The new economy of Letters



A quarter century has passed since Russell Jacoby coined the term \”public intellectuals\” in a book meant to mark their extinction. In The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, published in 1987, Jacoby defined public intellectuals as \”writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience.\” The term was new, he explained, but there had been public intellectuals for centuries: \”The greatest minds from Galileo to Freud have not been content with private discoveries; they sought, and found, a public.\” Since the 1960s, their numbers, never high, had been plummeting. Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson were born in 1895, Walter Lippmann in 1889. By 1987, Wilson and Lippmann were dead and Mumford was in decline. Where, Jacoby wanted to know, were the young Mumfords and Lippmanns and Wilsons? There were none.

In 1987, Jacoby, then 42, reported that, in his view, no serious American thinker under the age of 45 was writing for anyone other than academics, or able to. (\”Intellectuals who write with vigor and clarity may be as scarce as low rents in New York.\”) For this, Jacoby blamed higher education. The growth of the modern research university in the decades following the Second World War nursed a generation of intellectuals who had hardly ever lived off campus; they barely knew anyone who hadn\’t earned a Ph.D. These people couldn\’t hold a decent dinner conversation with an ordinary reader, much less write for one.

When Jacoby claimed that there were no public intellectuals in America under the age of 45, he admitted that what he really meant was only that none of them were left of center. Conservative intellectuals had never retreated into the academy and had never abandoned the public. Also, Jacoby\’s favorite public intellectuals weren\’t professors; they were journalists. He also missed the flourishing of an entire generation of black intellectuals in the very years when he was writing his book. And he had taken almost no notice of intellectuals who were female. Except for Mary McCarthy, who happens to have been married to Edmund Wilson, the public intellectuals in Jacoby\’s pantheon were nearly all men, and their writing shares a certain toughness, the kind of thing vaguely and invariably euphemized by characterizing a writer as having \”muscular prose.\” Suffice to say, if you\’re looking for Norman Mailer, you won\’t stumble across Willa Cather.

Jacoby took flak for telling American academics they were coddled, graceless, and irrelevant. (He was, of course, courting exactly the reaction he got.) Much of this is by the by. But much of the very best intellectual work being done in the United States is still being done by journalists, not scholars, and is still being published outside the university, by magazines and trade presses. Needless to say, the thriving of exceptionally talented journalists is cause for nothing but celebration. But lately, with nearly everything about publishing in flux, the relationship between intellectuals and the public is more vexed than ever. One worry is that, amid the flurry of changes, gains made by women in the academy have been lost to the public. More troubling than Jacoby\’s blindness to female intellectuals 25 years ago is that there are still so few female scholars whose work is read by nonscholars. There are distinguished American scholars whose work is being prominently published, but very, very few are women.

Academic publishers have a particular obligation to measure the distance between the university and the public, and to think about whose work spans it. One reason journalists write well is that journalists write for money: They write for readers. Historically, under the system of scholarly publishing—academic journals and university presses—scholars write for nothing. They have been able to afford to do this because they are paid salaries by the universities that employ them. (Academics rarely meet deadlines because their failure to meet them seldom has any consequence; in this way, too, they are not treated like writers.) And, while academic journals and university presses like to have readers who will pay for what they publish, they have been able to do without them; their publications have been subsidized by the universities that house them. University publishing has suited both scholars who need to publish and presses whose mission is to publish them. It has not rewarded clarity or beauty or timeliness, and it has not made a priority of satisfying readers or earning profits because it was not designed to do any of these things: It was designed to advance scholarship.

This set of arrangements has produced a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose. Whether the mountain is higher than the moat is wide has been much debated but may not matter any longer: This era is nearly over. Much of what scholars write is and should be written for other scholars: An audience of specialists is often exactly the right audience needed for the fullest and most sophisticated exchange of ideas. But in the digital age, those exchanges can be made through forms of publication that no longer require publishers.

University presses have been asked to look at their ledgers; trustees are asking for \”innovation agendas,\” and \”big ideas,\” and \”branding visions,\” and the usual malarkey that you hear just before the ax falls. Meanwhile, for those scholars hoping to write for nonscholars by entering the world of print journalism, the blood is already all over the carpet.

Bookstores and newsstands have shut their doors. Newspapers, magazines, and entire publishing houses have stopped their presses. And the public, wearing big, Internet boots, has stomped through the gates of the university. \”Writing for the public\” is, by now, a fairly meaningless thing to say. Everyone who tweets \”writes for the public.\” Lectures are posted online. So are papers. Most of what academics produce can be found, by anyone who wants to find it, by searching Google. These shifts have made exchanging ideas easier, faster, cheaper, and less dependent on publishers—and even less accountable to readers.

Every day, more scholars are writing more words for less money than ever before: They are self-publishing and tweeting and blogging and MOOC-ing. Much of this is all to the good, especially insofar as it disseminates knowledge. But publicity and public-spiritedness are not one and the same, and when publicity, for its own sake, is taken for a measure of worth—some tenure evaluations are conducted by counting \”hits\”—attention replaces citation as the academic author\’s compensation. One trouble here is: Peer review may reward opacity, but a search engine rewards nothing so much as outrageousness.

The new economy of letters hasn\’t made academic writing better, but it has made it harder for certain kinds of intellectuals to be heard. All the noise has silenced the modest, the untenured, and the politically moderate.

It has also had the unintended consequence of diminishing the prominence of women intellectuals during the very decades when a generation of female scholars reached the top of their fields. The work of female intellectuals is underrepresented in everything from online courses to the nation\’s most prominent reviewing venues. One explanation is bias, but another is reticence. (As Erika Fry reported last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, nearly 80 percent of the op-eds published in the nation\’s leading newspapers are written by men, but that number appears to roughly reflect the gender breakdown of submissions; it\’s not so much that opinion essays written by women aren\’t published; it\’s that women don\’t write them.)

Then, too, in an online culture that values opinion and personality over research and reporting, academics keen to reach readers generally have the best shot at success if they are willing to offer cavalier and often unsubstantiated opinions, promote their own work, and even expose their lives to public view. Few female intellectuals, and not many men, are willing to do these things. Not everyone wants to be paid in attention.

University presses may not be in any position to fix these problems—although universities are—but they ought to be able to mitigate the worst of them. With trade presses less willing to publish scholarship than ever before, university presses have got to revise their mission. They need to defend their charge to publish the best scholarship, brilliantly. But they can also publish less, better. They can demand a great deal more from their authors (not least, that they meet deadlines), and give much more to their readers (including books written for a nonacademic audience). Reticence can be conquered.

Above all, university presses can take as their charge countering some of the Internet-era forces that diminish the work of some of the academy\’s most exciting and important thinkers by finding, cultivating, and decisively promoting the contributions of those scholars who happen to hold a passionate sense of accountability to both the university and the public. Someone\’s got to bridge the moat.

Author Bio: Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, forthcoming in October from Knopf. A version of these remarks was delivered at the 2013 meeting of the Association of American University Presses.