One of the best sessions I attended at MLA was "The Semi-Public Intellectual? Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Age." Organized as a roundtable discussion, the session brought together a half-dozen scholars whose work as writers, critics, bloggers, and editors also addresses nonacademic audiences. Some were previously known to me but most were not, and their individual stories and experiences were fascinating. For the first time in my life, I found myself looking at the clock and longing for more time in a cramped and overcrowded ballroom.
For those of us who live half our lives on the internet, it's not news that there's a tremendous amount of writing talent out there. But this panel convinced me that, in addition to launching food and lifestyle bloggers into multi-million-dollar book-and-movie deals, the internet has also reshaped what it means to be a public intellectual--in part by reshaping the audience for their works. On the one hand, authority on the internet is dispersed, resulting in fewer "star" public intellectuals. On the other hand, the voracious reading habits of an audience willing to read not one but ten movie reviews makes this a golden age for the semi-public intellectual: the academic with both the skills and the desire to reach a larger audience. As several of the panelists noted, there really is an audience interested in what humanities scholars have to offer--who are eager for incisive analyses of politics, art, and pop culture that draw upon our depth and breadth of training.
The decline-and-fall rhetoric in the humanities and in traditional publishing has made this hard to believe: are there really more people writing well, in more places, for more readers? I don't know how to provide quantitative answers, but the anecdotal evidence is strong. To stick with academia: I'm only eight years out of grad school, but virtually all the PhD students I know now have at least a limited public presence on the internet (composing wry or evocative tweets is still public writing), and every third grad student I meet also seems to have a larger sideline as a reviewer, critic, poet, or journalist.
I love that, and not only because I love a grad student with a Plan B. I love that I can follow a random series of links on some friend's Facebook page and wind up reading something astonishingly good by someone whose name I don't know in a venue I'd never heard of. (I love, for that matter, that people I've never met keep reading me.)
But although I'm willing to believe that we're living in a kind of golden age for public writing, the gold we're talking about is strictly theoretical. As one of the panelists remarked about the rapid expansion of his online review, academics are more willing to write for free than journalists. Even if we don't care about the employment prospects for journalists (and I hope we do), this isn't good news. Most academics, after all, teach off the tenure track, so the convoluted proxy payment system that we full-timers enjoy simply doesn't apply. Me, I don't need to make a red cent from anything I publish. My academic writing helped me get a job, get tenure, and receive regular merit raises--and my nonacademic writing, in addition to bringing me great personal joy, has served as what Dr. Cleveland calls "a force multiplier" for my scholarship.
Most writers these days, academic or otherwise, do not have my job security, and as Tim Kreider's piece last fall in the NYT Sunday Review argued, writing for free ultimately devalues that writing--and all the thinking, learning, and training that precedes it. I'd like to believe that good writing is its own reward, but it's a reward that some of us enjoy more than others. (Moreover, I fear that none of us will enjoy it for very long: if we could tell our undergraduate English majors, with a straight face, that they could make money as writers, we might have more of them.)
This isn't the fault of the semi-public intellectual; it's a consequence of the hollowing-out of the middle class, the devaluing of the arts, and the rising cost of living in the kinds of urban centers where writers could once manage at least a modest, middle-class life. As the number of novelists now ensconced in the academy reminds us, even those who earn money from their writing rarely make a living off it.
I don't mean to end on a down note; I was genuinely invigorated by the panel and persuaded by case the panelists made for the appeal, relevance, and health of the humanities within the public sphere. But real health means people can support themselves with their work (or do that work from a place of love while supporting themselves with related work). If academics are to write for a public audience for free, they need secure jobs to underwrite that work. And if academia isn't providing secure jobs for current PhD students, they need an alternate career path that is, in fact, a career path.