No Live Readings

by Russell Jacoby on August 3, 2009


Edmund Wilson’s printed note, a response to a student group asking him to do a reading, breathes of another world. He added in a handwritten scrawl that he doesn’t do “live readings either when I’m offered a very large fee.” And the printed card itself lists a bevy of activities that he declines. Unlike participants here and now – myself and the others – he doesn’t “contribute to or take part in symposiums or ‘panels’ of any kind,” “give interviews” or speeches. He is an ornery writer, devoted to his craft.

The note, probably fifty years old, could be the occasion for tearful nostalgia–or for the charge of nostalgia. Where are the Edmund Wilsons today? Or even, since Scialabba discusses him, who are the successors to Noam Chomsky? The question is an old one; it both predates and postdates my own “The Last Intellectuals.” Just look at Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), where he takes stock of his fellow novelists–and finds them wanting. Where are the successors to Wolfe, Hemingway and Faulkner, he asks? To inquire as to what–and who–constitutes an intellectual generation remains valid. Yet many take it as a personal insult. They respond, “Look at me! The water is great! Come on in!” Daniel W. Drezner, who has written a “robust defense”: of new and younger intellectuals, cites a media studies professor, “There has never been a better time to be a public intellectual, and the Web is the big reason why.”

George Scialabba does not blog, although he has a web site. Like Wilson, he is a non-academic intellectual. That road or that life has become tougher, if not impossible. The world of little magazines and newspapers that print essays contracts each year. The Web pays zilch. Wilson could live from his writings (although he skipped paying income taxes), but how many can do this nowadays? The essays from Scialabba’s collection originally appeared in places such as “Agni,” “Boston Phoenix,” “Boston Review,” and “Dissent.” The earnings from these pieces would pay for a month of Starbuck lattes, not a month of rent or mortgage. The anthology that Robert Boynton published some years ago, “The New New Journalism” subtitled “Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft” tip-toed around a issue that still remains too hot: money. How do intellectuals earn enough money to write and think?

The possibilities are worse than ever. Yes, a few souls manage to hustle and do quite nicely, for instance, Christopher Hitchens. Yes, a few magazines like the “New Yorker” pay a living wage, but for most to survive, if not flourish, requires a working (and willing) spouse, family money or an academic position (or its equivalent such as a slot in a think tank or policy outfit). Yes, Scialabba has a chair at Harvard, but his sits behind a desk on the ground floor of the building which he superintends. Only the most resolute can juggle for years a day job and night time of writing. For almost everyone else, the choice is to join an institution or die on the vine.

In the wake of government harassment of professors in the 1950s, Albert Einstein was asked about the situation of scientists and famously replied, “If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.” Even for the 1950s the reference to a peddler is dated, yet the point remains salient. What are the costs of the institutionalization of intelligence?

In a discussion that drew on Wilson, the forgotten–or perhaps never noticed– Josef Weber cited these sentences of Einstein. Weber, to whom Murray Bookchin dedicated his “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” had little use for intellectuals. He answered the question that Scialabba poses, ‘what are intellectuals good for?’ with “very little” or a “less than little.” Some fifty years ago, Weber formulated the “law” of the “dwindling force of cognition in bourgeois society.” (Weber’s “The Problem of Social Consciousness in Our Time” is “available”: on a Situationist web site. I reformulated the idea in the “Falling Rate of Intelligence” in “Telos” many years ago). Society progresses in information and facts, but regresses in understanding. Intellectuals weave the veil. George, as do others on the anarchist-inflected left such as Chomsky, agree; they judge intellectuals servants of power. End of story. The old IWW graphic that Scialabba uses for his book cover leaves no room for doubt. “We Fool You” runs the tag line for the intellectuals–priests, professors, and pundits.

