The Worth of Our Work (with Some Thoughts on Jonah Lehrer)

Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this . . that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The very smart and funny Adam Roberts has decided to put an end to his blog Punkadiddle. Iif you haven’t already had the pleasure, you should check out the archives – I particularly enjoyed his skewering of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, especially this one, which starts hilarious and ends profound (that reminds me–time for a tea break!). As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to my own thinking.

It’s understandable that Adam would decide to close up shop in one venue when, as he says, his time and energy are needed elsewhere. Blogging consistently (by which I mean not just posting regularly but staying involved with comments and generally maintaining a site that reflects genuine engagement with its subject and with other readers and writers) does take a lot of time and energy, and people’s interests and priorities change over time. As a result blogs ebb and flow, and come and go. The Valve, where both Adam and I were contributors, ran out of steam a while back, and that was a group effort, which in theory should be easier to keep invigorated. I’ll miss following Adam’s work at Punkadiddle, but I’ll look forward to keeping up with it in other venues.

One part of Adam’s farewell post really made me think:

Once upon a time writers were paid in money, but now writers are paid (in the first instance at any rate) in eyeballs, which may or may not at a later stage, underpants-gnomically, turn into money.  Part of this new logic is that the writer ought to be grateful simply to have the attention of those eyeballs.  I’m as deep into this new economy as anybody, of course; I read many thousands of fresh new words, free, online every day.  But I wonder if it doesn’t have more downsides than ups.  Take the material contained in the archives of this blog.  If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on.

As a number of comments on his post have noted, it’s tricky to measure the worth of a blog monetarily: for many bloggers, the chief attractions of the form are the intrinsic pleasures of the writing itself and of the conversation that it stimulates. Yet as Rich Puchalsky comments there, “It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued.” Certainly as long as work is unpaid it doesn’t make sense to keep it up unless the effort is repaid in some other way, while anyone who’s enjoying the writing and doesn’t need or want money for it can hardly be faulted for continuing to do it. But how much does the willingness of so many people to write criticism for free make it difficult for those who hope to make a living at it?

As Adam says, it’s a strange new economy here on the internet, with attention or “eyeballs” the primary currency. Adam and I are both somewhat insulated from the effects of this because we’re academics. As Tom Lutz wrote about the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit “for free” as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job” (“Future Tense“). There’s a sense in which Adam and I are both already getting paid for whatever we write, depending on how broadly we define our university’s missions and our professional obligations. (I have a few times made the case that academics who write blogs related to their areas of specialization are making valuable contributions — here, for instance, and more recently here.) Blogging for free can be understood as a variety of open access publishing, and I don’t think anyone’s making the argument that academic articles made freely available aren’t valuable–but at the same time, built into arguments about such open access publishing is the assumption that the work is already being paid for. Academics are also hardly used to being paid specifically for their publications. I have never received a dime from any journal that published my work: the currency there is not eyeballs but prestige and professional recognition. (I also wasn’t paid by the LARB for the essay I published there.) I made a few hundred dollars in total from each of my books. Academics are accustomed, that is, to thinking of writing primarily in non-monetary terms. But, as Lutz points out, “many of us are not [academics],” that is, not everyone publishing their writing for free online already has economic support for that effort.

I don’t know how to do the math here, really, especially when models that assume scarcity increases value hardly seem to apply. Criticism is not a pursuit that responds well to supply and demand, any more than literature itself is–not if what you want is some version of “the best that has been thought and said.” The relationship in both cases between popularity and quality is surely a vexed one. It makes sense in some ways to expect the best work from people who will do it no matter what, simply because it means that much to them, but then with professionalism comes a particular kind of experience and expertise, as well as editorial and public scrutiny which, perhaps, leads to better work overall. (Even as I wrote that last bit, though, I wanted to retract it: the quality of criticism that appears in a lot of paid venues is not inspiring, outside a few elite publications. Punkadiddle is–was–many times better than the review section of my local paper, or of either of Canada’s national papers, for that matter. But isn’t that as much a sign of the limitations of the marketplace as of anything else? Presumably, newspapers publish the kinds of reviews [they think] their subscribers want to read. See also this critique at Lemonhound of a recent published review, though I don’t know if it was paid for.)

