Margaret Sullivan Won’t Miss Five Things About The NYT; Here Are Two More

Margaret Sullivan–“the media columnist for The Washington Post….former Public Editor of The New York Times“–lists the five things she won’t miss about the New York Times:

1. The inherent tension of the job. The whole concept of coming to work every day to handle complaints, and maybe to criticize work done at the next desk over, well . . .

2. New York Times Exceptionalism: The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing. In editorial matters, this manifests itself as, “It’s news when we say it’s news.” Examples: Initially underplaying the Panama Papers; not covering much of the early days of Chelsea Manning’s trial (she was then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning); assigning a reporter to Hillary Clinton more than three years before the election; not digging in early on the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Excellent as it is, The Times is too often self-satisfied. If there’s a fatal flaw – as in Greek tragedy – this may be it.

This is a pretty damning indictment; one that is correct. Nothing else has made the Times look ‘out of touch,’ ‘not with it,’ than its slow-footed response to some of these times’ most important stories–too often, it is left chasing the leaders.

3. Defensiveness. Although The Times runs many corrections and has two staff people, including a senior editor, whose main job is correcting errors, it’s safe to say that many Times journalists find it hard to admit they got something wrong. In fact, what’s much more likely than any such admission is the tendency to double down.

Moreover, it’d be nice if the Times could be better at responding to correspondence that points out factual errors or conflicts of interest.

4. Articles that celebrate the excesses of the 1 percent

This could also have been titled ‘Articles That Provoke A Toxic Brew Of Uncontrolled Mirth And Homicidal Rage.’ Write on the rich and fatuous all you want; just read your copy back to yourself before you publish.

5. Articles or projects that seem to have “Prize Bait” stamped on them. The telltale signs: These pieces are very long, very elaborate, and clearly the product of many months of work. So far, so good. But they seem overwrought.

I can live with this last one.

Now, to add to Sullivan’s list, here are a pair of grouses:

  1. An appalling Op-Ed page, which continues to underwrite a cottage industry of satire and parody and just plain straight-up ridicule. Cluelessness, banality, sophistry, bromides; they are all here. It still remains unbelievable that the Times–with the platform and resources at its disposal–cannot put together a better crew here. (The Times grants ample space on its Op-Ed pages to ‘experts;’ it has no plans to be a Vox Pop even as it seems to work toward that standing through its comments sections.)
  2. Despite the pride the Times takes in its area staff, readers with a background in the regions being reported on often find the Times’ coverage superficial and uncritical. In some areas of coverage–like the Palestinian crisis in Israel or the fraught India-Pakistan relationship–the resultant skewed analysis is damnably poor.

Vilhelm Ekelund On Dogs And Literary Critics

In Nordic and Classic (reprinted in Dagbok och Diktverk by Sven Linquist, Bonniers, Stockholm 1966; excerpted in Vilhelm Ekelund: The Second Light, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1986, page 26), Vilhelm Ekelund, the master Swedish poet and aphorist, writes:

Into the dog’s sense of life enters, no doubt as an essential fact, the joy that God created so many trees and lampposts for him to lift his hind leg against. If the literary critic’s psyche could be analyzed, one would surely find there a vital, analogous disposition: the happiness that God, among the mass of harmlessly acceptable authors, created also the “curious” and original, unacceptable ones, for the critic to rush up to and lift his leg against.

Here, as in many other places in his writing, Ekelund expresses a characteristic dislike of one component of the unholy nexus of critics, fame, and popular opinion–that foul combination by which a writer’s talent would be waylaid and diverted into backwaters of conformism and deadly pandering to the masses. (Notice that the kinds of writers the critic sprays all over are the ‘good ones’: the ‘curious,’ the ‘original,’ and the ‘unacceptable.’) But he also, characteristically, delivers a penetrating insight the about the nature of writing.

Literary critics, sadly enough for Ekelund, are writers too; writers need foils; the critic’s are other writers. More expansively, a writer writes about something (the ‘raw materials’ of the truly productive and prolific are seemingly endless, speaking well to their ability to see ‘a World in a Grain of Sand.’); this is one reason why reading–besides training the writing ‘voice–is indispensable for a writer. It gives the writer her material.  The critic writes about other writers; so they provide grist for the mill, flesh for the sausage machine. The writings that the literary critic critiques may appear as riffs in a musical performance: one performer feeds off the other’s offerings.

