IRENE YOON: Good evening. Thank you for joining us for our second Thursday event of the Semipublic Intellectual Sessions here at the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’m Irene Yoon, LARB’s executive director, and, on behalf of all of us here at LARB, I’m thrilled to welcome you and all of our wonderful guests — Andrea Long Chu, K. Austin Collins, Lauren Michele Jackson, and Christine Smallwood — for our discussion on leaving, moderated by LARB’s new editor, Sarah Chihaya.
The practice of writing inside, outside, against, between — insert just about any preposition here — the academy and the broader public and the questions at such workplaces strikes at the heart of so much of what we do here at LARB. Over the last decade, we’ve been really proud to foster capacious intellectual forums (like this very series) that welcome scholars, writers and readers of all kinds worldwide to the conversation [and] to the wide-ranging, accessible, and simultaneously deeply researched and expert exchange of ideas. We’ve also not shied away from thinking through the ways, as some of our guest speakers last week so eloquently put it, in which this richly textured discourse and the flourishing of academically trained writers and thinkers outside of the university speaks in no small part to the real precariousness of labor within it. So to tackle and unpack some of these issues, I’m incredibly excited to welcome our wonderful guests this evening, whose work and writing have navigated academic, public, and semipublic spaces with such skill and luminous insight.
Our wonderful moderator for this evening’s conversation is no exception. In addition to serving as senior editor here at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Chihaya is assistant professor of English at Princeton University, and the co-author of The Ferrante Letters, a really beautiful exercise in rethinking criticism as a collective endeavor.
Before I turn it over to Sarah to guide this evening’s conversation, a couple of quick logistical notes. After about 45 minutes or so of conversation and answer, panelists will open it up to questions from you, the audience. If you have any questions that you would like to ask our guest speakers, please drop it in the Q&A function at the bottom of your Zoom screen, not in the chat. If you haven’t had a chance yet to do so, we do encourage you to drop an introduction and where you’re joining us from into the chat. Otherwise, closed captioning is available; you can turn it on by clicking on the live transcript CC button, also at the bottom of your Zoom screen. And I think that’s about it, logistically. So thank you all so much for joining us this evening and for your support of the Los Angeles Review of Books. As a reader-supported nonprofit, we truly would not be here without all of you. So thanks again. And I hope you enjoy this evening’s conversations.
SARAH CHIHAYA: Great, thank you, Irene. Thank you everyone for joining us today. As Irene was signing off, something horrible happened in the kitchen, I think my cat might have fallen into the washer-dryer. So if he should appear in a ridiculous way, don’t be alarmed. Andrea is laughing because this happened last week. He never learns.
So as Irene said, my name is Sarah Chihaya. I am senior editor at LARB. And I’m very, very delighted and honored to be hosting this conversation today with four writers that I admire so much. And I’m really excited to talk to you all about your own trajectories and your careers and where writing has brought you. And also to open up some larger questions, I think, about where criticism happens, where criticism is encouraged to flourish or not. What we might bring between the worlds of nonacademic criticism, the public might say, and the non-public or semipublic [world] of academia. Today’s session is titled “On Leaving,” which I think is a deceptively simple title. For some very obvious reasons, I think. Leaving academia (or staying for that matter) is a complicated move at any time, whether it’s made by choice or not. And it’s not exactly the topic of the discussion that I hope we’re going to have here tonight.
I’m hoping that we’ll have a conversation with everyone on the panel and everyone who would like to participate from the audience via questions about what kind of writing happens inside and outside the conventions of academic publishing, and what it means to move between the different worlds, both of colleagues and of audiences. All of you have extensive experience writing criticism and other kinds of work for a range of different readers, and one of the things I’m interested in hearing about is how you as writers approach all of these diverse audiences. But I’m also keen to talk about the demands — the specific demands of the different genres and venues that you write for and have written for in the past. And specifically, what are the things you can only do outside of the bounds of academic writing? And especially for those of you who have decisively left academia? Is there anything you miss about scholarly writing? I’m interested, very interested in that question.
But first, I’ll give brief introductions. I’m sure everyone already knows who all of you are. But just for the record, Andrea Long Chu is a writer and critic who lives in Brooklyn. Her book Females was published by Verso in 2019. And her essays and reviews can be found in New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, n+1, Jewish Currents, and many other places, some of which are scholarly. Pertinent to this conversation, she is technically still ABD in the Department of Comparative Literature at NYU.
Kameron Austin Collins is a film critic for Rolling Stone. He was formerly the film critic for Vanity Fair, and, before that, The Ringer. His writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, and The Brooklyn Rail. He is one of the great cruciverbalists of his generation, and you can find his crosswords at The New Yorker and The New York Times. That’s my blurb for the great cruciverbalist of this generation. And actually, I should have asked you this before: are you or are you not still technically a graduate student (ABD at Princeton University)?
KAMERON AUSTIN COLLINS: Ask Princeton, I don’t know. I mean, I think if I turn in a dissertation, then I haven’t left. And if I don’t turn one in, then I left, I guess. You tell me, you’d know better than I would, honestly.
SC: I think so. No, whatever you feel.
KAC: We’re on a break.
KAC: Consciously uncoupled?
ANDREA LONG CHU: It seems like this should be like a common law thing that would come into effect.
KAC: Love it. Let’s go with that.
SC: Absolutely. Okay, a common law relationship with the Department of English at Princeton University.
Lauren Michele Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern and received her PhD from the University of Chicago. She is a contributing writer at The New Yorker, and her incisive essays [cover] a vast array of different kinds of cultural objects and questions. I feel like you know about everything found all over the place on the internet. She’s the author of the essay collection White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, and is currently at work on a second book, which is forthcoming — I can’t wait — from Amistad Press.
And finally, Christine Smallwood is the author of, I think one of the most compelling works of academia-related fiction that I have read. I don’t think campus fiction covers it. The book is called The Life of the Mind, and you should all read it. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, The London Review of Books, among many other places. And she is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. And she has a PhD in English from Columbia University.
