mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Another Lost Generation Finds Itself

America needs people who write and think out of passion for something other than tenure, and this NYT article tells of a group of young people who are doing just that. According to the article, twenty-somethings who found it impossible to break into New York’s publishing world are banding together to start their own literary salons and reviews. It all sounds a bit like Paris’s Shakespeare and Company circa-1920, but with modern dialogue:

It was the weekly meeting of The New Inquiry, a scrappy online journal and roving clubhouse that functions as an Intellectuals Anonymous of sorts for desperate members of the city’s literary underclass barred from the publishing establishment. Fueled by B.Y.O.B. bourbon, impressive degrees and the angst that comes with being young and unmoored, members spend their hours filling the air with talk of Edmund Wilson and poststructuralism.

While the crusty old antediluvians at Via Meadia would probably not endorse all the views that these young people expound, every intellectual needs and deserves the right to be passionate, judgmental and wrong in his or her twenties; in any case we applaud them for their obvious love of ideas and their devotion to the life of the mind.

Circles like these are where real writers come from, or at least where many of them put in time while trying to find their voice and their viewpoint. Universities are stocked with uncounted throngs of tenured professors who ascended from undergraduate degrees to MFA programs to professorships by publishing another literate, fashionable and largely unread novel or poetry collection every two or three years. (Not that there aren’t some smart and innovative thinkers coming up through the regular ranks.)  But F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner never graduated from college and Ernest Hemingway never even attended.

On the more modest field of blogging and policy writing, I got my start as a writer arguing with friends in cheap apartments in New York, reading journals in bookstores, and haunting the shelves of the Strand.  Rather than looking for jobs that would lead to a stable and secure career, I fled them, looking instead for jobs that would pay the bills but not consume the energy and imagination I wanted to go into my study and my work.

There are always people who come up through the system in the normal way and make great contributions.  You do not have to be a bohemian to have something to say — but society needs its nonconformists and, even more, its non-careerists, people who care more about figuring things out than about fitting in.

Most writing careers end in failure, but if you want to say something new, you can’t let yourself be deterred. Possessing the specific combination of talents for having something to say and saying it in a way that makes people want to listen is rare. But if you try to learn in the echo chamber of a university classroom, all you will learn is how to echo well.

You have to avoid the temptation to become an empty suit, even though these temptations are sometimes enticing: the top liberal arts college, the top graduate program, the top internship. Instead, you have to engage your society and see it from unusual angles. The Golden Path of elite colleges, graduate fellowships at top schools, discreet introductions to powerful patrons has its charms, but that isn’t the way to learn what your country is really like, how most people see the world, or to get a gut sense about what needs to change.  It is also not a very good way to get to know your own character.

The unconventional path is always rough but always important; it is more important than ever in times like ours in which great changes are upon us. The conventionally educated and the well connected are experts in the functioning of a model which is falling to bits.  They are great blacksmiths in a world that needs car mechanics: what they know is to a large extent what the future must kill.

You will encounter problems if, as they say in the great gospel hymn, you are coming up the rough side of the mountain. You probably won’t be barbequing pigeons for dinner as Hemingway used to do in Paris, but you might have to subsist on ramen noodles and use the public library for internet access.  You will have to invent your career and scramble from spot to spot rather than climbing the organizational chart.  It will be scary at times; there will be months when you don’t know how you will get the rent paid.

Many people who set off on this path fail; there are no guarantees.  But few are bored — and many of those who do not manage to fulfill all their dreams don’t regret the time they spent chasing rainbows.  Via Meadia is glad to see that committed and intense young people are debating the nature of art and the future of politics, publishing low budget journals and deriding the complacent voices of conventional scribes.

We need you.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    “You have to avoid the temptation to become an empty suit” – similar to avoiding the characterization: “there’s no ‘there’ there.”

    Applause and encouragement for young people intense and committed to the written word (cultural/esthetic, etc.).

  • Jack Burden

    This excellent commentary put me in mind of Robert Penn Warren’s “Blackberry Winter”. Thank you for reminding me it is time for a reread.

  • gs

    The New Inquiry, they call their journal.

    I googled these lines of Housman:

    Young is the blood that yonder
    Succeeds to rick and fold,
    Fresh are the form and favour
    And new the minted mould:
    The thoughts are old.

  • Kenny

    “You do not have to be a bohemian to have something to say — but society needs its nonconformists … ”

    But Mr. mead, what happens when the nonconformists are also politically incorrect? Ah, then people like you freak out.

    And as you know (or should know), the truth is no defense against charges of political incorrectness.

    Once you square the the circle of truth and open discussiuon with political correctness, then you can talk with credibility of the value of nonconformist thought.

