Writing as a career and passion

As a young scholar the desire to be read, invited to conferences, and cited is strong; but how to obtain these glories is unclear. Should one write and have faith that good work will be found? Or is there more to do? The New Republic’s recent review by Sam Sacks of two short story collections offers two benefits; it suggests two collections and looks at the ongoing tension between professional versus artistic creation. Exploring this tension should help answer what to do as a scholar.

The first collection, The Unprofessionals, edited by Lorin Stein comes from the Paris Review, and according to Sacks “defines itself against the emergence of a hyper-professionalized breed of fiction writer.” Sacks points to the editor’s preface which criticizes the trend of young authors’ using social media to self-promote and as the editor put it “to think of themselves as professionals: to write long and network hard.” Stein’s work is “a kind of elite artist’s colony whose sole mandate is the refinement of craft.” In contrast, Sacks offers New American Stories. Sacks calls its editor Ben Marcus “an emissary for a wide range of writers on the margins of the mainstream.” Thus according to Sacks, “Stein is an editor charged with elevating the few from the many, Marcus has emerged as an emissary for a wide range of writers on the margins of the mainstream.” As Sacks says, “If The Unprofessionals is like a beautifully unified concept album, New American Stories is, to use Marcus’s analogy, a mixtape.” Sacks hits notes that matter to academics as professionals, when he talks of politics.

As Sacks offers:

Two anthologies, two visions of American fiction: one exclusive, one eclectic; one that seals its ears to the clamor of the industry, one that takes inspiration from the chorus of voices being published. The second vision has the stronger sense of political purpose. Many new writers want to be read and discussed by a large audience, to be noticed by prize committees, to take an active part in the cultural conversation—all activities of the so-called professional—not because, contrary to Stein’s opinion, they’re out for money, but because this kind of recognition is central to the politics of their writing.

Much the same could be said of scholarship. There can be the current in-crowd orthodoxy that has a certain style and approach. It can be exclusive and seem to anoint stars. There can also be the out-crowd with its orthodoxy and anointed but that seek to challenge the status quo just as Sacks says, “The stories in Marcus’s anthology reflect the interest many new writers have in rearranging social hierarchies and redefining terms of normalcy.” Sacks further helps understand the politics when he discusses an essay by Parul Sehgal. Seghal looked at a novel that used a new form and said the project and style was “less a performance of alienation than a passionate effort at reconciliation.” Thus according to Sacks, the goal of writers such as those in the Unprofessionals, “writers traditionally left outside of the conversation” is “to be recognized as professionals.” If professional means one’s ideas have been taken mainstream (and in Portlandia parlance “you are so over”), I think Sacks sums up where scholars hope to be too. Challenging current ideas and scopes of concerns can be lonely. As one finds a community to work with and the work gains traction, the work may go mainstream. At that point, enjoy the ride. The newbies will come to show you what you missed. But there is more to it than being professional. As Sacks goes through the authors in the collection, you get a sense of what might matter depending on what you like to read or how you want to be challenged. At the very least you get a list of names to ponder and pursue. But his key point applies to scholars too.

Sacks saves his highest praise for Denis Johnson, “Johnson could be in Stein’s anthology as well as Marcus’s (he’s appeared in The Paris Review repeatedly over the years).” And here is the key:

But that just means that he’s achieved the aim of all writers: He’s transcended categorization. It no longer makes any difference how you label him—professional or unprofessional—since he’s written fiction good enough to outlive him.

Somethings never change.

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