The Controversy Around the #AmtrakResidency

Amtrak’s new residency application, which will grant a lucky 24 writers a free train trip of 2–5 days duration in which to focus on their projects, has caused a stir in the literary world. One source tells me that nearly 7,000 proposals have swamped the train line; even if the number is half that, however, the chances of being given a ticket to ride (.6%) are slimmer than getting into Harvard (6.3%).

To laypeople, this perhaps sounds crazy. Who competes for the opportunity to take a long-distance train trip, without even a city like Rome or Prague to greet you on the other side? Remember that episode of “Sex and the City”? (Sidenote: God, Carrie is insufferable.) But writers, especially fledglings — and in this economy, we are almost all fledglings — have so little. No funds, no structure, no support. Everyone is always telling us to get a real job. Writers’ residencies, which offer crucial time, space, and community, can be a boon, but most of them have associated costs, making them prohibitive for someone just scraping by. Amtrak is filling a need by offering writers a temporary, mobile Cabin of One’s Own. So why are people so angry?

Since Amtrak’s announcement, the Internet writing world has cleaved itself in twain. On one side, hipsters sniff at “corporate sponsorship” and handwringers fret about the fine print. On the other, profane, passionate, patriotic train-lovers rant that we are all spoiled brats. (“You have no poetry in your soul and your blood is not the blood of a true American.”) What do experts have to say about the controversial fine print itself? I decided to ask around.

Hattie Fletcher, Managing Editor of Creative Non-Fiction Magazine, finds some concerns valid:

It seems awfully broad to me, and to the extent that their clause seems to cover the entire application — which can include a writing sample which can be previously published — it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where this could lead to some infringement of publishers’ rights, as well. That is, if author X were to apply and to use as a writing sample a story he/she had published in The New Yorker, technically, according to this language, Amtrak could publish (or modify and publish!) that story and/or sell it to someone else. Which probably wouldn’t really fly with Conde Nast.

Probably not, though I imagine Conde Nast can handle itself.

Paul Zakrzewski, a writer who for years ran the Goldberg Prize for Fiction, is less convinced and more inclined to find the reaction a bit “silly”:

My sense is that this is no different from any other competition. Businesses don’t do these things out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it because it’s good PR. They can’t get any PR if an applicant isn’t willing to acknowledge being one! I wonder if writers were misunderstanding what Amtrak wants. This isn’t a “work for hire” infringement — Amtrak isn’t going to steal your stories.

Jake Nussbaum, Writing Coordinator of the Vermont Studio Center, America’s largest international artists’ and writers’ residency, is also not too concerned, and points out that the fine print is to be expected:

Rarely is a residency interested in using something you write for their own marketing. That being said, the Amtrak residency needs to work in their favor. Most residencies are non-profit, and Amtrak is obviously a for-profit business, so they are trying to find new and creative ways of getting publicity and customers. I give them credit for doing it, even if it is a little too media-oriented for me.

And my brother, an attorney in Los Angeles, also generally concurs, though he sees the red flags:

My sense is that Amtrak wanted to be able to use the writing samples submitted with the applications as proof of the “wonderful” writers who they select for their program, and they wanted to be able to do that without writers saying, “Wait, I never said you could publish that.” The blog you linked to also mentions this language: “[f]or the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential.” That desire to be able to publish the application for purposes of advertising/promoting/bragging about the program was probably the intent. That’s why “advertising and marketing” are mentioned specifically in the controversial paragraph. The “third parties” who might receive a “sublicense” are probably PR / advertising firms that might help with an ad campaign. That’s my guess.

But the application language appears a little overbroad, since it would seemingly allow Amtrak to publish a book of everyone’s application writing samples and sell it for profit without any payment to the applicants/authors. If I were negotiating on behalf of an applicant, I would want to change the language from “for any purpose” to “for purposes of advertising and/or marketing the Residency program and/or Amtrak.” And I would add that if the writing or any part of it were sold for profit, or actually used in an ad, then the writer should be paid.

What should I do, I asked him, if (theoretically) I already applied for the residency the same way I have applied to other residencies in the past, without reading any of the fine print? “Don’t worry,” he said. “If they use your writing without paying you we’ll sue them anyway and make them settle.” So no worries, writers. Should we be fortunate enough to be taken advantage of, we can all follow my brother’s advice.

Ester Bloom lives in Brooklyn.

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