This is the seventh installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
You may know of Anna Shechtman as a cruciverbalist for the New Yorker. Her clues have been described as having “swag” and “making the crossword cool again.” But she is also a writer whose work, like her recent essay for the New Yorker, “Black-and-White Thinking,” reveals how infusing the personal into an essay is a political act. In fact, her writing and editing experiences have reinforced her feminist politics, so much so that she now sees it as her duty to pay forward the mentorship and professional authority she received from women and gay men early in her career. Above all, Shechtman’s belief that all writing is a form of collaboration and community-building shows itself in how she discusses the editing process as both an editor and as a writer, how she sees her interlocutors, and why she finds literary criticism meaningful. This is perhaps what I admire most about her.
Shechtman is a Klarman Fellow at Cornell University and will begin as an assistant professor in the Department of Literatures in English in 2024. We talked over Zoom in February about muddying the conventions of academic and magazine writing and thinking of your interlocutors as characters in a larger story you’re telling.
Jessica Swoboda: A few of the tenured scholars I’ve interviewed have said that they didn’t feel able to write for magazines or trade presses until they had tenure. Yet junior scholars now are some of the most popular and prolific public writers. Do you have any sense as to why?
Anna Shechtman: It’s a great question. Younger scholars are negotiating a really uneasy, sometimes mutualistic relationship between two precarious industries: the academic humanities and journalism. And at the moment, there are certainly people in the academy who think that, rightly or wrongly, reaching a larger audience will reinforce the legitimacy of humanistic inquiry in the academy. That’s just to say that the imperative to write for larger audiences might actually be coming from the top down—coming from administrators or search committees who are starting to value that form of writing as they’re assessing an academic CV.
On the flip side, we have a starving content-machine that is always looking for writers with more takes. Magazines know they don’t have to pay writers very much, especially if those writers have incentives other than money (prestige or even viability on the academic job market) motivating them. And so these two industries that are fighting for survival are both helping and preying upon precarious writers. I’ve certainly been both preyed upon and helped by them.
JS: Have you always wanted to write for public-facing publications?
AS: The year after I graduated from college, I had two jobs. I worked four days a week at the New York Times as Will Shortz’s assistant, and then I worked one day a week at Slate, helping them with their culture podcast. While I was there, I wrote one film review about Spike Jonze’s Her. My experience at Slate taught me two things about myself. First, that I don’t particularly like podcasts, although I’m open to the idea that that’s a reactionary position. Second, that I needed to learn how to think more historically and rigorously before I could comfortably put my ideas on the internet. That spurred me to apply to grad school.
I knew that I really enjoyed writing criticism, but I also knew I wasn’t particularly eager to continue doing that kind of writing right away. Grad school breeds insecurity, so I tried to approach it as self-protectively as possible. I tried to think, “Alright, now I’m getting a free master’s degree. And if I have an academic book in mind that I want to write, then I will move on and write a dissertation.” At the same time, I was self-consciously cultivating a shadow CV as an editor that I knew I might be able to take with me on a different job market if I didn’t get an academic job.
JS: Have your experiences writing for the public influenced your academic writing? Or vice versa?
AS: Working at the Los Angeles Review of Books was tremendously liberating and created a kind of emotional release valve from the insular but profound stresses of grad school. As an editor, I ended up cold-emailing a lot of my favorite academic writers and critics and asking them if they wanted to review a new film or book. It totally surprised me how many yeses I got to those emails.
My own writing has really benefited from editing those writers. We are all writing based on how we read, but when you’re reading as an editor, you’re collapsing the distance between reading and writing. I know that editing has made me a smarter reader and hopefully a better writer.
I should also say that it was a relief to see some first drafts from writers I really admire. It took some pressure off my own.
JS: What kind of habits did you see those academics needing to break as they transitioned to more public-facing writing?
AS: I mean, there are certain protocols of genre that are maybe not intuitive to academic writers—and for good reason. There are a lot of academic writers for whom writing a catchy introduction or lede is second nature. But I know I had trouble abandoning academic citational practices early on because the generic imperative of academic writing is to intervene in a preexisting academic discourse, whereas the generic imperative of a review or an essay is to tell a story.
I know that distinction breaks down once you put pressure on it. But I do think that when you move away from engaging a discourse and toward telling a story, your writing changes. I think some academics have a hard time with that move because it can feel unethical. We’ve been trained, appropriately, to think about the ethics and politics of citation, so it becomes harder to, say, paraphrase something and then allow that reference to be a building block for your own story, without feeling like you need to get into the weeds with the scholar or critic.
JS: That echoes Toril Moi’s response to this question: that the only difference is the citational habits. At the level of sentence, at the level of paragraph, there is no difference whatsoever. What do you think about that answer?
