Labor, Letters, Interns; On the Level

Labor, Letters, Interns

Dear Editors,

I wonder if any other reader was as gripped as I was by your series about the problems of paying writers and editors at big and little magazines (“Labor & Letters”). I couldn’t put it down, and felt I had been waiting about thirty-five years (since the founding of the Threepenny Review) to read such a thing. Thank you!

Wendy Lesser

Dear Editors,

In her otherwise enjoyable article about the recent history of Harper’s (“Easy Chair”), Gemma Sieff gets wrong the reason for my resigning as its editor. She has me compelled to fall on my sword in 2004 because of a misused past tense in an essay about that year’s Republican nominating convention in New York City. The mistake passed uncorrected through the hands of two copy editors and four proofreaders. A grammatical slip of the pen, it was not an error of fact or interpretation likely to prompt falling on a sword. I retired from the magazine two years later to start up the publication, Lapham’s Quarterly, that had been six years in the planning.

Lewis Lapham

Fighting for something better was not a matter of taste but of dignity.


Dear Editors,

I worked at Harper’s during the union negotiations that Gemma Sieff chronicled in her article. While there is much truth in her account of those trying times, I take issue with several crucial items relevant not only to that story, but to all stories of those who work with words.

The sentence in the piece that stopped me, and stops me still, is this one: “All this talk of salary seemed in poor taste.” Talk of salary is tasteless only to those for whom salaries are unimportant. To me and many others at the magazine, the low salaries we were earning, with increasing duties and dwindling prospects of cost-of-living raises, let alone promotions — and a new fear of being suddenly fired — shaped our lives. Fighting for something better was not a matter of taste but of dignity.

This notion isn’t new or particularly radical. Many editors and writers have been unionized for years. The Nation, the New York Times, Time, radio producers, television and film writers: they all settled this question decades ago. Some editors may fancy themselves “delicate orchids” or “thoughtful starfish,” but editing is work. It is labor. It is, to be sure, quite specialized labor. It requires skill, passion, good judgment, and a level head — all things that are greatly aided by a peaceful, which is to say a reasonably secure and remunerative — working environment. It is true that the union drive disrupted the workplace, disrupted relationships. Yet, just as truly, low wages disrupt morale, cause turnover, and disrupt plans for a normal life.

It can be difficult for white-collar intellectual workers to identify as workers. We fretted over this most of all: if it came down to it, would we be able to walk out, miss the close, and allow the magazine not to come out as it always had? No one wanted that, but merely considering and discussing the possibility was eye-opening.

Like all workers, editors are vulnerable to exploitation by management; like all workers, we need to pay rent, taxes, and medical bills. Previous to the union at Harper’s I did not have a reasonable expectation of job security and fair pay. Once the union was achieved, not everything improved, but some things did — salaries and job security among them — and among the most valuable was the recognition that our labor was worth defending.

I no longer work at Harper’s and cannot judge the current vitality of the union. I do not know if the future will judge the union to have been the surest way of securing our goals. But we unanimously determined that it was a worthwhile gamble. I joined the union gladly, because I was proud to consider the work I did as work.

J. Gabriel Boylan

Dear Editors,

I recently read the symposium on unpaid or underpaid labor, a series of essays by dedicated editors of independent left-leaning magazines, who also happen to rely on unpaid and underpaid labor. It reminded me of a feeling I had constantly as an intern: that of being meaningfully included yet alienated.

For the most part, it is refreshing to read these somewhat confessional pieces by editors who have themselves navigated unpaid or underpaid work. When I feel part of a shared struggle as well as a shared project, I feel proud of my work, and I am no doubt privileged to have experienced something that few have the means to experience. This makes it all the more disappointing that the symposium understates the political implications of this privilege. It’s not enough simply to admit, as the editors do, that the financial arrangements of small magazines are exclusionary to so many.

In fall 2013 I was an intern at Dissent, working unpaid for sixteen hours a week until, partway through my internship, Dissent reinstituted a stipend equivalent to minimum wage. In the spring of 2014, I was an unpaid intern at n+1, where I generally worked twenty hours a week. After leaving n+1, I interned part-time at a nonprofit organization and an independent publishing company. I finished my most recent and most highly paid internship at the Nation, working forty hours a week and making $8 an hour.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I so readily chose unpaid or underpaid work. Sometimes I feel a twinge of shame when I picture myself complacently grabbing on to the short end of a shrinking stick and refusing to let go. Though I’ve accepted unpaid and underpaid work gratefully, I’ve also incubated some resentment. When I’m by myself I can act out my catty feelings toward others. I try hard to keep my small amount of spite private, both because I don’t want to alienate some of the wonderful friends and allies I’ve made along the way and also because it would be ungracious — a toxic quality in a community that sometimes feels as competitive as it does socially meaningful.