In an age of self-importance and self-promotion the flat-out denunciation of intellectuals is refreshing–and too simple, as Scialabba himself knows. In fact he calls for “public political intellectuals of a new sort,” but he is not exactly convincing on this score. The names he offers are either long gone (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), recently gone (Richard Rorty) or do not represent a new generation (Chomsky). Perhaps it is too soon to identify a new generation, and perhaps it will not take shape as did previous generations. Let us hope. What is worrisome, however, is how it is going to eat. The Internet allows new voices , but it also undercuts the traditional magazines and newspapers that at least pretended to pay. The Web forces more people to join in the rat-race to earn a living or find an academic or neo-academic position – or vanish. With some small changes Wilson’s note could be redone today: “Edmund Wilson is delighted to: Read Manuscripts,” etc. As the institutions get fatter, intellectuals get weaker, more proof of the dwindling force of cognition in bourgeois society.



PK 08.03.09 at 8:39 pm

Looks more like “unless” to me, rather than “when”. Which would also make more sense, though undermining your “devoted to his craft” conceit a bit.



Vance Maverick 08.03.09 at 8:46 pm

For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that scrawl reads, “I don’t give readings either unless I’m offered a very large fee.”

Taking the two declines — of the “force of cognition in bourgeois society” and of the economy of print — as read, is it possible to distinguish them, or are they the same?


Phil 08.03.09 at 9:22 pm

they judge intellectuals servants of power. End of story

Not so much ‘end of story’ as ‘on the whole’, ‘as a rule with some significant exceptions’, ‘as a tendency which some honourably resist to the best of their ability’, usw.


Kathleen Lowrey 08.03.09 at 9:31 pm

if nothing else, the bit about “supply opinions on literary and other subjects” suggests that this card was meant as a bit of a joke, a way to soften refusal with a tidbit of Wilson memorabilia.

I don’t really understand the lament about the decline of the public intellectual. I read lots of them — on the interwebs — and if not all of them are raking it in financially, I can’t help but suspect that this has always been true. After all, the fact that we *still* read Edmund Wilson leads one to think he wasn’t famous at the time because there was a huge market in public intellectualism that no longer exists but he was famous at the time for the same reasons he’s famous now — he’s unusually interesting and unusually worth reading.

The rise of blogs also seems to prove that people who are burbling with interesting ideas can’t resist putting them out there, paid or not. One thing they don’t seem to do is “vanish” (indeed, now that I think about it I now read many more web-based female and non-white public intellectuals than I ever used to read print-based ones). So who is vanishing? The audience for the old-school, anointed select who got into print-based publications and had a captive body of readers who didn’t have anywhere else to go to satisfy their appetite for political commentary and cultural critique; now that they can read other, more interesting, and self-selected public intellectuals they are doing so. Hooray! What’s the downside again?


CJColucci 08.03.09 at 9:33 pm

I read somewhere that Evelyn Waugh had a printed all-purpose reply card that read: “Mr. Evelyn Waugh sincerely regrets that he cannot do what you so kindly suggest.”


rea 08.03.09 at 9:55 pm

Poor guy–losing a large fee for a reading because his handwriting is so bad tht “unless” and “when” are indistinguishable . . .


lemuel pitkin 08.03.09 at 9:59 pm

I generally agree with Kathleen Lowery. And certainly it’s curious to offer Scialabba as an example of what’s lost when writers can no longer support themselves through writing, since he is a wonderful writer who never did support himself through writing. Yes, “only the most resolute can juggle for years a day job and night time of writing.” But it’s hard to see how the displacement of Dissent by blogs changes that one way or the other.

What I think it does do — which almost everyone recognizes but seems to have trouble saying in a non-polemical way — is that blogs undermine the economy of prestige. Obviously the democratization of public discourse is real and good and tremendously important; now is better than then. But it would be foolish to deny there are costs. Dissent didn’t pay enough to matter but it did offer a kind of recognition that presumably made the day job much more tolerable. (And even purely symbolic payment is still, well, symbolic. I know I felt like a real writer the first time I got a check for a freelance piece.)

Gatekeepers are bad when they favor the connected and the conventional, as they always did. But it does seem like we ought to be looking for new ways to give writers the kind of formal, symbolic recognition that publishing in a magazine used to do.


Vance Maverick 08.03.09 at 10:03 pm

It’s not that his handwriting is illegible — it’s that in this fallen age, we the techno-illiterates are no longer capable of scanning it.