So welcome, everyone. Obviously, I’m a big fan of all of your writings. So I’m very excited that you’re joining us today. Question-wise, I just have a few things. I could continue having questions as long as we need them, but I have a feeling that the conversation, hopefully will be raucous. I will start us off with a few questions. And anyone in the audience, if anything comes up for you, please feel free to drop it in the Q&A. After about 40 minutes, or a little bit less than that, maybe, I will turn us to the Q&A. But if you see a question you’d like to answer, please feel free to jump in and answer it.
Okay, so to start: I am sure (and I know from looking and seeing some familiar names in the audience) that we have a lot of scholars from all stages of the profession here who are thinking about writing for more general publics, or, as Andrea often says, just the public — the actual public. So could we start just by hearing how each of you got started writing for different audiences? Did you come into graduate school with previous careers as writers? Or did you come in with an established goal of writing for nonacademic audiences whether or not you’ve gotten started on that? So basically, how did you all get to where you are today? And what motivated or pushed you along the way? Who among you would like to start? Lauren, do you wanna start it?
LAUREN MICHELE JACKSON: Yeah, I’ll go first. I was volunteered. Just because I feel like my story is so unexciting in some ways, or very linear. At any rate, I was in grad school; I went straight from undergrad to grad school. And this was kind of the last gasp of Tumblr culture. So I would be writing these longish sort of bloggy whatevers for a Tumblr that you will never find, God willing. But it was from there that I was starting to think like, “Well, you know, why can I do this for money, or how to do this for money?” And so, you know, while I was sort of doing the things that you’re supposed to do, or halfway doing the things you’re supposed to do as a grad student (reading a lot, going to class, writing, [but] not as much writing as you would think, especially for grad student in literary criticism), I was finding room to write about all these other things.
And I think a lot of grad students and academic scholars can relate to the idea that you have so many more ideas and things that you’d love to riff on, that are outside of this narrowing body of scholarship and thought that you’re supposed to be engaging with. And so, the place where I found room to do that were places like The New Inquiry — basically anywhere I could place my work. [Like] Teen Vogue … I was just writing pitches in the morning, sending pitches in the morning and then going to class and reading a bunch at night. And it kind of became this parallel track. As I was going through the program, I was also moving through different media spaces and that kind of became this weird dual career that I am trying to keep going for as long as I can, basically.
SC: Great, thank you. It’s so interesting to hear that it was, from the beginning, this kind of back and forth between sending pitches in the morning and going to seminar in the afternoon. Christine?
CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD: Yeah, I guess I also had a parallel track, but I didn’t go straight through. I went to grad school when I was 27. So I was working as an editor at The Nation Magazine and was already writing a lot of book reviews for, like, Salon. And I used to write reported stories for The New York Observer, and I was writing for The Nation occasionally. And then when I decided to go to grad school I had this dream of being like a professor from the past, you know? I was going to be like the kind of people that I was editing or helping to edit who were publishing in The Nation. And so, I knew that I wanted to stay in New York because I wasn’t ever sure that I really wanted to be a professor. I could never really make up my mind, so I knew I had to stay in New York. And so, I was just continuing my freelance writing career as I was in grad school, and I kind of just naturally expanded from book reviewing to doing other kinds of magazine writing throughout. And then, I guess we can talk later about our decisions to stay in the academy or not, but there were various points in my program where I thought, “No, I really am going to become a professor. I am going to go on the market.” But in the end I never did go on the market at all.
SC: I am very interested in the idea of the kind of professor that increasingly does not exist, this vision. [M]any of us and many people here tonight started graduate school with [this vision] and started thinking about [it] as we began down this path that is increasingly rare. Kameron?
KAC: If I’m being honest, my senior year of college was ’08–’09. I had a job offer at a publication in ’08 that I no longer had by the end of ’08. Because things happened. And I was fine. You know, I had kind of been thinking about doing graduate school anyway, I just wasn’t planning on doing it immediately after college, but I had done a Mellon Mays Fellowship and it was in the cards. But I [was] very much, you know, “type A, editor of the school newspaper, therefore be a journalist, because I don’t want to be an investment banker” kind of kid. And the office of career services at my college wasn’t particularly helpful for thinking through any alternative. So I just took the [unintelligible], hung over and prayed. To be honest, it was really haphazard. And again, it wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking about going into academia. But I also wasn’t thinking about academia, really, in terms of writing.
And I also wasn’t really thinking about media at that point in terms of writing, because this was the Devil Wears Prada era. I just figured no matter what I did, if I started a magazine, I would not be paid and 10 years later, I’d be making minimum wage or something. I was prepared for that. That would have been the point that I was gonna go to graduate school, but it didn’t shake out that way. In terms of the actual transition, I didn’t really freelance throughout graduate school, but it was sort of on my radar a little bit. One of my advisors, Daphne Brooks, had done some great music criticism. [She had] done a 33 1/3 on Jeff Buckley, and that came before her tenure book. And even just that, in thinking about a woman of color at Princeton getting tenure, [the fact that] her first book is a 33 1/3 on Jeff Buckley is very adventurous to me, very brave to me. And I think just that proximity maybe planted something, but it wasn’t really planned.
To be completely honest, I had reached a point where I was tired of my dissertation, I was running out on the funding clock. And someone released a movie that I had a lot of thoughts about. So I pitched it to LARB. And literally, just by cosmic luck, it was right after Grantland had shuttered, right as Bill Simmons was coming into some HBO money. And the only culture writer for the original staff at The Ringer that hadn’t been filled was the film critic. And that happened to be as my Chi-Raq essay was going around. And so that’s sort of how it happened. And even then, they wanted me to be a freelancer. And I said, you know, what if we do something where you make me audition for the job, so I can have health insurance. But again, it wasn’t “I’m leaving academia,” it was “I need health insurance.” And it was either teach[ing] a ton while living in New York and traveling back to Princeton every day and spending all my income on that, or taking the leap. And going to people who don’t know anything about me, who’ve only seen one article and saying, why don’t we go audition me? For a week? I don’t know where I got that. I don’t know where I got the cajones for that. But I’m glad I did. Of course, it was very haphazard and very much economically overdetermined. Frankly.
SC: I mean, that’s one of the things that I would like us to talk about. And I’m sure that a number of people in the audience will be curious about the kinds of pragmatic decisions that go into these career shifts. Kameron, I think that you are LARB’s greatest success story; you wrote one piece for LARB, and then you got a full-time job out of it, which is incredible. And the last time I heard this story from you, I remember being so impressed by the fact that you thought to do that, which I certainly would not have thought to do.