AS: There’s a populism implicit to Moi’s answer that I really like, but I ultimately think that there are more differences between the genres than citation. I like to muddy the waters, though. I like drawing from the conventions of magazine writing in my academic writing and, to the sometimes dismay of my editors at magazines, vice versa. For example, I’ve tried to think about the people I’m citing in my academic writing as characters. If I’m introducing a voice other than my own, I need to be able to understand the theorists or critics I’m introducing as characters in a larger story I’m telling and to justify how I’m seeing my own voice in relation to theirs in the piece. It also makes explicit something else Moi was saying, which is that my work as a writer is in dialogue with theirs. I don’t simply see them as textual traces, but as who I’m thinking with, who I’m thinking alongside.
JS: You’ve done some collaborative writing with D. A. Miller. And you’re speaking of writing itself as sort of collaborative enterprise. What was that experience like, writing a piece with someone who is often a “character” in your own writing?
AS: Since the start of the pandemic, D. A. Miller and I have been having a biweekly film club. There’s little rhyme or reason to the films we pick, and we watch them before we get together on Zoom and just gab. He said that coauthoring a piece was the natural extension of what we were doing, but, to me, there is nothing more unnatural than coauthorship. Thinking about writing as theoretically collaborative is way different than actually passing a Word document back and forth.
Having said that, in many ways, writing a review of Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers with him was one of the easiest, most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had. I suffered from minimal writer’s block, which is partially because we had discussed the film for hours before we even started writing. Though we each ended up writing essentially a full draft of the piece and Frankenstein-like knitting them together, doing that wasn’t hard because we had developed a consensus on what we had wanted to say, and our two drafts turned out quite similar to each other. We got to pick our best lines and string them together.
JS: Would you be open to doing that again with another scholar?
AS: I’m definitely open to it. Perhaps editing has primed me for this kind of collaboration in a way that I haven’t actually thought about before.
JS: Can you say more about how editing is like coauthorship?
AS: I’ll talk more from the position of someone who’s been edited. I think it’s really natural that when I first receive edits, it feels a little bit like an assault, and my defense mechanisms manifest. As soon as I’m able to drop them and remind myself that editors are helping me improve the piece—and, my God, without even getting credit—I can think more clearly about revising.
Editing makes explicit something I really believe, which is that there’s no such thing as a “private intellectual”; all writing and thinking is engaged in forms of publicity, community and collaboration. Even in the academy—where we distinguish between academic and “public-facing” writing—I often want to remind people that there’s no such thing as private-facing writing. In academia, we’re just working with and addressing a different, more specialized public.
JS: I’ve never thought of academic writing as being a type of public writing in and of itself. I like that a lot. “Specialized public” is a phrase that I want to hold on to. Is there such a thing as a “public intellectual”?
AS: There are two rumors about public intellectuals that I’d like to try to debunk. There’s a nostalgic longing for the age of public intellectuals—something like the 1930s through the 1960s—which is probably a misplaced longing for a time when intellectual labor was more valued and therefore more sustainable. There’s also a prevalent, and I think misguided, claim that the internet can make us all public intellectuals. They both miss something important, which is that there is no such thing as “private” writing, and that the internet is not exactly a bastion of intellectualism. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I think we might be mistaking the circulation of personalities and personal brands for the circulation of ideas. That’s disconcerting. Because, again, I don’t think the number of people reached necessarily makes an idea more valuable.
JS: How does Twitter impact this distribution of work? Do you see Twitter as something good, as something bad or as something neutral?
AS: I don’t think Twitter has actually impacted literary criticism, or the circulation of literary scholarship, or even ideas about literature. I think it’s capitalized on a market trend, specifically on a bloated market for personality that’s been developing since at least the 1970s. (I write a bit about this in my forthcoming academic book, The Media Concept: A Genealogy.) The Frankfurt School understood celebrity in terms of the commodity form, and I think we increasingly live in an age that encourages us all to commodify our personalities for mass consumption. I’m not saying anything unique or original here. My point is just that I don’t think it was Twitter that did this, though I do think Twitter has profited off of it. And like any good negotiator of market forces, some writers have profited off of it too.
JS: I definitely feel pressured to promote my work online. But I have an unhealthy relationship with Twitter because I’ve been the subject of a Twitter war. So whenever I tweet, I’m worried about what the repercussions will be, which means I rarely tweet or that I have what feels like a panic attack every time I do.
AS: Yeah, I think a lot of graduate students have been encouraged to develop a personal brand online. And I’m definitely not saying I haven’t profited from the intersecting markets for “personalities” and academic jobs. I think the minute I got one of those prized New Yorker avatars, I became a more desirable candidate on the academic job market in a way that makes me feel gross.
JS: What is it like working on your academic book alongside your trade book, The Riddles of the Sphinx? How do you manage it?
