I know that writers' collectives / co-operatives are a subject of interest for many. I've never been in a writers' collective, and remain to be convinced that they could truly work. However, I still think co-operatives are great; I work on the fringes of a workers' co-op at the moment, and have been in a collective myself in the past, (Although it was not one that did anything to do with writing.) So I thought I'd do a little blog about co-operative working, and how it might work for writers.
What is a workers' co-op?
A workers' co-op could do anything. In the locality around me, there's a workers' co-op that runs a music venue, one that produces the world's best peanut butter (among other things), and another that will print books, zines or gig posters for you. The main difference in a workers' co-op, is that they don't have a 'manager'. Every worker in the co-op - in theory at least - should have an equal say in how the organisation works, making decisions from how to source materials to how to run the cleaning rota.
One of the big differences in workers' co-ops from usual jobs, is that the workers will have a wide range of responsibilities. It's not like a usual job where you'd have your job title, and you'd go in and do your job, and go home. In many workers' co-ops, you might have a lot of different responsibilities, from taking care of the building, to washing up, to making recruitment decisions. And everybody in the co-op would take on a bit of responsibility for organising how the co-op works. But every co-op works differently, depending on the people in it. That's the beauty of the co-operative way of working.
And what else?
All co-operatives share a set of values: Self-help (helping each other by working together for mutual benefit); Self-responsibility (individuals act responsibility, and play a full part in the organisation); Democracy (structured so members have control over the organisation); Equality (every member has equal rights & benefits according to their contribution); Equity (members to be treated fairly); Solidarity (members support each other, and other co-operatives.)
Working in a co-op is an involved endeavour. It works really well when you have a group of people who complement each other in some way, and importantly, have a commitment to the co-operative way of working. It's not really a simple or casual thing to do - usually co-operative working means doing something over & above what you'd do if you were working in a 'normal' job.
The great thing about co-operatives is that it means that all workers have a say in how they organise themselves, and how the work is done. Also, it means you don't have a boss! (Massive bonus for anyone who's got a problem with authority.)
How might a writers' co-op work?
My answer is, I don't know. It seems to me like co-ops work really well when their aim is something tangible. An aim like, for example, "We would like to produce and distribute the world's best peanut butter," or "Wouldn't it be great if we could teach people to fix their own bikes without having to go to Halford's?" - only in the case of the writers' group, your aim might be something like: "Let's put out an anthology", or "Let's organise a writing retreat together", or "Let's organise a series of performance events."
A nebulous aim like "This writers' co-op aims to support and promote one anothers' work" might be problematic. In a co-op, everybody should get fair treatment. You might run into difficulty if one of your co-op members felt that their work was not being promoted enough. How would you judge that everybody was receiving a fair amount of support? For any co-op to thrive in the long term, it's important that you build in checks to make sure that everybody gets treated fairly, and that if they feel that's not happening, to have a way to challenge that. There is loads of good advice about ironing out fair distribution in the Radical Routes publication "How to set up a worker's co-op".
In my experience co-operatives work really well when you are able to find a group of people who are like-minded in enough ways, but different enough, that you can work together well as a group to achieve a common aim. This narrows the field quite a lot for writers.
Speaking from my own experience, my best writer-friends are those who have a similar sort of aesthetic, or a similar sense of humour, or who have the same sort of ethic about how they operate. But my set of writer-friends is pretty small, and each person has something different about them that I like.
For example. A good critique partner understands your work: they know what you're trying to do, and most crucially, where you're getting it wrong. This is quite a rare find. I'm lucky enough to have one such writer-friend. (Hands off!)
But a critique partner might not equally be your commiserator. You might have another writer-friend who's good to get drunk with, and talk about rejection, and put the world to rights (or wrongs?) over a beer or two. These two people might not be the same person.
And then you might have another writer-friend who's an excellent performer, who knows how to read work out in a powerful and engaging way. This person might be able to draw people into events, or give you some inspiration as to how you might develop this ability in yourself.
And you also might have a writer-friend who's very practical and organised, who always keeps a cool head and knows how to get things done. This might be the sort of person who has a spreadsheet and a diary, with a list of closing dates for competitions and submission periods. If this writer-friend is a generous person, they may share their wizardly knowledge with you. And if they're doubly a good friend, they might crack the whip over you until you start sending your work to the right magazines. A writer-friend like this is rare indeed, rare my friends, and I counsel you if you find one to hold on tight to them and never let go; no, not even if they start beating you with a big stick.
However. The big difficulty is that it's rare enough to find one person listed above, still rarer to find one example of each, and rarer still - we are talking about rarity on a parallel with finding somebody who has made it all the way to the end of The Corrections here - to find one of ALL FOUR, and for ALL FOUR of these people to want to work in a co-operative together.
Because here's the problem: writers have this irritating tendency to be individualistic and driven. The very best ones of all are the ones who spend all their time writing; and irksomely, that type of writer tends to be the one who isn't really very interested in doing very much else. (I am turning into one such myself.)
Because here's the thing in forming a co-operative. You need to find a group of people willing to do any work the co-operative is committed to (whether that be putting out an anthology, or organising a retreat, or whatever) on top of finding their own time to write. And then you need to be able to do everything you expect them to do, back, so that you're doing things equitably for every writer in the co-op.
Can it be done? I would love to be proved wrong, and I hope that it can. I retain hope that somebody will pick up and run with the idea of running an affordable co-operatively run retreat, not half because I'd like to go on it myself, but without having to be the driving force behind it (too busy at the moment). It would be great to hear from anybody who has worked in, or is working in an active creative co-operative at the moment. But for now, for the time being, I remain - as ever - slightly unconvinced.
Feel free to call me a hardbitten old witch in the comments below.
Comedy in A Minor Hans Keilson
Collected Stories Lydia Davis