Saturday, November 22, 2008


The longer I'm in this business, the more tribal the writing community seems. I don't yet belong to a tribe. I'm the Happy Wanderer (or, sometimes, not so happy). Occasionally, temporarily, I sneak into tribes. Usually, though, I just circle around or amble past them.

So what constitutes a tribe? A group of writers and/or readers who are bound by a common interest or faithful to a particular leader. (Tribes have a lot in common with high school cliques, it seems.)

There are likely tribes within RWA--frequently warring tribes, no doubt. An entire stable of authors at a particular publishing house can be a tribe if that publisher is small enough. If a publisher is larger, there are tribes within it (like writers who band together to form group blogs or critique circles, or authors who've been with a company since its inception and are the revered "veterans"). Individual authors can have their own tribes, and industry bloggers have tribes of supporters and tribes of detractors. Subgenres are also spawning grounds for tribes.

It isn't easy to break into many of these close-knit communities. In fact, sometimes it's impossible. But if you want to be part of a tribe that does admit new members, you have to work at it -- earn your body art, so to speak. This is a delicate process. You can't just burst into a tribal council meeting and shout, "I want to be part of this tribe!" Oh no.

Every tribe has its own unique standards for acceptance. Maybe you have to be exceptionally sharp and witty. Or exceptionally level-headed, a natural mediator. Maybe you must demonstrate selflessness, or a happily blind devotion. Maybe you simply need to be docile but persistent. On the other hand, maybe you must shine, brilliantly and irresistibly. Sometimes, a limitless talent for schmoozing does the trick.

I've seen and read about such tribes in action, and their dynamic continues to mystify me. Maybe we writers (and some readers) are like clubby high schoolers, with our need for approbation and our silly sensibilities and our conviction of a superiority that never gets recognized quite enough. It's as if we're constantly crying, "Leave me alone to pursue my art!" -- and then, in a pathetic whimper, add, "But don't leave me alone too much for too long."


Treva said...

Just happened to see this. Yes, alliances and friendships and so on are rife all through the industry. And the Internet makes it way too easy to post your loyalties and opinions on line. I have painfully learned to keep my mouth shut in many situations. First, you don't know who is best friends with who (and when it will come back to bite you in the butt) and second, most of the time you don't know the whole story even when it seems completely clear to everyone else.

So I'm very careful about my loyalty. Professionalism toward everyone is important. Loyalty is a lot harder to earn.

K. Z. Snow said...

So, so true, Treva, and as usual you speak with the voice of experience.

What troubles me most about the tribal mentality is that it undermines this:

The Socratic Method (or Method of Elenchus or Socratic Debate), named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of philosophical inquiry in which the questioner explores the implications of others' positions, to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

When I was a varsity debater, right around the time Jesus was fitted for his first pair of sandals, this type of discourse was encouraged. Now, in the age of Internet communication and narcissism run amok, all it does is piss people off. When tribes and impersonal modes of communication rule, few people seem to understand and appreciate the nature of impartiality or the exercise of reason for its own sake.

Sad, but -- you're right -- the wisest course in this age is to keep one's own counsel.

Lena Austin said...

And always keep in mind it's human nature to think, "If you're not *for* me, you're *against* me." That may not be true, but that's human nature. Best to be silent and let them think you just don't care.

K. Z. Snow said...

That's definitely a tribal trait, Lena. Hell, it's even true on a national level.

Jeanne said...

And coming from one of the original tribes :~D, I may be a tad too paranoid. Still, I'm finding that there are some initiation rites that may leave deeper scars than one realizes....

Nina Pierce said...

I've been involved in many professions, writing being only my most recent. It doesn't matter where you go, there's always that grouping of individuals. It's a human need to be part of a "tribe". (Which is a perfect description.) The trick is to not lose sight of your own beliefs while respecting others who have different opinions. But isn't that just good manners all the way around?

And Treva's right ... sometimes keeping your mouth shut is the best course of action all the way around. I'm hoping some day in my life to actually be smart enough to do it! LOL! :D

Debra Glass said...

Even given "tribes" romance authors are quicker to help an aspiring author along or to give writing advice than any other genre out there. We're happy to proofread, brainstorm, help promote, and bounce ideas off our "tribe" members.

Michelle Houston said...

I've found the internet to be a truly tricky place, like Treva has mentioned. In addition to not knowing who is "allied/friends/ writing partners/knitting buddies/ etc" with anyone else, you also don't know who is who else. When someone uses one name for "editing duties" another for "cover artist duties" and up to a dozen various pen names for different genres, it can be a minefield of confusion trying to remember person A is also person B, G, K, and W. They are writing partners with person T, H who is also person Q) and best buddies with persons L, C (who is also D, E, and F), and writing team Y/Z (who write as I and J respectively when writing alone).

I sometimes think that is part of what drives us to form cliques. In addition to human beings being animals at our baser levels, and requiring social interaction, we also need a "safe zone" where we can speak freely without fear of repercusions. If we are upset with how person X treats us, we worry that oh no, such and such is actually so and so, who will tell person X the distorted problem, and a flame war will start.

Plus, pooling resources between writing partners/friends is often an economical way to go. I might not have the ability to do all the promo that I want, but by splitting the cost (both money and time) with a few friends I can get a tenfold return, as do they.