In any case, as Lutz says, “We don’t know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food.” Edward Champion wrote a strongly-worded response to Lutz’s essay. “Financially speaking,” he observes,

The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

“Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill,” Champion concludes: ” in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. . . .  those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.” In the comments, he and Lutz go back and forth a bit about whether his assessment is unduly negative. I’m certainly hoping that the Los Angeles Review of Books succeeds in its aim of finding a sustainable financial model that includes fair pay for its contributors. As Champion points out, Open Letters Monthly is one of several other “quality online outlets” that have been “getting by” with basically no revenue stream. It’s a labor of love, something we keep doing because we believe criticism is intrinsically worth doing as well as possible. Is this, as Champion says, “an unsustainable model in the long run”? As he’s well aware, oddly it isn’t (as long as we’re willing to cover the core costs, like server space and postage, ourselves), because enough people want to write that they’ll do it for free–if they weren’t, it would certainly be impossible for us to keep offering the magazine for free, which is what the new internet economy expects. Would we like to pay our contributors, never mind our editors? Sure! But we can’t, and they (and we) are all willing to do the work anyway. Maybe, as Adam says, we’re all mugs.

That said, there are people who are paid for their writing, and it seems both inevitable and just that at this moment when there is so much great criticism online for free (the problem, of course, is finding it reliably: the challenge is curating and filtering the endless proliferation of material) there is sharp scrutiny of those lucky few. What should our expectations be–what should the standards be–for those who somehow have made writing a paying gig? It would be gratifying if the hierarchy of quality were clear: if only the very best (the smartest, the most engaging, the most eloquent, the most original) writing was writing that made money. (Heck, it would be gratifying if the very best writing was the writing that attracted the most eyeballs! If only.) This is pretty clearly not the case, and I know I’m not the only person writing for free who sometimes puzzles or even fumes over the results (see, for instance, Steve Donoghue’s often excoriating series on ‘the penny press.’). “You have eight pages in The New Yorker!” I have been known to rant … you’d better use them really, really well! Meaning, of course, use them as I would use them, if I ever got the chance! (Though is it really the money that matters, or, still, the eyeballs? Writers want readers above all. Hence the difficulty of figuring out the economics.)

I think this paradoxical context of scarcity amidst abundance is relevant to the recent brouhaha about Jonah Lehrer, whose “self-plagiarism” has cast a shadow over his recent appointment to a pretty plum position: staff writer for The New Yorker. Is ‘repurposing’ your own work the worst sin a writer can commit? Of course not. Writers rework material all the time. Academics, for instance, routinely use material first in a conference paper, then an article, and then in a book. A writer like Lehrer whose main contribution is a particular expertise or insight in a field is bound to repeat it in multiple variations. But there are ways and ways of doing this, and the measures of how best to do so (ethically, creatively, intellectually) surely include not just transparency (acknowledgement, “as I said in this prior piece,” and attribution, “previously published in”) but also development and enrichment (if large chunks of wording need no revision whatsoever over a long period of time, that suggests not so much dishonesty as mental stagnation). Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.

It’s also a kind of double-dipping. Some have disputed the entire idea of “self-plagiarism,” on the logic that you can’t steal from yourself. That’s true in a literal way, but you can try to get credit twice for doing something once–for submitting the same assignment to two different classes, for instance. That’s considered cheating at a university because it means you did not in fact do the amount of original work your credit-based degree requires. It devalues your credential, and it means you looked for a short-cut, too. The best students don’t do that; the best educated students haven’t done that. The best writers, similarly, won’t be the ones doing the same thing over and over and trying to get credit for it every time. You can’t put the same publication more than once on your c.v. as an academic or, I assume, on your resume as a writer. That’s padding, to make your list of publications look longer than it is. In both situations, time pressure is proposed as an excuse (students are stressed and over-committed, Lehrer’s a busy guy). Srsly? Without even sorting out whether Lehrer had the legal right to rerun material he’d already published (and as far as I know, the consensus is that he retained copyright on his material, but I don’t know the specifics of his contracts), again, don’t we expect something more of our best writers? And don’t we expect staff writers at The New Yorker in particular (a job many of those Champion describes as currently having to “debase themselves for scraps” would be overjoyed to get) to be conspicuously the best? Don’t the editors of The New Yorker expect that their writers will set an example of intellectual curiosity, originality, creativity, and rigor?

