Earlier this week, I started to think about what what we talk about when we talk about gatekeepers.
Obviously, the discussion about gatekeeping in the literary community is important, especially with how it relates to issues of inclusivity, diversity, access, nepotism, and transparency. But I want to look at the trope itself and see how it works.
The theory of gatekeeping in communications developed after World War II, which makes sense given the late 20th century's concerns with market access. But if you think about this metaphor, it's basically about territoriality. Something within a boundary is being made exclusive to those within its confines, and a gate is the only way in (or out). That gate is operated by someone.
Territoriality is so common in human experience. It's much more basic than Enlightenment ideas of private property and personal possessions. The first wall is associated with one of the earliest cities in the world, Jericho, some 10,000 years ago. Obviously, there was a way in an out of it, and maybe someone was there deciding who should be in and who should stay out.
As the literary world is concerned, gatekeeping wasn't a term that came from within the confines of the fence or wall. It's a term that mostly argues for more access to the establishment. But what is the establishment? Is there just one?
If mainstream literary success at the highest level of publishing is beyond the gate, most of us are outside of it. Its gatekeepers are for most of us only approachable if we have a hired companion to communicate with the gatekeeper—an agent, but in this metaphor more like a wizard or a thief—otherwise we won't get an answer when we knock on the door, let alone admittance.
"Dorothy's in that awful place?"
But there are more gates than just that one ironclad door. In the view of the writer who has never found publishing success in any venue, a gatekeeper is the person making the call at every literary journal that has ever sent them a form rejection over Submittable, myself included. In this estimation, every literary journal can represent its own gated community, with the editor/s standing at the door letting people in and turning undesirables away.
"There’s talk of strange folk abroad. Can’t be too careful."
But in this model, is the territory beyond the gate ever the final destination? Getting published once probably won't make a writer feel as if they have gained admittance through the gate and now can enter any other subsequent gate they decide to approach. There is a credential gained by having entered one territory and then asking for permission to enter another, but that can also be a reason to keep a person out.
It's a passport stamp.
I began to draw a map of what this gate might look like, what lies both inside and outside of it. The literary landscape is one tied up with fences with vast spaces of wilderness in-between streaming with nomadic writers. Some fences are shared between two or more territories, with not only outer gates, but inner gates as well. These smaller territories may be little satellite cities or bedroom suburbs of huge megalopolises. Out in the wilderness, a solitary writer-traveler will decide enough with this back and forth, stake out some ground, string together a few wooden planks with a hinge and voila!—instant gatekeeper.
But I don't like any of that image very much. It is as negative a view of gatekeeping and the literary community as possible. It's not healthy. Maybe what we've been thinking of as gates can be redefined. What if they become as innocuous, and as magical as The Gates, Jeanne-Claude and Christo's great New York experiment.
The Gates was met with considerable resistance from gatekeepers, too. First suggested in 1979, the project was initially rejected by the city, in large part because of push back from conservationists and the communities in the immediate vicinity of Central Park. 25 years later, the project was finally approved and realized in 2005. Though themselves probably inspired by another type of gate, the Shinto torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, I think these gates should be the idea that we use for gates in the literary community.
You can walk through them. Their gateway delineates entry into no more specific a space than the space preceding the next gate. The total experience is not based upon entry though any one individual gate, but through the pathways leading through many. And no two experiences walking through the park—here the analog for the literary landscape—can be the same. Routes can change, weather can be different. No one need walk through all the gates to gain the full benefits of the experience.
And in this metaphor, this is the model gatekeeper:
A priestess of The Gates.
Their job was to tend the gates, to use the long staff with the tennis ball to unwind fabric that wrapped around the top part of gates in the wind, and to distribute free swatches of the orange fabric to the visitors. I told her I thought it was like being a priestesses of the Gates. She laughed.
This should be how literary gatekeepers work: making sure everyone is included, keeping the gate in working condition, trying their best to stay warm.
In all likelihood, it wouldn't work as nicely as that. I'm sure not all the gatekeepers in the park were as nice as the one I ran into (I never got her name). And, of course, from time to time you might find a gate with someone like this parked on the other side.
It's a cop.
[Screencaps from The Wizard of Oz and The Fellowship of the Ring by me, Gates photos by me as well.]