Monthly Archives: August 2014

Notes on ‘The Free and the Antifree’

I almost always enjoy n+1’s The Intellectual Situation, which usually appears at the beginning of each issue. The typical format is a kind of flaneur-diary, where the editors collectively embark on some errand and interpolate essays on contemporary matters along the way. It’s a peculiar form with an old-fashioned feel, and I am not sure of its historical precedent, and being as this is a dashed-off-devil-may-care blog post, I’m not going to research this. What I’m going to do instead is annotate the first half of this issue’s Intellectual Situation, the essay “The Free and the Antifree.”

Lately, online, depending on what sites you read, the topic of what writers should or shouldn’t be paid has become contentious. I’ve been thinking about writing this topic for a while but n+1 has helpfully done it for me, thus preserving my cherished blog torpor. The Intellectual Situation, as a genre, often does this: coalesces the vapors swirling around contemporary discussion and forms a (usually) coherent discussion.

Though it’s perhaps not immediately obvious, all of the following half-thoughts contribute to the simmering stew of a question that’s been bothering me for the past year or so: what is the point of the literary magazine now? Or, more specifically, what is the point in submitting (on spec) to (small but prestigious) literary magazines in hopes of getting published (in print, but with no hope of any real pay)?

These writers and copy editors were among the many who, faced with limited resources and their own cultural omnivorousness, came home each night eager to download MP3s, PDFs, and other digital copies of artworks and research they would otherwise be unable to access. Around the reality of these thefts a powerful ideological movement emerged, taking as its inspiration not just facts on the ground but also the libertarian, antigovernment, “hacker” spirit of the earliest personal computing and internet communities. The apostles of the Free Culture movement, as it came to be called, argued that stealing digital content was a progressive politics and should be brought into the open. Some of these apostles were hucksters and profiteers, others were merely hypocrites (who preached the virtues of free from their perches as well-paid magazine editors or college or law school professors), but still others, like the freeware hacker Aaron Swartz, were true believers. Congress had allowed copyright protections to be rewritten by huge corporations (most notably Disney) to become a parody of a law. If what was being illegally downloaded was some of the best that had been thought or said by human beings, and the downloaders were people who couldn’t afford the purchase price of the books or movies (some of which were expensive) — wasn’t that a good thing?

This too swiftly equates all participation in internet culture as a type of thievery, which is detrimentally simplistic. It ignores the more obvious point that the net is based on frictionless sharing of data files (as in, that is how it literally works) and that much of what was “stolen” in this regard was freely provided. See, e.g., the newspaper industry. (Whether or not that was ultimately a good decision on the part of the newspaper industry is another discussion.) The editors (the piece, per usual, is unsigned and its mode is ex cathedra) seem to be lamenting the disappearance of somewhat writing-related, somewhat available hack work rather than the actual artwork this was originally meant to support. This feels to me like a misplaced nostalgia — Blues for Editorial Assistant.

Out of this necessity, conventional magazine journalism came to be marketed as an endangered art form. Nowhere was this more evident than in talk about the influential online aggregators Longreads and Longform. As nearly every article about Longreads’ founders said, they were “passionate about longform storytelling”—in other words, commercial journalism had become a passion project. Its producers, mostly old-fashioned magazines like GQ, eagerly took to this as well, tweeting their #longform and #longreads, and on every front advancing the idea that their writers were artists, in need of public support. Of course, there was a catch: in order to be selected as a “longread,” the work had to be available online for free. Eventually, Longreads launched a $3 monthly membership, which would not go to editors and writers but “contribute to our editorial budget, which goes toward finding and sharing outstanding storytelling from around the world.”

This is a good point, and one can see at the same time a valorization of the magazine profile writer as not just a sharp journalist but as a true artist. Cultural reportage became the new novel. A good example here would be the extremely vigorous lauding of John Jeremiah Sullivan a couple of years ago when he published his very good collection of reportage Pulphead, and which was greeted, in a kind of collective grasp for excitement by the publishing industry, as a proto-DFW level achievement. (It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, but the excitement had a strange, willed, meta-quality.) It’s useful to remember here that on college campuses journalism has traditionally been a separate school from the English department/creative writing program. The creative writing program is a child of the English department in administrative, budgetary, and philosophical terms, while the journalism school has always conceived of itself as a trade school. Its closest departmental sibling would probably be the business school. In other words, the creative writing program has always been ideologically aligned with art over money/utility. But now, with the utter tanking of the newspaper industry over the past decade and the somewhat slower tanking but in all respects still fraught magazine industry, journalism has been turned into art, aka that which we want to keep around but which is no longer visibly useful or profitable. But we’d like to keep it around just in case. It will be interesting to see how journalism tackles the issue of contest entry fees.

