Transcript: Meghan Daum
My interview with the essayist, author and podcaster
Throughout the month of December, here at Lean Out, I’ve been having conversations with the independent journalists that I admire.
Today, I’m happy to welcome back to the podcast a writer and thinker whose work kept me sane during the pandemic.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the full interview for free here.
NOTE: At the beginning of the interview we discuss the controversy over the Alex Perez interview in the Hobart literary journal. Coincidentally, Perez published a piece on this this week at Compact Magazine, and is a contributor to a roundup on what we learned in 2022 today at The Free Press.
TH: Meghan, welcome back to Lean Out.
MD: Hi Tara. I’m so glad to be with you.
TH: It’s so fun to have you on. We’ve talked before; you know that your podcast was one of the things that helped keep me sane when I was still in the mainstream media. So it’s wonderful to have you on for this series on independent journalism. I want to start with a recent essay of yours, “Who Killed Creative Writing?” This is about the Hobart literary journal controversy. And remarks made by writer Alex Perez about the takeover of the literary industry by white, prudish, woke Brooklyn ladies. I want to read a line from that that really stood out: “I see who shows up to AWP, who wins prizes and judges them, who edits literary journals, who gets tenure-track teaching jobs and fellowships and speaking tours, and I think these are some of the most mediocre people I’m likely to ever encounter.”
TH: Talk to me about that dynamic.
MD: That was a pretty bold sentence, or couple of sentences. I used to be part of that world. I was a creative writer, whatever that means. I went to an MFA program. All I ever wanted to be was a writer. I thought I was going to be a fiction writer. So, back in the day, I thought that if you were a writer, you were either a newspaper reporter or a novelist — I didn’t discover this essay writing, new journalism, kind of narrative non-fiction until a little later. So, I went to an MFA program and I did fiction for a while. And then I stumbled upon this essay form and I was off to the races. I was able to start publishing pretty early. But I was very much taking creative writing classes, and then later teaching them, and writing for literary magazines, and writing about writing. And my friends were in that world. Some of them were short story writers and some of them were poets. That was very much the scene.
I always felt like these people were pretty smart, and interested, and interesting, and funny. And had a sense of humour about themselves and the world. And were insightful, and willing to look honestly at the world around them, and react to it. Because that’s what writers did, regardless of genre. Then, probably around 2013, 2014 — those are the years that always pop up — I started to notice that a lot of the people at those conferences … AWP being the big creative writing conference; it’s associated with writing programs. It’s a giant conference and people go every year. And increasingly, it was just looking like this weird Olympic games for competitive identity categories. It really had very little to do with writing or literature in any way that had interested me before. So that’s what that sentence was about. It took a lot of years for me to really say it that bluntly. But I’m afraid that’s pretty accurate.
TH: There’s another line that I think about a lot, in this essay: “It’s not that the literary world arbitrarily decided to cede all its power to white Brooklyn ladies. It’s that white Brooklyn ladies are the only ones who can afford to be in the literary world.”This is increasingly true of the media too. Talk to me about that.
MD: My piece was reacting to this guy, Alex Perez, who I was not familiar with, giving an interview in a magazine I was not familiar with, called Hobart, about this dynamic. He’s talking about white Brooklyn ladies being the literary agents, and the people who work in publishing, and the gatekeepers of contemporary publishing. So one of the things that comes up — and this is across the board, whether you’re talking about the newsrooms of major media organizations, newspapers, publishing houses, NPR, public radio, whatever it is, your world, my world — it’s filled with white people. And a lot of white women, especially in book publishing. There’s a tendency that people want to say, “It’s because it’s so racist.” Or, “It’s because these people just want to hire their friends.”
Well, no, it’s actually because these jobs are very low-paid. Let’s think about it: The people who can afford to work in them are the people who don’t need to rely on their salaries in order to live in the most expensive cities in the world. If you’re going to live in New York City and survive on a book editor’s salary, you have got to be already pretty privileged. You have to have grown up in an upper-middle class, upper-class family. You’ve got to be married to somebody who works in finance, a lawyer, something like that. So, people who are the first generation to go to college, or people of colour, or people of marginalized groups — they’re not going to go into book publishing if they have a chance to make it in the world. They’re going to go into finance. And God bless them. As should have we all.
TH: Indeed. [Laughs] Turning our attention, now, to the media. I know you watched the recent Munk debate in Toronto, which I covered. This was a debate about whether to trust the mainstream media, featuring Matt Taibbi and Douglas Murray facing off against Malcolm Gladwell and Michelle Goldberg from The New York Times. It resulted in a landslide victory for Taibbi and Murray. What were your impressions of that debate?
MD: Debates make me very nervous — even watching them. I don’t really love the idea. I feel like the debate form is one of diminishing returns, because the idea is to win. And I don’t think productive conversations generally come about if people are trying to win. But, in that case, I felt like it was a bit of a false premise. Because I feel like there’s no way that Malcolm Gladwell and Michelle Goldberg don’t know, on some level, that the media is biased. I mean, I don’t think that is a controversial statement. It’s always been true. It’s just true a little more, and in a little bit of a different way, than it used to be. So I think that Michelle and Malcolm were just trying to win the argument. They were sort of doing their job as it needed to be done. But yeah, the whole thing, honestly, made me feel really depressed about the state of the discourse. You covered it really well. You were really smart about it. But I don’t have that much to say about it, other than that I wished that it could have been a regular conversation and not a debate.
TH: Speaking of trust in the media, you tweeted out this week what Katie Herzog pointed out about a recent Business Insider piece. It’s covering the Twitter Files reporting from Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi. And almost every word in this one paragraph was false.
MD: Yeah, pretty amazing.
TH: And this is not out of the ordinary anymore. This is a huge question, but what do you think the legacy press would need to do to rebuild a bit of the trust that’s been lost?