Kathleen Lowrey 08.03.09 at 10:43 pm

Lemuel Pitkin — my sense is that bloggers who have an enormous fanbase do feel that exact sense of distinction/recognition, and that its very immediacy keeps them buoyed up through their day jobs.


Alex 08.03.09 at 11:02 pm

Seems strange to use as evidence for the decline of intellectual engagement in public life a printed statement from an intellectual 50 years ago categorically refusing to engage in public or indeed intellectual life.

No debating? No speaking? No teaching? (No learning?) No reviewing? Isn’t it the basis of the idea of a man of letters that as well as periodically producing an easy-to-wrap rectangular consumer item (whatever the associated habitus level), you’re involved with the culture more deeply, more often, and crucially on a shorter feedback loop?

Hey, he had cards printed telling everyone but the guy who brought his royalty cheques to fuck off. The obvious must be stated.


Anderson 08.03.09 at 11:06 pm

I question the veracity of the word “regrets” on Wilson’s card (which btw does read as Vance states).


Crazy eyes killer 08.04.09 at 12:04 am

The Web forces more people to join in the rat-race to earn a living

Well, there’s something to be said for that. It is a prophylactic against the precious and self-deceiving posturing that typifies this website.


Rick Perlstein 08.04.09 at 12:05 am

Kathleen Lowrey eloquently summarizes a body of emails I’ve been posting privately to Professor Jacoby for many, many years. Word up.


Salient 08.04.09 at 12:50 am

my sense is that bloggers who have an enormous fanbase do feel that exact sense of distinction/recognition, and that its very immediacy keeps them buoyed up through their day jobs.

True, but one has to write several items a week (if not several times a day) instead of perhaps one a month.


vivian 08.04.09 at 12:51 am

Kathleen Lowrey nailed it perfectly. In the old days, there were many levels of gatekeeping that a prospect had to pass to get before an audience. Public opinions flowed in one direction, towards the public. Now we don’t have a single set of gatekeepers, discourse is less rehearsed, and the players are often less well known. You’ll have to repeat yourself more often on a blog than in an interview with David Frost. Someone shallow might think this reflects lower intellect, less erudition, whatever. Someone lazy might hate having to read a lot rather than turn on one of the four available television stations. And yes, there is enough crap out there to make one appreciate gatekeepers, but not enough to miss the sparkling range of discourse of… the 1950’s.

John Scalzi offers an answer to “what do I have to give up to write?” and it’s pretty reasonable, well within the means of someone with a day job.


mollymooly 08.04.09 at 1:12 am

I think it says “unless I’m offered a tall latte free”.


John Quiggin 08.04.09 at 1:44 am

@vivian, Scalzi is right of course, but I was hoping for something I didn’t know already.

So, assume you don’t have an hour of TV a day left to give up, and your book is still going too slowly (I have a friend with precisely this problem right now). How do you find time to write on the Internet searching for references on say, Central Bank independence, without spending hours wandering off into discussions of Central Asian ethnomusicology as interpreted by the denizens of the Left Bank?


matthew kuzma 08.04.09 at 5:47 am

“Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to read manuscripts”

What a specific disability. I’m really impressed with him for overcoming it to the extent that he did.

But seriously, if an intellectual refuses to engage the public on all but the most limited and unilateral of terms, I have a hard time mourning his vanishing. If the modern era requires the intellectual to engage the public more actively, that is a blessing not a curse.

It’s also worth noting how absurdly elitist this whole premise is. There are literally thousands of intellectuals engaging the public through technological innovation, through solving the great problems of the world, and through art. Or they’re Democratic Presidents and Vice Presidents. If intellectuals in the humanities are having a hard time making ends meet, it could be because they still have to compete with the likes of Kant and Aristotle. Meanwhile Burt Rutan is sending civilians into space, the geniuses at Google are putting an incredible depth and breadth of information (and the wisdom of long-dead intellectuals) at our fingertips, and Al Gore is helping us survive ourselves. And Bobby McFerrin is still awesome. All of these people are intellectuals engaging with the public and making a very good living indeed.