Viewed in this light, the literary critic might appear as a parasite, but that would be a mistake. All writers need other writers to write, to push out into this world and to make it one they want to write for and about; the literary critic, who writes about other writers’ writing, is infected by a similar need.

Ekelund would be offended by my suggestion that the critic is a writer but there’s no getting away from such a classification. He might however, lend an attentive ear to the claim that one might venture a kinder view of the critic: that the writer’s disdain for the critic–almost fashionable sometimes–is a function of the critic’s location in a larger political economy of writing, in its ability to make or break or ‘careers’, to be the arbiter of commercial fortune and ‘acceptance’ in the ‘literary world’, one dominated almost entirely by artifice and pretension. Perhaps if the critic could be delinked from such a role, then the writer and the critic both might view each other in a kinder light; they would see the other as fellow travelers, committed to the same art, but with different inclinations, motivations, and methods.

The Author’s Offspring, the Finished Deal

A few days ago, I received my author copies of my latest book. Five paperbacks, neatly bundled up in a cardboard parcel bearing an impressive array of stamps and customs bills. I tore open the cardboard (with my bare hands, no less!) Inside, they were wrapped up in clear plastic, neatly and tightly stacked on each other. The plastic came off a little easier, and then, there they were, in my hands at long last. (I will pick up a couple of hardcover versions over the weekend from my co-author; they look extremely pretty to say the least, and have managed to surmount the aesthetic barrier raised by the provision of my photograph on the dust jacket.)

The physical affordance of a book–its look and feel, its weight and heft, its distinctive aroma of new paper and printers’ ink–are all too often commented on when people bemoan their loss in the face of the advancing juggernaut of the e-book and the handheld book reader.  I won’t get into that debate here; I’ve done so many times elsewhere.

Rather, I just want to make note of a peculiar and particular instance of the delights of the physical book, the one alluded to above, a kind of converse of the e-book phenomenon: the pleasure experienced by an author when the transformation of the electronic document into a paper-and-ink object is complete. The multiple, scattered word processor files–one for each chapter–with their standard fonts are taken over by the typesetter’s unitary object; the margins and pagination change; frontispieces appear; author biographies are inserted; the cataloging information page is added on; the copyright signs proclaim your relationship to the ‘work’; and lastly, the final piece of the puzzle, the–hopefully, tasteful and artful–covers are slapped on top and bottom (or front and back.)

Your babe is ready for its close-up but you are the one simpering.

When I look at the finished piece it’s hard to not marvel at the transformation of the once-so-familiar; those same pages, which had once made me almost nauseous during the endless copy-editing, proof-reading and revision cycles, now look decidedly more amenable to approach; they do not repel me as much as they did during those final days when the finish line seemed both proximate and agonizingly distant.

So distinct is this change that you are almost inclined to think the content might have changed too, that perhaps your writing might have even become better with all the cosmetic surgery its packaging has undergone. But there is no such relief; the writing remains resolutely the same.

And then lastly, there is the rueful acknowledgment that no matter how hard you try, blemishes creep in. For all my proof-reading I missed out on spelling errors, and readers have already sent in four corrections. Even more embarrassingly there is a ludicrous technical error late in the book. I can only blame it on exhaustion and ennui.

One copy gets given away today, complete with inscription, to a friend. The rest go on the shelves; they won’t be read by me, but perhaps someone else will step up.

Dawn Powell on ‘Writers of Consequence’

Dawn Powell‘s A Time To Be Born is chock-a-block with wonderfully acerbic observations: on life, love, politics–you know, the usual stuff–but for my money, most memorably, in these brief passages, on journalism, writers, and writing itself:

Every morning Miss Bemel turned in a complete digest of the dinner conversations or chance comments of important officials who had visited the house. Miss Bemel had all these words down in shorthand in her unseen chamber outside the dining or from invisible vantage grounds elsewhere in the house, and these were then checked with other information, and eventually woven into the printed words as the brilliant findings of Amanda Keeler Evans. Miss Bemel saw nothing the matter with this arrangement, since her own rise to power accompanied her mistress’ ascension.

To tell the truth, Amanda would have been genuinely surprised to learn that any writer of consequence had any other method of creation. There were a number of minor scribes on liberal weeklies who were unable to afford a secretary, that she knew, but she had no idea that his was anything more than the necessary handicap of poverty. The tragedy of the attic poets, Keats, Shelly, Burns, was not that they died young but that they were obliged to by poverty to do all their own writing. Amanda was reasonably confident that in a day of stress she would be quite able to do her own writing, but until that day she saw no need, and in fact should a day of stress arrive she would not be stupid enough to keep to a writing career at all, but would set about finding some more convenient means of getting money.

