The Economy of Writing
Say What You Mean: The n+1 Anthology
Notting Hill Editions
The intellectual situation is the economic situation, and the economic situation is bad for writers–especially, perhaps, the kind of writers who think of themselves as intellectuals. When Marco Roth began the “n+1 symposium” at University College London a few weeks ago by saying he wanted to talk about class warfare, it became clear that he meant war against the writer class. It is more difficult now than it was fifty or sixty years ago to live a well-to-do life, the kind of life that involves parties and theatre and sport coats, on the labour of the pen alone. What is to be done? The vague outlines of a programme sketched by Roth suggest a labour movement–writers must organise for pay. But the corollary is that anyone who writes for free is a scab.
n+1 magazine pays its contributors. A digital subscription is the cheapest way to get access to all its content; it costs $25 a year. A print subscription costs $30, but if you wanted to read the content online as well as in print, that will be an extra $10. I have never subscribed to n+1. But then I’ve never been paid for my writing. Most of what I read was written for free, and it’s available for free too, just like this piece. The intellectual situation is not the same as it was when Dissent magazine was founded. Then, we had a writer class; now we have the internet. If you’re concerned with giving people the time and the wherewithal to write, the struggle you should be in isn’t for writer’s rights, but people’s rights. It’s universal basic income, or at least a shorter working week. It’s childcare, and paid leave, and good, free education. It’s redistribution. If it’s class warfare you’re after, pick your side.
That’s not to say that all writing can or should be done without direct financial support. As Laurie Penny pointed out in a recent Novara radio interview, and as the n+1 panel mentioned too, investigative journalism can take money and it certainly takes time. None of the essays in Say What You Mean: The n+1 Anthology are investigative journalism, though. Malcolm Harris’ powerful and densely researched piece on student debt, “Bad Education,” isn’t in there, for example (most of its numbers come from the Project on Student Debt, acknowledged in the very first words)–but then that was a “free, online-only essay”, and Harris didn’t get paid for it either.
Of the essays that do appear in the anthology, two of them are so good they make my whining sound ungrateful. The first is “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” by Wesley Yang, which takes the 2007 mass murder at Virginia Tech, and specifically the photos which the killer mailed to CNN, as a cue to reflect on being an Asian American and on simply being a person, one of a “modern class of losers” in “the marketplace of status, cash, and expression.” What happens, Yang asks, when you find yourself on the bottom rung of “the fully liberated sexual marketplace”? There’s therapy, pornography, and all sorts of other things, but “each of these options compensates for a thing, love, that no person can flourish without, and each, in a different way, offers an endlessly deferred resolution to a conundrum that is effectively irresolvable.”
The other great essay is “The Two Cultures of Life,” by Kristin Dombek, which starts with another murder, of Dr. George Tiller in 2009. Dombek’s thesis is a comparative ethics, an attempt to gently but firmly draw out the internal contradictions in our understandings of life, death, suffering, and sacrifice; she does this by juxtaposing the anti-abortion and anti-vivisection movements. “We only ever find each other on our way to somewhere else”, she writes. Dombek’s own transition, from fundamentalist Christian anti-abortion campaigner to animal rights activist, allows her to find a way in to this delicate and deadly set of mental mechanisms, as if she is defusing a bomb. She prompts us to wonder why these two movements are even on opposite sides–or rather, in what way they are. For all the shock tactics and “terror” techniques they share (although anti-vivisectionists haven’t killed anyone), Dombek sets them together for a more profound reason: “They take too seriously, these activists, the kinds of suffering that most of us don’t think should count.”
A snarky review would say that these two essays, and the others, do just what you might expect of n+1, or indeed The New Yorker or any other vaguely liberal, resolutely middle-class organ: they skirt around the edge of politics, suggesting the pathos of our situation, never naming it or looking at it head on. But this is a nice review, and these are brilliant essays. They are oblique, but they are also urgent. Their concern with unusual “categories of victims” carves out new angles of vision, new channels of insight.
In its chronological organisation, Say What You Mean is a form of history, like an anthology of British poets from Wilfred Owen to Carol Ann Duffy. Not necessarily a representative sample, but indicating something all the same. One continuity we find is an interest in the institutional and financial arrangements of the literary world, as in Elif Batuman’s, Keith Gessen’s, and Chad Harbach’s entries (Gessen starts, “how much money does a writer need?”). One progression is to do with the magazine’s form of political engagement. We start with the gym and short stories, like a tanned Stanford grad student. By the end, via Yang and Dombek and a class-inflected meander around Miami by Emily Witt, there’s a brace of post-Occupy political pieces, including Benjamin Kunkel’s from the current issue.
It seems somehow portentous, or symptomatic, that the anthology ends by going somewhere else altogether–with William Morris suddenly recognising, reading some “little magazine,” that “Socialism was a necessary change, and that it was possible to bring it about in our own days.” It’s easy to think that if a magazine was going to give you that kind of experience, it wouldn’t be n+1. But who knows. Maybe there’s something behind the pay-wall that would blow my mind.
Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is executive editor at the Oxonian Review.