SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS was a book critic at the Los Angeles Times for 23 years. In 2009, along with many other staff writers at the Times, she was laid off and then immediately rehired as a freelancer. Producing just as many reviews as before, she received one third the pay as a freelancer and lost all her benefits. In July 2011, she was fired from the paper entirely. Willie Osterweil is a writer, editor, and worker living in New York. The two spoke in December about what it means to be a writer in the precarious economy and how it has changed the nature of written culture and book reviewing.
Willie Osterweil: One thing I’d like to hear about is how you became precarious.
Susan Salter Reynolds: How I became precarious? [laughs] That’s funny. How I became precarious? Another word they use is redundant. And every couple of months the LA Times would have a “black Monday” or a “black Friday,” and they would lay off another round of people, usually 40 at a time. And the way the Times works, no one would ever explain anything to you directly. You’d hear rumors and be nervous and not know how to plan your life. They always say that it’s nothing to do with you, it's just the bean counters, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and it’s just outrageous bullshit.
WO: It’s got nothing to do with you, except that it’s your livelihood in its entirety and it’s your life’s work.
SSR: The idea that it’s not personal when you’ve been in a place for that long … I don’t think anyone hated me. I do think it was a question of money, but it’s just done so badly, and I didn’t even get the worst treatment. So you’re also a freelance writer?
WO: Yes, I graduated college in May 2009, and since then I’ve had, counting a couple one-day things, 12 or 13 jobs, none of which lasted more than six months. I have published probably tens of thousands of words and been paid maybe a total of $1,000 and consider myself lucky for having made any money at all.
SSR: So how do you live?
WO: I do various odd jobs online. I’m a social-media assistant. I find whatever work I can. And I know I’ve been lucky to get that. It’s hard to get the space, the time you need to write, and sometimes not having a 9 to 5 can provide that. Still, I’m just happy when I’m producing words that I’m pleased with.
SSR: I know what you mean. A funny thing has been happening lately. I’m doing a lot of different kinds of writing. I’m not writing as many book reviews as I was at the Times, when I was writing about three reviews a week. But I really enjoy them now; I really feel good after I finish a review.
WO: A nice benefit, I guess.
SSR: Yeah, it kind of makes up for being paid $50 or $100.
WO: “Kind of” is the key word, right?
SSR: Yeah. I have three children to support now. I have a son in college, and I have two teenage daughters. So I care very much that they have a nonprecarious home. But I believe it even more as I get older, that fundamentally the things you do for money are different from the things you do for love. We try and shoehorn one into the other, and I feel like I was very lucky for years to read books that I love and write about books that I love and get paid.
WO: That’s a question that me and my friends are struggling with. But for us it’s all very theoretical because none of us get paid exclusively to write. Generationally, we don’t have a lot of options in terms of really finding “work we love” — it’s very difficult and very rare for us, just steady employment in general.
SSR: When I first got let go from the Times I looked around at the Web and I literally couldn’t, at my stage of life, afford to do that kind of unpaid writing. I signed on with the Los Anegeles Review of Books because I really believe in them, I really like the editors, I really think they’re doing something exciting. It’s a beautiful site.
WO: Since you moved your column to the L.A. Review of Books, how is working there different from working at the Times?
SSR: The editors at LARB — I work with three of them — I think they actually read the pieces. They trust me. They’re responsive, there’s more give and take. That frees me up in the way that I write. Maybe I’m being childish, but I write better for someone who I think likes my work than I do for someone who’s just pissed and overworked. At the Times, the guy they put in as books editor, the guy who called to tell me my job of 23 years was over and asked me to please not come into the building, John Thurber, they moved him over from the fucking obituaries section! They said, “Oh, what are we gonna do with John? He screams at people, we can’t fire him because he’s a man, and he’s been here 25 years. Let’s move him over to the books section.” We had this deputy editor there, Nick Owcher, who's also been there 25 years, an incredible editor who really cares about books, and they refuse to give him the job. It’s symptomatic, the way that newspaper handles the books section. It pretends to care about it each year by having this big festival, but in reality it doesn’t give the editors the resources they need to do the job. It’s pathetic.
WO: How do you see the book-review culture changing?
