Last May The Washington Post sponsored a luncheon at which the authors of four recently published books discussed their works. One of the four was Willie Morris, whose first novel, The Last of the Southern Girls, had just come out. Even those who admire Morris, as I do, must acknowledge that the book is no masterpiece. At best, it is a rather ordinary rendering of contemporary Washington; at worst, ladies-magazine melodrama. Yet at the luncheon Morris spoke not as a writer whose mark on fiction was still to be made, but as if he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. Asking questions such as why the South produced all our great writers (“I feel I am the last to know that South,”) or what drove critics to cut down greatness when it appeared (“They called Faulkner a Gothic; my friend Bill Styron’s Nat Turner was ‘paternalistic’ “), Morris grasped for the hands of the Southern Greats, attempting to link his name with those of Faulkner and Wolfe and Styron. Almost nothing in his speech was about his book; nearly all concerned his place in the Southern Pleiade.

It was a saddening experience, because what had happened to Morris seemed so clear. The value he appeared to emphasize was no longer his work but his reputation; he seemed more intent on being called a “great writer” than in writing’ great literature. The shortcomings which would be inevitable in any first novel were impossible for him to admit, as if doing so would cut away his standing among the Greats. In comparison with his earlier writing, Morris’ goal seemed to have changed, from expressing a message to projecting himself, from “doing it” to “making it.”

Morris’ transformation struck me because it recalled a similar change I had observed—indeed, been part of—in an institution far removed from the world of literature and luncheons. During the summer of 1969 I came to Washington to work as an investigator for Ralph Nader. My elation as I drove in to the city was out of all proportion to the work I was actually going to do, investigating the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s civil rights policies. What appealed to me, and to the hundred other students shipped in from Cambridge, New Haven, and a few other points, was our new identity as Nader’s Raiders.

The previous summer the Pioneer Chapter of Raiders had won glory for themselves by turning up crooks and alcoholics in unlikely comers of the Federal Trade Commission. Part of that glory might be ours.

During the next two months we rarely had an opportunity to forget that we had, at least temporarily, become celebrities. TV news cameras filmed us as we stood outside federal buildings, civil servants staring down from the windows as we announced that they were stupid and slow. When the Agriculture Department stalled in answering our demands for information, we rolled out the big gun, Nader himself, to confront the Secretary. At periodic meetings within the Nader organization we were reminded that the government, apparently grasping for ways to stop us, might stoop to planting marijuana in our dorms or otherwise discrediting us. Life sent Jack Newfield to profile this selfless new breed of social reformers, and clerks in the Agriculture library, who until we spoke had taken us for part of their routine 4-H clientele, ran squealing to their bosses when we announced that we were working for Nader.

The daily duties, apart from servicing the press, often varied between the frustrating and the dull. But this we were prepared to endure: after all, Nader had warned us that anyone seriously concerned with turning the government upside down must spend 90 per cent of his time with the memoranda, statistical charts, and other narcotic effluvia with which the government hopes to distract critics by paralyzing them. And even though we could see that our efforts would not be rewarded with immediate reforms, Nader gave us the sense that each fact we discovered, each bit of public interest pressure we applied, brought the country that much nearer honest government. In our eyes, the two months of hard work and the publicity that accompanied it amounted to virtue appropriately recognized.

One year later, Nader’s stock was still on the rise, and many more students discovered that they, too, were concerned about clean government. Youth hostels all over Europe stood empty as young people poured into Washington and the other Nader headquarters to study institutions that ranged from the Atomic Energy Commission to the State of Maine. With a dozen other Raiders, I spent the summer in Savannah, Georgia. There the lack of competition enhanced our relative fame. Compared to our counterparts working under Nader’s thumb in Washington, we were able to live at a less than frantic pace. We went for picnics in Savannah’s beautiful swamplands and admitted to ourselves, when we weren’t denouncing the pollution in the area, that Savannah was one of the few pleasant cities left in the nation. The local reaction, even while hostile, only increased our sense of importance. Where else could we walk into a bank and, simply by exhibiting the signature on our paychecks, induce twinkles in the tellers’ eyes?

Undone by Pavlov

Reentering the Nader headquarters several years later was like walking in on a movie being shown to an empty house. Technically, everything was fine, but something important had disappeared. It was not Nader’s impact that had vanished, for in its effect on the government, Nader’s organization had grown stronger each year.

But something had happened to the kids. The students who three or four years earlier would have been eager to earn a Nader Raider recommendation for their graduate school applications now turned to studying abroad or working in the summers to earn money. For the first time in five years, in 1973 Nader is not sponsoring any major student projects.

