality (or deodorising it!), again this is mostly about self-awareness. If your knee-jerk reaction to polite criticism is to attack the critic, demand that you know better, and that your artistic vision cannot be tainted by compromise, then you only really have two options: self-publish, or curb that impulse and adopt a more agreeable pose when interacting with the people you want to publish your work.
Ultimately, there is a balance to be struck between the single-mindedness that’s needed to create a work of literature that you believe in, and the broad-mindedness needed to work with the other professionals that you hope will publish it, and deliver it to readers.
Thanks again for your thought-provoking comment.