Yes, there’s an element of Schadenfreude here, but  it’s about something more than just sour grapes. Those of us who write for free online have heard for years about the deficiencies of our amateur efforts (here’s Ron Hogan on the same example)–it’s no wonder that we get riled up when the very publications that supposedly set the bar for us all turn out to be kind of slack, orwhen  those who somehow (“underpants-gnomically,” as Adam so colorfully says) turn their writing into money turn out not to be conspicuously better than those who don’t or even, like Lehrer, kind of worse. I’m not saying Lehrer clearly doesn’t deserve to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s not a book critic, and he’s got special expertise and celebrity of his own, so he brings things to the table that presumably have their own kind of value. (Still, I would have expected that kind of disrespect for the magazine to be disqualifying for keeping his post.) Even so, I think his example does further complicate the discussion about what writing is worth. In some of the ways that really count, Adam’s writing at Punkadiddle is clearly worth more to him (as an exercise of his own intelligence and wit and expertise) than Lehrer’s was worth to him. Lehrer wanted the paying gigs: to sustain them, he had to take shortcuts and, as a result, he shortchanged his readers and his publishers.

How should we really measure and repay the worth of our work or others’? It’s a wonderful thing to do work that you love, but as the economy of the internet shows (or, for an example in a different area, the economy of higher education), love can make exploitation awfully easy–and there’s no guarantee that love is what you’ll buy with your money, as The New Yorker found out.

I have no interest in monetizing Novel Readings. I am fortunate not to need this work, which I enjoy and benefit from in other ways, to be a specific source of income. But I know (as Ed Champion and Tom Lutz know) that the work we do online is not really free, even if we make it freely available, and I worry that Champion is right that we are all contributing to the devaluing of criticism even as, ironically, we all read and write it for free because we do value it. Open Letters Monthly does not have the manpower or resources or infrastructure to do the kind of massive fundraising work going on at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We do, however, have a PayPal account set up for donations. If you’re ever wondering if you can do anything to help sustain the wonderfully rich and generous and perhaps (if Champion is right) ultimately unsustainable world of online book reviewing, one small gesture would be to put a little in the hat there. At the very least, it would help us with the cost of our web hosting, the one thing eyeballs alone can’t buy.

It’s All in the Frame: Reasons For Writing

I’ve been brooding (and pacing, and swearing, and procrastinating) about starting a new essay project, and what I find myself most stymied by is how to frame it. This is a problem I don’t have with blogging, which is perhaps why I find this such a liberating form. Here, having read something is reason enough to write something about it, and all that’s at stake is my own thoughts about it. I don’t have to attach my comments to anything or make them relevant or prove that they are somehow current or significant to anyone but me. They don’t need to be contributing to an ongoing debate or solving a critical problem. I don’t have to be engaging with someone else, or acknowledging everyone else, who has written on the same topic. Any or all of this kind stuff may emerge as I write, but the writing needs no further occasion for itself.

I think it is possible to write this way in any venue if you either are or believe yourself to be sufficiently wise and important that people ought to take an interest in your thoughts just because they come from you. But the rest of us usually need some sort of justification for writing–which is, after all, an implicit claim on other people’s attention. At least, that’s very much how I am feeling right now.

In academic writing about literature, there are a few fairly standard ways to build a frame around your specific analysis. All of them turn on the idea that you have something new to say. Probably most common nowadays is to claim a new insight into an ongoing interpretive argument: a revision, refinement, or refutation of some element of an established critical debate. This might be text-specific or have a broader reach, but you construct the frame by outlining the existing contributions and then explaining where you come in: ‘In the ongoing debates about Jane Eyre‘s implication in British imperialism, inadequate attention has been paid to the source of Jane’s drawing paper. Closer attention to the history of the production and importation of artists’ sketch pads shows that in the very art work often assumed to express Jane’s defiant Romantic individualism, Jane is dependent on a resource deeply embedded in an exploitative economic system’–most of you know the drill. A variation on this is the application of a particular theoretical model or idea to a particular text or body of texts: ‘Reading Jane Eyre through the lens of Levinas, we discover that…’ There’s also the ‘newly discovered’ frame: a text or author is unfamiliar and requires placing within appropriate theoretical, critical, and/or historical contexts. And so on. Both the preparatory and the rhetorical moves are well established. You do the reading and thinking and research that leads to the formulation of your idea. You do more  research, to be sure that your idea is novel and so that you can set up your account of what people have said so far in relevant discussions. Your introduction lays out the debate and sets up your new contribution, and then you write it out in detail, engaging as you go along with the other people in the critical conversation you are now part of. One of the hardest parts is defining just which conversation that is, so that you don’t end up trying to include, say, everything anyone has ever said about Jane Eyre since it was published! Lots of things about this kind of writing, in fact, are difficult. But as academics, we learn how it is done–usually by the implicit example of the other criticism we read (though some people are fortunate enough to get explicit instruction).