KAC: Don’t underestimate desperation. I promise you. There’s no shame when you’re just feeling like your back is against the wall. And you’re seeing all of your friends go through multiple years of job interviews, and they’re the smartest people that you know, and it’s not working out and you barely have a dissertation, and you’re supposed to have a dissertation at that stage. I just think that at some point desperation kicks in and you say, “What have I got to lose? You cold emailed me so I will ask you for a job.” And then I had to audition, I had to actually do it and it was very stressful, but it was just desperation, despair. Honestly.
SC: But I think one of the things that I really admire about that choice is the emphasis on something that we, in whatever stage of academia we are all at, at various points in life, there is the sense that it is the least professional profession, right? We’re not taught how to do things like negotiate and treat it like a job. But being a graduate student is a job, and is often not regarded as such or treated as such. And being a freelancer is a job. And these are things that, I hope more young writers coming up, learn from the get-go. Andrea.
ALC: So, I also went straight through from undergrad to graduate school, essentially, because someone pulled me aside and said, you’re going to graduate school, right? And I was like, “Yes?” And I was going to say that I had not done public writing, as of yet. As Sarah said, I’m like, “That’s called writing.” I had not done public writing, I thought that this was the case. And then I remembered that my exposure to public writing in undergrad was that I actually had a reputation on campus for writing very long comments on the student newspaper website, where I would write takedowns in the comment sections. This doesn’t feel relevant to anything now, obviously.
SC: Honing your craft.
ALC: I was, I was, that’s right. I’m like the swordsman in the beginning of the movie who’s just sort of in the kitchen and moving the knives around kind of unconsciously.
So, I went straight through, and was at NYU, in the Comp Lit Department. And [I] really wanted that to be what I was going to do; I had a very strong sense that this is the kind of work I’m meant to do. This is what my whole life is designed around, this kind of thinking. Even after I [realized] I don’t really want to do literature, it still felt like, “Well, I know what I want to work on. And then I’m going to write my monograph, and Duke is going to publish it.” And I had a whole, very clear sense of what it was going to be and wrote this piece. I wrote a final paper for some class in the Performance Studies Department. And one of the instructors, Tavia Nyong’o, was like, “You should submit this to Women and Performance,” which is this little journal run out of out of the Performance Studies Department at NYU by grad students.
I submitted it and then eventually heard back, and they were gonna publish it, and it was crazy. So they wanted me to come to the editorial meeting; I went to that and met one of the blind readers for the piece. Who was Ari Brostoff, who is now a culture editor at Jewish Currents. And Ari was like, “I thought that Lauren Berlant had written this,” and I was like, “Well, that’s great because I was doing my best Lauren Berlant impression” — something I would tell Lauren later, which they did not agree with at all. And so, Ari said to me, “Well, I have this friend who edits at n+1.” And I knew what n+1 was; I had the sense of LARB, n+1, The New Inquiry, these places that I was aware of as a graduate student that filled the next ring out from what I was doing. And so, [Ari Brostoff asked whether] I want to meet this person and write something. And that is where “On Liking Women” came, from this piece I had in n+1. And that really just changed everything.
I had gotten on Twitter in advance of it at the urging of a friend who at the time was an editor at The New Inquiry. They were like, “You gotta make a Twitter account so that you’ll have one when it comes out.” And I was like, “How do you do Twitter?” And they were like, “Well, just tell some jokes.” So I made a Twitter, I told some jokes. And then, you know, the piece came out. And immediately there was all this interest in my writing things. And Verso approached me about writing something. I kind of didn’t know what I was doing. Agents were talking to me. And I thought, “Oh, well, what I’ll do is, I’ll still write my dissertation, and I’ll still become a professor, but then I’ll also do what Lauren actually did.”
And in fact, after “On Liking Women” came out, I got an email from Lauren Berlant that started, “Hi, Ms. Celebrity, will you still be writing a dissertation? Or are you going to become a journalist and write the essays we need for the present,” or something like that. Which of course, “journalism” was Lauren’s word for anything that was not academic writing. And then Lauren said, “I have this student, Lauren Michele Jackson, who’s doing something like this, maybe you should talk to her.” Which of course, I never [did]; I did not email [her] that way. But, at some point, and this is maybe a subsequent question, but at some point, I realized, “Oh, like, I really don’t want to finish the dissertation, I just want to do this stuff.” And so I ran out the rest of my funding as a kind of runway for building up a portfolio and only, basically, in the past year or two have transitioned out of that fully, though remain ABD.
SC: For practical purposes. I mean, I think it’s so interesting that everyone has sort of expressed this sense, again, that we’re not trained for this. And everyone has a path that is different and very arbitrary, in some ways, depending on who happens to pick up your piece and want more of it. And it’s our hope at LARB that events like this will help people who are still in grad school, who are maybe thinking about making this move to figure out first of all [that] there is no clear path. There’s no certain path to this transition, [and] no one knows when they’re working it out, what’s going to happen. Or what the right sort of moves are.
But having arrived in “just writing” (or journalism, as Lauren Berlant would have it), criticism not for academic presses, I’m curious to hear all of you talk about what you found most exciting, creatively, about this move. How do you think about your readers? How does that shape the way that you think and write, what you allow yourself to think and write maybe? And again, this question of having made this move [and] having one foot in [either] of these worlds more in particular. Are there things that you miss about academic writing? Or are the things that you think maybe you’re gonna keep using journalism, this Berlant configuration of all nonacademic writing as journalism. Are there things that you would want to bring into that world from the academy, from the kind of writing that perhaps you left behind or are not as focused on anymore? And anyone can just jump in as you as you feel moved.
CS: I’ll go. There is nothing I miss about academic writing; I don’t think I was very great at academic writing when I was in grad school. I hated doing the secondary research. I mean, even at my dissertation defense, one of my readers pointed out that I had not really done the appropriate amount of citing of the literature. All I wanted to do was to close read novels and cherry-pick theory that I was interested in to illuminate my close readings. It was clear. But what I do really miss all the time is being in seminar. That’s what I liked about grad school, and I missed being a student as soon as the first two years were over. I really, really loved coursework, and I felt like I wasn’t done learning, and that’s what I miss. And I missed that quality of conversation with peers, and I missed being taught. I mean, I loved being taught, I loved being around the people who were the experts, who knew all the secondary literature, right? So that’s my answer.
