Content Management

Why, you could put ANYTHING in here!

Imagine that bucket as a bookstore, or a gallery, or a magazine, or a college curriculum, or a grocery store. Any desirable space of limited capacity. The more of us there are who can provide the appropriate content for that bucket, the more we’ll be in competition with one another, and that competition will come mostly in the form of price.

I’ll teach that class for two thousand dollars.

Well, I’ll teach it for eighteen hundred.

Being a content provider in any field is like a reverse auction, in which the lowest bidder wins.

The journalist Ben Fong-Torres maintained a strictly freelance career for forty years, because he wanted the freedom to pursue his own topics at his own depth. He knew that as a daily newspaper reporter, he’d be assigned stories that weren’t in his area, and that he’d be under pressure to turn them around quickly, glancing off the surface rather than really penetrating. When he started in the 1960s, he could write a feature story and be paid about $500. But he finally gave up and accepted a newspaper job. The end came when he was offered a cover story for a big magazine in 2006, and they told him it would pay… $500.

One of the things I described in The Adjunct Underclass was our increasing understanding of college education as “content,” and college teachers as “content providers,” leading toward what economists call commodity pricing, in which a gallon of crude oil or milk is a uniform commodity to be sold at uniform price.

The fungibility of the commodity places downward pressure on price, and cannot consider the unique practices of the producer. If a particular dairy farmer thinks he needs $18.50 per hundredweight to break even, but the going market rate from the co-op is $16.50, then $16.50 it’s going to be, and the individual farmer gets to choose to either (a) lose two bucks per hundred pounds, (b) reduce the quality costs of his work, or (c) stop selling milk altogether. So too for adjunct faculty. Intro Sociology can be bought by colleges in the Boston Metro teaching market for about three thousand dollars per three credits, so an individual teacher—no matter how well credentialed, no matter how excellent—gets to choose to (a) teach for an embarrassingly small hourly rate, (b) try to make their teaching something simpler and less time-intensive, or (c) not teach at all. In the eyes of the college-as-aggregator, as long as any specific provider is above the floor of competency, it doesn’t really matter if they’re any better.

I was put in mind of this over the past couple of days while reading the really smart blog of the writer Madeleine Morris, PhD in creative writing from Roehampton University. She’s had some success commercially publishing her work—she writes erotica, a small enough bucket in the best of times, and one with an enormous number of content suppliers—but most of her work has been given away, published in bits and pieces on various websites, including her own. She’s part of the vast fiction community who, even when published in “the little magazines,” are paid only in contributor’s copies. But she lays blame at the feet of not merely the publishers, but also us readers.

Content has become an incredibly cheap commodity. I’ve watched readers whine over paying $2.00 for an ebook novel. I know of readers who buy an ebook, read it, and then return it for a refund. Think about it: a novel for less than the price of a coffee you consume in 5 minutes and piss out 5 minutes later. A novel that takes, if you’re any more than an abject hack, at least 3 months to write.  So, it’s readers too, who feel entitled to something close to free entertainment. 

The internet has made us all freeloaders. We expect our music and our reporting and our images and our ideas and our stories for free. We are offended by paywalls. So content providers are all reduced to buskers, playing our tune on the corner with a hat on the ground, asking Kickstarter or GoFundMe or Patreon for a few bucks.

And here’s another dilemma. I’ve had my career, I don’t need to be paid to write. So are these very essays contributing to the expectation of good, free content? Am I taking up reading time that someone else might be paid to claim? Am I contributing to our cultural diminishment of intellectual life by offering intellectual life for free?

So let me say this. All writers need readers. Some writers need readers and money, because it’s their livelihood. Pay those people. Please.

Systemic Internality

The inside of my head for the last few stories…

I’ve been working on a new book lately, and the first few chapters have been sort of slow going. They make sense, they’re smart, they’re setting up later work, but they feel weary. I attributed my malaise to a broader and more general malaise all around us.

But then last week, I wrote a scene with five friends in a bar on a Friday night. And it levitated, it wrote itself. It was just people talking. And I love that.

The last couple of stories I’ve shared with my writing group have been about people who have found themselves isolated, cast adrift from a community that they thought they’d once been a part of. And those are harder for me to write, and less fun to write, because there’s no dialogue. I mean, that’s kind of the existential state of exile, right? It’s not merely the identity fact that you’re not a member of the club any more, it’s also the social fact that you’ve got nobody to talk to who understands your native language. When you’re cut adrift, you lose the possibility of dialogue. You start talking to your cat, or your volleyball, just to convince yourself that you matter.

