Editorial May 22, 2012

Preface and an Open Letter to the
New York Review of Books

It is perhaps hard for others to understand what joy there is to be found in finding oneself on the road, homeless and stranded, in a strange city, perhaps even in an unfamiliar country, with few (but therefore vital) contacts - in situations in which one is driven in the pursuit of a strong ideal! I call these flights from domestication "Voyage-Projects". The nearly two decades between1979 and 1996 were rich in these.

The first voyage-project of the modern period was launched in March, 1979. That was when I hitch-hiked from the Hudson Valley to Princeton, New Jersey, with only $5 in my pocket, protected from society and the elements only by the intention of covering the Einstein Centennial Symposium (article published in Les Temps Modernes , Paris, in January, 1980). Between that journalistic coup and 1996, when I settled down (backwards!) into Middletown, Connecticut, my life was structured by such ventures, sending me far and wide, to cover important events, or conduct interviews, or in tours designed to raise subscriptions for two independent newsletters, "New Universe Weekly" (1980-82) and "Ferment" (1984-2004, now assimilated into the On-Line Ferment Magazine.)

Any other way of living is mediocre at best; to my mind everybody should experience this state for at least a few years, merely to be able to say that they've lived. (This pronouncement is of course biased, profoundly : I can already hear the seasoned mountain climber telling me, "Roy, if you haven't climbed big mountains you haven't really lived!")

Traversing this continent with my two newsletters, "New Universe Weekly" and "Ferment",I picked up subscriptions, sometime patronage, by knocking on doors (either through recommendations or, in the corridors of college and university departments, systematically from door to door). Sleeping arrangements might be of various kinds :as the guest of friends and sympathizers; on couches; in fields and parks; in cemeteries; as an intruder in a garage; tucked away on campus grounds behind bushes and trees, (or as a zealot follower of the Occupy Empty Dormitory Rooms Movement! ); in hostels, hotels, homeless shelters; on beaches (including one memorable evening, on Venice Beach, Los Angeles); on hillsides and roadsides; even, from time to time, as honored guest poet, lecturer, or reader!

What was very difficult in dealing with at times were the postures of superiority of those members of the teaching profession with roofs over their heads, stable incomes, and a conviction that what they had to say to the world was far more relevant than the jottings of an itinerant would-be author knocking at their doors with pamphlets, held together by staples and hot off the nearest Copy Shop Xerox machines! Some of these unsympathizing souls, it is to be hoped , must have privately acknowledged the homely truth that it has been us vagabonds who, throughout history, have provided the raw materials, the books, treatises, ideas, plays, compositions and paintings on which , as critics, anthologists and commentators, they've feathered their cozy nest of job security and social standing.

Such things must be lived to be understood. All to the good in fact: for by the time, in the 21st century, when "Ferment" went public with the creation of the website "Ferment Magazine", I'd put together a solid bedrock of literature: 22 years of fiction, essays, travels, science and journalism, my version of "tenure" on which to stake my claim in the Republic of Letters of the latter part of the 20th century!

This fly-by-night existence was reflected in the manner in which the contents of my newsletters, stories and researches might be written: in train stations, bus stations, cafes, restaurants; in libraries, in the offices of friends, or clandestinely in college computer centers; in shabby hotels (the Hotel Standish in Denver 1991-92 was in fact a pretty dangerous place!) . Raising the money to send out the weekly or monthly issues posed special problems (for all of the subscription money raised was spent in the costs of the subscription tours). Methods of fund-raising could consist of playing the violin (recorder, guitar) on street corners; or selling booklets compiled from sets of articles originally published in Ferment. Then one must acknowledge the generosity of patrons who would, from time to time, cover the cost of an entire run. While living in Cambridge, Massachusetts between 1980 and 1981, I might spend the better part of a day walking about Cambridge and Boston, making personal deliveries of the latest issue to local subscribers. One interesting experiment involved tucking an issue inside the (postage paid) alumni newsletters of SUNY New Paltz. To its credit, no ‘disciplinary action' was taken against me by the state of New York!

These things serve as a preface to the letter that I sent the other day to the New York Review of Books. They may publish it. One never knows what will strike its' editors' fancy:

"To the editors of the New York Review of Books:

This morning I found my copy of the June 7th issue of the New York Review of Books in the mailbox. Glancing over the list of biographical sketches underneath the table of contents, I counted 15 contributors out of a total of 22 who maintain positions as tenured professors in universities:

David Cole (Georgetown); Robert Darnton (Harvard); Jared Diamond (UCLA); Eamon Duffy (Cambridge); Edward Mendelson (Columbia); Colin McGinn (University of Miami); Joyce Carol Oates (Princeton); Bill McKibben (Middlebury College); Robert Pinsky (formely at Berkeley; now at Boston University), Diane Ravitch (NYU); Christopher Ricks (Boston University); David Schulman (Hebrew University, Jerusalem); Garry Wills ( Northwestern, emeritus).

Note that these are, overwhelming, rich "name" universities; one will not find articles and reviews by 'professors' (nowadays everybody's a "professor", unlike the traditional ladder of Instructor, Assistant, Associate and Full Professor) teaching at Bunker Hill Community College, or Mohegan College, or the University of Hartford, or Skidmore College, or Adelphi College, or SUNY New Paltz. This systematic triage in favor of elite institutions, a vice of which the sciences are constantly being accused , which one might expect to find in some journal in Theoretical Physics, is being replicated in a book review newsletter directed to the general public!

Altogether the percentage of professors writing these reviews is 65% . This is not atypical of the NYRB; sometimes the percentage is larger. Yet It is obvious that the number of serious authors in our society who do not have university positions greatly exceeds the number who do. I am certain that I am not the first literary professional to complain that the way your menu of reviewers is top heavy with professors from elite institutions does not at all reflect the realities of literature as it is created today, or indeed at any time in literate history.

Scholars and teachers belong to the Republic of Letters as much as anyone else who is productive in its traditional genres: fiction, poetry, drama, history, criticism, biography, journalism, philosophy, essays and so forth . However, contrary to the impression given by the New York Review of Books, academics do not dominate either the humanities nor, certainly, the creative arts, though the NYRB, and much of the educated public imagine that they do. Perhaps the name of your publication should be changed to The NYAPR: New York Academy of Professorial Reviewers!

Fortunately, in this issue at least, among the Establishment Profs judged to possess enough 'authority' to write for you, there are some, like Christopher Ricks, who are in no need of displaying their academic credentials to back up the credibility of their insights."

Return to

Home Page