Even if the public had discovered, through malicious enemies, that Amanda’s first knowledge of what she thought about Britain’s labor problem, Spanish Rehabilitation, South American Co-optation, America First, War with the Far East. was the moment she read Miss Bemel’s “report” above her own signature, no one would have thought the less of her intelligence, for the system was blessed pragmatic success. The most successful playwrights, the most powerful columnists, the most popular magazine writers, seldom had any idea of how to throw a paragraph together, let alone a story, and hired various little unknown scribblers to attend to the “technical details.” The technical details usually consisted of providing characters, dialogue and construction, if the plot was outlined for them, as well as the labor of writing. Sometimes the plot itself was assembled by this technical staff, for individuals were far too busy in this day and age to waste time on the petty groundwork of a work of genius; it was enough that they signed their full name on to it and discharged the social obligation attendant upon its success. The public, querulous as it was with the impractical gyrations of the unknown artist, made up for this, by being magnanimously understanding of the problems of the successful man, so it all evened up in the long run. Amanda was just as entitled to her “genius” as any of the other boys on Broadway or in the public prints.

On Being a ‘Professional Philosopher’, Contd.

In my previous post on being a professional philosopher, I had emphasized the scholarly world: publishing, writing, theoretical orientation etc. Today, I want to take note of another very important duty of the modern professional philosopher: teaching.

Most philosophers in the modern university teach a mixture of classes: the introductory ‘service’ courses, which in many curricula form part of some sort of ‘Core’; required ‘bread-n-butter’ courses that fulfill the requirements for a major; and lastly, some advanced electives, either on specialized topics or particular philosophers. The requirements for a major tend to be organized around the chunkiest, most conventional, divisions of philosophical subject matter: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, social and political philosophy, philosophy of science, logic, ethics, and perhaps aesthetics. (And of course, ‘period’ courses like ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy and modern philosophy.) Anything else generally goes into the ‘elective’ category: American philosophy, Asian philosophy, philosophy of physics, advanced logic, pragmatism, etc. That is, philosophy curricula bear the imprint of a very particular understanding of their division into ‘areas’; later, in graduate school, these will become ‘areas of specialization’ or ‘areas of expertise’ for job market CVs.

The syllabi for these courses also show a conventional understanding of their content, which is why published anthologies for both introductory service courses (taught to non-philosophy majors) and required courses for majors are so widely available. The reading lists of these anthologies show a great deal of commonality and given the onerous teaching loads of most philosophy professors–unless they happen to have a low teaching load at a rich private university–almost always ensures the adoption of the path of least resistance: the selection of a generic anthology for teaching.  Among required courses too, metaphysics, epistemology, social and political philosophy are very often taught using anthologies with fairly conventional reading lists; there is also sometimes a broad understanding of which topics are to be given emphasis even in a period class (for instance classes on modern philosophy invariably concentrate on metaphysics and epistemology via Descartes, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Spinoza and Kant; there is little note of the social and political philosophy, ethics or aesthetics of the same period.) There is often more creativity visible as you move up the curricular food chain: electives and special topics seminars generally are blessed with more creative syllabi.

The readings for philosophy classes are almost always drawn from ‘philosophy’ texts written by men. Despite the increasing presence of women in the modern philosophy world, they do not figure prominently in reading lists. And neither does material from other sources: novels, political pamphlets, public commentary, poems, movies, artworks (unless in specialized contexts like aesthetics courses).  The corpus of ‘philosophy’ thus acquires a distinct definition for the student and the professor alike.

Without actively changing syllabi, teaching assignments or curricular reform on an ongoing basis, most philosophy professors will teach the same material organized in the same way quite frequently, if not all the time. Many philosophy professors prefer teaching in their own ‘areas’, thus minimizing the time spent transitioning from their scholarship to the teaching; most will not like to teach a new or unfamiliar subject area (indeed, they will often not be so assigned); very often, the inclination on both fronts–the administrative and the professorial–is to get a ‘lock-on’ and stay there. Administrative requirements for minimum enrollment for classes ensures anyway, that most electives will not be offered and when they are, will not run because of lack of enrollment. (Departments guard their course offerings zealously; if another department wants to offer a ‘related’ course, it must seek approval from philosophy. For instance, a History of Hellenic Political Thought offered by say, history or classics, will need clearance from philosophy.)