Many of my choices no doubt derive from my generation’s work ethic, or at least the version that I’ve found is common in other interns in this field. Contrary to many claims about our disenchantment with labor, the idea of working for work’s sake becomes more integral to our self-perceptions than ever when we fail to find paid work. This kind of worldly asceticism isn’t new, though it’s shifted from its classical formulation toward a more romantic one. The Protestants, according to Weber, saw work as a tool to sublimate anxieties about a possibly meaningless and godless world: work was about maintaining the faith that was necessary to prove yourself before God. Today, we work to prove our worth to our profession, we work so that we may feel genuine, and we do so by trying to make work into something that it fundamentally isn’t: a calling.

The idea of unalienated labor — of producing something because you want to, because it’s fulfilling and it reminds you of your individuality — has been co-opted by managers to justify increased hours without compensation. People deserve and should ask for better-quality work, but to do so can affirm the wrong idea that relatively better work can redeem the fundamental limitations of work itself. It often leads to the feeling that to make work better requires one to commit more fully to work, and to work harder. In this confusing situation, it becomes difficult to advocate for yourself and at the same time to ask for less work, especially when we increasingly think of work as a form of self-expression. As the literary critic Kathi Weeks has argued, the “bad dialectic” of arguing for better work only to find ourselves accepting more work puts us in an uncomfortable position, which may require that we refuse to work outright. (In the case of unpaid internships, what’s the worst that could happen?)

Political magazines face contradictions when they devalue labor in the name of producing something of cultural and political value.


This response, like much of the symposium, is confessional. I don’t want to be unfair, and resentment is a turnoff, especially considering all that I owe to n+1 and Dissent. I’d like to be honest about how I think many interns feel: that they are pulled in two directions, between the dream of being fulfilled by your work and the disenchantment that often paves the way to it. This first desire is aptly conveyed by Keith Gessen (“Brief History of a Small Office”) and Maxine Phillips (“The Mission and the Movement”). They express a volunteerism that is also antiprofessional. They write as if to say: We are all simply trying to express ourselves (and, occasionally, our politics) through our work, and if some of us make mistakes along the way, then we are sorry. Gemma Sieff’s writing triggered that second frame of mind, the unapologetic don’t-give-a-fuck savvy, which comes from having seen enough to know that succeeding while taking care of yourself often requires dissociating from the work you love and accepting the culture of mutual paranoia that it occasionally involves. I have felt both of these sentiments, and I believe many other interns have as well.

It seems inevitable that some will read this as petty. After all, I could have said this directly to the editors. I didn’t, because it didn’t feel like it was my place to do so. n+1 has been phenomenal at flipping the respectability politics of literary commentary on its head, encouraging honesty about the ungracious emotions that often empower us to critique. And yet I’m wary of expressing these feelings here. I believe my anxiety reflects something common to many workplaces — that feeling of being split against yourself in your work, especially when so much value is placed on being unapologetically honest and authentically yourself. This unstated demand from “creative” workplaces ignores the fact that most of us already don’t feel like ourselves at work.

Political magazines face contradictions when they devalue labor in the name of producing something of cultural and political value: what one Washington Post piece on the symposium called “eating your young.” In their rush to accept unpaid work by a limited and often privileged population, magazines — especially left-wing magazines — limit the quality and relevance of their own work. It was shocking to me that reflections on this problem weren’t more present in the Gessen and Phillips pieces in particular, given their reverence for independent journalism.

Ironically, I often hear interns complaining of the existential angst that comes with trying to make meaning out of really limited internships, and how they dream of a well-paid, mindless job that would somehow make their own private pursuits feel more deserved. What else explains their nostalgia for an older work ethic, if not the stress of trying to do what you love while maintaining your integrity? It seems related that so many professionals and would-be professionals submit themselves to punishing workout routines.

