Literary Mercenaries, Ha Ha Ha
It is I, the mythical freelance book reviewer with three jobs/no jobs! I’m an adjunct who teaches a couple of writing classes (job number one); a staff union organizer who wrangles academic workers twenty hours a week (job number two); and, according to my bio, a “critic” who regularly reviews books for magazines (job number three). No, I don’t have health insurance; yes, I’m paying for physical therapy out of pocket; but no, my injuries are not from a biking accident, since I would never bike in Greater Boston. (I don’t always make the best decisions — I did, after all, get a PhD in English — but I do try to avoid making the worst ones.)
I recognized much in your essay (“Critical Attrition,” Issue 40) about the state of contemporary book reviewing: the laughable wage-to-labor ratio, the staggering self-employment taxes, the strange responses of readers on Twitter. What puzzled me, though, was the idea that the book review was an audition, a way for a writer to get something else: a book contract, a needed byline, an interview for an academic job. Your unnamed reviewer has a mercenary relationship to reviewing: she’s willing to work hard for two weeks and to bite her tongue in order to get the next gig.
Maybe I’m not as savvy as ma semblable here, but I’ve never thought of book reviewing as a means to an end. For me book reviewing is the end. Reading and thinking and writing about books — this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s why I went to graduate school (ha!), and it’s why I take jobs that will “let me write” (ha ha!). I have a mercenary relationship to my other jobs, and even to my other writing, but not to book reviews.
My sense is that I’m not the only critic/reviewer who primarily wants to write about books and is looking for ways to make that financially feasible. The vast amount of good, thoughtful, rigorous criticism out there suggests that many people want to do this work and want to do it with integrity — even if it’s onerous, unpredictable, and doesn’t pay.
You and I agree on a lot: book reviewing is not a sustainable career, Twitter has warped our literary discourse, and, in a better world, magazines and newspapers would hire more staff critics and pay freelancers fairly. We agree, too, that good reviews are being written, against all odds. Better, perhaps, to draw attention to this work, and to make a case for investing in it, than to criticize work that falls flat. But I understand why you highlighted the flaws in the system — if we’ve learned one thing from the algorithm, it’s that negativity gets more attention than praise.
— Maggie Doherty
I’ve had my say elsewhere about the Intellectual Situation on “Literary Mercenaries,” but I’ll say a few more things, because you asked me to and I love seeing my name in print — why else did I become a book reviewer?
Last thing first: your attack on the “Contemporary Themed Review” was really an attack on doing culture war disguised as literary criticism. I agree that doing culture war is predictable and boring, so I try not to do it. In defense of my colleagues, at least of the critics who do mostly literary stuff, it seems to me that reviews of fiction, author biographies, and other literary miscellanea (I’ll leave out the poets, who can speak for themselves) are one media zone that hasn’t been thoroughly colonized by culture war arguments. I think it’s because we critics are interested in other things, like stories and how they’re put together, which is also known as form, plus language, which sometimes rises to the level of style. (Personally I just love analyzing that kind of shit.) Sure, there are pieces around that ask questions like “Should we cancel James Gould Cozzens?” and proffer the answer: “Maybe not entirely!” (Actually, Cozzens was canceled long ago by Dwight Macdonald on entirely other grounds, namely being a lousy writer of pure kitsch — ha ha ha, great piece, Dwight!) But even the New Yorker has seemed to tire of running such pieces in the past year. Still, you do get a lot of short stories in that magazine that are more or less allegories for cancel culture. Some of them are funny! Oh well.
More troubling to me is your sympathy for the “Contemporary Reader,” who gets confused reading Goodreads, Twitter, and the Times Book Review. If this guy can’t keep up, fuck him. Let him read Sally Rooney, or whichever novelist the hype barnacles attach themselves to next. Critics need not internalize the mentality of literary consumerism. It’s reasonable for publishers and authors to worry about who reads what and why and how many of those readers (the saints! Spending their money on books!) there are, but as you point out, book reviewers don’t get paid very much. And here is the thing we buy with our penury: total indifference to the wider literary marketplace. We write our pieces, we have our say, we don’t care what you strangers are reading.
— Christian Lorentzen