Dan Baum’s Oops Sort-Of
11 June 2009
Former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s essay-in-tweets has been going around like wildfire for a while now. I started reading it a few weeks ago but stopped; I couldn’t, somehow, bear it. It felt close to home, it touched on something raw. But I couldn’t have articulated why at the time, because it’s not like I’ve ever written for an elite literary publication, nor been fired by a powerful literary figure.
I finally finished reading the essay. I can see why it was so popular. Baum did a few things in this essay that an aspiring memoirist might marvel at:
1) he told the truth about a powerful cultural institution and its head honcho;
2) he did this via scene-based story-telling more than analysis or exposition (the Twitter form limited him productively in this way);
3) he implicated himself, but not really (most readers — non-insiders/loyalists to the New Yorker culture — will be sympathetic; and instead of emphasizing I don’t like David Remnick, he focuses more on David Remnick doesn’t like me);
4) he elevated a certain kind of naivete which speaks to a non-institutionalized artistic purity that many writers, many anyones, crave.
Publishing the essay — tweeting it — was a brilliant career move on Baum’s part, and it’s hard to imagine that he did so with the winning naivete described in the piece itself. I would imagine he counted the cost — my career, or the good will of the New Yorker — and probably determined that there wasn’t much of that good will left to speak of; so he went for it. A calculated risk which seems, from the outside, to have paid off. He’s even published on his Web site all of the pieces he wrote for the New Yorker which were “killed,” and are now likely getting hundreds, maybe thousands, of views.
The raw feeling I had when first attempting to read it, I realize now, has to do with this very palpable ambivalence one experiences about institutional prestige/acceptance that, if I pause for a moment of self-awareness, is always there. What is lost or lacking in a life and work outside the circles of institutional sanction and prestige? What is gained?
Here is how Baum puts it:
The big difference between being freelance and on staff – besides the irregular pay and the lack of benefits – is you’re not part of an institution. And every institution has its own character, its own emotional temperature. Freelancing for so long, I’d forgotten that. (If I ever knew it; I never held a job very long, either.) I’d come to believe that all that matters is the quality of the work on the page. That’s what set the writing life apart, I thought. And journalism folklore is replete with impossible personalities tolerated – yea, venerated – because their writing was so good. Hunter Thompson. Thomas Wolfe. William Faulkner. And on and on
In other words, what is at stake, in planting your feet in an institution, is your freedom. Your voice. Ultimately, your self-determination. Someone else knows better — how to frame and judge your ideas, your time, your talent — or you have to ostensibly concede to that notion anyway. And the stakes are the same no matter how sophisticated, talented, or respected that someone else is.
The atmosphere [at the New Yorker] is vastly strained. I’d get back on the Times Square sidewalk after a visit and feel I needed to flap my arms. Get some air into my lungs, maybe jog half a block. And I came to realize I had a really good job. I could write for the New Yorker, but not have to be of the New Yorker. Therein lies the reason I’m no longer there.
The stronger your ego, the more likely you can maintain and continue cultivating your intellectual-creative freedom, in any context. But, the stronger your ego, the less likely you will last in an institutional context; because someone else’s equally strong ego — someone more powerful than you — will have something to say about that. Self-determination is the necessary manifestation of self-trust: I trust my own instincts and vision of the world more than I trust yours, O institutional leader.
(And the showdown need not be one of animosity, as Baum’s was with Remnick. I left a venerable NYC cultural institution (business cards and all) for reasons not dissimilar from Baum’s — to reclaim a clear and pressing self-trust that needed to be nourished and born out — except that I left of my own accord, and with both good will and friendship enduring.)
We all have our own definitions of freedom. A New Yorker magazine byline no doubt affords many freedoms. But when I think of freedom — artistic, personal, professional — I somehow hear Theodore Roethke‘s (tortured, yes) voice in my head: Never be ashamed of the strange. However you need to structure it for yourself, you can’t be free without direct access, experience of, and license to express that which is surprising and strange. If someone else’s filters and frames — brilliant, influential, and erudite as they may be — are preventing this, then, in my book, you are not free.
Lunching with my agent recently, I mentioned a book that I was reading and couldn’t put down. “Really?” she asked, partially surprised, a little repulsed. “That’s so great, that’s not something I’d ever imagine you’d be reading.” “Really?” I responded. We beheld each other in perplexity. Who are you? her look said. Who do you think I am? my look replied. It was a good moment. It felt right.