For little magazines (like ours), these conversations were painful, for the critics had homed in on a particular problem. The little magazine always originates as an image of utopia that it then betrays. It starts with love but very little money, and because it is edited for free (mostly), it gets writing for free (mostly) in a nonexploitative way, since no one is extracting any surplus value. This is the utopian stage, where writing as a competitive enterprise, as a sphere rife with greed and envy, disappears. It is replaced by a pure and purely unnecessary (in the sense of not being directly useful to the reproduction of biological life and material needs) contemplation of essential, fundamental problems — that is to say, it becomes art. But then, almost immediately, the little magazine becomes a way to “graduate” to the world of hackery — for its editors and writers to become journalists, novelists, overpaid business school speakers — and in this way can serve more as an instrument than an opponent of the hack world.

And so, strangely enough, it was smaller publications that seemed most vulnerable to the shaming critique produced by Who Pays Writers. Not only the publications but the writers, too, had to be shamed, as full-time freelancer Yasmin Nair did, when in a controversial blog post she called academics and others with steady jobs who wrote for small fees “scabs.” Both the people who gave and the people who accepted unpaid internships at these publications, further perpetuating their existence, would have to be shamed as well. As someone wrote to n+1 about its (unpaid) internship program, “It’s typical that you would advertise an unpaid internship. You should be aware that this is no longer done.”

The key phrase here is “But then, almost immediately,” which indicates that actually there is no distinct transition of phases in literary magazine production between the art-drunk utopia and the grubby world of hackery; these circles overlap simultaneously and always. The editors are trying to turn a complex phenomenon into a binary. The divisions between writing that’s hackery and art are provisional and fluid, like game lines on a soccer field that have to be re-drawn each week.

The argument between free and antifree may be framed in many ways; one would be as an argument between the American scholar Lewis Hyde and the French Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his great book The Gift (1983), Hyde tried to explain, against an American intellectual background of economic rationalism, why people would do something like write poetry. Bourdieu, whose work was beginning to be translated into English around this same time, had already prepared an answer to this question: people make art for the same reason people do everything — because they want to gain capital. In the case of art this capital was often symbolic rather than financial, but it was still capital. For Hyde, art-making looked more like the premodern gift economies described by anthropologists like Mauss and Lévi-Strauss — the creation of something without obvious utility that could be presented to the world as a gift. (Bourdieu had also written about gift economies; for him they were, like art, a winnable game with rules and strategies.) For Hyde, the secret of art was that there was no secret — art-making was what made us human. It was what we did for free.

As it happens, Hyde’s book is often cited as an argument against payment for writing — “Art is a gift,” these people say, as they pick up their paychecks from Princeton or Iowa or Columbia. Antifree responds with some variant of Bourdieu’s old unmasking: Nothing exists outside the realm of exchange. If a writer is not paid in money, she is paid in “cultural capital” that translates into improved standing and, eventually, cash. So why (asks antifree) should the writer be forced to wait? Why shouldn’t she be paid right now?

Again, what I disagree with here is the apparent editorial certainty. The problem I have with Bourdieu (whom I have not read except in n+1–style summaries) is that he sounds as grimly dismal as conventional economists, nothing done or left undone outside the cold light of capital and rational self-interest. And just because Hyde’s book (which I have read and am a huge fan of) has been misused in this way, it doesn’t mean that’s the correct way to read him. As someone who himself attempts to make art, I side with Hyde, if for no other reason than Hyde makes me feel better about trying to make art. Bourdieu strikes me like many other French literary theorists — provocative and challenging but ultimately rather empty. I am speaking in terms of my personal artistic ambition. French theory guts my motivation, because if the market doesn’t value your art in monetary terms, theory devalues it in intellectual terms. Though Bourdieu’s notion of “distinction” is fascinating, it’s also a kind of harsh economics of the spirit. One doesn’t want to be a dreamy romantic all the time, but being woozy from the vapors of your own self-importance turns out to be a better condition for making art, at least in my limited experience. It keeps the fires burning, when otherwise art-making seems like a ridiculous game, a kind of meaningless middle school politics.

But as usual we have some qualms. Sometimes antifree can feel like it has invested too much of its energy and passion in the fight for an extra $50. Which is not to scoff at $50. It’s a way station to making a living. But for the moment it’s just $50. The conversation shouldn’t stop there. On the money side, perhaps the next step for antifree is to create and strengthen a union — one that can demand standards for contracts, reprimand institutions for reneging on terms or norms of conduct, and otherwise represent the interests of culture workers before the ultimate bearers of responsibility for the diminishing of salaries and security: media conglomerates, corporate boards, and shareholders. And what about tax reform? In Ireland, artists are exempt from taxes on the first 40,000 euros they earn from their work — whereas artists and freelancers here are faced, among many other obstacles, with onerous self-employment taxes that punish anyone who tries to stay clear of the corporate system. We could do better.

