Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Freelancers: Forecast Gloomy 

Rachel Donadio, who has quickly become one of the must-reads at the New York Observer, uses the lawsuit against freelancers who were paid by Lingua Franca magazine after they went bust as a springboard for commenting on the whole business of freelancing. Is it dead? Maybe not, but it's not looking so good:

If ever there was a moment of generational split, this winter of our discontent is it. One need only consider the contrast: The struggling freelancers for a now-defunct journal of ideas are handed court papers, while the professional intellectuals, the ones with coveted staff jobs and 401(k)?s, are using prime literary real estate to lament their middle-aged romantic failures. The old guard is unraveling, the new guard is being sued.

What, as they say, is to be done?if anything? "It should only concern you if you buy the idea that American intellectual culture resides on the Upper West Side," said Dennis Loy Johnson, who runs Mobylives.com and is the president of Melville House Publishing, a small independent press based in Hoboken. "It?s like the British royals," he said. "They?ve been inbreeding for so long that it?s starting to show."

But if up-and-coming writers can?t make a living publishing their ideas, what kind of effect does that have on New York intellectual life? "It has a disastrous effect," Mr. Denby said. "At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I think it really was healthier in the 50?s."

Although I feel a great urge to slap David Denby for a multitude of reasons, there's none better than this nostalgia trip. Healthier as compared to what? Because things aren't as "clubby" as they once were, that for whatever reason, everybody and their pet dog thinks they can be a writer and freelance? Maybe it's because I have no desire to play the game, but freelancing often seems to me like a vicious cycle: you spend all your time looking for ideas to pitch that you forget to actually have any of your own and develop outside interests, which leads to problems in finding ideas to pitch. The best writers, IMO, have done something else first or do something else until they reach a point where they don't have to anymore. Means that there are a variety of different perspectives--in theory, anyway--that may or may not refresh the whole freelance culture. It's kind of like what's been happening in medical schools. The shift's turned from accepting primarily those who were pre-med obsessives (down to cheating in elaborate ways so that they could get the edge GPA-wise) to those who have the same credentials but have different backgrounds, like liberal arts, history or even music. Med schools don't want doctors who are one-note. Nor do law schools. Why should publishing and writing?

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