SC: Do you think that there are spaces available for that kind of learning? I’m curious about what possibilities there are for that kind of learning.
CS: In some moments, I think that one of the things people don’t understand when they talk about leaving the academy is how different it is everywhere else, and how your day is not spent reading scholarship. It’s just not; no matter how much you liked reading [scholarship] when you were in grad school, you cannot replicate that outside of the academy. You have to do work for money, you have other obligations, other responsibilities. So I actually feel really far away from the whole world of academia now, but I would be curious if other people feel like they still have some tether to it or are nurtured by it in some way.
KAC: I wouldn’t say that I have a tether so much, but I guess a recent example is when the filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles died and my instinct, for the purpose of writing a piece about that, was to go to the bookshelf with all of the Black Film scholarship stuff, and it was to go into newspaper archives as well. And I subscribed to JSTOR, which is really kind of a loser move to me — I don’t know why I [did] that, I should just ask friends for PDFs. But it was a moment of, “Wow, there is this thing called academia that I used to be a part of and I used to be very fluent in, and then when this person dies, I know all the places on my shelf to look.” [I know to] look for things that are often watered down in a lot of journalism. Like conversations about “first black this or that” would be way different if we all actually knew like Black Film history, which is right there. It’s right there, but you can tell the extent to which people aren’t read up on that stuff. And who has the time to be? It’s like, you don’t have the time to be taught in that way or to learn in that way all the time.
And I say this as someone who you know, on the one hand, I feel very privileged to be a staff writer, a staff critic. On the other, I don’t have time; the books have to be on my shelf already. If they’re in storage, I’m screwed. If I have to go to the library, I’m screwed. Because things [have] to be right here. That plus Google Book previews and friends with PDFs in Google Drives that are illegal but are keeping a lot of us afloat. So, I feel outside of academia and the sense of writing for academia doesn’t interest me as a mode. But look: historians, cultural historians, cultural scholars, books like Ugly Feelings, all the work of Lauren Berlant. Where would I be as a thinker without these things, you know? Where would I be without these touchstones informing so much of my work.
So I can’t really say that I’m beyond it. I definitely don’t miss dissertation. Do miss seminar. Miss orals! Missed when I had time to just read. But I was in the Princeton English Department and I think that maybe we have like a fantasy-life-world. I’ve heard from other schools, friends at other programs, but I love the orals. I learned so much. And a lot just crystallized for me. And I just think about my career now. And I’m never going to have that kind of second, dedicated now-you-sit-and-learn period, just like seminar; I’m not gonna really have that in the same way. And I missed the learning environment as well. And now I’m in the terrifying kind of environment of teaching myself and risking being wrong all the time. And being aware of what I don’t know, and being aware of how much time it would take to fill myself in on things and making a lot of last-minute weekly, piece-by-piece decisions about how far I’m going to allow myself to go in a way that I didn’t do in academia; if I was interested in something, I pursued it, I would tinker with it. I would have a conference or something that I was working toward that would be months off. And even though I only wrote the actual conference paper on the plane to the conference, I was thinking about it the whole time, right?
But it’s not the same as [being] a staff critic, and it’s also really hard to be writing about Melvin Van Peebles and Velvet Underground, and all these things that are coming in from different directions; and wanting to be as smart at those things as I am at the things that I’ve studied; and wanting it to not be clear where my knowledge gaps are, right? It’s scary, it’s actually very scary. And I was less afraid in graduate school of that, I would say, and I felt like I had more time. And now I just don’t feel like I have time, so I’m glad that I kind of had that time in the past that I could just draw from until it dries out, I guess.
ALC: I want to jump in here. Sort of responding to both of you, but one of the things that is sort of emerging between both of your answers is this question of expertise, that there is an experience of expertise: of both the experience of achieving it and getting to spend time with it through seminar. And I appreciate this on the level of “Yes, there were books that changed my life.” There are books that I still think about; I still have a bunch of those books. But expertise I actually kind of don’t like. And not for myself, especially. I mean, I don’t like learning. I like teaching myself; I really dislike learning. It’s like a waste of my time because it’s slower and it’s filled with all of the other graduate students’ bullshit, right? Like, I love seminar; I love the experience of actually having a conversation — which is why I also hated seminar because so much of it was just posturing and showing off for teacher, and the citation of things that are not relevant to the question at hand.
The line between what is genuine expertise and what was just a meticulously crafted crystal of bullshit was hard for me to find, and I became increasingly frustrated with it over the course of graduate school. And [I] would be in class and would feel like tension would mount to a point where I would … I was in one class and I would sit in the one seminar room for comparative literature at NYU, and I would sit opposite the professor on the long table, and I would sort of sit there as I am now with my arms crossed, and kind of simmer for a certain amount of time as we talked, and then I would finally say something, and it would be like, “Well, this is stupid.” And then we would have a real conversation about it, like someone would have to break the seal of all of this showiness. Not that it’s malicious; it’s like, everyone is trying to do what it seems like they’re supposed to do. And a lot of people are imitating the people around them with more experience, and that’s what those people are doing [as well].
And so one of the things that I have actually come to really value about being outside of academia, about writing, is that I can be a dilettante. And I think actually, to a certain extent, should be a dilettante. Like I actually am professionally required to be a dilettante. You know, when I think to my, when I have that same feeling that you’re describing, Kameron, like, “Oh, now I have to go read everything that has ever been written about photography,” I love being able to say, “Oh, wait, I don’t.” Not only because there’s no way that that’s actually what, you know, The New York Times Magazine wants for this piece, and their readership is not interested in, you know, Muybridge, but also, because it would make the writing worse. And the level of the writing would make the criticism worse. Like, I think it would impede the easy passage of ideas that I really value. And so I really like being able to decide, “I’m actually gonna write about this like no one has written about it,” you know? “I’m just gonna think about the object with myself.” And yes, if I want to turn to something, then I’ll turn to it. But I was just telling Sarah’s students earlier this week [that] my personal rule is [to] never cite unless absolutely necessary. Not because you shouldn’t cite, but because one of the things that you learn in graduate school is to cite instead of having an idea; you learn to cite as a way to scramble from your topic sentence to the end of your paragraph, without getting sliced up by the traps or whatever. It’s a purely kind of gestural punctuational habit that is developed. And so I have reveled in learning to let that go.
