The Price of Diversity
A few weeks ago I received an email from a friend who had just been accepted into Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
She, I, and another woman have been in an online writing group for the past 2 1/2 years. We’ve seen each other’s writing at its best and worst, and we’ve seen each other’s confidence at its best and worst, too. We push each other to do better. We want each other to succeed. We are always genuinely happy when news of publication for another member comes out.
But after reading this email about my friend’s acceptance into Bread Loaf, I stormed through the house. I went outside. I watered the garden. I looked at my cats. I cried.
Why? Hadn’t my friend been working on her writing for years? Didn’t she have a right to attend the conference?
I spent the morning fuming, picking apart my anger. And I realized it wasn’t my friend’s acceptance into the conference that upset me; it was the fact that Bread Loaf was closed off to me (and to so many other writers) not on the basis of writing ability but on the basis of income.
Attending Bread Loaf costs $3,050 for general applicants and $2,929 for auditors. Only those who have plenty of disposable income can even fathom paying such a price. For the rest of us, why even bother window-shopping when the price tag is so high? We just keep walking.
In fact, a friend of mine was accepted into a similarly prestigious conference only to decline her acceptance because, as she told me, “I just couldn’t afford it.” This is a writer who has published in prestigious literary journals, who has won contests and awards. A friend who, in my opinion, is just as deserving as the one who got into Bread Loaf.
On the Bread Loaf website, the director of the conference claims to “foster stimulating communities of diverse voices….” Yet I wonder if Bread Loaf, or any other fee-charging literary institution that waves the “we value diversity” flag, can genuinely make this claim. By charging writers such high fees, these literary institutions seal themselves off from what they claim to seek: diversity of talent, diversity of experience, diversity of voice.
These high-fee literary institutions are supposedly intended for the “best” writers, but in fact they cater to the best writers who have enough disposable income to pay for the conference, take the time off work, and make the pilgrimage to the conference and back. I’m not claiming that Bread Loaf lacks for talent, or that its writers don’t have interesting things to say. But it certainly lacks for diversity in at least one significant way, because most attendees share a privileged experience of the world.
There’s always been a link between privilege and mobility within the arts. If you are an artist, you are lucky if you can afford the time to work on your craft, and even luckier if you can afford the supplies required of your craft, and even luckier still if you are able to afford to respond to calls for conferences, residencies, and colonies. For those who get accepted, these institutions provide networking opportunities that enhance the artists’ careers, nudging them further up the ladder to success.
Some of these literary institutions do offer applicants scholarships and price reductions. But applicants who receive financial assistance are the exception, not the rule. Bread Loaf, on its website, states that 5% of people who applied for financial aid received an award. Applicants for financial assistance must submit an additional 300-word response to the question of why they want to attend the conference and what they hope to gain from it. Those who eventually gain funding must, I imagine, carry with them the feeling of being an exception to the norm, even though they have in fact proved themselves worthy two times over.
Can’t we do better?
Yes, as a matter of fact. We can. A number of conferences and residencies do fund their writers, some including the cost of travel and stipends. A few of these are Millay Colony for the Arts, MacDowell Colony, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Affordability, such as these institutions offer, should be the bar that all fee-charging residencies and conferences set for themselves. 5% is not enough. Price cannot equate to prestige.
Sometimes I think those who cannot afford to attend conferences like Bread Loaf begin to convince themselves that they do not deserve to attend conferences like Bread Loaf. These conferences would have us believe this by their claims of diversity and prestige, by their assertion that they are truly bringing in the best. But you cannot have prestige without diversity, and you cannot have diversity within a class-structured system.
My frustration over Bread Loaf led to me to re-assert that I am no less deserving of this experience due to my income, and that other writers are no less deserving of it, either. This fall, I plan to begin researching and sending applications out to residencies that truly focus on diversity by opening their doors wider than Bread Loaf does.
Here are more residencies, several of which have low applications fees and free stays.