Careerist: A person whose main concern is for professional advancement, especially one willing to achieve this by any means. —Oxford Online Dictionary
I just read (and re-read) a long article in the Spring 2021 issue of Bookforum about a new biography of Philip Roth, in which Roth is painted as the most “careerist” of 20th century novelists. It seems like an awful lot of words chewed up to describe something really recognizable.
As Christian Lorentzen, the writer of this piece, defines it, “careerist” seems to be a careful attention to one’s self-image; an immediate and sharp response to perceived slights; and never turning down a public-relations opportunity. And it made me wonder, what famed author hasn’t done those things? Mark Twain was famous for his lecture tours, several cross-country journeys in the 1860s, 1880s, and 1890s that saved him from authorial poverty. Gore Vidal was on all the TV talk shows from the 1950s through the 80s. (Talk shows don’t book writers any more, alas.) And when Truman Capote, of all people, calls someone a careerist, that’s nothing more than projection.
The contemporary word for the careerist writer is “platform,” as in the thing you can stand on that lifts you above the crowd. Rachel Maddow has a great platform; there’s not another PhD in Political Science who could write a book about Spiro Agnew and sell a hundred thousand copies of it. If she wasn’t a TV star, if she were merely Dr. Maddow on the poly-sci faculty at UMass-Amherst, she’d have published that same book with Routledge and sold twelve hundred copies. It’s a good book, but there are a million good books; the platform made it a successful book.
A string of bad work can collapse your platform, but good work has very little to do with building it. (Exhibit 1: the Kardashians.) The platform comes from labor unrelated to your talent or your commitment. In our age of author photos, it really helps to be attractive. (You can grow the Michael Chabon “victory beard” later, after your eighth or tenth book.) Getting your MFA from Michigan or Irvine or Cornell is a great education, but it’s also a careerist move, because those are the training grounds where agents and editors camp out on the sidelines with binoculars, waiting to grab the promising young recruits. It’s not who you know… it’s who knows you, who’ll recognize your name in the inbox, who’ll return your calls. Who’ll recognize your name in the bookstore and take a $30 chance on it.
The platform determines which books get acquired, and which of the acquired get the advance. The platform determines which books get shipped in boxes of fifty and laid out on the “New and Notable” table at the bookstore, and which get shipped in a mixed lot to be slotted into the shelf spinewise as one of the strays sadly awaiting a new home. The platform determines who gets the reviews, the blurbs, the invitations to do Q&As with Bookforum and Poets and Writers.
We’ve known all of this for forever. There’s nothing new about it, and nothing unique to Philip Roth for knowing how to do it once the platform made itself evident. The term “big-name author” is kind of a metaphor, with “big” standing for “well-known…” but it’s also literal, in the case of those authors whose name on the cover or spine is gigantic and the title much smaller. What’s the product being sold? Not Dressed for Death, but Donna Leon, and the readers’ anticipated backstage experience of Venice. Not The Institute, but Stephen King, and the readers’ anticipated experience of supernatural menace. Not In Pieces, but Sally Field, and the readers’ anticipated experience of a guided tour through the Boomer Hall of Fame. Look on your bookshelf at the spines of your books; only seven of the roughly 350 books in the shelf next to my bed have the author name more prominent than the title. Three are by Joan Didion. One by Nick Hornby, identified on the spine only as Hornby. The current novel by Peter Ho Davies. Two are late-career autobiographies by musicians, Bill Bruford and Andy Summers. When the name is big, the publishers are betting on you buying the name, the work only an incidental. The vast majority of writers are merely listed on the cover as aids to alphabetical shelving, and the work has to sell itself.
And the advice books aside, nobody knows how to build a platform. It helps to be born to someone prominent in the industry you’d like to be part of, but we’ve always known that, too. But really, it’s pretty random. You can be super talented and work super hard, and some people will have their work land on the pavement and be washed away in the next storm, while others have their work land on fertile soil and take root. Our “hope labor,” writing for free in the online magazines, only pays off if that magazine as a whole is suddenly noticed and rewarded in the Zeitgeist; all the other people who wrote great things for magazines that go undiscovered receive no platform points.
All we have is the work, and occasionally lifting our eyes from the desk to scan the horizon for opportunity. Opportunity that may or may not pan out, may or may not be illusory. Opportunity that seeks the already established channel.