It cannot have been the content or conditions of the work that drove the students away. While the Nader organization has the predictable defects of any institution run on principles inherited from’ the Hapsburg monarchy, these tendencies had never before deterred applicants. What had changed was the public recognition accorded to Nader’s Raiders. The contrast between Nader’s early targets, such as the Corvair, and some of the more recent manifestations of his work, such as the seat-belt buzzers now being installed in automobiles, helps explain why the students have left.

The buzzer is a device some General Motors psychologist might have invented if he had wanted to induce a Pavlovian hatred of Nader among the public. It is symbolic of incipient distrust of its public-interest advocates—a distrust of reformers who seem to attack fat-filled hotdogs and lethal working conditions with equal intensity. Although the Nader organization is doing the same work as before—and doing it more successfully—the public perception has changed. No longer perceived as the embodiment of tough, selfless intelligence, the Raiders now seem slightly queer.

None of this daunts Nader, who has been considered odd before and can endure it again; to incredulous interviewers he has always explained that 10 years from now he will be doing just what he does today, whether his work attracts students or not. From his perspective, the loss of chic may actually be an advantage, since it ensures that those who now apply will be attracted by the work rather than the celebrity. To Nader, the student defection may amount to a separation of wheat from chaff, men from boys, “public citizens” from Joe Publics.

But it also represents a disturbing judgment on the “committed” generation of the sixties: it suggests that the students’ text was not Nader’s citizen action manuals but Jerry Rubin’s example of political stardom. In fact, a book published more than six years ago may give the best insight into what has happened not only to the Nader organization, but also to Willie Morris and many of the rest of us in our careers. In 1967, Norman Podhoretz gave us his autobiography, Making It, a book that stands as the philosophical pole to Nader’s beliefs. The book’s premise was that “success” —which Podhoretz defined in a peculiar and revealing way—has replaced sex as America’s dirty little secret. We are no longer afraid to admit our sensual lusts, but few will confess how deep is their hunger for a big name. To expose the secret, Podhoretz proposed to tell his own story—how he rose to success and fame as editor of Commentary.

Now Commentary is a respectable magazine, and its editorship a position of responsibility, but something here rings phony. The amount of success involved is much more modest than the book suggests, as if the Second District Congressman from Utah wrote a confessional entitled “How I Rose to Political Fame.” Famous is precisely what he is not, but it is what he hopes to become after writing the book. For all the purported self-revelation, Podhoretz never managed to admit the most transparent of his motives: the world of Manhattan and the Jewish literati is rarified but … well, small, and Podhoretz wanted to move on, to become known by Time and the folks Out There as the man who told all about literature.

Podhoretz’s dishonesty was a direct result of the way he defined success. The book’s title is a good way of summing up what he saw as America’s secret goal: “making it” means fame, adulation, a name in the street. In one passage, by no means unfairly selected, Podhoretz described in the third person what making it meant to him as a young writer:

[The writer] gets fan mail from strangers and invitations to glamorous parties; publishers write him letters expressing the hope that he will consider signing up with them … and they take him out to lunch in expensive restaurants … magazine editors ask him to contribute and television producers ask him to appear; his pieces get reprinted in anthologies and colleagues request him to lecture; his name begins to be mentioned in articles, always respectfully and sometimes more glowingly than that. At the publisher’s cocktail parties, to which he is still new and green enough to want to go, he comes upon an increasing number of people who have read his work and who are only too happy to tell him how brilliant they think he is; and the girls at those parties … looking at him in a way girls have not looked at him before.

If it is impossible to imagine Nader speaking in quite the same terms—writing in his memoirs, “And then, my face appeared on the cover of Time, and I hadn’t been so pleased since the day the Gallup poll pronounced me a saint”—it is because he seems to judge his success internally. When he knows he is doing it, it matters little whether he is seen to be making it or not. For Podhoretz, “success” is a refracted quality, existing only when passed through the perception of other people. To the old question of whether a tree falling in a deserted forest would make any noise, since no one would be there to hear it, Podhoretz would have to answer no; his definition of making it requires a marquee, and fans standing around to look at the name in lights.

A Lifetime of Report Cards

Of course, the lines between making it and doing it are extremely subtle, and to present anyone, even Nader or Podhoretz, as embodying either trend in its pure form is to risk caricature. But distinguishing between the two impulses may be a useful way of understanding not only politics and literature but also tensions many of us feel in our own work.

In the Nader organization, for example, the component of doing it has been constant and high. Compared to nearly anyone in government except those in the White House and a few timeless congressmen, the public interest lobbyists have good reason to feel they influence events. In the rest of the government futility is often the dominant emotion: the assistant can’t do what the boss doesn’t like, and the boss can’t do what he wants because it’s against the agency policy or because he’s up for reelection next year. By contrast, Nader’s power to criticize and expose looks more and more impressive.