LMJ: I really love that. And I want to follow you there because I am still so anxious. I still have the reflex of “Okay, time to scrape; time to go to JSTOR; time to go to Project Muse, and keyword search,” until I pass out or whatever. And maybe part of that instinct is because — surprise! — I’m still tethered to the university. You know, speaking of health care, Northwestern is my health care. But even writing for The New Yorker or wherever, I’m still compelled to sort of do that reflex even though you don’t have time to do that. There is no time for that. Even [with] sort of longer lead pieces, you still need time to not just write it, but to go back and forth with an editor on it. And yeah, one of the things I really like is the speed, the swiftness, and just the amount of editorial attention. I tell this to grad students and colleagues all the time; I’m like, “You will never get this sort of word-by-word, line-by-line reading in grad school as you will writing for even just a small magazine or an online publication, a blog.” Even something so, so simple. And I’ll say that [and] sometimes people [will] be like, “No, my advisor was really on my ass,” and I’m just like, “My advisor was Lauren Berlant. You don’t think my advisor was on my ass?”
But it’s a different relationship. It’s kind of like until you try that other sort of writing, until you try a deadline that is real, or at least mostly real it’s just hard to actually conceive of what it’s like for someone to actually take your writing seriously [as writing], and not just writing as a vehicle for ideas. And that’s something I really like. And I think one thing that I will hopefully get to do because I get to sort of straddle the line a little bit is write even bloggier stuff for academic venues so that maybe someday I can get tenure or something. But we don’t know how this experiment will turn out quite yet.
KAC: Something you’re making me think about is for a place like The New Yorker, my interaction with them is solely [unintelligible] but when you talk about editing? Yeah, they love it. But my experience of actually online writing is, I have to be honest, not of being rigorously edited. And that is one tension, and the question that is interesting for me is, “Yeah, I like the idea of letting go of my kick-myself-in-the-ass-to-know-everything instincts, but on the other hand, most of the editors that I’ve directly reported to, most of my managers over the course of my career in this profession have not been film people.” There are mistakes that would be in my pieces or complete misconceptions … that aren’t caught. Because the infrastructure of the industry is so strange that, you know, if you’re talking about something that — I’m the movie beat — [is] beyond an Oscar contender, talking about a film from another country, or a film from, God forbid, 15-plus years ago; heaven, heaven forbid, 60 years ago; 70; or a silent film, my God, they literally won’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. And it is up to you. And that’s when that question of speed comes in. Because sometimes I also wonder, why does it have to be so fast? Because I was always someone who read about things three weeks late anyway, so I’m not the audience. I’m not the person who’s clicking on the Joker review after Joker debuts at Venice Film Festival, who’s checking Twitter. And that’s the thing, right? Like a film will debut, something will debut, and people will be all over it. And a lot of publications, they want the smartest possible thing in the least amount of time. And that is attention that I pay daily. That’s my church, that’s my therapy. That’s what we talk about.
LMJ: Part of the issue there is when I was freelancing, I was freelancing with things [that] in some way already felt very close to me. So, you know, you mentioned orals; my orals year I had a whole year to do nothing, but sit and read whatever, like 75 books, which I fully did not appreciate. But I was also freelancing more than ever that year. So I could sort of quickly turn around a linguistic reading on whatever — like Kanye West — because I was kind of immersed in blues ideology, and what makes a vernacular, and I was in that — it was very close to me. So yeah, I could try to spin that around and do like, 1,500 words on a dime. But that also kind of sets a precedent that’s like, “Well, I can’t do that with everything.” Obviously the further you get out from an expertise that narrow[s as you] move through a program, that time shrinks. But actually, you need more time. And going back to what Andrea was saying, that is my biggest fear: [that] someone’s going to just catch something, and it’s going to be like, “Well, how can she not know this?” And it’s like, well I could [have known], if I had six months as opposed to a few weeks or whatever.
ALC: And another thing there is just like, there’s freelancing, and there’s freelancing; or there’s freelancing, and there’s staff writing. There’s a difference writing — just Kam talking about not being edited well. Like Sarah said, academia is the least professional profession, and it’s not that media is very professional (which it isn’t), but it is very industrial. And so, you know, there is an experience of, there’s so many people writing and they’re getting paid almost nothing to write things that they don’t care about. And [they do] not get edited, [do] not get feedback, so they can’t work on their writing. It’s not helping their writing to do this. Unless they’re really putting in the extra time, so that’s very different than talking about, like, “Well, I have six weeks to work on this piece for this magazine, and there’s going to be a laid-back back and forth and I’ll text my editor and my editor will actually text me and talk to me like a person.” And that’s a very different and strongly minority experience of journalism.
CS: I’m amazed that you guys had these great orals years. Orals year was not a good year in my life. Full stop. So I’m just really impressed that that you all loved it so much.
KAC: I literally miss it so much. All I did was: I had a summer, and I just read books and went home and watched Battlestar Galactica. And then went to bed and woke up and did the same thing the next day while cicadas were attacking, and it was just fantastic. Because … I was reading across periods, I was reading across theories and things were connecting. I was able to step back in a way that I just didn’t do during coursework because it was just about what I had to read that week. And then, “God let me turn in this paper so I can go home for the holiday and not talk to these people.” And orals summer was really when it congealed and I was like, “Oh, this is what I’m interested in, or, yeah, I read Moby-Dick already, but I’m gonna read it again because I just want to talk about and think about Queequeg right now. That’s just what I want to do, and I don’t have to.” But I think it’s also very much a matter of the safety of, “Yes, there’s this culminating thing.” But my job was just to learn. And I didn’t have to, until the culminating thing, produce anything. Everything I wrote in my notes [was] for me. I did kind of journal, but it was for me. It was about rehearsing ideas and figuring out what my interests were. And I really don’t think that I would have been able to transition into this current profession if I didn’t have an incubator, period, where I could just be a dumb little baby, who was just eating everything around and getting smarter. Because I think it’s harder when you know you have to do grown-up things, like be on Slack every day and field all of those, where’s-the-piece Slacks, send emails and calls.