So what if it’s harder to make a living doing nothing but writing books now? 300 years ago it was pretty hard to make a living doing nothing but debating others and while Aristotle may very well have thought that was a sure sign of the death of intellectuals in the public life, other people would rightly think he was mired in the past. Welcome to the 21st century. Books are dead, intellectuals are still very much alive and relevant.


Vance Maverick 08.04.09 at 6:45 am

Matthew, are you trying to prove every cliché about the decline of discourse in the Internet age ;-)? I haven’t read the book nominally under discussion here (either), but I do know Wilson, and your judgment is way off — if he refused channels of communication other than the official ones, it’s because those were sufficient for him to communicate widely and well. (With time left over for a vigorous personal life.)


JulesLt 08.04.09 at 7:07 am

It’s amusing how – satire or not – it is almost specifically a manifesto against how ‘freetards’ suggest authors should be funding their work – selling ‘presence’ or ‘authenticity’ or anything except the work itself.

On the flipside, I’m reminded of Kundera’s ‘Immortality’, where the author complains about ‘dumbing down’ but I was left thinking that Kundera sells a lot of books, certainly more than any of his forebears did in their lifetime.

It did seem to me that – as others have commented – the thing he was really bemoaning was the loss of prestige and status once accorded to writers.

One tiny gripe – the geniuses at Google are not doing this out of the good of their heart – that may have been their original mission – but the company is run by business people, and if you check on Wolfram Alpha you’ll see how many billions they extract out of the on-line economy. Our great public libraries were never so aggressive about selling advertising.

It’s also notable how Google fund intellectuals (like Lessig via donations to his employer) who argue the Google case – a good example of how intellectuals are still pawns of power.


lisa 08.04.09 at 7:29 am

One interesting thing about Noam Chomsky: He does a great deal to help raise awareness and funds for organizations that need his help. E.g., he gives talks for fairly obscure non-profit organization that I suppose he thinks are doing good work and then allows them to charge admission. This is how he uses his fame. He doesn’t seem to use it any other way, e.g., to enrich himself or meet famous people, etc.

What Chomsky does is sort of the opposite of Wilson. There’s a kind of humility to it. He doesn’t create a huge buffer between himself and people who want his help that would make his life easier. I’ve also heard that he is fairly conscientious with his students, often more conscientious than less celebrated professors. This is sort of the opposite of protecting one’s writing. There’s something very admirable about it, whatever you think of Chomsky’s politics.

I don’t know how public intellectuals will make it without being professors. They will probably have to write books that a lot of people will want to buy and put ads on their blogs. One question I wonder is how many public intellectuals in the past depended upon family money? Historically, quite a few. So another worry is why, as a society, we don’t produce people anymore who inherit a lifelong stipend who can also write and have something useful to say. (Kidding.)

I’ll bet there are all these weird micro-factors also–like NYC rent control or having bought your house at the right time so the mortgage could be paid off. Things that made it possible to live on smaller sums.


Britta 08.04.09 at 8:02 am

I must agree with some other commentors, the man sounds “ornery” to the point of ungenerosity and meanness of spirit. I mean, “not donate books to libraries?” “Sign autographs?” I suppose there shouldn’t be an onus on a talented writer or intellectual to a public one per se, but I would write that down eccentricity caused by a mild personality flaw, not a trait to be emulated by others or of whose passing ought to be mourned.

I don’t see how this “death of the intellectual” claim is any different from all the other “golden age” tripe floating around. When were intellectuals or artists *not* either a) independently wealthy or b) linked to an institution or a patron? All those Kants and Aristotles? either as or bs. Artists? Musicians? Philosophers? Novelists? Name one from the days of yore who was not acutely aware of the material, political, and social conditions that made his (and occasionally, her) work possible and who worked within those limitations.


Zamfir 08.04.09 at 8:59 am

SIn;t the list itself proof that such things were in fact expected from him in the 1950s? or he wouldn’t have to write it down.

