“The offer has been withdrawn,” my agent emailed, only a few hours after the editor of a major publishing imprint had extended the offer, and an equally brief time before our scheduled phone call to discuss it. “Take the offer as an encouraging sign that the book got this far,” my agent added, attempting to lessen the sting.
“I would have preferred hearing ‘not right for my list’ at the outset,” I replied. “Standard rejections like that I can take in stride. Having my hopes raised, then dashed, is worse.” My agent conceded that her other clients agreed. So did she. A roller coaster descent to disappointment was far worse than a gentle carousel ride that went nowhere. “P.S. to Self,” I added, after signing off with my agent. “That’s what happens when you try to get above your raisin’.”
That folksy expression means acting above your upbringing. Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, a song written by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in 1951 and popularized by Ricky Skaggs in 1981, includes the lyrics, “Now I got a gal that’s sweet to me. She just ain’t what she used to be. Just a little high headed, that’s plain to see. Don’t get above your raising. Stay down on earth with me.” The words “high headed” conjure someone who’s stuck up, with their nose in the air.
The caution comes from the South, though I don’t. I grew up in the Bronx and have lived in Michigan over fifty years. Yet, having uttered the admonition so often and for so long, I may as well have been born to it. I warned myself as a frizzy-haired working class Jew attending an Ivy League college on scholarship. Not because I doubted my academic ability, but because being accepted by wealthy, blonde WASPS wasn’t my right. I administered the same self-scolding decades later when forced to leave the schoolhouse I’d bought on the edge of the city’s wealthiest neighborhood, then remodeled into a unique home and studio. Why had I imagined my butt could abut those of elites? Although the circumstances precipitating my departure had nothing to do with finances (the concern was safety), I knew I was being punished for rising above my roots.
Asking my peers, I discovered many writers who have yet to crack the sanctum of top-tier agents and/or publishers have reactions to similar to mine, whether they never had a hand offered or been slapped by one that had. Foolishly, I thought I’d arrived when, after years of querying, I found a good agent eager to represent my work. I should have trusted the warning that getting an agent was a long way from getting a book contract. Now I fret that even that first step aspired too high. Because I’m not alone in questioning my “place” in the publishing world, I was curious about the reasons behind the “getting above your raisin’” syndrome. Here’s what I learned.
According to a sociological analysis of Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ by Danny Collum (Sojourners, July-August 2002), in country music, the greatest sins are pretense and snobbery. While this idea sounds un-American — the notion of transcending one’s birth is inherent in our espoused commitment to individual liberty and opportunity — in fact, communal identity and group loyalty are equally valued. In modern-day America, they often take precedence.
As the song reminds the upstart, “You’re country baby,” not city. People worried about getting above their raisin’ believe they’re X, not Y: From the hills, not the valley; the wrong side of the tracks, not the right one; or, in my case, the Bronx, not Manhattan. My daughter, of course, thinks my writing is high class. It’s not only because she is instinctively her mother’s advocate, but because she doesn’t get my hangup. My child was raised more comfortably than I was.
Although my attitudes often differ from the anti-intellectualism associated with the don’t-get-above-your-raisin’ crowd, this interpretation of my self-doubt nevertheless feels right. The social class analogy is clear in my non-publishing examples, but also applies to the literary world. Publishing, like all communities, is stratified. A big commercial publisher accords an author a higher status than a small independent press. My novel was enthusiastically embraced by an independent press. Ditto my three other novels. Independent presses are more aligned with my background: non-materialistic, politically progressive, rooting for (and writing about) society’s underdogs. I’m a fan of independent presses, notably their openness to diverse voices. Not a few industry analysts predict that they are the future of publishing. The critics may be right. And yet, the hankering to aim higher, along with a question about my legitimacy to do so, persists.
