Books. Photo by Thanathip Moolvong.

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That Word “Community”

If anyone ought to know what “artists and community” means, it’s the literary arts community.


I don’t mean “know what it means” in some woo-woo sentimental sense. I mean “know what it means” in the dictionary sense: the definition, the denotation, the connotations.

I mean we ought to know what we mean, with precision and purpose, when we use that word “community.”

Surely writers—literary artists, artists of words and their resonances—wouldn’t deploy a word as powerful as “community” as a vague, sloppy, feel-good placeholder, like an ad man or politician would.




Only writers would employ a crabby introvert like me to nurture community. When the North Carolina Writers’ Network hired me, though, they didn’t need a cheerleader; they needed an uptight planner. Founded in 1985, the Network was and is an independent nonprofit dedicated to connecting, educating, promoting, and serving writers working in all creative genres, at all levels of skill and experience, all across the state and beyond. By the twenty-first century it had grown into one of the largest and most active statewide literary organizations in the country, but its operations and finances had become bloated and jumbled, victims of success. They needed a creative writer who could—and would—set and stick to budgets and deadlines, read statements of financial position as closely as poems, find God or the devil in the details.

The Network board, when they hired me, reasoned that our literary community was strong enough to survive my sourpuss and would take care of itself. What the Network needed was an operating reserve. They were right. North Carolina’s writers are awfully and justifiably proud of how nice we are to each other, of how many of us there are, and of how much how many of us get along.

That made my job with the Network much easier. We North Carolina writers like to come together in what we call community, maybe to a fault. We North Carolina writers encourage and celebrate one another, maybe to a fault, maybe when some discouragement and critique are called for.

That, in many ways, made my job with the Network much harder. That, in many ways, scares the hell out of me.


I believe that that niceness, that mutual support, was born and raised in a state of opposition. On the one hand, writers in late-twentieth-century North Carolina shared a sense that the so-called national literary community saw North Carolina as a backwater, still part of Mencken’s “Sahara of the Bozart” despite the Research Triangle, the booming population, the blooming subdivisions. On the other, writers shared a sense that they lived and wrote in a state and a South that might still be a backwater by significant measures, a state and a South that embraced rhetoric and storytelling but still was skeptical of literature, a state that sent Jesse Helms to the Senate for thirty years, a state that was home to an active Ku Klux Klan. North Carolina’s writers are the inheritors of our old front-porch storytellers, hellfire preachers, and stemwinding senators, but most of us—the ones worth reading, at least—try to write with undertow, to tell our stories with a trouble-the-waters sophistication that can be liberating and, therefore, dangerous.

That sense of opposition continued into the twenty-first century, as the culture kept accelerating, speeding from the word to the image. When the internet first began to disrupt the circulations and ad sales of local newspapers, most responded by cutting their content, and they usually cut their book pages first. Amazon launched its quest for global domination in the guise of an online bookstore, simply and cynically because books are almost impossible to break in transit, devaluing books and their creation to gain a beachhead in people’s homes and lives. Those of us who made our living by creating or selling books felt besieged and beleaguered, and so felt a sense of in-this-togetherness that could be both heartening and stifling. Any critique of, any negativity toward, a writer and their writing felt like betrayal, like sabotage. At least they were writing. At least someone might be reading.


I began writing this essay at the convergence of several markers. I’m writing this sentence on the one hundredth birthday of Edwin G. Wilson, “Mister Wake Forest,” my mentor and favorite professor, a man of temperance and grace who broke through the A.P.-English crust I’d accumulated and taught me how to read again for what is most valuable and true and enjoyable. February 2, 2023 would have been the one hundredth birthday of James Dickey, perhaps the last volcanic, Byronic, capital-B Bard in American writing but also a caring and generous teacher to thousands of young writers.

Seeing the two as polestars is almost irresistible, for their comparisons as well as their contrasts: two white men of the South and of letters, born a day apart, who shared combat service in the Pacific Theater of World War II, long careers as beloved teachers, and a near-absolute devotion to poetry. One was a towering, swaggering, Dionysiac ex-jock oracle; the other is a supremely self-contained Episcopalian dean, famed for never appearing in public, even in retirement, without jacket and tie. Dickey was the de facto poet laureate of the U.S. before he became a best-selling, Hollywood-calling, world-famous novelist. Wilson has said he is not a writer, even though he has authored books and crafts English prose as beautiful and effective as any I’ve read. I think what he means is that he writes only to serve external needs—speeches, histories, commemorations, eulogies. He is far too healthy a person to feel that burning internal compulsion to put part of yourself on the page and expect other people to read it.

Wilson was far too busy, anyway, serving the college community in which he spent his adult life. He helped lead Wake Forest University into and through integration and its break with the Southern Baptists, while also making sure that the love of good writing remained a vital part of campus life, that the beauty and thoughtful use of language wasn’t marooned or swamped entirely by the professions and STEM and mammon, by test scores and U.S. News rankings.

This work was something else he shared with Dickey, who believed that poetry ought to be part of the life of the nation and of each one of us in that nation, whose most famous quote might be “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe.” Dr. Wilson probably would shy from both the grandiosity and the “god damn,” but agree.

I never met James Dickey or had anyone like him in my life, a creative writer for mentor, though I had a desperate need for one. I am grateful, though, that I had a mentor who taught me how to love and serve and be responsible both to writing and a wider community—even the business majors—and how to make care for the language a part of that service.