And I completely support the thesis that this card is meant as a joke, even if he really means it. Look how the list gradually slides fom large tasks like reading manuscripts and giving courses to trivial things like giving autographs and photos. The hand-written text then incidentally changes it into pretty much the literary equivalent of a signed photograph.


Zamfir 08.04.09 at 9:03 am

Name one from the days of yore who was not acutely aware of the material, political, and social conditions that made his (and occasionally, her) work possible and who worked within those limitations.

Diogenes is supposed to be the counterexample. But being a famous counterexample for 2300 years suggests that he is the exception and not the rule.


alex 08.04.09 at 10:01 am

You’d be ornery if you were asked to do those things 100 times a day, which is how it might have been… Stephen Fry is quite good on how fame can turn even the most innocuous of human requests for interaction into a never-ending trip-hammer of intrusion.


nickhayw 08.04.09 at 10:12 am

I am doubtless missing some of the subtler themes here, but to me it seems that institutionalized intellectuality is a wonderful thing, insomuch as it allows intelligent people a secure pathway into a world previously dominated by e.g. the sons and daughters of wealthy landowners and industrialists, the made-men and women with no need to work, etc.

I always think of John Stuart Mill in this context. To me his upbringing, his circumstance, is the epitome of the precious intellectual cultivation available only to a select few, the kind of life now available to many more. No longer (at least here, in Australia, and in other reasonably social-democratic countries with fair access to educational opportunities blah blah) do you need a father pushing studies on you at the tender age of whatever, no longer do you need a family with too much money and no desire to see you fritter away your life doing work-work…now, you can get a few degrees and find a university to teach at, half-heartedly, while cultivating your precious intellectuality.

I’m being flippant, here, but my point is that rather than bemoaning the system, perhaps we should bemoan those who take advantage of the system (by becoming intellectuals where in a previous time they might not have been able to) and then don’t do anything with it. Remain lacklustre. Become uninspiring. Produce little for the public and give less to their students. etc.


dsquared 08.04.09 at 11:15 am

To me his upbringing, his circumstance, is the epitome of the precious intellectual cultivation available only to a select few

to him, it was a bit of a bloody nightmare.

But Mill did work for a living; he had a middle management job at the East India Company (where he wrote some truly hilarious and/or horrendous essays in explanation of why all that stuff about freedom and autonomy was void in situations where its exercise would be financially inconvenient for the East India Company) and was then an MP


alex 08.04.09 at 12:06 pm

Not that being an MP was a living in those days, more of a charitable public service… But +1 on the geographical morality of Mill, to borrow a phrase of Burke’s in similar circumstances half a century before.


Brian Sholis 08.04.09 at 12:18 pm

I would simply like to point readers of this thread to Scott McLemee’s essay on The Last Intellectuals that appeared in Bookforum two years ago. You can read it here:


Lee A. Arnold 08.04.09 at 2:54 pm

Google’s AdSense allows you to put print ads on your webpage and is also the source of the ads on YouTube videos (where you might put up a public lecture.) So, if you gather an audience, you may have a chance at receiving supporting revenue on your own, or in concert with like-minded writers.

The problem of the inundation of information remains, so most public intellectuals are not going to be very well-informed ones. But it is also possible to use new degrees of grammatical freedom (such as motion, sound, and print combined) to accelerate comprehension; for example see my own Ecolanguage (click on my name above.)


Kathleen Lowrey 08.04.09 at 3:33 pm

Rick Perlstein are you *the* Rick Perlstein? Wow.

Salient — I think you’re half-right; a lot of blogs take constant updating to remain interesting, but I think the people who run them find commentary and debate addictive so while they lament it sometimes they couldn’t help it if they tried, either.

But there are also examples of blogs like Fafblog or I Blame the Patriarchy where the owner buggers off for periods of time ranging from weeks to MONTHS ON END (was it years for Fafblog? felt like it) and yet they keep an audience checking back loyally till they reward them with a new post. That’s gotta feel pretty amazing.


