Dr. Epstein—Mr. Epstein—Joseph—old-timer: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “writer” from your job description? “The writer Joseph Epstein” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your career is, I believe, unfolding in the context of contemporary American history, long after the canonical greatness achieved by the likes of Aristotle and William Shakespeare. A wise woman once said that no one should call himself “writer” unless he has composed an actual masterpiece. Think about it, Mr. Epstein, and forthwith drop the pen and abandon the keyboard.
I wrote at Ghostwriters Central for 17 years without ever feeling the need to announce myself as a “writer.” I have only a B.F.A. in Writing, Literature, & Publishing from Emerson College. During my years as a ghostwriter, I was sometimes addressed, usually on the phone, as “a professional writer.” On such occasions it was all I could do not to reply, “Read two chapters of James Baldwin and tell me I still have any idea what it is I’m doing.”
I am also often addressed as a writer in my capacity as editor of The Milpitas Beat, an independent newspaper founded by my wife in Silicon Valley. Let me quickly insert that I am also an owner, but only by virtue of my marriage. Many of those who so address me, I’ve noted, are mere ordinary readers. I also, in the midst of carrying out my vocation, receive a fair amount of correspondence from people who place the word “writer” or “author” underneath their names, and have twice seen variants of “writer” on vanity license plates, which struck me as pathetic. In contemporary publishing, in journalism and fiction, calling oneself a writer is thought bush league (not to be confused with George W.).
The label “writer” may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in the publishing profession, at any rate outside the New York publishing houses. Becoming a writer was then an arduous proceeding: One had to craft a professionally polished manuscript, shop it around amongst a multitude of traditional publishers, weather an onslaught of scathing rejection letters (often written on that bygone medium called “paper”), continue honing one’s craft ‘til the rejections thinned, and only with the passage of time and the accrual of great luck be rewarded a legitimate publishing contract. At HarperCollins of an earlier day, a secretary sat outside the room where manuscripts were being vetted, a bright red REJECTION stamp on her desk. The stamp was there for the candidates who failed. A far cry, this, from the Zoom meetings I now sit in on, where would-be scribes address one another by first names and the general atmosphere more resembles an AA meeting. Mr. Epstein, I note you began editing at The American Scholar as recently as 45 years ago at age 38, or long after the likes of Homer had walked the Earth.
The prestige of newspaper writers has declined even further. Such jobs were once given exclusively to scholars, college graduates, deep thinkers and people who took the time to iron their shirts. Then bloggers entered the ranks, usually in the hope that they would gain fame upon the websites that had granted them their imaginary platforms. (My late friend Lee Schall, who acted in many widely seen TV commercials, told me that he had good ideas for 374 different blog posts.) Famous Instagram models, who passed themselves off as socially conscious, followed. YouTubers, who didn’t even bother wearing pants, were next.
At Regenery Publishing, recent books have been attributed to the likes of Sean Spicer and Ann Coulter. I sent a complaining email to the publisher’s president about the low quality of such people as published writers, with the result that the following year they decided to publish a new title by Ted Cruz.
The Internet and print-on-demand technology have put paid to any true honor a career as a published writer may once have possessed. If you are ever looking for a simile to denote rarity, try “rarer than a published anthology not containing a tale of macho angst by a straight white male.” Then there are all those book contracts bestowed on Sherman Alexie, Neil deGrasse Tyson and others who, owing to their proven or alleged sexual predations, have had to be rethought. Between the book contracts given to billionaires, the falsely intelligent, entertainers and the politically correct, just about all honor has been drained from the profession of writing.
As for your standing as a writer, Mr. Epstein, hard-earned though it may have been, please consider stowing it, at least in public, at least for now. Forget the small thrill of being writer Joseph, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the rest of your life as the asshole who once wrote an op-ed just like this one, advising Jill Biden not to call herself “Doctor,” yet unlike me, actually wasn’t kidding.