Labor law dictates that interns are exempt from common labor standards so long as they do work that would not otherwise be paid for. Taking the legal definition at its face value means accepting the idea that the only legally defensible internship is one in which the intern is completely superfluous. And yet interns are among the few who can touch the dream of a job that is self-affirming — a feeling that becomes immediately hollow if you feel completely useless. Many interns will tell you that the most fulfilling internships they’ve had are ones in which they were actually put to work — an example of labor exploitation according to the National Labor Relations Board. And so when you rely on un- or underpaid work as a means of self-expression you often experience the odd combination of feeling useless and used at the same time.

But let’s shift the conversation to concrete discussion of what could be done to democratize internships. I’ll start with a few basic suggestions, certainly not comprehensive enough to be a program, but general enough to apply outside of our institutional bubbles.

  1. Transparency. Many interns, especially those working outside of the mainstream, are used to hearing euphemisms about austerity privately at the same time they are lambasted publicly. I’m not saying we should ignore scarcity, and I appreciate the avoidance of worn-out references to belt-tightening. But it is tone-deaf to restrict oneself to an apologia on this issue instead of making it part of a dialogue with the interns. In his piece Keith begins to answer a number of my own questions, many of which I wanted to ask while I was an intern, but which I never felt comfortable asking. I often wondered: If you paid me a living wage, if you paid me at all, how quickly would it all go under? Would it mean the end of left-wing literary journalism? If we agree that in theory I should be paid, then why is it never completely clear where my theoretical money is going? A new printer? Higher fees for writers? Another fund-raiser? I was not privy to these discussions when I was an intern, so I’m naturally cynical when I see them published in the magazine, and I wonder if it reflects any real dialogue. Were any interns involved in the making of this symposium?
  2. Pay Your Interns. I can’t really speak to your ability to do this, but if you can, you should. It is also important that interns feel comfortable making this demand. You should pay your interns because it will help ensure that there will be a generation of writers who are committed to your project, and who did not have to feel hazed or demeaned along the way. You should pay your interns because it will avoid hypocrisy and because it will improve our work, assuming that we remain committed to injecting dissenting, experimental, and radical voices into the mainstream.
  3. Expand Your Internship, or Abolish It. If we continue to follow the legal definition of an unpaid internship, then creating one actually requires extra work. In theory you would have interns so that you may open them up to experiences and skills that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to at an entry-level job — this requires extra programming and occasionally redundant work. But regardless of what an intern does, an internship requires capacity for management that many small operations lack. Often interns become their own job-producers, making up their own tasks and responsibilities. If you do not have the resources necessary for this, then you are not looking for an intern. You are looking for a paid entry-level employee.

Aaron Braun


On the Level

Dear Editors,

In his profile of Juiceboxxx (“The Next Next Level”), Leon Neyfakh nicely captures the melancholy of pursuing an artistic vision into one’s late twenties, despite little economic reward. But by identifying his subject as “a guy who couldn’t be anything other than what he was,” Neyfakh grants Juice an aesthetic purity that’s surprisingly blind to how congruent the Juiceboxxx routine is with recent artistic trends.

I’ve seen Juiceboxxx shows a handful of times in the last decade, always with at least one other act that mixes stubborn experimentalism and willfully tacky pop. This has even included other rappers born of the basement noise scene, whose insistence that they’re dead serious only deepens the irony of their personas. In fact, these acts are in line with plenty of contemporary art, from the classrooms of RISD to the Whitney Biennial. It’s easy to picture Juice’s “Thunder Zone” energy drink on display alongside works similarly toying with America’s consumerist information pileup.

What Neyfakh misses, then, in his context-free admiration for Juice’s vision, is the chance to wonder why, in the first couple decades of the new millennium, a young musician dropout would become not a folkie or a punk or a grunger but an unpopular rap-rocker spewing F-bomb-laced positivity. Can the layered irony of his relationship to the commercial cultural behemoth be understood as Jamesonian “blank parody”? As a reaction, maybe only semiconscious, to the failure of explicitly oppositional musical poses to do much more than expand the menu of cultural consumption? And what do we make of an artist emerging from an underground scene who seems to want so desperately to sell out? He runs in circles that are often aggressively antisuccess (tour-mates Extreme Animals have VHS-only releases), and yet he refuses to break character, insisting everyone call him Juiceboxxx — and on spelling it like that! It’s as though he feels that, at any moment, around some corner in Bed-Stuy, his connection to superstardom is coming, and he’d better be ready, tracksuit and all. Is this the next next level? The contradictions of the Juiceboxxx act tell us something about our time, but I’m still not quite sure what.

Benjamin Remsen


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