AS: I have the real privilege of time right now as a postdoc, before my tenure-track job begins. I’m taking the first year of this postdoc to write Riddles of the Sphinx, which has been simmering in my mind since a literary agent approached me early on in grad school. He wanted me to tell “my story,” which is to say, the story of a young woman cruciverbalist beating the odds in a male-dominated field. That wasn’t the book I could have written with any truth or sense of integrity. But his pitch did get me thinking about the kind of book on crossword puzzles I might want to write. So The Riddles of the Sphinx is a cultural history of women and crossword puzzles, explaining, among other things, why women wrote the majority of crosswords in the first half of the twentieth century, and they now account for less than 20 percent of constructors today. I’ve really enjoyed spending time on that project, and I hope my academic book will benefit from the break between the dissertation and returning to it as a manuscript for publication.
Both books involve a lot of archival research, but each is actually personal, too. When I got to Yale, I learned that one of the programs I was accepted into—the Film Studies program—had changed its name to the Film and Media Studies Program. This meant that I was involved in many, sometimes generative, sometime ponderous conversations about what “Media Studies” is. And one very cynical professor who shall not be named suggested that if “media” was on our CV in some way, we would be more likely to get jobs. That made me even more attuned to the ways that the media concept has been circulating within the academy and led me to my research on how the media concept has circulated throughout culture industries since the start of its popular usage in the Fifties and Sixties.
JS: What a great origin story for a dissertation topic! It just shows how the personal still infuses any type of writing, even if you feel like you must detach from the personal in academic writing. You wrote an incredibly personal essay, “Black-and-White Thinking,” for the New Yorker, in which you detail the relationship between your struggles with an eating disorder and your attachment to creating crossword puzzles. What was it like make public such a personal story? Did you have any reservations about publishing the piece?
AS: The relationship between my eating disorder and crosswords—between language and the body, mental agility and gendered dysmorphia—has been a puzzle that I’ve been thinking through for many years. I wouldn’t say that writing that essay “solved” it, but it definitely helped loosen a pretty ungainly knot of information and experience.
I’m sensitive to the fact that there is a market for trauma or trauma-adjacent stories from young women, and I’ve been reluctant to write about my eating disorder for that reason. But my experience of writing crossword puzzles has been one of “coming into” politics by “coming into” publicity, with all of its risks and rewards. My relationship to crosswords really did go from a fairly private coping mechanism to a public activity that I understood as political. Publicness itself has reinforced my feminist politics, my sense that disclosing myself through writing, which happens whether or not you’re writing in the first person, is a political act.
JS: What should critics aspire to? What makes literary criticism meaningful?
AS: This is a little corny and credulous, but I often return to Lionel Trilling’s idea that a good critic should aspire to capture the “hum and buzz of implication”—the hum and buzz of implication being something like the context, the mood in which we all think and speak, how we know what things mean, what’s common knowledge and, though he would never put it in these terms, understanding hegemonic culture.
Thinking about how well cultural products like novels, or television, or film, or crossword puzzles capture and help us understand the hum and buzz of implication is, to me, what makes literary criticism meaningful and gives my job a sense of purpose.
JS: What do you hope to see in the world of criticism in the next decade?
AS: Well, first off, I hope to see living wages and benefits for writers. I’ve been really excited by the unionization efforts among magazines and also graduate students. A lot of those efforts have been for editorial staff and not for the writers themselves. There are reasons for that, of course, but I hope that freelance organizing efforts get as much attention and support. I hope these efforts across the board continue to grow and make a real impact on the ability for writers, editors and scholars to make a living wage. If I’ve learned anything from selling a trade book it’s that there is nothing equitable about how the money’s being distributed, but the money is there.
In that vein, I’m suspicious of endeavors like Substack for a number of reasons. One is that I believe in editors. But also because I think Substack promotes the idea that a writer can access an audience and money immaculately, that one’s audience and compensation is just out there, and that one’s ideas can spring forth from their head into a monetized newsfeed. And, to me, that betrays a total misunderstanding of how money is being allocated within Substack itself—which writers are actually getting money and how much money is going to the corporation. I’m suspicious of interventions in the market for writing that operate under the conceit of populism but do little to make writing more collaborative or more equitable.
JS: In a video for the New Yorker with another cruciverbalist, you said, “I have yet to encounter any industry that is not dominated by older white men.” You’re navigating two industries that are overwhelmed with older white men—academia and the crossword-puzzle world. Has your experience in the crossword world helped you navigate the academic world?
AS: It’s reinforced my feminist politics and made me feel even more committed to practicing them in the form of advising, editing and supporting women in the institutions I’m part of. Sometimes I feel that my only resources are whisper networks, so I’m committed to creating spaces where someone can vent, if not organize, around being a woman in these fields.
I don’t want to suggest that I’ve found a comfortable place where don’t feel complicit in these masculinist systems. I feel like I’m constantly negotiating between criticism and complicity. But I’m very grateful for the women and the gay men who have performed a similar role for me in terms of mentoring and editing and giving me access to the amount of professional authority that I now have and enabling me to pay it forward.