  • WigWag

    “America needs people who write and think out of passion for something other than tenure, and this NYT article tells of a group of young people who are doing just that.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    One thing that helps is if you can write a proper sentence. I am still trying to learn the skill myself. The young people that Professor Mead is referring to would probably benefit from learning how to do it.

    One excellent place to learn how to draft a compelling sentence can be found here,

  • Walter Sobchak

    What struck me is that they were still regurgitating the post modern bovine excrement that their professors feed them. Both they and the worshipful NYTimes writer thought that those performances were evidence that they were true intellectuals. I think it is evidence that their fancy Ivy League colleges had destroyed their ability to think independent thoughts.

  • Toni

    The impediment, I think, will be the latter-day Academy, which consists of critics and professors who still try to dictate what High Literary Art is.

    I once saw on Book TV (CSPAN-2 on weekends) a panel on the future of the novel, or some such. When attendees tried diffidently to point out that contemporary haute literature lacked reader appeal, the panel scoffed.

    As far as I know, the latter-day Academy still adores Joyce and Faulkner. Nobody tries to write like Joyce and Faulkner these days for good reason. I was given Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) as a gift and was electrified by it. It was a very much precursor to 20th- and 21st-century fiction of the sort people voluntarily read.

    The problem is that professors give students a template for what fiction ought to be, and then critics praise fiction that fits the template. I was recently tempted to read The Free World, by David Bezmozgis, who was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 Best Authors Under 40. The book is a New York Times Notable Book for 2011. Naturally, it became a Times best-seller.

    Then I realized it would be yet another downer. Nihilistic, relativistic, etc. The Good Soldier was a downer, too, but it’s nearly a century old. The latter-day Academy nonetheless cheers and rewards Bezmozgiz.*

    I won’t be surprised if Academy-trained writers produce Academy-approved fiction. The salon/bookstore described in the Times sounds like a left-liberal echo chamber. (Though I would love to be surprised. Maybe one of these aspirants will rebel and launch a true literary revolution.)

    Stephen King put the 21st-c. challenge well in his speech accepting the 2003 National Book Award for Fiction:

    “Tokenism is not allowed. You can’t sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, “Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.” It’s not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.

    “What–do you think you get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say. And if your only point of reference for Jack Aubrey is the Australian actor Russell Crowe, shame on you.”

    So far, King remains a token.

    * Author-approved bio on Amazon:

    David Bezmozgis is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. David’s stories have appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, Harpers, Zoetrope All-Story, and The Walrus. His first book, Natasha and Other Stories, was published in 2004 in the US and Canada and was subsequently translated into fifteen languages. Natasha was a New York Times Notable Book, one of the New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember for 2004, and an Top 10 Book for 2004. Natasha was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award (UK), the LA Times First Book Award (US), and the Governor General’s Award (Canada). It won the Toronto Book Award and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for First Book.

    He has been a performer at The New Yorker Festival (2005 & 2009), The UCLA Armand Hammer Museum (2007), and the Luminato Festival (2008). His work has been broadcast on NPR, BBC, and the CBC, and his stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2005 & 2006.

    In 2006, David was a screenwriting fellow at the Sundance Labs where he developed his first feature, Victoria Day. The film premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, had a theatrical release in Canada, and received a Genie Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

    In the summer of 2010, David was included in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 issue, celebrating the twenty most promising fiction writers under the age of forty.

    David has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacDowell Fellow, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. In the fall of 2011, he will be a fellow at the Harvard/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

    The Free World, David’s first novel, was published in April 2011 in the U.S. Canada, the UK, and Holland. Subsequent translations will appear in Germany, Italy, France, Israel and Spain.

    Born in Riga, Latvia, David immigrated to Toronto with his parents in 1980.

  • Toni

    Um…don’t these people toss around ideas received from and enforced by the latter-day Academy? Meaning doctrinaire left-liberal humanities professors, media critics and foundations (Guggenheim etc.)?

    Meaning people who would rather pen their mother’s obituary than try to communicate with ordinary readers? God bless ’em if they wind up igniting a real literary revolution, but first they need to learn to think for themselves.

    I think one of the most brilliant and inventive writers today is Neil Gaiman. (He also brilliantly narrates most of his own audiobooks.) I doubt he’d know a post-structuralist if one bit him on the nose.

  • Angelica

    The Mystery “While ‘Bloodlines’ was GREAT, it does feel as tugohh Mead is recycling general story lines, so for me, there weren’t many surprises. I had the whodunit figured out before I was halfway through the novel. There are several similarities between new characters and old (by old, I mean dead). But I think she plays those up on purpose, like a little deja vu. Which also makes me curious if she draws a parallel story line in ‘Bloodlines’ on purpose to reinforce the idea that humans and Moroi aren’t so different.” —Jennifer,

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service