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.