DENBY: ‘IT’S DISASTROUS’
Surreal Season of Discontent As Highbrows Take Hit
This winter has been even gloomier than usual for the city’s intellectual class. Let’s start with the travails of the rising generation: the almost comically grim saga of the 27 Lingua Franca freelancers who are being sued for money they were paid after the journal of academic life folded in 2001. On Friday, Jan. 16, they got a morsel of good news-if the prospect of a return to their financially challenged status quo could be called good news-when the Authors’ Guild said it had secured Clifford Chance U.S. L.L.P., an international corporate-law firm with a healthy bankruptcy department, to represent them pro bono. This was greeted with a collective sigh of relief-albeit a brief one, as attention was quickly turned back to business as usual: filing 50-cent-a-word book reviews and polishing up tedious grant applications in the faint hopes of scoring such coveted slots as the one-year ALCS/New York Public Library Fellowship, with its impossibly lucrative $50,000 stipend.
“It was humiliating,” said Joanna Smith Rakoff, a freelance writer and novelist, about being sued for $1,550, her payment for an article on a Quebec community college that was published in the fall of 2001. “When I got the note, I didn’t have that money to give back to them-which makes you feel like such a loser,” added Ms. Smith Rakoff, who is 31 and lives on the Lower East Side with her husband, also a writer.
“You expect them not to pay you, but you don’t expect them to ask for it back,” said Caleb Crain, a former Lingua Franca senior editor who’s being sued for $1,000 for an article he wrote about evolutionary psychology and the arts that appeared in the magazine’s October 2001 issue. Still, said Mr. Crain, who is 36 and lives in Park Slope with his partner, a book-review editor at Newsday , “knowing that a big law firm will represent people pro bono, I’m actually not that worried anymore.”
The 27 freelancers, who had done work for both Lingua Franca and its sister publication, University Business , are being sued by the magazines’ parent company, University Business L.L.C., for money they were paid after the magazines went under in October 2001, but before the company filed for bankruptcy in April 2002. The freelancers have been trudging down to the Battery for pre-trial hearings in New York’s Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. Out of 16 freelancers asked to appear, only two brought lawyers to the Jan. 6 pre-trial hearing.
The next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 27. Associates from Clifford Chance are aiming to get the plaintiffs to settle out of court. “It’s going to cost more in legal fees for them to recover the funds than they’re going to recover,” said Hilary Lane, a counsel in the financial restructuring and insolvency group at Clifford Chance, who’s heading the defense. The claims filed against the freelancers, which range from $1,000 to $3,300, were hardly worth pursuing, she said. “It’s silly that they’re spending all this money” to recover such small amounts, Ms. Lane continued. “I don’t know what he bills by the hour …. ” She was referring to Robert Geltzer, the court-appointed receiver for University Business, whose fee will come out of any settlement. Mr. Geltzer didn’t return calls seeking comment.
At the first pre-trial hearing, Judge Prudence Carter Beatty told Mr. Geltzer’s legal team that they should aim to recover 10 cents on the dollar, The Village Voice reported. “Obviously, even less would be better-even five cents on the dollar,” Ms. Lane said. “The ideal settlement is, he just drops the case and they don’t have to pay anything.”
Still, even if it all ends well for the freelancers, one gets the sense that the city’s intellectual life has taken a sharp turn for the surreal. At cocktail parties, the smart set has been expressing hushed horror that the monologist Spalding Gray, who has been suffering from severe depression in the aftermath of a car crash in 2001, may have thrown himself off the Staten Island Ferry. On the Upper West Side, the intellectuals have been imploding left and right, in Technicolor. David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker , has just published American Sucker , an account of how, in the dizzy final years of the 20th century, he blew $800,000 in the stock market after his wife, the novelist Cathleen Schine, left him (for another woman, as she revealed in a New Yorker piece of her own earlier this month). Just blocks away finds Katha Pollitt, the writer and Nation columnist, hooked to her computer. There, as she confessed in an essay in last week’s New Yorker , she spent countless hours online, scouring the Web for traces of her philandering ex-boyfriend’s name after he dumped her.
If ever there was a moment of generational split, this winter of our discontent is it. One need only consider the contrast: The struggling freelancers for a now-defunct journal of ideas are handed court papers, while the professional intellectuals, the ones with coveted staff jobs and 401(k)’s, are using prime literary real estate to lament their middle-aged romantic failures. The old guard is unraveling, the new guard is being sued.
What, as they say, is to be done-if anything? “It should only concern you if you buy the idea that American intellectual culture resides on the Upper West Side,” said Dennis Loy Johnson, who runs Mobylives.com and is the president of Melville House Publishing, a small independent press based in Hoboken. “It’s like the British royals,” he said. “They’ve been inbreeding for so long that it’s starting to show.”
But if up-and-coming writers can’t make a living publishing their ideas, what kind of effect does that have on New York intellectual life? “It has a disastrous effect,” Mr. Denby said. “At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I think it really was healthier in the 50’s.”
“It’s a very difficult way to live,” Ms. Pollitt said of the Lingua Franca freelancers. “If I didn’t have my column, if I had to put together a writing life, a living income, piece by piece, the way freelancers do, I think I would be worn to a frazzle.”
Mr. Denby, for his part, is confident the intellectual spirit will prevail in the city. “Some people may double-track their lives,” Mr. Denby said. “That’s true for the kids at The New Yorker who work as fact-checkers or editorial assistants: They work hard during the day, and a lot work at night, secretly or not so secretly, on their own writing. There’s a kind of samizdat literature that’s created not by political oppression, but by commercial oppression.”
And true to samizdat form, its practitioners are scattered, without an intellectual infrastructure of the kind that used to prop up the good old Upper West Side, before the bankers and lawyers moved in, before the David Denbys and Katha Pollitts became transfixed by the wondrous vegetable selection at Fairway. In its short life, Lingua Franca pointed the way to the future, not least in the lives its former contributors (as it turned out) would lead: overeducated, underpaid and increasingly reliant on the good graces of their former college roommates. You know, the ones who went to law school, who live on the Upper West Side and take on pro bono cases at firms like Clifford Chance. “I used to joke that it was absurd that the Lingua Franca office was in Manhattan,” Mr. Crain said, “since everyone who worked there lived in Brooklyn-except for the people who lived in New Jersey.”