Henry 08.04.09 at 3:38 pm

Yep – he is _the_ Rick Perlstein. And Fafblog – I genuinely think that when the intellectual history of America and the Iraq war is written, he’ll have to be part of it. He was our Kraus – the only person to capture accurately the _sheer fucking insanity_ of the national discourse..


Kathleen Lowrey 08.04.09 at 3:39 pm


“but not enough to miss the sparkling range of discourse of… the 1950’s.”

yes, exactly!


The Raven 08.04.09 at 3:49 pm

“…and yet they keep an audience…”

And some of us croak into the wind.

“The rise of blogs also seems to prove that people who are burbling with interesting ideas can’t resist putting them out there, paid or not.”

But ideas are–always have been–a dime a dozen. It’s development that counts, and development that distinguishes a pro from a dilletante like me. That’s why students are require to write theses, no? John Scalzi talks about an “hour a day.” For me, at least, it’s not enough time to really dig in to an idea and then write something productive about it, and just the presence of the deadline–knowing that once I get started I’m going to have to stop before I get where I want to go–is inhibiting. The ability to switch intellectual gears quickly seems actually to be a fairly rare one. Perhaps we need to cultivate it. Related, of course, is John Quiggin’s observation on the distractions of the internet. More than ever, perhaps, in the vast flood of information we are suddenly exposed to, we have a need to learn disciplined concentration. Historically, a lot of great intellectual work comes from silence and distance, and this is hard to come by in these days.


lisa 08.04.09 at 6:24 pm

My real resentment of this card is that it would be nearly impossible and triply obnoxious for an obscure person like me to have a similar card. I want one that says ’emails read and returned’ and ‘phone calls answered’


Ray Davis 08.07.09 at 2:36 am

I know a professional writer who used “EdmundWilsonRegrets” as an email address for a while. We never discussed the choice but I supposed it meant as a rueful self-reminder to not let professionalism interfere overmuch with writing, and I supposed the same was true for Edmund Wilson.

My own favorite formulaic literary demurral (very handy in the face of memes and social networking) is Djuana Barnes’s “I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public.”

My second favorite, mostly trotted out when well-meaning (and very welcome on that score) acquaintances suggest I give up the day job and go to grad school and become a teacher, or scrape up a living as a reviewer, is E. B. White’s wartime response to the secretary of the American Cheviot Sheep Society’s “Wouldn’t you like to send me an article for use in my Cheviot notes to the various sheep papers?”

Nothing would delight me more than to write exclusively about sheep, exclusively for shepherds. But I feel that I’d better relax till I know more about the subject.

To do the Cliffs Notes thing and cut to the chase (thus missing all the delicious prey), I agree with some others here that your nostalgia is delusional. No one in my family or in my hometown read Edmund Wilson, and any blogger has more chance of reaching them. Successful public intellectuals have always been either unsuccessfully intellectual or not constantly public. Political interventions are most effectively intervention-like when unexpected. Christopher Hitchens is no more interesting a thinker than P. J. O’Rourke and never has been; no, not even when I agreed with a few of his opinions. My peers’ lives seem somewhat happier than Leibniz’s or Spinoza’s, and that’s startling enough to get me through the day.


geo 08.07.09 at 3:03 am

well-meaning acquaintances suggest I give up the day job and … scrape up a living as a reviewer

Hmm … are you sure they mean you well?


Ray Davis 08.07.09 at 3:10 am

A keen question, as one would expect! But yes. If they were professional reviewers and my age or older, then I would have reason to suspect their motives; as is, I know they’re well-meaning.


Jonathan Bennett 08.08.09 at 2:31 am

I agree with the Raven… “historically, a lot of great intellectual work comes from silence and distance, and this is hard to come by these days.” To that, with this discussion of blogging specifically in mind, I’d add “and editing” to further make the point. Nothing like quiet, time, and another set of eyes to improve a thing. We publish books that might once have been called the slush pile, or worse, first drafts; we read blogs that contain what might once have been called mere first, private thoughts…embrios to be developed, or discarded.

I was taught literature by Edmund Wilson’s son, RK Wilson. He was very funny: if you appreciated absurdities, irony and whimsy.

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