British journalist John Lanchester once famously described writers as being “shy megalomaniacs.” I have pondered this somewhat humorous description in an attempt to better understand my own reasons for engaging in this excessively scrutinized profession — might I be a megalomaniac? I’ve also considered the connections it alludes to between writing, mental health, and pathology. (My interview with Joy Castro, for example, teases at the interplay of these concepts.) Certainly, there are writers who possess an audacious understanding of the value they bring to popular conversation and literary craft, but what is the effect of focusing on public personas that reflect bombast and bravado over consideration and humility? What is obscured by the megalomaniac’s shadow?
When the blogosphere began to gain mainstream credibility back in the mid-aughts, I attended a discussion at the Barnard College on feminist blogging as an act of resistance, where the panel declared that “feminist bloggers have become the cultural producers blazing some of the most radical and rousing paths toward revolutionary social change.” A bold claim, indeed! The arguments boiled down to three main points: 1) blogs are accessible, public forums that anyone can create or engage in; 2) blogs encourage citizen participation by giving the Average Jane a place to voice her political discontent; and 3) blogs are democratic, egalitarian spaces where every person’s voice holds equal weight.
Seven years and an online media explosion later, it is clear blogs do not live up to these weighty and idealistic assumptions. We now understand that what happens online is not separate from, but an extension of, the social dynamics and inequities that plague societies in “real” life. Whether online or offline, most writers whose work receives widespread recognition still sit at the top of social and economic hierarchies, writers from marginalized groups still face the same barriers to success, and it still takes money to make money.
Fortunately, there are spaces online that have managed to work through or avoid the magical thinking that so often accompanies discussions about the Internet. There are spaces that prioritize stories that remain untold because they fail to be what’s hip or bite-sized or sexy. There are spaces that focus not on the center, but instead on the fray.
To be a megalomaniac one must be overly invested in one’s own power and relevance. For better or worse, I don’t fit that bill — writerly cred be damned! Although I started writing because I believe I have something important to say, I have since decided that sometimes, many times even, my time is better spent lifting the voices of others. I am duly honored to be a member of In The Fray‘s editorial team, and look forward to helping others claim their rightful place outside of the shadows.
Mandy Van Deven is In The Fray’s managing editor and the coauthor of Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. Twitter: @mandyvandeven