All Points

Trading Up

By William Deresiewicz | November 20, 2011


When I left academia in 2008 to try to be a full-time writer, the last thing I was looking forward to was the commercial side of my new profession. Like every good leftist and many an academic, I looked on the market as evil, a place that would debase your values and suck out your soul if you gave it half a chance. But here’s what I’ve discovered in the last few years: I kind of like it a little.

At the very least, I far prefer the discipline of the market to the discipline of the disciplines. Here’s the incident that brought things into focus for me. The last time I wrote an academic article (on Jude the Obscure), the editor sent it back with all kinds of niggling comments. What especially galled me was her insistence that I “fix the pronouns.” In other words, I had committed the cardinal sin of using the word “we,” long discredited in certain circles as an instrument of repressive liberal universalism. Never mind the fact that I had used the pronoun in a different sense entirely, merely to refer to “we” readers of the novel, Hardy’s implied audience. Now I’d have to mar the piece—it was for a Festschrift for my graduate advisor, so the prospect was especially painful—and for no good reason other than the imbecilic crotchets of one individual. Who was this person, anyway? She taught in a prestigious department, but when I looked her up, I found out that she was mainly a bureaucrat: lightly published but on lots of boards and committees.

This is a trivial instance, but I saw far graver versions of it all the time: people who were blocked from getting jobs or keeping them, people whose work was rejected for publication (a body blow in academia, of course), and only because a single individual decided to stand in their way, a single human bottleneck, and often for motives that were purely personal, or self-interested, or just plain arbitrary. The market is indeed no respecter of higher values, but at least the transactions are honest. If a publisher thinks your book will sell, they’ll buy it from you. There are no hidden agendas. They aren’t going to care if it conforms to the latest intellectual fashions, or whether you’ve cited their friends. You’re also shooting at a vastly bigger target. Millions of people buy books in this country; only a tiny fraction need to purchase yours to make it a success. In academia, where job openings are scarce and only a few journals exist in any given field, a handful of gatekeepers decide your fate.

Not long ago, Gabriel Zaid, a Mexican businessman, business writer, essayist, and poet, published a slim, witty volume titled So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. Far from regarding the market as bad, Zaid reminds us of the commercial origins of modern culture, seeing in academia a clerical bureaucracy not unlike the Church, and in its “disdain for business the reactionary abomination of the horrors of freedom.” Commerce, remember, is not synonymous with capitalism. The matter merits further thought.

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