SSR: I think these big institutions crumble and become useless. They either go out of business or nobody even cares anymore. And then a lot of new ones bubble up and claim authority or fall by the wayside. When I was coming of age, right out of college, Lech Wa??sa was first coming to power. And you watched the arc he took: from electrician to people’s politician to position of authority, and then, poof. I think that’s a natural cycle. Once anything, a publication or a person, gets too much authority, they have to go back and allow other voices to have authority.
WO: What’s really pressing is that it feels like we might be there culturally in toto. It’s not just with book reviews or newspapers, the death of print. We’re at a point where authority in general is breaking down, is debased, is revealing itself as completely exploitative. And any sort of “cultural renewal” is going to have very direct manifestations in the street.
SSR: I worked a long time ago at the New York Review of Books. I worked there for two years. You felt like you were just calling the shots. You couldn’t be in any place more prestigious. There you were, making $26,000 a year in New York City, barely eating, working like 80 hours a week, and you felt so important. And maybe that’s a bad thing, maybe that was the problem — it was just a handful of elites calling the shots. People got sick of hearing the same voices over and over again.
WO: There’s got to be some sort of middle ground, right? What we’ve learned is that people do want to be part of the dialogue, but the quality of writing on the Internet isn’t always very high. There’s a problem with the hierarchy of “only the experts getting to write,” but “so no one gets paid” is obviously not the solution.
SSR: I was always very uncomfortable with the idea of having authority or expertise in the world of books, and I would say, “Well, I’m just helping people decide where to spend their $25. I’m just being useful.” But I’ve been doing it a long time. And I’m old, and I think I know something now about why people write books, what they’re trying to do when they write books, what the stumbling blocks are, how their message is getting convoluted or contorted. And I like to think I approach it in this humble, loving way. I can hear what they’re trying to do.
WO: And the question remains: What is the value of book criticism in that dialogue? I know what books have meant for me, but it’s at once a cultural institution and at the same time this very, very individual experience.
SSR: Rarely, unless you’re in a book group, and I’ve never been in a book group, rarely is everyone reading the same book at the same time as you. I mean, Jonathan Franzen right, you walk down the street and everyone’s reading it, but a lot of the books you read, it’s a pretty isolated experience. You take your head up out of that book, and you’re feeling a little precarious, a little disoriented. You’re not really in your world. You’re still in the world of the book, and there aren’t that many people to talk to about it. You can corner a friend over a beer — “I just read this really great book, let me tell you about it” — and their eyes will glaze over. That’s what book criticism used to do. You would read a story and you would think, Oh there are at least 10 other people out their reading the same book and feeling this and that a little differently from me.
WO: I’ve had that experience as a reader, but not really as a writer. Having only written on the Internet or in private, I’m used to a certain kind of relationship with my readers. Either I get no concept that anyone is reading it, or I get sort of flamed.
SSR: That must be fun.
WO: Ha, yeah. Have you experienced a difference? Have you felt your interactions with readers is different since you’ve been writing predominantly online?
SSR: I haven’t even really thought about that. I’ve always taken it for granted that I write something and it will be in print. And in fact, out in the garage I have a pile of stuff, and I can say to my kids, “See my name, there’s mommy’s name.” Online, it comes and goes, it flows, you can’t hold on to it, you can’t own it this way. You don’t really feel that ego-corrupting pride. “Oh, look at me, I just pronounced on this book.” You just put it out there, and it either goes up in flames or, y’know. So you’ve never written something that you’ve seen in print?
WO: Never. Well, no, that’s not true. In college I worked on a couple of literary magazines. And articles in the high school newspaper as well.
SSR: Does that feel differently to you? Are you prouder of those pieces?
WO: Well, I tend to hate anything I’ve written six months or so after I finish it, so I’m not prouder of those pieces. But the relationship to them is different. They would be out on campus, and friends would read it, and maybe they would tell me they had seen it, and maybe we would talk about it. But now I post something on Facebook and five minutes later a friend is telling me what they think. And that immediacy, I don’t know what that does to your writing. There’s less space. There’s less space online in between the reader and the writer, even if those readers are just your friends. And I think that although that can function to keep egos down, I think writing requires space, and there’s a way in which the precariousness of freelancing and the constancy of the communication between reader and writer, it squeezes that space in a way that I worry makes the writing less interesting.
