What’s the appropriate attitude towards unpaid mentorship as a writer?

Recently there has been a discussion in a Facebook group I’m in about requests for mentorship from established professionals- mostly writers.

One tendency takes the view that, unless you know someone well (and even then…) it’s generally inappropriate to ask for mentorship- e.g. a read of a writing sample. As an alternative, they suggest that established writers might perform these kinds of services for money.

The other tendency, of which I am a part, maintains that it is wholly acceptable for an aspiring writer to ask for a hand up.  Of course writers have a right to refuse to help due to pressure of other work, but the request itself is decent and fair.

I will acknowledge there are lots of subtleties here. For example, in her argument against unpaid mentorship, Jane Caro for makes the case that this sort of work disproportionately falls on women in the industry(1)- while to the best of my knowledge there is no quantitative data on this, that sounds very plausible to me. I think though that we can acknowledge this gender imbalance in unpaid labour(2) without calling for an end to the whole practice of helping people for free.

I will acknowledge also that I am a writer by courtesy only, grinding out cliche-ridden academic prose rather than literature. I also have given and received unpaid mentorship, but maybe the issues are different and perhaps I’m speaking from ignorance.

All that said, I can’t agree that asking for unpaid mentorship is anything to be ashamed of.

My first concern about the anti-mentorship approach is that it seems a bit like pulling the ladder up behind you. Almost everyone in the community has received mentorship, and even those who haven’t directly have benefited from a literary culture informed by it.

My second concern is to do with nepotism. If the anti-mentorship side succeeded they wouldn’t prevent all mentorship, just the mentorship of those who aren’t already close friends, lovers and family.  Writing is already one of the most nepotistic industries out there, who wants to be responsible for making that worse?

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, what would this do to the state of literature if people actually followed through? At least a little richness would be lost and, I suspect, a great deal more.

Finally, just on a purely aesthetic level, do you want to live in this world? Do you want to live in a world in which having the temerity to ask for this kind of world is seen as parasitism? Isn’t it going to feel colder?

Now again, I’m not saying that this means we have to say yes to every request. I don’t think you even have to respond to every request. Nor am I saying on the other side of the scales that its generally okay to send off a whole manuscript to a famous author and ask for feedback, just out of nowhere. But if someone you barely know sends you a nervous sounding message asking you to read something relatively short, at the very least don’t hold it against the schmuck.


(1)- Caro’s piece is undercut by her insistence on defending the obscene sums of money Hilary Clinton received from some of the most evil people in the country for her speeches- money that was clearly more in the spirit of a different kind of quid pro quo. In a way it’s a lovely little reductio of this crass marketisation of human relations.

(2)- It’s interesting to contrast this movement with the much more constructive wages for housework movement which demanded wages from the government for reproductive labour already being done. Much different to demanding it from some poor dorky sop who thinks they’ve written a fantasy bestseller.

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