Yet the Nader Raiders’ commitment to doing it was made more palatable by the substantial measure of accompanying fame. Near the end of our Savannah project we prepared a complaint against our enemy, a large paper company. Before delivering it to the district attorney we called the local television station to make sure they would be on hand to record the event. As Nader’s representatives we could justify such behavior by reasoning that we were only serving as vehicles for the Cause. Naturally the vehicle argument was easier to accept when it meant personal recognition for us instead of the unsung labor many of Nader’s current employees perform.

As the proportion of making it to doing it began to fall in the Nader organization, the college students were naturally the first to tum away. “Naturally,” because if there is any period of life in which Podhoretz’s course is more logical than Nader’s it is the years one spends in the educational system. As students rise through high school and college and graduate schools they have little choice but to judge themselves on reflected criteria. The pre-adult lack of firm internal standards may be part of the explanation, but more important is the weight such external judgments as grades, awards, offices, and the like carry. A calculating student, realistically appraising the grounds on which he will be admitted to college or graduate school—and on which he will afterwards be able to choose his work-will conclude that unless he is the new Babe Ruth or in direct line to big money, he needs to carry with him the kind of notarized intellectual pedigree that grade point averages and “extra-curricular” achievements provide. Hence the joy and pain when grades are distributed at schools, and the previously untapped energy released at examination time. (If we had really wanted to beat the Vietcong, we would have sent a bunch of pre-meds over there and told them they’d be graded on their performance.) Hence, too, the defection from Nader when he no longer offered an attractive addition to the pedigree.

The radical suggestion in Podhoretz’s book was that life never changes after school time, that the report cards and admissions tests continue to be important to us until we die. Once out into Podhoretz’s world the writer must struggle to become known as a “capital-‘W’ ” writer, to be called “the best … ” just as his teachers used to call him “the best student in the class.” No doubt Podhoretz has identified a true human phenomenon. Long before him, Joseph Wood Krutch pointed out the difference between those who want to write and those who want to have written. But years after its publication the two basic errors of Podhoretz’s book have largely been left uncorrected: the first is the implication that making it is primarily the privilege and curse of the creative elite; the second, that the hunger for fame, like the hunger for sex, is suppressed only at severe cost to body and soul.

Part of the Big Picture

There are different planes of ambition in the world; clearly the Hollywood actress needs something different to keep herself going than does the routine businessman. But both demand some measure of respect. For the businessman respect means making it with his peers, being known as the best salesman in the district or the best tennis player in the neighborhood. This is different from the “public” professions—literature and the arts, big-league sports, politics—for which the audience is far larger, society as a whole.

Anyone who enters these fields draws some satisfaction from being part of the Big Picture, however insignificant his individual role may be. To maintain a reputation in politics and literature one must worry about the large questions, those that rarely intrude into one’s everyday life. By contrast, those in the private professions often make their goal the perfection of the conditions they encounter each day. People in the first category will write about educational policy; those in the second will teach school. For many in the public professions, a return to unrecognized, private efforts carries a threat of personal diminution. Even though the circulation of this magazine is smaller than that of many local papers, most people who write for it feel more important because they are addressing a “national” audience.

There is a consequent distinction between the public and private professions in the way their members earn respect from the public. A good name within the profession is as important to the writer as to the banker; even those whose self-esteem depends most heavily on popular approval, writers, actors, and politicians, find public fame less satisfying when their friends are not impressed. But when the private trades go public, they convey their reputation through professional labels rather than personal achievements. You can’t say at a party, “I just drew the best highway plans in the division,” so you say, “I’m in engineering.” Thus people once liked to label themselves as being “in computers” or “on the White House staff,” or “with Ralph Nader.” Few things match the discomfort of having an obscure label, one which leaves the bearer anonymous. Among the reasons for the growth of large corporations, one of the most neglected may be the personal preference for saying, ”I’m with Polaroid” instead of “I work for Ace Ball Bearings.” This is not lIkely to change until conversations between strangers begin, “What do you think” instead of “Who are you with?”

Sinking with the Superstars

But if we are all trying to present an impressive image, some of us are trying harder than others. The contrasts are clearest in the public professions, for only there are motives even partly revealed. In Congress, all Members must by definition promote themselves to survive, yet the ratio of self-promotion to accomplishment varies. Some are so grateful to be known as senators that they ask nothing more; others want to make a name as champions of a cause. Opposing pairs come to mind: Rep. Donald Fraser has worked hard for liberal causes without becoming a liberal celebrity, while Rep. Les Aspin keeps the mimeograph machines hot with announcements of his liberal activities. The difference may be due to seniority—Fraser is relatively established and Aspin is a newcomer who feels he must become well-known to survive—but the classic congressional contrast between “workhorses” and “showhorses” also applies.