Of the two ideas, I think amending the self-employment tax is more practical. I think trying to create a union is doomed. If we can’t sustain viable unions for auto workers and teachers, there’s no way we’re going to establish a union for writers, especially since the designation of “writer” has become so diffuse as to be almost meaningless. You would have to professionalize everyone.

The Intellectual Situation as a genre is always willingly provocative and a bit simplistic. This is just a necessary rhetorical trade-off. However, I will admit that lately these essays feel less charged and more often simply vague. I’ve been a big, subscribing fan of n+1 since its first issue. Though of course I don’t always agree with everything in the magazine, it’s a welcome regular presence in my intellectual life, a kind of seasonal astringent, a somewhat demanding houseguest. Much of this stringency comes from the magazine’s deft deployment of various binaries. But now almost 10 years into this magazine’s run, everything seems to me more complicated and muddled than these provocative, brief essays allow. Previously The Intellectual Situation felt as if the editors capitalized on a current discussion and pushed it forward, and by their eloquence and force of vision they became the touchstone for all future discussion of a given topic. But lately The Intellectual Situation essays now feel more like wan summaries of missives I’ve already read online. Perhaps I’m just ten years older and saddled with my own increased poundage. As my margins have increased so has an appetite for admixture.

Notes on ‘Bluets’

1. I haven’t read Leslie Jamison’s new book of essays The Empathy Exams, but even if the slew of reviews are only half right, it’s an amazing book. This past weekend, Jamison had an essay in the Guardian talking about confessional writing and how it was not in fact a primary venue for narcissism but an arena for so much more. Even though I haven’t read her book, it struck me as an odd argument to make; we seem indisputably awash in personal confessional writing. This is not to disparage it. Confessional writing, like writing of the nonconfessional sort, can be both excellent and not. It all depends. As a mode of writing it seems currently in very little need of defense. The essay struck me almost as an attempted high-art rescue of confessional writing, a gentrification of an allegedly seedy neighborhood.

2. I read this in light of recent mental chewing of a different, much-praised essay book, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, which I finished still wanting to like much more than I actually did.*

3. Maggie Nelson, according to her jacket bio, is most often classified as a poet. The book is divided into 240 numbered sections, most of which are less than a page in length. These sections total 95 pages.

4. I should say that I am not against numbered brief sections nor am I against essays that read like poems or vice versa.

5. Here’s how the book begins:

1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.

6. This beginning is indicative: the conversational tone that surges to stylization and heightened poeticism, the performance of her thinking as though it were a confession, information she is pretending to confess.

7. Nelson really likes the color blue, finds basically a religious soothing in its myriad appearances in her life. This might seem odd but hardly amounts to a confession. It might be rather a slightly askew preoccupation with religious or spiritual undertones, or at least undertones of the meaningful, but those undertones are not audible here. She tries to dress up a relatively banal personal preoccupation as hidden, private wisdom expressed at great psychic expense. But it’s just her riffing on the color blue.

8. Perhaps what I’m really trying to say is that I wish the book took itself less seriously.

9. The effect of the short numbered sections is an agglomeration of riffs. Some topics covered include: a friend who has been paralyzed by an accident, never described; memories of a recently departed lover; scholarly snippets from previous writers on the color blue; her accumulation of blue objects and moments in a lifetime of being consistently moved by the color blue.

10. I wish I could say this added up to something or that it satisfactorily didn’t add up to something. I wish I could say it was provocatively fractured.

11. What this quickly leads to is a kind of faux confession, confession as performance and rhetorical mode, rather than any information actually being confessed. And faux confession is basically a form of bragging, a type of willfully glamorous information offered strictly to impress the reader.

12. The two main relationships in the book — the paralyzed friend and the departed lover — feel opaque. For example, the sections about her friend feel like bids for seriousness, but the contrast between her friend’s paralysis and her own preoccupation with the color blue undermines her color enthusiasm. It makes Nelson seem trivial, and it makes her friend seem like she was used as a rhetorical device, as a ballast for our narrator’s serious whimsy. Here’s an example:

119. My friend was a genius before her accident, and she remains a genius now. The difference is that these days it is nearly impossible to discount her pronouncements. Something about her condition has bestowed upon her the quality of an oracle, perhaps because now she generally stays in one place, and one must go unto her. Eventually you will have to give up this love, she told me one night while I made us dinner. It has a morbid heart.

The high lyricism of “go unto her” on first reading seems deft and complex, but on a second reading seems enormously callous — as if the friend is being mocked for the sake of a poetic conceit.

