Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A More Elegant Response to Mr. "Moneybox"

Since it seems these days that if you have a blog and you get some bad press you must respond, here is my email exchange with Daniel Gross, of Slate, who finds me annoying:

Subject: You're a Very Mean Man
Dear Mr. Gross,
My book is not a memoir. You do it a disservice to treat it as such. I would hope that as a woman I would finally be beyond the position of being judged by my husband's job.
I say in the first chapter exactly how lucky I know myself to be. At least half of the people in my book are not "poor, self-pitying upper-middle-class types" like me but in the 72% of 25-29-year-olds with no bachelor's degree. Your piece has absolutely nothing to say about the actually poor kids, who are holding down the vast majority of minimum wage jobs while struggling to get through school, not to mention fighting in Iraq, but my book does have a lot to say about them. Perhaps you didn't have room to acknowledge more than one good point of evidence ("Now, today's twentysomething authors are clearly onto something...") in your quite amusing review?

Thanks for your note. A few points I'd make in response. One: I don't think I'm a very mean man.
Second, I don't treat your book as a memoir. Nowhere do I refer to it as such, and I explicitly state that these are books about the economic plight faced by 20-somethings.
Third, there's no effort to judge you by your husband's job. The larger point is this, which people in their early 20s generally fail to realize. Getting married, or forming a long-term relationship, is economically advantageous for a whole host of reasons, whether your partner works at Google or not. You save on rent, overhead, and taxes; you pay less for car insurance; and for those who lack benefits, you increase your access to health care benefits. And although people may be marrying later, most people do wind up getting married.

Also, I don’t know quite what to make of the people who have chosen to consume when they had no capacity to consume, like Stella, who maxed out her Citibank Visa by taking a trip to San Diego on her semester break from college, or Kyle, the Cornell grad who chose to have a car in college and hence took our more loans.

I know you probably thing I’m just a mean old man. But we actually have quite a lot in common. I, too, am the child of an English professor of modest means. I worked my way through Cornell, on student loans and crap jobs, then landed a year-long benefit-less internship at the New Republic for $200 a week while living in a shithole rowhouse in a part of town to which none of our girlfriends would venture, and then did two years of graduate study at Harvard, living on about $10,000 a year. My first job in journalism, which I took with my stellar degrees and experience at TNR was the ultimate crap job – coming in at 4:00 a.m. to Bloomberg news to summarize newspaper articles for the wire service and living in a shitty apartment. Of course, like everybody else, there were times when I was miserable and full of self-pity, and I even wrote about it sometimes.

I quit Bloomberg after nine months, and have been self-employed ever since, writing for magazines, writing books, etc. The point is not to impress you with my up from the bootstraps tale, or to look back wistfully to my youth. The point is that if you want to make it big, or relatively big, in New York journalism at a young age you have to take an awful lot of risks – which is precisely what you’re doing. At any point in my mid-20s, I could have taken a job with benefits, a 401(K), and a paid vacation at a crappy trade publication, or at the Daily News. I chose not to, because I thought I was capable of better and was prepared to deal with the insecurity for the sake of doing more interesting and satisfying work. I’m guessing you’re making the same calculation—and you’re right.

Dear Mr. Gross,
Thanks for writing me back. Since you concede the main thesis of the book--
" College is more expensive today in real terms. There's been a shift in student aid—more loans and fewer grants. The Baby Boomers, closer to retirement, are sucking up more dollars in benefits. There's more income volatility and job insecurity than there used to be"--
I'm going have to declare victory on this one. I just wish I could get you to see that I didn't write it about me and my own choices. I'm lucky as hell to be doing what I'm doing.

By the way, if we have so much in common, why is it that you find me so especially annoying?


Unknown said...

i must say that i am coming to this whole debate by way of slate, which unfortunately may "mark" me ... but i can only say that while the job market might "suck," complaining and lamenting it only feeds the void of negativity you profit from.

like you, i graduated with a useless degree from a (somewhat) prestigious school (no yale). i admit, i wasn't employable nor did i have huge ambitions. not initially crippled by student debt, i was after my first graduate degree.

basically, when i "slummed" it in chicago for two years with three part time jobs and no health insurance ($1200 monthly, which didn't include rent, health, or auto insurance), i was in a similar position as most of my friends - overeducated, underemployed, etc. the ones who had access to large cash reserves played the part of the unwashed urban proletariat with gusto. the ones who got into trouble were those with credit cards and consumer dreams.

i haven't read your book, but can recommend a useful book with which you might begin to retheorize your views. check out 'city of gold' by david westbrook. we live in a financial world. communication is fully negative, mediated by currency and finance, imperfect and inarticulate media that temporalize desire but never quite fulfil it.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the book reviewer also "profit from the void of negativity" by complaining and lamenting about Anya's writing? So why is it OK for him to do that, but not Anya? Are there any topics that we are allowed to "complain and lament" about? Seems to me that, ironically, currency and finance have profited exactly because people would rather go to the mall and buy something than pick an important topic, complain about it, and fix it.