I thought back on the fiction I started to write once I first left higher ed. And the first six novels were all told mostly in scene, filled with dialogue and social connection. The one I wrote just before Christmas was all in scene, filled with dialogue. Those books just poured out of me, I couldn’t wait to get back to the desk the next morning and see what those people would do next. The stories of individuals adrift, though… I have to pull myself back to those. I have to figure out how they’ll dig themselves out of their isolation, which was a project I spent far too long on in my own life. It doesn’t appeal to me to go back there.

I grew up with television. And television is, paradoxically, an innately auditory medium. Whether it’s Hogan’s Heroes or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The West Wing or Home Improvement, television lives and dies on the quality of its dialogue. The scenes and clothing and actions and music exist only to lend visual context to the conversations. Watch a TV show sometime—I don’t care what show, your choice—and count the longest time spent between anyone speaking. If it’s even ten seconds, I’d be amazed. Whether drama or comedy, whether medical or detective or family or Western, the fundamental unit of analysis is the ensemble, building itself every week through words.

I’ve made my writing career in essays, in the sound of my own isolated voice. The dialogue with other thinkers is implied, not present. And I’ve got a pretty good voice for essays, because I try to write the way I’d say it. But I don’t have to write novels that are actually just essays in drag, as so many are. I can write ensembles. If I’m going to write for pleasure, I should include my own pleasure as a worthy goal.

The Importance of Being Earnest

We see things not as they are, but as we are.

Anais Nin, Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961

In every morning’s e-mail, I receive a briefing digest from the New York Times (sick tigers at the Bronx Zoo, Anthony Fauci blocked from taking a reporter’s question about hydroxychloroquine) and another from the Chronicle of Higher Education (will colleges reopen this fall? will this mark the end of tenure?). I read some of the highlights (well, maybe the wrong word) from each location this morning, and then got drawn into an article from the Chronicle’s archives, called “The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of Postmodernism.” And from there, hyperlinked quickly to an adjacent article, “What’s Wrong with Library Studies?” which was a 2016 pushback against “the paranoid project” of literary studies configured as exclusively political critique. And that hyperlinked me back one more year, to December 2015, and Lisa Ruddick’s essay “When Nothing Is Cool.”

Ruddick is doing some interesting things here, about the ways in which cultural criticism can be alienating for even those who practice it, that it promotes a form of “intellectual sadism… norms that make ruthlessness look like sophistication.” I think that our relentless pursuit of irony has been a force for cultural diminishment. When we begin every analysis with the presumption of others’ ill-will, the presumption of hidden agendas, the presumption of threat, we diminish ourselves in a pre-emptive act, lest others diminish us instead. As John Cougar* set forth in 1980, “Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did.”

Irony is a cynical response to cynicism. We saw the growth of the ironic form in the 1950s as a rebellion against consumerism, its maturation in the 1960s as a rebellion against Vietnam, and its full blossoming in the 1970s against the betrayals of Watergate, the full collapse of whatever faith in common purpose we might have once ever had. It’s no coincidence that Saturday Night Live, a television show created specifically to show us how stupid other people are, was launched in October 1975, only a year after Nixon was forced from office and we really started to learn just how extensive his criminal enterprise had been, only six months after we fully gave up on twenty years of baseless involvement in Vietnam. We’d been lied to, we were angry about it, and that anger became rootless, free-spraying across the landscape, taking down everything around us.

I’ve never been able to sit through even a single full episode of Seinfeld, a show based on the premise that every single person is debased and motivated only by vanity. I cannot watch a Will Ferrell movie, all of which are motivated by the cheap shot of setting up and then mocking a lead character who is both inept and narcissistic. If even our entertainments are populated by people with no redeeming characteristics, we are culturally lost, engaged in a “ruthlessness that looks like sophistication.”

Tell me what you want. Tell me what you believe. Tell me what you think is noble and good. Even if I disagree, I won’t mock you for your dreams. We owe it to ourselves to create some hesitant islands of fully stated aspiration, in the midst of a culture that can only honestly express its mistrust.

*In 1980, he’d moved on from Johnny Cougar, but hadn’t yet become John Cougar Mellencamp, nor his current plain ol’ John Mellencamp. He was still caught up in his own (externally driven) self-negation, wearing a name chosen by his record label.