SC: The one thing I liked about orals was that by the end of it, my brain had gotten so used to reading that I could read hundreds of pages a day. And I don’t actually think that I’m capable of doing that at this particular point in my life: of just sitting down and reading 200 pages over the course of the day. And I feel like the muscle in my brain worked up to that during orals. And that was cool.
ALC: So I didn’t have a positive orals experience, but I didn’t have an orals experience because at NYU Comp Lit, it’s just a comprehensive exam. It’s not oral. Because, you know, Derrida proved that writing comes before speech. And so what it meant was that you could actually write them beforehand, like there was a system where you could kind of just write them out. So I had lists, and at that point I already didn’t care about them. I was also very depressed. And I mean, I think essentially I had done my reading during coursework because I had no life. And I would stay two weeks ahead of my reading for coursework, and then I would give myself more reading on the weekends. And [I] broke my brain this way. So essentially, since [comprehensive exams, I] have been unable to read. The big secret about me is that I do not read, which is not a secret because I tell everyone, I find it very difficult to read. And I’m sure that graduate school did this to me, and it’s funny, Christine, we both reviewed the Tao Lin book. And they made me cut this from my review: I literally had to walk laps at my park in order to read that goddamn book. Because I was falling asleep. And so I walked, held it in one hand and had a pen in the other hand [and] was walking around my little track with the subway going by. I have no conclusion to this knitting it up; this is me just venting resentment at the academy for destroying something I loved and hope very much to love again. But now I can’t enjoy a book. I can’t turn off the need to gut it. I can’t just let it be. And just kind of be with it. It’s such an antagonistic relationship that I have with books. I can read on my phone; it’s easier for me to read on my phone. Sitting down with a book is very difficult.
SC: I mean, all of what you’re saying in different ways is speaking to this notion that there is a kind of accretion of something in graduate school, right, something accumulates. Whether it is, Kameron and Lauren, as you were talking about, the kind of accumulation of time that you have that you can then sort of draw upon until I think, Lauren, you said until it sort of runs dry at some point. Or it might be the accretion of this kind of anxiety or this sort of pressure that, Andrea, you’re talking about, that relates to the pressure of that sort of, “Am I going to be able to read everything? Am I going to be able to be accountable for everything?” that plagues all kinds of writers, where you just have to be accountable for everything.
There are a lot of questions coming in, many of which have a lot to do with these specific comments that have come up. I’m sorry, there are questions in the chat and in the Q&A and I’m not good at looking at multiple windows. So if anyone has a question that they see that they would like to immediately answer, feel free to jump in. But the first question was one that we’ve talked a bit about already, but maybe we could think specifically about it [and we] might get to some of the other questions. How did life in academia inform your criticism? Or how does your background in academia set your criticism apart from other critics? I recognize a question that’s sort of asking for personal judgment, but that’s not what we’re looking for. The way I’m reading this question is sort of thinking not only about what you know, right, and what we are trained to do, but also how you communicate; what in your training taught you to communicate ideas a certain way? For me, it is teaching that has been very important for my writing. So, what kind of discourse might we bring in from one to the other side? What are the qualities of life and academia that shaped your style as critics now?
ALC: This is just a small thing: Sarah, you said, not just in terms of what we know, but also in terms of what we do not know. Because I realized reading the question, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, this is informed by negation.” Good criticism also requires being like, “I don’t know what’s going on with this. And I’m actually just gonna wait and find out and I’m not gonna cut its heels off so I can shove it into the slipper of theory that I have,” and just be like, “No, this doesn’t need to be a feminist reading.” Oh my God, when I realized that I could write something and it doesn’t have to be a feminist reading! Like, that’s great; if it is in the end, hooray. Anyway, that’s a small thing. Just being able to be to practice a little ignorance.
KAC: I think it’s a big thing, because I so value being able to be honest with myself about what I don’t know. And the question is what I’m going to do about that not knowing — [that] is where the psychoses come in. But the stage of “I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know”: that’s a level of clarity that I think a lot of working professional journalists [lack], from the hubris that I’ve seen [in] a lot of writing [with] this kind of totalizing sense of what is happening in culture or not happening. Or what things mean or don’t mean, or what was the first, or whatever. The hubris of these claims, I think would be a bit mitigated if people knew what they didn’t know, just knew that there are vast terrains of things that they don’t know. Like, you can’t say that Black Panther is the first black superhero movie if, within my lifetime, there was Blade and Spawn and Meteor Men and all these things, right? But you also know that you don’t know a lot about the silent era because we don’t have most of those films. They’re lost to us. There’s something really powerful about saying, “I don’t know,” “We don’t know,” or, “I don’t know, I don’t have it, I haven’t been in a library yet.” And then I can do something with that or not. But what it does is prevent a certain level of talking out of my ass. Because I mean, everyone bullshits to a degree. How do you win a publisher? You bullshit, a little bit. Unless it’s about COVID or something. But every writer knows the point at which they begin to BS. But I think that kind of self-knowledge of not knowing is honestly … I can tell when I read [writers] if they’re honest with themselves about what they don’t know. And I can tell when the questions are coming from a place of sincere curiosity, or if there’s still an impulse to educate despite being out of your depth. I can tell. And for all the ways in which I was still going to be on JSTOR, I think not knowing is a powerful thing to know about oneself.
LMJ: I have two things that I think might ultimately end up being kind of contradictory. But picking up from what Andrea said about the relief of knowing you don’t have to do a feminist reading of everything for the rest of your life: I do think there is a way that, in the academy, you do kind of have to choose: Are you doing Afropessimism as theory? Are you doing feminist criticism? Are you doing a Marxist critique? And yes, I know, these things have gotten so incredibly “nuanced” and are sort of all inside of each other, etc., etc. But it looks like, at the end of the day, you do have to choose: object-oriented ontology, [or] whatever your deal is. And I think for some people that is really, really exciting. And for some people it’s very liberating; even knowing their method is not always going to be right all the time, it’s at least a method.