Anonymous said...

Don't let the haters get to you, Anya. This problem is real, and your book does a great job of arguing that point. Even if our economic woes are just a predictable ebb of the eternal economic tide, the water has never been so low.
Gross pulling out that bit about the candlesticks was a low blow, and as you said, he ignores all the underprivileged, non-college graduates you profile who are working their asses off and losing ground.
If you need reassurance, take a look at the 328 comments that have been posted to the review of Tamara's book on alternet: http://alternet.org/mediaculture/30041/

Bravo 2-1 said...

It's only Slate...


Anonymous said...

It's partly economic, it's partly personal. Everyone makes choices, but we don't choose in a vaccuum. It's just as narrow for Gross to say that it's their fault for making bad choices as it would be for you to say that it's all economic factors, with no room for personal choice. But of course, you're not saying that; in my opinion, you do a fine job of bringing out the difficult tension between personal responsibility and environmental factors.

Anonymous said...

Gross' review was ad hominem. It's clear from reading your book that you understand the difference between you and many of the people you write about. The psychology of his review is obvious from his reply.

Anonymous said...

he thinks you're annoying because you're hysterically (or else cynically and manipulatively) using a few numbers and anecdotes to cite some sort of crisis (slate's jack shafer would call it a "trend") among 20-somethings.

he thinks you're annoying because young people (and i'm 27) tend to narcistically forget that life in general can be hard, and that our lives are no worse than older people or else people our age in previous generations who've had it harder.

he thinks you're annoying because you cite the costs of our 20's (we live alone and we've just paid for educations and training that we haven't yet recouped our investment on) without acknowledging the benefits/freedoms of youth/singledom (myriad).

he thinks your examples are annoying because people in your book have made choices to put themselves into debt or fiscal crisis, and then denied responsibility or benefit while moaning about economic pressures.

he thinks you're annoying because (he thinks) people like you feel sorry for yourselves in (lucrative) print, while it's obvious to him (older and wiser) that you are in a great situation that he presumably envies.

Anonymous said...

Come on, Anya - the Ivy degree? The silver flatware and china? The island off the coast of Sweden?

You could have nominated someone else from your/our generation to speak for you/us. Not saying you don't deserve pity (Yale, ecch) but not the kind you're looking for.

Say hi to Jed Purdy for me. Whatta maroon.

Anonymous said...

Well, on the "he thinks you're annoying because" litany, one thing Gross never said was "Anya Kamenetz is annoying". He said the book was annoying. That may be a worse thing for an author to hear, but it's not ad hominem. ("You're a mean man", on the other hand...)

Personally, I think the idea of taking cheap shots over email at a book reviewer, and then posting the exchange, is annoying. Gross's review probably does spend too much time on Anya's own unsuitability as a subject of her book, and not enough on the issues she brings up in her first email; but he took the time to write a lengthy explanatory email in what appears to have been good faith, and it's kind of petty and theatrical to respond to that by slapping it on the Internet and "declaring victory", especially without addressing any of the substantive points in his message.

That all said, people who like flaming other people's blogs and trashing their work under cover of anonymity are even more annoying. Christ, I'm annoyed.

-- Matt

Unknown said...


slate doesn't profit directly from anything. they analyze news, condense it into a (albeit) imperfect for for so we don't have to read it. they profit just as all websites do (including this one). so if you're trying to give me that tribal-hippy, non-profit, anti-corporate to the max line save it.

complaining and lamenting the current state of the world economy isn't going to accomplish much, nor are we as individuals, as actors, nor as liberal weekend warriors in cyberspace.

all i can say is, our current finanial predicament is the result of a unique and bloody concatenation (two world war, imperialism, etc.) and of its imperfect political container, the nation-state.

chronicling the symptoms of this much larger system doesn't do much. seriously, if you think we've had it bad take a trip to the former soviet union.

or just read this book review and hear me out

Anonymous said...

I don't particularly understand why this conversation has turned out to be a discussion of anecdotes-either of Anya's life, or Michael's life or Daniel's life or anything. The actual debate is over economic changes for which there is ample evidence. Furthermore, the fact that Anya chooses in her book to employ anecdotes to help put a human face on the change in student loan debt/general youth debt, does not mean that this whole debate can be reduced to a conversation about whose life was harder and who managed to overcome their debt.

The facts are that more students take out more debt to pay for college even as a degree is more and more necessary. Even as students take out more debt our government is doing less to help those students and isn't even really creating policy to deal with the consequences.

If you want to attack the idea of "generation debt" you should do more than just try to dismiss the author or gain credibility by retelling your own hard luck story.