Renowned short story writer, novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick recently authored an article titled, “Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat” for The New York Times. Ozick’s piece itself embodies the argument she makes, dripping with literary references that both color and convolute her essay. Sifting through her allusions, I found myself eventually agreeing with her somewhat pompous, yet founded sentiments.
In a response for The New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy wrote from the young writer perspective, “In what might be the most highbrow get-off-my-lawn ever written … fiction writer and essayist Cynthia Ozick complains in The New York Times that today’s young writers aren’t content to wait their turn.” I disagree with the contention that Ozick is complaining, and I instead read her piece as more of a poetic warning.
While Maltz Bovy accurately identifies that changes in infrastructure — namely technological and economic developments — have influenced the shift that Ozick discusses, in doing so she attests that Ozick’s cultural contentions are moot. Ozick does fail to mention the role of technology and economic pressures, but her cultural perceptions are nevertheless both poignant and on point.
Ozick writes, “Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds.” Ambition is the desire to be successful, powerful or famous; aspiration is a strong desire to achieve something high or great.
I clung to the idea of these characterizations. Though the difference between the two may seem minute, Ozick’s implications are grand. Ambition is a desire for a type of success that is legitimized by the approval of others; aspiration is a desire to fulfill a personal conviction that is unconcerned with circulation numbers or page views. Young writers are consumed with careerism and self-advertisement, not ideas.
Ozick continues, “Old writers in their youth understood themselves to be apprentices to masters superior in seasoned experience, and were ready to wait their turn in the hierarchy of recognition. In their lone and hardened way of sticking-to-it, they were unwaveringly industrious; networking, the term and the scheme, was unknown to them.”
As to say, there are no shortcuts — or there shouldn’t be. Do not rub elbows with old writers in an attempt to receive a handout or leg up, but rather do so in order to learn from their breadth of experience. There is honor and importance in being an apprentice, and it is not a step that we should offhandedly aspire to forego.
The world of online journalism has become as convoluted as Ozick’s literary references, saturated with endless content and information. There is a constant flurry to churn out “news,” relevance (and sometimes accuracy) aside. Although Ozick refrained from pointing fingers, the example of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” supports her allegations.
Seduced by the dramatic narrative and potential impact of the story, Rolling Stone failed to surface and debate problems with Sabrina Erdeley’s reporting and the subsequent fact checking, and the mistakes that were made were entirely avoidable. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report on Rolling Stone and the UVA story reads, “The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”
The report also outright suggests, “The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”
While Rolling Stone’s UVA article is only one example, it points to an increasingly larger trend of producing sensationalized journalism despite the potential costs. I believe Ozick might argue that Rolling Stone subscribed to the new writer ideology; they aspired to make waves and in doing so, sacrificed integrity and disserviced to the survivors of sexual assault, the publication itself and the industry at large.
Ozick wrote, “In the bottomless force of their seeming immortality, young writers are mercifully lent these blindfolds and ear muffs, and why? To shield them from what old writers have come to know: how things turn out.” Ozick is not telling young writers to “get off her lawn,” she’s warning them of the consequences of this new media environment. New writers can get swept away in the idea of fast-tracking their careers and personal brand, risking or even forgetting the fundamentals of the craft that inspired us to become writers in the first place.
Lauren McCarthy can be reached at laurmc@umich/edu.