So I can understand why writers are sometimes driven to form 'tribes'. It can make things difficult if you don't know all the players of every tribe that you run across, and I have learned the value of typing up some emails in a word document and getting them worded how I want without the possibility of accidentally hitting send, before I have it as neutral as possible.

That said, I don't believe that just because one member within the circle feels one way that all should/do feel that way. We are social creatures, but we are also individuals. I often disagree with my writing partners, and will tell them so. We respect each other enough, to also respect our rights to our own opinions, and to listen to each others opinion openly. Ultimatly though, I have my own opinion.

But I can see the dangers of tribes. Saw them in high school, see them at work, and fear that I will be dealing with them the rest of my life unless I chose to become a hermit. LOL

I can also see advantages to them, from a personal individual view point too.

K. Z. Snow said...

Jeanne (YAY, a friend): Daunting . . . isn't it? Your "original" tribe was a good one, though. ;-)

Nina: Indeed it is part of human nature -- sometimes in a productive and even necessary way (we are, like ants, social creatures, after all) but sometimes not so (like when we turn that corner from social creatures into pack animals).

Debra: Definitely! I've encountered countless wonderful people among my fellow authors. Those sweethearts are good as gold, far as I'm concerned.

Michelle: Hi, and welcome! Yes, indeed there are advantages. In evolutionary terms, that's why such bonding has always taken place. But now that we're "higher" creatures within a very complex social structure, the rules of engagement are ever more delicate and tangled.

We're under increasing pressure not to offend or alienate. Yet we're never quite sure what the flashpoint is. As a result, all interaction between tribes, or between tribes and outsiders, has been pulped into a bland exercise of diplomacy that does strip people of their individuality.

Such is the nature of modern society, though. And you can't stop evolution . . . although a lot groups seem to be trying!

Nancy Henderson said...

Great post, tribes have their advantages and disadvantages, I guess. We all want to be accepted, to fit in. It's human nature. I think this exists in all aspects of professionalism, just writers see it more because the internet has brought our worlds closer.

K. Z. Snow said...

Hi, Nancy, and thanks for stopping by. Yep, acceptance, for whatever reason (and there are many of them), is what it's ultimately all about.

Ashlyn Chase said...


That's a wise observation. I think it's very true.

In high school, I belonged to a tribe that didn't discriminate against others. It's the only one I'd consider being part of and it was a great group. We had tons of fun.

Now I'm part of the League of Amazing Writers and we too are a close-knit tribe, but loyal to many different publishers. The odd thing is we have so many things in common and many differences, but we all honor and respect each other for our particular talents.

Cone and play with us sometime. We'd love to have you wander through!


Ashley Ladd said...

There are many valid points here and I agree with Nancy that tribes have advantages and disadvantages.

I also agree that there are tribes and cliques in many places, even church and the karate studio.

It's always wise to act professionally and to watch what you say, especially online as online words never seem to die and are so easy to misinterpret.

It can be hard to fit into a group, and like you, I seem to be on the fringes, sometimes in and sometimes not. Friends are great yet I hate cliques, especially when I'm the one on the outside.

K. Z. Snow said...

Hiya, Ash, and welcome! I've heard of your "league" -- in fact, I suspect I have cruised through on occasion.

No doubt about it, there are fun and helpful author groups out there, just like there are many, many personable and approachable authors. I'll have to stop by again and wave at ya.

OT: My word verification is "beavatat." Is it only me, or that sound vaguely kinky? :-D

K. Z. Snow said...

Thanks for stopping in, Ashley. Yeah, the clique thing is pretty pervasive -- in all places, at all stages of one's life. There are obviously pros and cons. But don't worry about being an "outsider." Often, that translates into greater originality and productivity . . . and, maybe, fewer headaches!

Helen said...

I first hear mention of 'tribes' at a science fiction convention last year. It was in reference to how speculative fiction writers often use Twitter to stay in touch and support each other. I joined Twitter not long after that and became familiar with tribe terms like 'Solidarity' and 'OOF.'

Solidarity referred to a writer's daily word count. Whenever a writer was having trouble getting through a project, he or she would post 'Solidarity' and their word count for the day. Other writers would respond with their 'Solidarity' word counts. It wasn't a big thing, but it was a way to let each other know that we were all struggling to get through our own various projects, and we took comfort in knowing that no matter how scattered we were, we were all working on something.

OOF stands for On Our Feet, and is sort of a solidarity for exercise. It's a way for writers to announce that yes, they are taking care of themselves wile encouraging other writers to get up and moving too.

I have to say the tribe of writers I've found on Twitter has been a positive and supportive group. We can ask each other for help, put out requests for info or feedback, show support whenever someone needs it, etc. Granted, it's taken me a little while to become a member of the tribe, but I think that's the way it is with any social situation. People need time to get to know each other. If you're a stranger or newbie, you can't just crash the party and expect to be treated like everyone's best friend. However, that doesn't mean that any particular tribe is a clique locked up tighter than Fort Knox
either. I say just give it time and get to know the people in the tribe.

Interesting discussion. Thanks for posting this, K.Z.!

K. Z. Snow said...

Interesting, Helen, and pretty danged cool. I've never figured out Twitter. Or Facebook, for that matter. Or Live Journal. I know there are dozens of way to network, but man, keeping up . . . !

Anonymous said...

That was very nicely said, K.Z. I like the look of your blog, too. Best wishes,

K. Z. Snow said...

Thanks, Bailey!