Teaching as a professional philosopher requires generally, the provision of a list of readings and some written assignments to students; these are often accompanied by exhortations that students concentrate on the primary sources and disdain secondary ones (at least until the primary has been adequately tackled). Students are asked to ‘write like philosophers’ and often given handouts that tell them how a ‘philosophy paper’ is to be constructed, how arguments are to be analyzed and so on. The conduct of a class is also supposed to follow a generalized template: read the material before class, discuss arguments with professor in class. (Thanks to the volatility of insufficiently disciplined, conformist or trained student bodies, this template is very rarely followed.)

This definition of the subject matter of philosophy via its preparatory reading lists into particular subject areas,  emphases and valorizations is part of the education of a professional philosopher; it is where the community comes to realize the discipline’s boundaries, those that will be preserved and fought for in the broader world by departments, professional societies, and publication fora.

On Being a ‘Professional Philosopher’

A recent post in The Philosopher’s Magazine blog set me thinking about some of the strictures on being a professional or academic philosopher, which today amount to pretty much the same thing. (I realize this might leave out bioethicists, some of whom do not have the typical duties or work profiles of philosophers that are faculty members, but in many important regards, especially writing, they are bound in the manner I describe below.)

To be a professional philosopher today, in the political economy of the modern university, requires that you have a particular theoretical orientation: whether you conceive of yourself in a particular way or not, it is quite likely that in the Anglo-American or European world, you will be classified as either an ‘analytical’ or a ‘continental’ philosopher. Matters might be different in say, Latin America or Asia, but even there, many departments of philosophy aspire to such a classification. (When I visited Taiwan in 2009, many of its recent faculty hires were graduates of Anglo-American or European universities and as such, had imported their own classifications into their department. My guess is that their influence on future hiring would further entrench whatever ‘orientation’ the department had taken on.) Obviously, those who work in say, Eastern philosophy–still considered ‘exoteric’, ‘less rigorous’ or straightforwardly ‘marginal’ in most Anglo-American departments–do not fall into these categories, but that merely serves to confirm their outlier nature. If your work does not fall straightforwardly into these categories–because of style or content–there is a decent to middling chance that you will not be considered a philosopher, but rather, a member of some other discipline. Maybe you are a political scientist, an environmentalist, a literary theorist, or a scientist who is fond of speculation, but you aren’t a philosopher.

To write as a professional philosopher means that you must write in particular venues, in particular fora. The chunks of writing are quite well-defined: five-thousand to fifteen thousand word articles in journals published by corporate publishing houses. Or books: seventy-five thousand to one hundred twenty-five thousand word monographs published by half-a-dozen publishers, some corporate and some university. (There are another twenty or so publishing houses that also have decent catalogs but in terms of professional influence on peers, if you aren’t publishing in that first group, you might as well be invisible. This second group is mainly useful for CVs, for promotion or tenure boards.) Many philosophers blog, and perhaps these venues will someday be established as accepted venues for writing and publication but that day is not here yet. And even then, the style–see below–remains the same.

The content of these publications is quite rigorously controlled: professional philosophers write on a well-defined set of topics. These are typically those of interest to well-established luminaries–mostly male–who have already written on them recently, thus setting off a flurry of responses, counter-responses and embellishments. A smart PhD student should check the back issues of journals for the past two years to figure out what topic to write his dissertation on. Every once in a while, in a field, like say, metaphysics or philosophy of  language, a topic rises to the surface, enjoys its day in the sun, and then sinks. Some fifteen or so years ago, deflationary theories of truth were the rage; now, you’d be an idiot if you wrote on them. (Or perhaps the vogue is back; I haven’t checked in a while.)  Needless to say, the broader subject areas of these topics are also clearly articulated: in the Anglo-American analytical world, these are metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind as the big three (or perhaps, if you count philosophy of language, the big four). Then, closely following on their heels: philosophy of science, political philosophy, logic and ethics (including applied ethics). Aesthetics trails just a bit. If your topic does not fall neatly into these categories, you stand a good chance of being reckoned as not doing philosophy.

Lastly, style. To write like a professional philosopher, you must employ certain locutions, phrases, and sentence constructs profusely; your journal articles should also follow a well-established structural template. (For instance, identify the target of your critique, state and articulate the target argument, and then present your ‘solution’ and its advantages. I write ‘solution’ because it is ‘understood’ that ‘problems’ are being ‘solved’ when philosophers write.) By reading recent journal articles the current style can be figured out quite accurately and then followed for one’s own journal or monograph submissions. Deviance from this style is very likely to prompt the judgment that–you guessed it–you aren’t a philosopher at all.

