I’m getting myself a PEN Canada membership for the holidays. Or rather, I’m taking out a membership, and then inviting various family members to pay off that membership with a credit card of their choosing. Christmas is an unromantic time when the youngest branch of your family tree is in her early twenties.
PEN Canada is a great organization, and a far better choice for membership than most other “writer’s” organizations. I don’t want to say much more than that about it. Just that it’s worthy of membership. But it was worthy of membership all those years I didn’t join, too. Membership is, in general, a tough sell for writers, especially young ones. There’s a certain iconoclastic credibility threatened by the self-assimilation involved in joining things. The present head of PEN Canada is Ellen Seligman and, before her, the late Connie Rooke. Both women shared me in on conversations about the increasing difficulty of getting “young writers” to join the organization. Connie was, and Ellen is, too kind and generous a conversationalist to make any leap onto the tired platform of “kids today” and “the apathetic youth”, but there’s definitely a whiff of that in the air whenever you hear about the renewal problems of PEN Canada (or the Writer’s Union, or the LCP).
It’s long been suggested that writers, as a species, are less prone to joining things than the rest of the humans. Writing is a solitary action, done in the service of another solitary action. There have been precious few public writers with enough of a combination of rhetorical skills and knowledge breadth to survive in the general political arena. How rare an occurrence is this? Consider for a moment that, in Canada, Michael Ignatieff is as close as we’ve ever gotten. And he’s not close.
I don’t really want to talk about politics here though. I want to talk about membership. There are two kinds of memberships. The first is the informal, fluid kind, the membership of drinking circles and casual editors, of conversation and argument and the keen solidarity that calcifies after a couple decades of conversation and argument within a circle of fellow travelers. In other words, there’s “membership” as a professionalized translation of the word “friendship”. This is an ideal. It is these kind of loose allegiances that get misunderstood by academics as “schools” and by critics as “cliques” (and, not for nothing, by Rob Ford as “elites”).
The second kind of membership, the kind of unions and guilds and political pressure groups– the kind with paperwork–is paradoxically more expensive and more easily attainable. Their greatest invention, so far, is the MFA program (Go Griffins!). Speaking of college, joining the League of Canadian Poets has always felt to me like the adult equivalent of joining a fraternity, paying money for the benefits (knowledge, support, leads on events and publishers) of having friends. There’s an unearned feel to these organizations, like you’re paying a fee to have someone do the hard, invigorating work of community for you. I understand that PEN Canada isn’t the LCP, but they come wrapped in the same bureaucratic antics of membership fees and renewals and newsletters. A good poet (ie, someone who can write poems, and who cares enough about what’s around them to have the larger community of practitioners rub of on them in some way) doesn’t need this stuff, do they? If I still lived in Lunenburg, I could foresee joining this kind of thing, but I live in Parkdale, for fuck sakes. If I wanted to meet up with my fellow poets, I could walk to the corner store and back.
This is offered as a means of explaining to myself why writers, in general, are bad joiners. But why is it getting worse? Why are fewer and fewer young writers joining up? The most obvious change in sociological predictors between writers born in 1965 and writers born in 1985 is, of course, the internet. Membership is there if you want it, online. The Facebook group for PEN Canada has 1,000+ members. Not that that does anything for Liu Xiaobo…
The currency market for membership has been as flooded by freebies since 1995 as the currency market for music, or television. But that’s not the whole thing, I’d argue that social networking, blogs (especially this one), and chat offer a far greater degree of partial membership, or tangential membership. The PEN Canada Facebook group is a perfect halfway house for conflicted joiners. There’s no newsletters, no cold calls. There is only the collection of fellow members, line up against a virtual wall, and that collection is full of familiar names and friendly faces. The post-modern affliction of social networking has stripped membership down to its most palatable form for writers, it has made it something you can assimilate into your life, not something you have to assimilate into.
I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing. The only question is, how do you allow for this paradigm shift while still getting PEN Canada enough $75 memberships to sustain their global ambitions? I wonder if the key to the future for non-profit writer’s groups isn’t MORE bang for your membership dollar (Tote Bags! Keychains! Your name on a plaque!), but less. For a group of people self-conscious about allying themselves behind anything, no matter how representative of their values it may be, maybe that non-participatory ethic is the key to furthering participation.
Until then, you should join PEN Canada. Student memberships are only $25. And really, aren’t we all students, in some way?