The Future of Literary Journalism?
On April 3rd at the New York Public Library, writers from the New York Review of Books—who joked a bit about how old they were, and therefore not really up to the task—held forth on “the future of literary journalism,” by which they meant, mainly, the ways in which it couldn’t be as good as the past. Although Ian Buruma began the roundtable by saying that they wouldn’t be sitting around, smoking cheroots and talking about the good old days, that’s what happened. (My former professor Andrew Delbanco, to his credit for honesty, said he thought that was exactly what they’d been invited to do.) The stories were mainly about Robert B. Silvers, the Review’s legendary, indefatigable, gently autocratic editor, who sat at one end of the round table with Joseph Lelyveld at the other, and talked rather vaguely about the internet.Clearly the methods of the Review—characterized positively by Buruma as “one well-paid dictator and a bunch of minions”—are going to be hard to replicate, but they’ve been working fine for fifty (!) years, so why stop now? The question that hovered unasked over the evening was, what happens to the Review, and what happens to literary journalism, when Bob Silvers is no longer around?
There was plenty of praise among the participants for the young, hungry, unpaid writers and editors who are running the various online journals “out there.” Zoe Heller, the youngest panelist by some way, insistently raised the question of how anybody is going to get paid, and looked a little uncomfortable as the older men marveled over such little-known publications as N+1 and The Millions.The Review, they said, is a democratic institution—everybody gets paid the same, apparently—and plenty of the “minions” are paid as well. Silvers was quite open about his “opportunism” in luring writers from other publications, and it was clear that his close, personal, idiosyncratic editing process was something the writers felt as a privilege.
What nobody talked about, of course, was the other kind of privilege that gets you in the door in the first place. Nobody talked about how the Review finds its writers, nobody mentioned its dismal Vida numbers*, and the conversation was governed by a blind faith that talented young writers and editors would push their way to visibility like dandelions breaking through the asphalt of a level playing field. Like the faith that there will always be money *somewhere* in writing, that some other publication will pay its writers so we don’t have to, this is a comforting fantasy, and one that sustains any number of wannabe literary journalists as well as those who’ve earned the right to rest on their laurels.
But we have to see that these problems are connected. Publishing and academia, like so many sections of our economy, are split unsustainably between wealthy superstars and part-time, freelance “minions” paid a few hundred bucks here and there to teach entry-level classes and churn out syndicated blurbs about new books for whatever paying book-review outlets still exist. Zoe Heller commented offhandedly that such outlets, newspaper review sections mainly, would survive because there would always be “young, hungry” journalists looking to break in. Coming from a writer who got her start on Fleet Street, that’s naive in the extreme. Laura Miller recently wrote a smart and impassioned piece in Salon about Helen Zell’s $50m gift to the University of Michigan MFA program, arguing that while it’s lovely and admirable to support trainee literary novelists and poets, it’s reckless to do so when the number of publications that will thoughtfully review their eventual books is vanishingly small. She suggested that $50m would be better spent doing something to shore up the infrastructure of literary journalism, not further buoying up dreamers who are unlikely to ever find readers.
If I’d had the guts and time to stand up at the microphone and ask a question, I’d have said this. Amazon just bought Goodreads for $150m (here’s why) because it’s in their interest—and to some extent, in the interests of publishers—to bypass independent critical voices and instead rely on a small army of enthusiastic, unpaid amateurs do the work of “discovery" and book promotion. If literary journalism matters, in part, as a small arena of resistance to corporate marketing and the takeover of book reviewing by algorithms, isn’t it your job to ensure that you’re seeking out the best new talent and taking action to correct your own biases, to nurture the best new writers and editors out there? As powerful “dictators,” reputation-builders and kingmakers, you have the future of literary journalism in your hands—so what are you going to do with it?
* For the record, here are the NYRB’s Vida numbers for 2012, ratios of women to men: Book reviewers 40:215, authors reviewed 89:316, bylines 36:121, overall 165:652. And at the panel, 2:4.