So I kept reading things on Twitter today about what people (especially academics) shouldn’t be doing and about what the editors of a new magazine repudiate. I was annoyed by both of these statements, possibly because they showed up in my Twitter feed just a few hours apart and so set up a feedback loop that eventually started screeching in my ears.
If you’re starting a new literary magazine, then tell me what you believe in. Tell me what you value, what you think needs or anyway deserves your advocacy. Tell me what you celebrate. Don’t bother to tell me what you denounce, especially if what you denounce is what everyone denounces: no one will ever come out in favor of inordinate pride or ingratiating salesmanship in writing — though of course some people will exemplify those vices. (And if you don’t name any names I can’t even get a sense of what you might think those vices consist in.) One of the things I love about the wacko BLAST Manifesto is that it offers pages of BLASTs and CURSEs but follows them with pages of BLESSings. Now that’s a manifesto.
Second: if you’re an academic leader, if you’re the incoming president of a university, then please do not tell academics that they can succeed only by walking some narrow tightrope, keeping to an impossibly precise Aristotelian Golden Mean, erring neither on the one side nor on the other. That’s nonsense. All such advice does is to multiply the apparent causes of failure and give people more reasons to blame themselves. Given the apparently crumbling economic foundations of the modern academy, people in that environment are not going to succeed by maintaining “a pleasing uniformity of decent competence.” Instead, if they’re going to succeed at all they’re going to succeed by doing something really extraordinary, by stretching their abilities and pushing against the limits of their disciplines. And there are many ways to do this, not just one: some are in teaching, some in scholarship, some in alternative-academic careers. But in any of these fastidiousness is no virtue. Now is not the time for faint hearts.
No one has ever achieved anything of real value by striving to avoid excesses: there must be a positive goal toward which you strive. That’s why, as I said on Twitter yesterday, it doesn’t help to tell people to avoid this or avoid that. Better, tell them to swing for the fences. We might as well.