I’ve been trying to get a sense of the range of possibilities for framing writing about literature in non-academic contexts. The most obvious form is the basic ‘review of a new release.’ The occasion for the writing is the novelty of the book itself. Within that there is certainly room for different strategies, from contextualizing the book within the author’s oeuvre or within its genre to just giving a plot summary and a few remarks on style or form. For books that are not new, things are a bit more complicated. A book may get renewed attention because of an occasion or event–the author’s death, for example, or its anniversary, or perhaps an invocation of the book by another book or author (the way, say, novels about Henry James give us a reason to talk about Henry James’s novels). A film or TV adaptation is likely to prompt a flurry of attention to “the original.” A scandal is an attention-getter: if a book is banned by a school library, for instance. Hot-button issues like (to cite a recent example) debates about whether Young Adult fiction is too dark and dreary these days can also prompt lots of discussion of back-list or even out of print titles. Fads like vampire novels or Scandinavian crime fiction give us an excuse to write again about Dracula or the Martin Beck books. These all strike me as journalistic reasons: in all of these cases, books become (or are made into) news.

Then there’s book writing of the “personal journey” or “what it meant for me” variety–a combination of autobiography and literary essay or commentary. There seem to have been a lot of examples of this recently, from Elif Batuman’s The Possessed to Rebecca Mead’s “Middlemarch and Me” or William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (this one I haven’t read yet, so I may be making unfair assumptions about it, but I did read the excerpt at the Chronicle). This is literature in the service of self-knowledge. That’s fine, but it assumes a fairly extensive interest on our part in the autobiographical subjects. That seems reasonable if they are people of substance and significance, and they know it, and they aren’t afraid to assert it: we’re back, again, at a certain kind of self-confidence, even egotism, something inherent in all writing–again, a claim on other people’s attention–but more pronounced in this form. This form makes the books new by making them personal. (I’m not a huge fan of this approach, because I feel that too often the books get subordinated to, well, personal stuff. My own attempt at something in this vein is the essay I wrote on rereading Gone with the Wind, though I don’t think personal revelation was ultimately the main issue there, as I tried to use my own reading experience as a way to think hard about the novel itself.)

It seems to me to be harder to find book writing outside of blogs that simply, without special excuse or occasion, focuses on a particular book or author. One example I’m familiar with is Zadie Smith’s essay on George Eliot, originally published in The Guardian and now included in her book Changing My Mind. I can’t get at the Guardian version any more, but assuming she didn’t revise the beginning substantially, this essay has no journalistic or personal hook: she just starts talking about Middlemarch. But then, she’s Zadie Smith, so the novelty here is that she in particular is talking about Middlemarch: she is the news, her attention itself the frame needed to create an occasion for the piece. The pieces I wrote for Open Letters Monthly on Trollope, Felix Holt, and Vanity Fair are also examples of essays without occasion or special justification. Felix Holt was easiest in some ways because it’s Eliot’s least (or second-least) popular novel, so there’s some novelty just in focusing on it instead of Middlemarch. I motivated the Trollope piece (in my mind, at least) by figuring that he doesn’t have anything like the general popularity of Jane Austen so it was safe to imagine an audience that needed some kind of general introduction; focusing on The Warden (which I love, but which is hardly either his best or his best known novel) gave it a little helpful specificity. And I also felt reasonably sure Vanity Fair is not widely read these days, so again there’s some intrinsic novelty in trying to talk about it to a general audience. It surprises me a little, though, looking back, that I wrote all of these pieces with as little anxiety as I did about their place or reason. It didn’t even occur to me, for instance, to try to frame the Vanity Fair piece by talking about either the BBC adaptation or the weird Reese Witherspoon film (which Amardeep Singh appreciated much more than I did).

Do you think book writing needs to be framed in some way that makes the book new or relevant? Can you think of other strategies (ones you like? ones you dislike?) for writing about books, besides the ones I’ve thought of? Can you think of other examples of recent (mainstream, published [in print or online]) writing about books outside of the journalistic frameworks I’ve described? Do you worry about framing your writing? There has to be a reason to write something, doesn’t there? But can the reason be, ultimately, the book itself? Must it come from somewhere else?