Paleo Retiree writes:
I left a mini-memoir-ish comment on a Steve Sailer blogpost about the English writer Julie Burchill and her ex-husband Cosmo Landesman that a few might find interesting. Here it is:
A general question that’s come up a few times in this thread is “Why don’t we in America have more opinionators like Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman?” Can I take a swing at, if not an answer, at least some reflections?
Back in the early ’90s I wrote regularly for a magazine Julie and Cosmo were involved with, Toby Young’s Modern Review. I was one of a handful of American contributors. We had loads of fun, even if paychecks were minuscule. Lowbrow for highbrows was the magazine’s motto, I seem to remember, and it was one of the first British publications to deal with popular culture with humor, brains and offhand literary chops. It aimed to be a cross between The New York Review of Books and Spin and did a great job of it. It had a big impact too. A number of the magazine’s contributors went on to land featured gigs at the big daily newspapers, and many of those papers then altered their own cultural coverage (which had been awfully stuffy, as in stuck in the ’50s) to be funnier and to take more note of popular culture.
I never got to know Julie (who was theoretically the magazine’s co-editor) or Cosmo but I became pretty friendly with Toby. I’d had a terrible time placing my stuff in American magazines but Toby dug my ideas and my writing, and once we’d connected he ran something by me nearly every issue, finally giving me a regular column shortly before the magazine imploded. If I remember right, Julie — nothing if not a bundle of talent and willfulness, a real loose cannon — was then moving into her lesbian phase, and was becoming a bit of an angry feminist. I heard third-hand that a couple of pieces I wrote on sexual topics for the magazine really offended her, something I’m still smiling about. She and her g.f. made some sort of power grab and in response Toby torched the magazine. End of a fun moment in magazine publishing.
Anyhoo … And if I can be allowed to assume that my having written for The Modern Review demonstrates that I can do witty/educated literary journalism competently … My pieces at The Modern Review — despite the splash the magazine made — led to nothing whatsoever for me back here in the States. Before The Modern Review, I struggled to get American editors to take note of my ideas and my writing; and after The Modern Review I returned to being the same struggling, mostly-unsuccessful American magazine writer. I placed pieces about books and movies and digital culture here and there. But, despite the notice my writing had gotten in England and despite the fact that I was friendly with Pauline Kael, who put in a good word for me at many outlets, I could never, ever get any momentum going. Toby remained the one and only editor who ever got behind my stuff. Over the years I worked with some great American editors, and I learned a lot from them. But none of them wanted to feature me, or to give me a chance to be a regular.
So my conclusion is that the main reason American has no British-style offhand/casual literary journalism is that American editors don’t want it and won’t permit it even when they’re offered it. We’re too earnest, and we’re too addicted to the idea of what’s important — we take ‘way too seriously what’s hot and what’s successful. If you have a sense of playfulness and perspective, if you like using irony and tone, if you like juggling conflicting ideas, if you’ve got some zip in your prose as well as a decent cultural background … Well, it’s not to your advantage. It should be, but it’s not. When we’re serious, we’re Really Serious. And when we’re pop, we’re nothing but pop. Plus: Americans just don’t have a culture of good-natured jousting and debate. For British readers, opinion journalism is a rowdy blood sport — disagreeing vigorously is considered good entertainment. They *want* you to take extreme positions; they want to be outraged and pissed off. (And then have a beer, laugh it off and move on.) Provocation is fun, right? And British readers don’t get personally hurt just because they disagree with you. Didn’t Robert Hughes once say that American don’t have much of a tradition of intellectual entertainment? He saw his own books and TV series as intellectual entertainment. We could use a lot more of that, IMHO.
The American opinion journalism scene was a source of huge frustration for me. As far as I could tell, there was simply no place for someone who does his own version of irreverent British cultural journalism in the American scene. Arty guy though I was, I was also tuned into computers fairly early on, and I could have had a great ten years covering and discussing the implications for culture (books, movies, music, etc) of the transition to digital technology, had some editor been willing to give me a regular column to do so. But no one would. I’m a good movie critic, and I have an unusual (and informed) take on books and publishing. But I couldn’t swing more than the occasional assignment even to write about books and movies. I spent far more time pitching stories than writing them, which — take it from one who knows — is a situation that really makes a writer want to blow his brains out.
So I was hyper-thrilled when blogging technology came along. I plunged in as soon as I could. Screw editors: why not try connecting directly with readers? It was great. I had an even better time than I’d had at The Modern Review. As a blogger I could write what I wanted to, at whatever length and from whatever kooky point of view I wanted to. I could say what I had to say, and I could have fun doing it. My writing got looked at by tons of people; I learned a lot from a lot of smart visitors; and I made many new friends, both online and in real life.
Which has left me with two main reflections. 1) American editors are mistaken — there really is a sizable American readership for rowdy, out-there cultural opinionatin’. And 2) the blogosphere is what Americans have as an equivalent of the freewheeling 17th and 18th century British coffeehouse scene. It lets us enjoy lots of Steve Sailer, after all, as well as numerous other smart, offbeat, and original voices — and not just the bloggers. Some of the most remarkable and reliable opinion writers of the last decade and a half have been blog-commenters, it seems to me.
An element I left out of this account of professional failure would complete the picture: the fact that I wasn’t trying very hard. Writing and culture-yak may have come easily to me, but I was never someone who was determined at all costs to make a living as a writer. In truth, my main goal where work was concerned was to earn a middle-class salary in a field I could stand, while slowly over time reducing my work hours. (What can I say? Freedom and free time have always been fantastically important to me.) A determination to put yourself over as what you want to be taken as often seems to me far more important a factor in American success than talent. So, for the record, let’s note that it wan’t just the perversity of American magazines and editors that kept me from becoming a regular culture-commentator somewhere.
The truly masochistic can explore some of the writing I did as a freelancer here.