None of what I’ve said above is new or too startling. It is not new because many before me–professional philosophers, I think–have said as much, and it is not startling because members of the discipline understand these constraints as defining it in the modern university. If the discipline–that word, so redolent of permission and boundaries!–was not demarcated thus, it would–the implicit fear goes–simply ebb away, its edges worn down, transformed into an inchoate mess, absorbed into other disciplines and departments or perhaps utterly marginalized and finally made invisible.

I will address teaching as a professional philosopher–including the business of departmental course offerings–in another post in the near future.

Copy-Editing and Proofing Nightmares With a Twist

Dreams are revealing and so, I have never talked about my dreams on this blog. And perhaps that struck me as too self-indulgent. But that is a decidedly strange decision because, from time to time, I have indulged in many autobiographical ramblings here. Today, I’m going to recount one from last night, most certainly one of the most singular I have ever experienced, one worth recapitulating because it is about books, writing and anxiety, and so it should resonate with those who write. And those who are anxious. (The intersection of those two sets is huge.)

So, the dream. I cannot quite place the location or time, but the setting is quite clear: I am in a large room with windows and a large desk in front of me. I am working on a manuscript, a book of mine, brought to me for copy-editing and proof correction by, get this, a human messenger. That’s right; this manuscript has not been emailed to me by a publisher for correction. Rather, a large burly man, I think only partially clothed, and I think, glistening with sweat, a cross between a palace guard and a championship wrestler, has personally carried over it to me. I do not remember his features too well, but he is definitely muscular and bare-chested. He resembles more than anything else, an executioner of sorts, someone, who if provoked, might easily turn to violent reprisal or correction. I am to correct it, make all the necessary changes, and then hand it back to ‘Ol Hermes here to carry to back to the publisher. So I get to work; I feel compelled to.

As I work through the book, I make corrections with a pencil. Suddenly, I stop and look at my corrections; they strike me as illegible. Yes, even I, their writer, cannot quite make out what my corrections, strikeouts, and amendments amount to. They need decipherment, and I will have to do so quickly. In an effort to seek reassurance, to assuage a suddenly manifest anxiety, I call over the messenger, and point him to the scribbles, saying ‘I seem to have marked up the book quite badly. What do I do?’ My man merely grunts, and says, ‘Finish it up, and then we’ll go through it together.’ At first, this strikes me as impractical but then I reason to myself that it will not be too bad. Surely, it can’t take more than a day. Reassured, I return to work.

But things get worse. I notice there is new, strange, unfamiliar text in the book. Not just simple typos or text manglings. Rather, there are illustrations I have never seen before, and even worse, entire passages of text that seem to have appeared by magic, inserted by an anonymous hand. Finally as crowning insult or injury, there is an entire new section written in first person describing experiences that I have never had. I stop, unable to continue to any more. Who has done this? I realize that I am not just perplexed or irritated or angry. I am scared. In part, it is because I am anxious. How can I make the required corrections? I don’t have the source file; this is a typeset file; I will have to strike out, replace; it all seems to be bubbling up into a chaotic, irredeemable mess. But even more fundamentally, I feel the fear of the violated. Someone has taken a hammer to my  Pietà; someone has reached out, cuffed me on the ears, slapped me across the face, and told me, bluntly, that they can get change my work, modify its meaning, become its author, without asking me for permission; who, why?

At this point, the dream starts to fade as my fear and anxiety build. This is a normal turn of events in dreams of mine where the anxiety levels become unbearable. I think I call Hermes to show him the mess, to ask him if he knows anything about how this mutilation might have taken place. But—and I cannot remember clearly now—it is not as if he has anything useful to offer. Why would he know? His is not to reason why; it is only to transport the text back and forth. And the dream comes to an end.

I started writing this blog post shortly after waking up in the morning so the details as I can remember them are as clear as they can be.  I’m still perplexed by it. I wonder if the messenger symbolizes the tyranny of the deadline, the fear of contract cancellation, or the implacable inflexibility of the publisher. And copy-editing is hard, tedious work, of course, leaving behind many a scar worn in by memories of endless, iterative checks. But the most interesting emotional response of mine, I think, was the fear that someone had the power to change what I wanted to say before I could say it, to modify my written word before it saw its way into print.