But the cool thing is that writing outside of that, you kind of get a smorgasbord; you do kind of get to pick and choose, and you do get to combine, and you do get to say, “Well, if you look at it from this perspective, they would say this, and these other people might say this.” But then you also get to just be a little bit transparently self-centered and say, “This is what I think.” And I’m not going to cite all the people that probably have made an impression on my mind. If you want to find those people, it’s very easy to look them up. But I’m going to just have an opinion — an informed opinion, or a reading of something, but I’m calling it mine.
But the other thing I was going to say is that, especially for people trained in some sort of literary criticism, there is that close reading aspect. And I’ve been thinking about this a little bit recently because I’m a little bit anxious that close reading is this thing we expect students to know how to do in an English program, but I’m kind of starting to wonder if it’s not actually a thing that universities teach because they think that high schools are all teaching it. And I know high schools aren’t teaching it; American education is so stratified that it’s not a thing that we can really assume college students come in with. And so I think maybe this is a crisis of the field that people are talking about all the time, but we keep screaming at students to close read and then we don’t tell them what that is. But I do think that is something that for the students who are scooped up [into] graduate student school, those are the students that seem to be natively good at close reading. And that is also a thing that I think makes a certain kind of ex-academic or ex-academia critic. I do think that is something that can pull us apart from the rest a little bit just because we will belabor the point. And maybe because we’re very good writers, we’ll do it in a way that’s very interesting.
But sometimes I read pieces that [feel] like a rock skipping on the pond, and someone’s saying something so interesting. And I’m like, “I would read you talk about just this scene for 2,000 words.” And, of course, sometimes that has to do with editorial constraints, and maybe they did talk about it for 2,000 words in their editor was like, “Eh.” But I do think [close reading is] one of the things that really got me into freelancing, especially for wider publications. Like, Vulture literally has a Close Reads Department Head or something like that. And doing that was just so fun. And it seemed like doing a review at that stage would have felt so daunting, but close reading a scene of television or a movie felt very close to what I was already doing.
ALC: Just seconding that, close reading is probably the thing … I wouldn’t say that I miss it because I don’t actually miss it. I don’t miss listening to people’s conference papers; there’s a lot of bad close reading, too. But, if anything, I would actually say I honed [my ability to close read] in graduate school. Whether that was because of [or] in spite of the curriculum, it is wonderful to get to do it. And it is hard to find the opportunity where it is wonderful to get to do it in a public setting where, and this is as much a fantasy as the fantasy of teaching, but where it feels like it’s gonna touch more people. Where the notion is that I’m a critic, and you say, “Well, I guess my opinion must be interesting enough that people want me to have it professionally.” And so, I’m going to have an opinion, and I’m going to be, engaged in teaching how I think people should think. And being able to show close reading, in practice, and it actually doesn’t have to be a Derridean thicket, that it can actually just be me show[ing] one little detail. I can do it in three sentences, and it can shift your view of this object. That, to me is really, really valuable. Whether that’s something that is native to academia [or] that’s coming outside, I don’t know. But academia is certainly where my experience of that kind of reading began and what made me believe that it had value. To realize that you could think about anything, this way that you could do a reading of anything, that’s an incredible thought for an undergraduate to really grasp. It gets ossified when you’re a graduate student because, as Lauren says, it then has to be a such-and-such reading instead of just you refining and exercising your organ of judgment. But fundamentally, that is something that I think is very valid.
SC: And that relates to a question that I think will take us in a slightly different, more pragmatic direction. The first part of the question is: Do you struggle with how is that relevant to anyone as much as in academia? So that question of, Andrea, when someone pays you to have an opinion, do you just announce that you have it? And what do you have to do to do away with the relevance anxiety that is very grounded into a lot of academic study? The second part of the question is more pragmatic. And, Christine, I’m interested in your thoughts on this and your experience having worked at The Nation before you came to academia. The second half of this question is, “What did your first pitches look like?” So think back to when you were baby freelancers; Lauren, you’re sending pitches out in the morning, going to seminar in the afternoon. What did those pitches look like? So [for] either of those parts of this question, I’m curious to hear from any of you.
CS: I don’t struggle with things being relevant, but I definitely struggle with why anyone care[s] what I think about this. So I kind of have the opposite feeling from Andrea. That’s a huge thing for me, like, “Why am I writing this piece?” There’re many, many, many writers who are better writers than I am who know more. That is something that I have to work through every single time. And it’s probably why I’m not extremely prolific as a magazine writer or critic. It’s a huge block for me. And I think that academics actually have a slightly easier time because the acquiring and then the performance of expertise becomes a justification. But I do feel that we’re all going to die and time is short. Why should anybody read [my] review of this biography? That sounds dramatic, but that’s literally my internal monologue. In terms of pitches and thinking back, I feel like a good pitch is short, and it’s as well written as the piece will be. It’s like, two paragraphs and you tell the story of the piece and you make it really stylish. Lauren, do you have other pitching thoughts, or…?
LMJ: I guess the question was, “What did your first pitches look like?” They were too long, and they were full of really long sentences full of clauses, which is how I write but now people just deal with it better. I think a good pitch is short, it gets to the point. It doesn’t have to do everything. I think pitches I’ve read from academics do show an anxiety about the relevance question.
But I was also going to say to what Christine was saying about academics having an easier job on the relevance point, I was going to just agree really quickly. Because I think, even in grad school, we would joke [that] it really does feel like you can kind of write about anything. [I]t’s like a dissertation is about “sink.” Like, you kind of make it work. And I’m not trying to make fun of us because I love us. And I read the sink dissertation, and it’s incredible. But maybe people ask fewer questions, especially if you bring that bibliography, that sweet, sweet citation for sink.
ALC: Wait, so Lauren, that’s you saying that, in academia, you struggle less with the relevance question? Even though your example is something which is manifestly irrelevant to everyone?
LMJ: Exactly, but I guess I’ve just never been in a room for any talk or defense or anything where someone was like, “Well, why should we care about this?” Whereas I have sent pitches or been in meetings with editors who are like, “This sounds really neat. This sounds really cool,” or, “I really like your writing. But why? What’s going to make your reader care about this? Or why should you know about this? Or why should they read about this?”
