In what might be the most highbrow get-off-my-lawn ever written (19 literary names dropped; references to typewriter brands; a dig at the new New Republic, and some untranslated, Kant-referencing German for good measure), fiction writer and essayist Cynthia Ozick complains in the New York Times that today’s young writers aren’t content to wait their turn. She’s right that writing as a profession has changed, but the question is whether the difference between the idealized past and the decadent present is one of culture or infrastructure (that is, technological and economic developments). Ozick appears to think it’s the former, and faults today’s young writers for excessive ambition:
Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds. Old writers in their youth understood themselves to be apprentices to masters superior in seasoned experience, and were ready to wait their turn in the hierarchy of recognition. In their lone and hardened way of sticking-to-it, they were unwaveringly industrious; networking, the term and the scheme, was unknown to them.
Ozick paints a romantic picture of the young writers of yore—the old ones of today. It wasn’t just that they didn’t get distracted by Instagram when trying to write thinly veiled fictionalized accounts of their lives. It’s that they didn’t waste their time with such trivialities as paid work:
Old writers in their youth were resolutely immured in their first novels, steadfastly enduring unworldly and self-chosen isolation; they shunned journalism, they shunned coteries, they shunned parties, they shunned the haunting of magazines for review assignments, they shunned editorial work, fearful of being drawn into the distracting pragmatism of publishing—magnetized instead by the lure of the Ding an sich.
Who was paying for these art-for-art purists to hole up in their cabins in the woods? Clearly they weren’t living off of royalties from earlier novels, because they were still in the “aspiration” stage. In a sense, perhaps culture does enter into this—would previous generations have even thought to ask the question of how a writer pays the bills? While writers are probably no less likely to come from privilege than at any other time, it’s considered no longer acceptable for that to go unacknowledged. (Ideal transparency for a young writer is spelling out, in the New York Times, that your parents pay your bills.) A young writer or artist shouldn’t just pursue his or her art, but should hustle, so that the art that results might have some chance of speaking to the experiences of non-cabin-dwellers. If “networking” and other business-world jargon has lost its taboo in the writing world, this may be because it’s now stigmatized for a writer not to have practical concerns.
Perhaps Ozick’s objection isn’t to day jobs, but to jobs aimed at immediate career-advancement. What happened to the good old days of fetching coffee for one’s mentor? Here’s where economic factors come into play: Entry-level jobs in publishing and media—the ones writers used to take to pay the bills—have been reclassified as internships, many of which pay as much as staying home and writing your novel, which is to say, zilch. Any position where you might so much as meet a writer now is either an internship or demands internship experience, and internships are usually unpaid (and even when they’re paid, it’s usually a pittance). The various low-paid dues-paying jobs where young writers once had a chance “to be apprentices to masters superior in seasoned experience” have stopped functioning as entry points for aspiring writers who lack money and connections. So who can blame young writers for just writing for an audience, for making use of the dreaded “Wi-Fi” and plunging right in?
As Ozick correctly observes, young writers do exist. But the genres available to them have shifted. Literary fiction—make that literary fiction that people might actually pay for and read—has become sanctified, reserved for true geniuses, either the tremendously well-established or the long-dead. The moral questions once addressed in fiction have largely migrated to online personal essays, whose authors are not expected to be major literary figures or even especially good writers. The literary default has shifted from author veneration to author humiliation. The writer’s job has become vastly more interactive—family secrets confessed without the cover of fiction, commenters engaged—but this is not because young writers enjoy the business-model approach any more than previous generations did. It’s that the old roads to a writing life have all but vanished.