13. Likewise, the central relationship with the unnamed man that provides the closest thing to a through-line in the book. It’s here where the book is interestingly confessional and interestingly contemporary in its confessionalism. Nelson is frank about the sexual satisfaction she experiences with her lover. She revels in the sex between them, and on the one hand it is bracing to read a woman narrator disclose her pleasure like this under no veil of shame, under no societally constructed architecture of landing Mr. Right by the end of the movie, etc. There is simply the self-renewing mystery of her own desire. But as the confessions increase without any compensatory revelations about her or him or the texture or context of the relationship as a whole, aside from the sporadic but great sex, the confessions take on a different light. Again, it all starts to sound like a kind of bragging. Here is an example:

116. One of the last times you came to see me, you were wearing a pale blue button-down shirt, short-sleeved. I wore this for you, you said. We fucked for six hours straight that afternoon, which does not seem precisely possible but that is what the clock said. We killed the time. You were on your way to a seaside town, a town of much blue, where you would be spending a week with the other woman you were in love with, the woman you are with now. I’m in love with you both in completely different ways, you said. It seemed unwise to contemplate this statement any further.

14. By mentioning this aspect of the book, I do not mean to judge Nelson in some kind of moralistic, nanny-pants way. What I am interested in is the cumulative rhetorical effect. What’s more, if this we’re a piece of fiction we might interpret this one-sided portrait of a relationship as interestingly flawed; that is, we might be tempted to judge the narrator for thinking of the character in this way or to interpret her myopia. But since it’s purportedly an essay, it seems like Nelson is simply being willfully obtuse. That either Nelson shares this seemingly shallow appreciation of other people (doubtful) or that the presentation of herself has gotten out of her authorial control.

15. Theory: it seems that confessional writing only really works when the author is fully willing to exploit herself and her friends and neighbors. Any kind authorial reticence, out of politeness or fear, cripples the memoir, turns it into a narcissist’s cave where we’re watching wall projections. To make it a really riveting piece of writing, you still have to go outside the self; you have to transgress against all the other people to make them characters.

16. Phillip Lopate wrote in an essay a few years ago about how his students were basically turning their personal nonfiction pieces into a type of short story where they let versions of themselves pretend to be stupid in order to make the stories more “dramatic.” That is, they dumbed down their own intelligence to turn their essays into a kind of fiction, while still calling them essays. Essays, if they are to mean anything, are the full-flowing tide of one’s intellect, not strategically dammed for dramatic effect. The very premise of an essay, or a piece of personal nonfiction, is that one is not unnecessarily dramatizing what happened, but dealing with what actually happened, as close as possible, and when what actually happened is obscured for some reason, such as the identity of a lover, that the hiddenness be dealt with as frankly as possible.

17. A counterargument: All of this is on purpose. That is, Nelson is deliberately constructing this authorial persona for Bluets. A few months ago, Will Wilkinson wrote a really wonderful post** about the “implied author” in fiction and how this relates to an author’s persona in nonfiction as well, how nonfiction authors inevitably construct slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, and that we, as readers, should be totally familiar with this move; comedians do it all the time. Seinfeld in Seinfeld is not really Seinfeld. So I’m not trying to be a rube in misunderstanding Nelson’s moves. But in that case, I can’t figure out why Nelson would portray herself this way — why she would, in effect, make herself appear shallow. I realize that hand-in-hand with adopting a persona, nonfiction narrators often degrade themselves — becoming more obtuse, more curmudgeonly, more daft, more neurotic, etc. — as a way to humble themselves before the reader. And again: that’s fine. It reminds me in a way of Jonathan Franzen’s nonfiction; he often portrays himself as a smarty-pants jerk and then ironizes that depiction in a way that seemingly attempts to absolve himself of being a smarty-pants jerk or to make us see that he understands this about himself, but the whole procedure turns into a failure of irony and a failure of authorial control. Jerk will out. It’s akin to listening to a humorless person tell you joke after joke.

18. Re: the Jamison editorial: The tendency in confessional writing to turn into a kind of arms race of trauma. I think this is why we get fake Holocaust memoirs. It’s the ultimate trauma — world history’s transgressions made personal or “relatable.”

19. Whereas in fiction the reader is encouraged to empathize with the character in spite of their differences, in this kind of confessional nonfiction the trauma becomes a solder between author and reader, so that the exchange of readerly trust becomes a form of identity politics: I get you because I am like you. You “represent” me and my troubles. This is empathy as demography.

20. Can you empathize with confessional nonfiction writing if you can’t “relate” to the trauma? Does it all come down to how well everything is depicted in language? That is, to good writing? But tell me again what exactly is the definition of good writing?

21. I’m going to stop writing now before I am tempted to make a definitive point or discuss reality television, whichever may come first.

*I would also simultaneously like to recognize a counter-feeling of not really caring much what my own opinion is re: a book I read. In short, I’ve grown tired of liking books or disliking books. Or, if you prefer, “liking” them. My own opinions feel stale, not to be trusted.

**Seriously. Just go read it. It’s wonderfully well articulated and clarifying and much better than this paragraph-bingo.