Being a writer and a public intellectual


There was a discussion on Crooked Timber on possible jobs for a young person in love with literature. Most of the posters said the job market for academics was terrible and it was a poor idea to get a PhD. It was an especially poor idea to go into debt for a PhD.

People suggested teaching in a public or private secondary school, teaching English as a second language in a foreign country, becoming a translator, becoming a librarian, going into law or some kind of advocacy, since these require good language skills, and becoming a writer.

There are obviously problems with all of these in a bad economy. I think the advice on not going into debt is really good. In some ways, the discussion made me feel good that I quit before finishing my MA, though I have friends who finished their PhDs and became college professors and enjoy their work.

I quit because I didn’t know what I was doing in school or in my life. I knew I wanted to write, and decided the best way to do this was to get a day job that wasn’t too demanding and write in my free time. So I became a white collar worker, a clerk in an office, and I gradually picked up bookkeeping and accounting skills.

One of the people posting said it wasn’t possible to write good fiction while holding a day job. It was too exhausting. And another person — or maybe the same one — said it wasn’t possible to be a public intellectual outside academia.

Both these statements seem untrue to me. Plenty of people do good and useful intellectual work outside academic settings: freelance writers and artists, independent scholars, scientists working for organizations other than colleges and universities.

And people do manage to write good fiction while working at many kinds of jobs.