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Washington Diarist: The New Proles

When I was young, I enjoyed the romance of the garret. Poverty, or relative poverty, became me. I mastered arcane books and composed ambitious essays in the smallest apartment anybody ever saw in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When you opened the door, it hit the bed, which of course led to some misunderstandings. I rested my typewriter on a scarred wooden board that groaned every time I struck the keys. When what I wrote was published, I took my earnings to an elegant clothing store on Newbury Street, in defiance of the disconnection notice in my briefcase. (Balzac says somewhere that a student is a person who can afford only luxuries.) I was often broke but never destitute. Many years later Irving Howe used a phrase that described my state of happy indigence: “a decent poverty,” he called it. Lately, however, I have been observing a high incidence of indecent poverty. Many young writers and journalists I meet are close to penniless. They have almost not a hope of supporting themselves in the pursuit of their calling. A garret is no longer affordable. Jobs are disappearing. Internships are unpaid or barely paid, which has the consequence of corrupting a meritocratic system with the inequities of social class, as the fortunately born become the fortunately hired. And when they publish what they write--well, now we leave the honorable tradition of the struggling young writer for the unprecedented enchantments of the digital revolution.

Owing to its vastness and its velocity, no medium of communication and publication ever depended more desperately on “content”--the lifeless business expression for words and ideas--than the Internet. Some people celebrate this as a historic breakthrough for literariness in its various forms. They rhapsodize about the democratization of the writing life, about the demise of the “gatekeepers” and their institutions, about the pure and perfect autonomy of blogging and “self-publishing.” Who needs The New York Times if I can arrange for you to know what it is in my heart at this instant? Leave aside the question of the relation of blogging to writing, of posting to publishing. I wish to emphasize what the love songs omit: the economic and professional consequences of the cheap entropy of the web--its proletarianization of the writer. I wonder if people outside the besieged walls of the profession understand how little is earned with contributions to websites. The sums are scandalous. And sometimes there are no sums at all. Sometimes contributions to websites are produced for free. Writers are the only people I know who are expected to work for next to nothing or nothing. Without them, as I say, the intelligent regions of the Internet would not exist; but even as their skills are increasingly in demand, they are treated increasingly as worthless. You do not have to read the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to recognize that this becomes an issue of dignity.

From the standpoint of the owners of these institutions, this “business model” may seem rational--if they can save money on paper, printing, and postage, why not also save money on prose?--but theirs is not the only standpoint that matters in considering the future of our culture. (Leave aside also the question of paper, and of its almost spiritual necessity for serious writing and its betterment of life.) It is not the owners who make our culture, though some of them serve it admirably. Indeed, an enlightened owner is a hero of culture. And yet it is of no importance that the market will bear this immiseration of writers; the history of the market is riddled with injustices of all kinds. And what model of economic rationality is it that recommends the exertion of one’s skills for little or no reward? I refer you to a report by James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago about the reality of the contemporary freelancer: “what’s sailing away, a decade into the 21st century, is the common perception that writing is a profession--or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards but with something resembling a living wage.” Is this really what we want? (About Rainey’s article, one of the brats on Gawker--see what insomnia can do to a man?--poignantly observed that “it’s a little disturbing that the job that pays my bills now may be helping to destroy the one that helped pay them when I was in college.”) And a similar indecency is taking place in book publishing. Laud the Kindle all you want, but who will pay the advance for the novels and the histories that you will cop for $8.99, without which they cannot be written? Not Amazon. A literary agent in New York was recently heard to remark that $30,000 is the new $100,000, and it takes years to write a book. Forward-looking thinkers explain that the money that the publishing houses, or their corporate proprietors, save by printing fewer physical copies will make up the difference; but anybody who believes that those savings will be restored to the primary mission of the editors and the publishers does not understand a thing about the corporate temperament, especially in the aftermath of a panic. No, nausea is in order.


In an interminable piece in The Atlantic, Michael Kinsley complains that newspaper articles are too long. “On the Internet, news articles get to the point,” my friend declares, whereas “newspaper writing ... is encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news.” He follows this with a quantitative and semantic analysis of various examples of “unnecessary verbiage”; and like much quantitative and semantic analysis, the results are clever and trivial. I do not doubt that newspapers are not as linguistically efficient as they can be, except perhaps USA Today, that ur-website. But Kinsley’s worry about the financial costs of prolixity is silly: no newsroom budget will be rescued by cutting “tag” and “context.” So may I say a word on behalf of necessary verbiage? Brevity may be the soul of wit, or lingerie, or texting, or quail eggs, but all subjects are not the same. Efficiency of expression is in some realms a virtue and in some realms a vice. Brevity is certainly not the soul of news, if by news you mean more than information. “The point” is not always easy. There is not always a “takeaway.” Anyway, this is already an abbreviating age. The forces of concision and distillation are winning. After the death of waiting, I do not see the wisdom of preaching impatience. A culture cannot thrive upon a fear of discourse.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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