March 10, 2014
Amtrak’s now accepting applications for its new Writer’s Residency… but it’s asking a lot
by Emma Aylor
Last week, Evan Kindley published an examination of the Amtrak Writers Residency (a topic we covered a couple weeks ago) on n + 1. In his article, Kindley looks at The Wire’s coverage of the incipient program, which he says “portrays the Residency as both a bold entrepreneurial initiative and a broad-minded act of philanthropy.” Crucially, Kindley points out the easy success the incipient program presents for Amtrak:
Clearly online publicity is an essential part of the Residency: a single free round-trip train ticket (for a seat that, in all likelihood, would have remained empty otherwise) has now resulted in several significant online clips for the company’s press kit, not to mention however many hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts referring directly to the company’s largesse, many of them conveniently logged with the hashtag #AmtrakResidency.
Kindley also questions the fundamental premise behind writers’ residencies, even placing them below the oft-maligned institution of the adjunct professorship:
Even the lowly, much-pitied adjunct professor is, in a certain sense, more secure than the writer-in-residence; adjuncts are at least entitled to hope for an indefinite extension of their temporary contracts, whether or not they can count on it, whereas writers are given to understand that, once their time is up, they’ll need to be moving on.
Finally, Kindley probes corporate sponsorship—“not,” he grants, “a situation that’s very familiar to literary writers”—as another beast entirely.
Of course, the difference between what Amtrak is proposing and what, say, the NEA or the Rockefeller Foundation or the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College does should be obvious: though government agencies and prestigious schools may have mixed motives for associating themselves with writers, at least they’re mixed: the state makes a pretense, if nothing else, of contributing to our common cultural heritage and granting a disinterested independence to the makers of important cultural works. There is, as it were, an alibi, an ethical justification for those entities’ actions. But a company like Amtrak is really only trying to maximize its brand, and nobody’s even pretending anything to the contrary.
. . . By all means, praise the Iron Horse, but remember that tweets and Facebook posts, however frivolous or ephemeral they appear as we’re writing them, are both forms of micro-labor and moves in someone else’s power game. This wouldn’t be the first time writers have played along, on their own dime.
These criticisms are valid and well-balanced, but were easy to qualify at the time of publication considering that the residency was still in a sort of beta mode—tested by only one writer, and offered to one more. However, Amtrak made an announcement Saturday:
Today we are happy to announce that #AmtrakResidency will allow for up to 24 writers to take long-distance trains to work on their projects. Each writer’s round-trip journey will include accommodations on board a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets.
This was great news to a great many writers, who seem to have crashed Amtrak’s blog sometime Saturday afternoon. The application form itself is innocuous, requiring only short explanations of why one wants it and how it would benefit his or her writing, as well as a writing sample. The official terms, however, soon began to worry potential applicants. (These are linked rather than produced in full on the form, and had I been applying I honestly can’t say that I would have read them.) Clause 6, which asks for unquestioned access to the contents of each writer’s application, is the crux of the issue:
6. Grant of Rights: In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. . . . For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information—e.g., name or e-mail address—of Applicant.) . . .
Alexander Chee, the residency’s original architect, has acted as a liason of sorts in the backlash:
I wrote to @Amtrak about the issues with clause 6 in the application and they responded that they are working to address our concerns.
— Alexander Chee (@alexanderchee) March 9, 2014
(He has also suggested PEN American as an adviser in the situation.)
Amtrak has failed to publish a full response to the issue, but has been responding to individual concerns via Twitter:
@ClaireLyman We would reach out to/have a conversation with any applicant before using their work for promotional purposes. #AmtrakResidency
— Amtrak (@Amtrak) March 9, 2014
As for the overarching implications of this problem, I’m with Chee:
@KatWithSword It would disappoint me greatly if something that began with an interview about writers and freedom became anything less.
— Alexander Chee (@alexanderchee) March 9, 2014
Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.