Fare Thee Well, My Honeys

by Michelle Dean

Andrew asked me to guest-blog here the day before The New Republic hit the skids. Both events came out of the blue for me, so they’re linked in my mind now. All week I’d meant to getting around to commenting on the weirdness of it, but then the Sony hack and North Korea came crashing into the news cycle, and here we are at my last post.

What I want to say has little to do with TNR. It’s more about about how that entire mess, as it unfolded, made me feel as someone who writes online but has aspirations to do more than just blogging with her life. And the way it made me feel was: shitty. And shitty primarily because many of the people who were railing on about the loss of the magazine – and for whom it seemed to be no answer that the thing had not yet shut down – could not hide their contempt about people who came to writing in any way other than a staff job at one of these intellectual magazines.

I know many ex-TNR staffers who walked out said they were totally open to the internet. I don’t think they are lying, per se, though I think it’s having your cake and eating it too. Nonetheless, it does not excuse the unconscious snobbish clubbiness about what felt like everyone else on the Internet. Primarily, their contempt emerged in asides. It emerged in the snide mentions of Gawker and Buzzfeed, the former of which has employed me, the latter of which employs many (great) writer and reporter friends of mine. Julia Ioffe, one of those staffers, was insistent that for her Buzzfeed was not “a slur” but it did rather get used that way. It felt telling she had to defend against it. And the contempt also emerged in the rhetoric about the greatness of the magazine, specifically the argument of the open letter the staffers wrote about how “the promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.”

I like high-flown rhetoric as much as the next ex-law-student who spent a lot of time studying Martin Luther King Jr. and Hannah Arendt. On the other hand, the rhetoric covered up for a sort of argumentative disconnect that the TNR staffers never quite seemed to see. It was this: For people outside the magazine to feel the full effect of the “lamentable blow,” we would have had to agree that merely by being online, by writing for outlets less august, less focussed on longform than TNR, we were somehow locked out of this whole discussion of “the promise of American life.”

Unsurprisingly, I and others had trouble doing this. And I still feel pretty awful, if I am honest.

There is still a prevalent myth out there that writers totally choose the form they write in. To some extent that can be true. You can choose to write a novel instead of a blog. You can choose to write about political theory instead of celebrities. But what you cannot generally choose, these days, is not to write for the internet unless making a living is a matter of total indifference to you. There are some very fancy novelists who manage to avoid the churn. There are also a few exceptionally fancy reporters who do. For literally everyone else, this is where you have to start. This is where the entry-level jobs are, and the editors with a slightly more liberal approach to what they’ll publish.

The only way out of being an online writer these days, for some period of time, is to be exceptionally lucky. You can be the person who was hired out of college to the New Yorker or Harper’s or the New York Times. Or the NYRB, though I’m not sure they’re much for very green hires. It will probably take you an Ivy League degree’s worth of debt first to get that job, by the way. But other than finding yourself a spot in that small-membership guild, you will start out writing online. And you will end up working for places that evidently, people will wield as reasons you shouldn’t get to work at others.

This is depressing. Journalism was not always like this. Writing was not always like this. Credentials and connections used to be somewhat less important in large part because the people in charge of general interest publications didn’t have them themselves. Harold Ross, the man who founded the New Yorker, dropped out of high school. William Shawn, who succeeded him, dropped out of the University of Michigan. I’m not saying that made either of them warriors for diversity in their pages. I’m saying I long for such a thing to be possible, now.

Which brings me back to Andrew asking me to blog here. Life is strange. I have this self-serving myth about how I’m a bit of a Llewyn Davis type as a writer. I can’t seem to fit in most places. But this is among the most pleasant gigs I’ve had. “you get to write whatever you want,” he wrote me, “on any topic that grabs your fancy.” (I hope he won’t mind my revealing that he writes in low-caps.) So I did. I hope you liked it, even if it struck you as odd or off-putting. I hope it was sort of like that Queen Jane song Davis plays in the middle of the movie.