A developmental psychologist, as well as a writer, I’m also interested in the personal roots of our self-image. First, I want to make clear that fear of getting above one’s raisin’ is not the same as imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern of doubting your accomplishments and fearing you’ll be exposed as a fraud, despite objective evidence to the contrary. People with imposter syndrome attribute their success to good luck or to deceiving others into thinking they are more competent than they perceive themselves to be. Researchers estimate that up to eighty-two percent of us experience the syndrome at least once in our lives. However, the discomfort is usually specific to a particular situation (for example, a job promotion) and only becomes a problem when it is so internalized that it extends to virtually every accomplishment or recognition.
By contrast, writers like myself do not doubt our abilities or question our right to call ourselves authors. We may even read the latest books generating “buzz” and conclude that we write as well as, or better than, the feted authors. We also don’t think it’s (only) a matter bad luck that we haven’t been discovered. In our heads, the bad break is the result of being in the wrong demographic, or such variants as not having the right degree from the right institution or making the right connections. In the incident I described at the essay’s outset, my novel was not turned down on its merits. It garnered praise from that editor, and others. Rather, as with publishers large and small in these uncertain economic times, someone on the team got cold feet. If only they’d felt the chill before extending a warm hand. Yet, regardless of why or when the slap was delivered, my brain encoded the turndown as “Ann doesn’t belong in our ranks.”
The historian Michael Birdwell says the real fear behind getting above your raisin’ is shame. Not the imposter’s sense of shame at being exposed as a fraud. On the contrary, it’s a fear expressed by parents that their children will become ashamed of them. While its origins lie in Appalachian culture, it also expresses the ambivalence of immigrants and refugees who simultaneously want their children to be educated and successful, but worry their children will no longer respect them. I was raised in an immigrant family where education was highly valued. Yet some members of the older generations were intimidated by, even resentful of, the advanced degrees that my brother and I earned. Perhaps I absorbed, albeit subconsciously, the guilt that getting above my raisin’ meant rejecting them. I could go only so far; beyond that was excessive. “High headed” can also mean “snooty brained.”
The conviction that one lacks the right to cross restricted boundaries is also embedded in personal experience. For example, my older brother called me names (“the little twerp” featured prominently). We now know that even such good-natured teasing, once considered harmless, can shake a child’s self-esteem. Others may have been told by relatives or teachers that they’d never amount to anything, whether out of cruelty or a misguided attempt to motivate them to try harder. Whatever the source of such labels or evaluations, we internalize our sense of ourselves from the people whose opinions matter to us. For writers, that includes editors. The bigger the editor, and the more prominent the publisher they represent, the more value we attach to that judgment.
It’s tempting to lay the blame for self-doubt at the feet of the publishing industry, which tells the vast majority of us we’ll never be admitted to the club. Yet, at the same time we can legitimately protest such treatment, some of us alas agree that we don’t in fact belong in an elite membership. Fiction writers invent characters but, try as we might, ultimately we cannot reinvent ourselves.
People in all walks of life may feel this, but what is behind such self-deprecation among writers in particular? Do we fear being called “traitors,” rejected not only by those above us but by peers as well? Are we guilt-ridden that it’s not politically correct to even want to join those ethereal ranks? Other than a few top-selling authors, even those who get contracts from big-time publishers remain low on the totem pole of fame. So why care? I’m not motivated by money. I never again want to live in a fancy zip code; I like my downscale neighborhood. Fifty-three years after graduating from college, when I tell people where I went to school, I hasten to add “on a full scholarship.” I’m comfortable claiming intellectual competence, not implying wealth.
I can only conclude that getting a big-name contract is validation, proof of making it in the field that consumes our lives and egos. That’s why I still aspire to this goal. At the same time, I’m grateful to be part of the community of authors and staff in independent presses. The one I’ve primarily worked with is populated by talented professionals, committed to releasing a high quality product with expert development editing, original book and cover design, and creative marketing. That’s probably more than I’d get as a no-name author with a larger publisher.
And yet, as I strive for more, my mantra that “Hope is a renewable resource” persists. As, alas, does the conviction that someone with my upbringing isn’t worthy of it.