Nothing Is Neutral

Useful sometimes, less so other times

Sometimes things have to hit me several times in quick succession before I think about what they mean.

  1. This morning, I had a new colleague ask how to find reliable data on adjuncts. I told him that I didn’t think there was any, because all the data that IS collected is collected to serve a question that I’m not asking. The IPEDS differentiation between “full-time” and “part-time” faculty actually conceals what I’m trying to learn. Their question is about calculating student-teacher ratio, and my question is about the insecurity of intellectual life. It’s like using a kitchen thermometer to measure how many potatoes I have left; they’re both kind of about food, but they’re not mutual or interchangeable.
  2. Yesterday, my friend Aimee was talking about which of two gallery spaces was preferable for her fall show. And she was talking about the art world’s preference for the plain white wall, so that “the space wouldn’t compete with the art.” That, of course, privileges art that lives nowhere in particular, eliminates the notion that art could cooperate with a space rather than compete with it. (She actually used the term white box artist, which I think is its own wonderfully revelatory category.)
  3. Nora is trying to put a group of local food providers together with local people or families who are in need of that food during our time of home isolation. And we quickly realized that we don’t have a great way of doing that. The school knows the families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but that only includes families with kids between 4 and 18 years old. The local social service agencies know the people they care for, but there are a fair number of families who have done everything they can to stay below the observation of social services, knowing that their lifestyle would draw scrutiny and possible intervention if it were exposed. Or we can just put out the call to say that food assistance is available, and run the risk of freeloaders (its own contextually defined category)
  4. I was pointed to the category of “under-recognized artist,” which the Harpo Foundation defines as an artist who hasn’t presented in major museums or events, hasn’t received multiple awards or grants, and isn’t represented by a prominent gallery. (Note the subsumed categories of “major” museums and “prominent” galleries.) Likewise, Bread Loaf divides its participants between Contributors, Scholars, or Fellows, based on number and scope of prior publications.

Every category we make serves some purpose, draws attention to some characteristics and ignores others. Think even about the photo at the top of this post. Having those four cards would be terrific in poker or in rummy, would be okay but not outstanding in cribbage (unless the cut card was an ace or an eight), and would be disastrous in a game of spades. Categories support rules, and don’t easily transport across rule systems.

If we accept data laid out in the categories provided by others, we’re kind of like the drunk looking for his lost car keys under a street lamp because that’s the only place he can see well enough to search. We’re often forced to rely on data that’s carefully illuminated but not helpful for our specific need. I’ve been published (and paid for my writing) for over thirty years, with three books, but not published specifically in fiction. So am I a contributor, a scholar, or a fellow? Am I an emerging artist, or a mid-career artist, or an established artist? Is my research part of the humanities, or the social sciences?

You want to play the game, you need to know the rules. The rules will determine the categories. And the categories, far too often, define who we are.

What a Weird Business

I’ve been working on my current novel most of the afternoon, after having completed my emergency management duties for the day. (Mostly I accomplished a two-paragraph transition between scenes, before I gave up and loaded the dishwasher, ate some cashews.)

But today’s email included one of the most delightfully random, or perhaps randomly delightful, messages I’ve received in a while. It began as follows:

Dear Dr. Childress: I am pleased to inform you that we have issued a translation license to Rye Field Publications, via Chinese Connection Agency, for a complex Chinese-language edition of THE ADJUNCT UNDERCLASS.

Well, how about that! Perhaps the very last development I ever imagined regarding this book is that it would be translated into any other language. (U. Chicago Press has already sold a different set of rights, for the creation of the audiobook. Now, if someone wants to make a movie out of it, I’d totally be on board for that… an eight-episode Ken Burns documentary about the end of American higher education.)

I’m interested in this notion of “a complex Chinese-language edition,” as it seems to carry political overtones. Rye Field Publications is a Taiwanese publishing house. According to Wikipedia, Taiwan has never adopted the simplified Chinese characters emerging from the People’s Republic, and the government prohibits its use in official documents. So my book will be one more twig added to the scale of the decades’-long balance between independence and unification. Not its intended purpose, of course, but our writing is almost never used for its intended purpose. Readers always get to decide what our work is for.

As I wrote in my last post, so much of what happens in publishing takes place within a sealed box, invisible to readers and writers alike. It’s fascinating when a cover panel gets removed once in a while, and we get a look at the gears.