SSR: It’s all a big trade-off, isn’t it?
WO: Yeah. Of course, I don’t actually survive on my writing. So that’s also part of it.
SSR: But maybe if you did, something terrible would happen to you: You’d start making money, and then you’d start writing for the money. I always liked to think that I could tell the writers who were writing for money. You could tell books that had been dashed-off, a writer who had listened to every agent who told you to turn left instead of right, they didn’t stick. I don’t think we talk about money enough, and particularly in publishing and writing culture. We still labor under the idea of separate universes, so … I know in publishing, the little bit I worked in publishing in New York, it was very much a gentleman’s sport. I mean we used to say at the New York Review of Books, “It’s a great place to work if your parents can afford to send you here.”
WO: And I think we’re seeing that generalized with internships. The entire employment picture, anything beyond the most tedious labor, is nice work if you can afford to get it.
SSR: I was interviewing Steve Martin a couple of years ago, and he said to me, “If you want to write a book, why don’t you just write it? I don’t understand all these people don’t just …” And I think what he meant was that “I, Steve Martin, can write pretty much anything and someone will publish it. And not only that, they’ll probably give me a lot of money for it.” Whereas most of us can only dream. I mean, what are the advances for new novels nowadays, $6,000? I just remember at some point Virginia Woolf said, “This is what I do goddammit, for better or worse.” I had that revelation even before I was laid off from the Times. I realized with some terror, “Oh my god, I’m a book critic.” I’m like a hothouse flower, I can’t really do anything else. Anyway, I’m trying to learn some skills. [laughs]
WO: Even online, if you’re “making it,” you focus on one topic. You go up this ladder. The ladder still exists, you just get paid less on every rung then you used to, except I guess for the top one. But without the question of payment, people wouldn’t want to necessarily say, “This is what I do” and be put it in a box. I know in book reviewing, you’re writing reviews of two or three books a week, but when you started, you just loved reading books. Holding onto that when it’s a career is very, very difficult.
SSR: It is, although I finished a book this morning. It’s called The Least Cricket of Evening, and it’s by an essayist named Robert Vivian out of University of Michigan and, I could’ve been six years old, I mean, I just had the same feeling, like, “Oh, what he can do with words, just amazing.” That kind of awe. And I was glad of that because I’ve been so angry, I’ve been stomping around, I’ve been so angry about the Times. At some moments after too many glasses of wine, it’s like, “I never want to see another book! I never want to read another book!” And then you read this beautiful thing …
WO: It’s so frustrating to be able to be treated like that by anyone, the LA Times, that wants to give lip service to books, to this idea of culture. You know, owners betray you, managers betray you, bosses say, “No, that’s not relevant, it doesn’t matter.”
SSR: And I was pretty good. I had seen enough. I never really believed in institutions. Let’s be clear about it: They don’t care about individuals. It’s a mutual using. So I tried to always be clear about that in my mind. And still I allowed friendship with one editor. I thought, This is my friend, so … I let my guard down. But institutions don’t really care, and I don’t think much good comes out of them because of that. I’m sorry that, for example, you’re not making enough, I’m sorry that I’m not making enough money. But I’m glad these things are falling down.
WO: Me too. I’m hoping to speed it up. [laughs] The institutions have never been trustworthy, but there’s the struggle, we still have to exist in this capitalist world that envelops us. We have no option but to be able to pay rent. And I don’t want to be tedious about this “Oh, money vs. art.” That’s very simplistic obviously. I guess the question is, Can criticism be honest about its own production? Can it exist outside that institutionalized process?
SSR: It’s a corrupt process to begin with, the idea that any one of us can tell someone else what’s good and what’s bad. You’re crossing a line, and then the idea that we would do that with any authority? And then the idea that we would get rich doing that? It just gets more and more disgusting as you move down the line. But the idea that we can tell each other how a book might help us or why it feels good to read that book, or why that book matters, or why you think that book's gonna be around in a hundred years: That’s a nice thing to pass around.