ALC: Right, right. I would agree that the vibe is that no one in an academic space is like, “I don’t need to justify to you why I’m doing this reading of this particular fellow.” But perhaps the question ought to be asked more often. Right? It’s not clear to me how a lot of academic stuff is relevant to anyone. And maybe the answer is [that] it’s relevant, because people are working through methodology, they’re advancing their field. I accept that advancing the field can be a legitimate reason for something to exist.
But to me, writing in public [is] immediately relevant in the sense that I am going to say something, and people are immediately going to read it. The minute it is published, people are going to read it. Maybe only a couple people, depending on who I am. But it’s the difference between trying to say a complicated sentence in French about your family ancestry in class and trying to ask where the bathroom is in France. There’s an immediate sense [that] I am going to be communicating with people. And that to me doesn’t mean that automatically your pitch is going to be relevant. But it seems to underscore the stakes of why it needs to be; because this should be worth reading. We are all indeed going to die. And it should be worth me taking the time out of my weeks to write this. So why [should] this person who’s not getting paid read this? It’s because it should be worthwhile to them. And that, to me, means that while writing I don’t struggle with the relevance question because these days I am pitched and not the other way around. And so, of course, it’s relevant because someone asked me to do it. And because when we’re talking about criticism, books come out all the time. And, don’t we love them for it! And so long as it’s a big enough book, you kind of don’t have to justify writing about it, which is wonderful. I love book criticism because it provides an occasion, and it doesn’t force you to do anything, really. But another one of my rules is that my goal should be to write a review that’s more interesting than the book. Not as a diss to the book, but just because my review should be as worth reading as the book, even if the book is good. The person who’s reading [my review] is not reading the book, and so it should have value in itself beyond just saying, “Pack this when you go to Myrtle.”
KAC: The last thing that you said really resonated with me because that actually informs [my writing]. To call back a little bit to the close reading conversation, I write in a visual medium. I can’t do the James Wood thing where I blockquote the whole chapter. I don’t have that. So, so much of what fuels my approach is, well, at the end of the day, you have to go to the theater. And right now, you have to go to a theater in a pandemic to actually see this movie. At best I can give you the trailer; we’ll link the trailer in the piece. But you’re here with me right now. So I need to do more than “Is it good or not?” I need to do more than advising you, like being Suze Orman for you: “Should you pay $20 to go see this plus a babysitter, plus, you know, hazmat suits?” I don’t give a fuck, I want to describe. I want to try to understand the thing, and help you understand the thing, and help you see the thing without necessarily going to see it.
And that’s exactly it. Like you’re already on the review; [it] already got the click, which is a thing that hasn’t come up in this. But that’s also another thing: I can literally see at a given moment how many people are reading anything that I’m writing and where they’re from, and how long they’re spending on the page. And that sounds terrifying.
But it has actually taught me [about] my instincts, because I’ve had a lot of arguments with management and GMT about what people are going to care about. And the fact of the matter is, the pieces of mine that have had the most endurance, that have the highest average time spent on the page — all these things are often on the smaller things. They’re not on the Space Jam movie, where people [are] gonna take the kids to see it anyway. By the time they click on it, they’ve already got their advance tickets, or [if] it’s on HBO Max, they’ve already watched it. Right? No one actually cares. They’re not going to read the review of the movie, they’re going to read the piece about the soundtrack, or they’re gonna read the “Where do I watch this?” piece. But when I write on international films or all these things, that other stuff? Niche audiences are interested, and they’re hungry for smart writing. That’s not just about the feeling of the week, the thing we’re all pretending that we’re interested in. Murphy Brown or whatever, I sat through that show, and that show did not deserve as much attention as we gave it as an industry complex. But I’m glad that, as that was happening, I was writing about smaller things. You just see that these things endure because people hear about them in some future point. And all of a sudden, some piece that you wrote years ago, is back on people’s radar that got posted to Reddit or something because of these smaller communities of people. So the relevance question is a hard one because what the metrics are going to tell management and what actual human behavior pans out to be seems to be different.
Also, I think that for academics, the relevance question really could be solved if people didn’t go to grad school being told that they have to be professors. If you are not being told that you have to change a field to have health insurance after you leave [grad school]; if you’re not being told that [there is] this system of cut-offs. Without all of that, the relevance question … I don’t know. I think this is a self-manifested bad spirit. This is bad juju that we bring on ourselves as academics because I think if you’re going to postgraduate school as a way to figure yourself out as a thinker rather than as a means to planting a flag, relevance becomes a different question. And then you can write on Beanie Babies or whatever. I mean, relevance is hard, because ultimately, I do agree with Christine. There is no future. But I just want to write about art while it’s still here, while people are still clicking on it, while people are still willing to pay me to write on it. And I can’t get hung up on, “Is this relevant?” And I also think that if editors don’t think that your idea is relevant, fuck them. I just think they’re often wrong. I think it’s also not really about necessarily the [subject]. I think it’s often about our audience, whoever that is, whatever age demographic of white people we’re talking about, given the prospective publication. So I don’t know … none of us are relevant. That should be liberating. I’m never going to be Roger Ebert. And great, good. I can be irrelevant and feel a little bit more free, I think.
SC: Yeah. Kam, I love what you said about doing away with this rhetoric at all. Relevance, or in the academic realm, intervention — if we could just do away with that, then maybe we would have more time just to do what the numbers telling you people are doing, which is sitting with you because they want to sit with you and read your thoughts and understand why you were interested in the small thing more than in the Space Jam movie. I think that’s a really good note to end on. Because I’m really appreciative for all of you coming tonight to sit with all of us and to share your thoughts on your careers and on what writing — writing that we no longer call writing in the public, but just writing — can do for all of us.
So thank you very much. Thank you, everyone who joined us and asked questions. I’m sorry, we didn’t get to all of them. But I loved all of the conversation. Very briefly, brief pitch for the next Semipublic Intellectual Session is next Thursday, with Christoph Bieber, Safiya Noble, and Anna Wiener on tech misinformation and the social, so you can find information on that on the website. And yes, thank you, everyone. I really, really, really learned so much from this conversation. I’m so pleased that you all came to talk with us.
KAC: Anything to avoid a deadline.
SC: Thank you all for coming. Thank you, everyone.