Because as it turns out, nurturing “literary community” can be a great way to isolate and relegate and choke off literary community and the literary in the community. The danger of finding your tribe is tribalism.

Because today, February 1, 2023, on Dr. Wilson’s one hundredth birthday, on the first day of Black History Month, the College Board—an independent nonprofit organization—removed a host of great writers and writing from the curriculum of their Advanced Placement African American Studies course, not long after the state of Florida banned the course in its ongoing crusade to whitewash actual history.

Because lately I find myself a lot less concerned with “literary community” than with the literary in our communities. Who are writers writing for? A wide and general public, however they might define it? Each other? Hiring and tenure committees? Whoever picks the panels at the major conferences?

My wife is a bookseller, the executive director of a different kind of literary nonprofit, the driving force behind the largest annual book festival in the Carolinas, and the most widely read person I’ve ever known. She and I fret often over what we call the AWP/ABA Divide, the disconnect between writers who are a big deal to members of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs—which includes most all collegiate creative writing departments—and those who matter to the members of the American Booksellers Association, the people who put books in the hands of readers.

This divide strikes us less as the immemorial distance between the avant-garde and the mainstream, or between the high and low brows, and more as the evolution of two separate literary ecosystems, economies, communities. We know there are writers who bridge the two—Zadie Smith or Colson Whitehead would make a stir in any gathering of writers or readers—but they seem rare exceptions.

A member of the AWP community can thrive without the ABA because AWP’s currency is not book sales—the measure of being widely read—but teaching jobs and tenure, fellowships and the mere fact of publication. A writer in the ABA tribe doesn’t have to worry about AWP unless their day job is a precarious adjunct teaching position. New books by AWPers get assigned to creative-writing students. New books by ABAers get picked by book clubs and book festivals.

Put it this way: For the Network’s last job opening I interviewed a lot of recent creative-writing grads, a majority of whom named the same Brooklyn-based AWP-approved memoirist as a writer they admired and enjoyed. I had never heard of her. My wife, with a deep and lifelong interest in the questions this writer confronts, had never heard of her. Somebody or somebodies, somewhere and sometime, had decided that a leading bookseller—and by extension ordinary readers—in the South was not worth telling about this apparently insightful and influential writer and her book. So they didn’t.

This divide strikes me as dangerous. How much longer will the two communities stay within trading or hailing distance of each other? How much excellent, provocative, challenging, important writing will the public miss because no one cares to sell it to them, because it doesn’t trigger the right algorithms? How hermetic, how gnostic, how self-referential will academy-based creative writing become?

What will happen as universities continue to de-emphasize and defund the study of the humanities, turning more and more into glorified trade schools, real-estate firms, mutual funds with campuses attached?

What if the two communities devolve all the way into a community of writers and a community of readers and the two speak different languages: the creative writers writing only for each other, the readers reading only the most commercially viable, algorithmic, lowest-common-denominator dreck?

What exactly will we mean by “literary community” then?


We don’t have to like one another. We don’t have to be nice to one another.

We have to stay in community and so we have to know what that means.

We have to be just to one another. We have to help one another when we can and should. We have to stay in conversation. We have to keep reading and writing. We have to keep reading with close attention and deep reflection. We have to keep writing with care and honesty and ambition for excellence.

We have to keep writing for more readers than one another. We have to keep writing in languages our wider communities can and might read (even the business majors).

We have to act like Amy Bagwell and Graham Carew in Charlotte. In 2013 they started the Wall Poems project, painting poems—including some by North Carolina’s A. R. Ammons and Fred Chappell, and South Carolina’s Dan Albergotti and Morri Creech—in murals on buildings throughout the city, “as a way to get poetry to people (to whom it belongs),” according to their website.

That same year Winston-Salem Writers launched Poetry in Plain Sight, putting poems by contemporary poets on attractive posters and putting those posters in storefront windows and on public bulletin boards around the city. They and the North Carolina Poetry Society (with a little support from the North Carolina Writers’ Network, I’m proud to say) have expanded Poetry in Plain Sight to six other cities, covering the state from the coast to the mountains.

Even the internet has become a home for literary communities. Every writer, publisher, and bookseller worth their canvas tote bag knows about “BookTok” and “Bookstagram,” the vibrant literary communities within image-centric apps. If the books championed in these literary communities strike some as profoundly un-literary, then remember that Twitter—which seemed the apotheosis of quick-hit hot-take inch-deep non-discussion, the nadir of the language’s millennial degradation—has turned into an online home for a host of writers, journalists, scholars, and genuine thinkers, who produce threads as thoughtful and nuanced as most essays and short stories. Literary careers have launched from that platform, 280 characters at a time.

In 2022 The Assembly, a digital magazine for investigative and longform features about North Carolina life and politics, began a monthly literary column by novelist Wiley Cash, seeking to restore the in-depth and timely coverage of new books that newspapers used to provide the public. Perhaps they realize, as newspapers did not, that what they produce has to be read, and so maybe they ought to appeal to people who like to read.

Such people exist, still, and in numbers and spaces you might not expect. Some of the best conversations I have about books are with my friend Kris, a business lawyer, and my friend Cole, a plumber. They read good books that challenge and provoke them, and they read them with care. They are among my models when I imagine the ideal reader for what I write. They are part of my literary community.