The motives in writing are even more convoluted, for while each writer has a politician’s stake in his own name (few will write without bylines, or at least without the sense that their professional friends will know where the article came from) they lack elections as an excuse for regular self-promotion. Another contrasting pair suggests that there is a valid distinction between those who are mainly making it and those with other motives: William Shawn and Willie Morris, Shawn devoting himself to perfecting the prose in The New Yorker without having his name appear in the magazine, Morris creating a superstar system of journalism during his four years as editor of Harper’s.

This illustration makes clear that the drawback of making it is not shoddy performance; under Morris’ editorship, with such names as David Halberstam and Norman Mailer featured as Big Writers, Harper’s offered exciting journalism. But Morris was spending exorbitant sums in order to treat his contributors like Writers. When the publishers forced him out in 1971, Morris and his defenders pleaded editorial freedom; but they could probably have continued to put out the same message if they hadn’t insisted on being paid in a fashion that proved they were making it.

And the writing that Writers produce is not always as fine as that in the old Harper’s. Since turning to fiction, Morris has unfortunately chosen as his goal becoming a Novelist rather than writing novels. That he is capable of meriting the acclaim he seeks I have no doubt, for his autobiography, North Toward Home, is one of the finest books I have read. It is possible, too, that his tragedy at Harper’s has made him anxious for the more immediate celebrity his novel provides—movie rights sold before publication, excerpts in the ladies’ magazines. But his hunger for becoming a Writer has made Morris betray his best writing.

To avoid a holy tone I should confess that Morris’ error may be considered a purely tactical one. If he really wanted to come back strong after his Harper’s debacle, he should have realized that the target audience was his old friends in the New York literary circles rather than the readers of McCall’s. If he had labored these two years on New York Review essays he would by now be certified as a Writer and Intellectual rather than a sell-out. There are, of course, advantages that only the bestseller list can provide: being recognized on the street and interviewed on the TV talk shows. Like Podhoretz, Morris may have chosen these as his goal. The Last of the Southern Girls may not have advanced Morris within the Manhattan intellectual circles, but it earned him a “Willie Morris Day” in his hometown, Yazoo, Mississippi, with national TV there for the event.

Even for those aiming at the New York Review audience rather than the middlebrows, a concentration on making it can lead to an erratic aim. Ideas go in and out of fashion, while the problems of the real world are more stable. The political fatigue of men like Nader arises not so much from their despair about the great American public as from their acute awareness of the intelligentsia’s short attention span. The Writers became bored with the war as they are now bored with poverty; soon they will be bored with work problems and women’s rights, as well. This is a sensitive issue for anyone involved in publications, for part of the function of a magazine is to keep providing new ideas. The goal should be to offer new ways of thinking about the problems that endure. Graduate students are easily ridiculed for the arcane research they undertake; simply because no one has investigated the 1823 treaty between England and Portugal, it becomes a good topic for a thesis. In many ways journalism is not so different, with Writers hunting for new ways to earn
their degree.

Professors on Pension

One bright spot is that writers, like politicians and athletes, are under constant pressure to perform. They are not in the position of the academics who often illustrate the worst dangers of prestige without accountability. Raw reputation can take one farther in academia than elsewhere; since academic status is based as much on “ability” as achievement, early reports of brilliance or mediocrity can become self-fulfilling. The student who arrives amid rumors of genius may find his simplest utterings given oracular significance; when he becomes an instructor who never quite manages to get his thoughts together on paper, his colleagues may feel, “Ah, but when he finally .does put it down, it will be brilliant.” Those whose test scores revealed them as “average” can be dismissed as over-industrious grinds if they do more work than the brilliant. This process culminates in the tenured chairs: once there, a professor is entitled to a guaranteed annual income of prestige for the rest of his days. The temptation to live solely on this dividend is especially strong for those whose early work was distinguished. Nothing they do afterwards can add greatly to their reputation of brilliance, and a failure to perform will diminish their standing but slightly.

Short of holding an emeritus position like Edmund Wilson’s, or being appointed to the Supreme Court, a writer or politician never attains the tenured form of making it. The question he faces is not “how good are you?” but “how good have you been lately?” A finite period of grace separates his required performances-a period in which he can enjoy his reflected glory, accept congratulations for his work. One way to distinguish between motives is to ask what goes on during the grace period. Some people perform in order to earn this little spell of respect, and then grow nervous when they see their credit is about to run out; others find their motives more internally.

Although the names and illustrations are harder to find, similar situations prevail in most forms of work. In General Electric, the Philadelphia school system, real estate offices, and the Army and suburban developments all over the country there are the Morrises and Naders, the Shawns and the Podhoretzes. The dividing lines may take on different configurations, but the same basic distinctions apply. Some people write memos or go for big salaries because these are the paths to making it; others sacrifice some of the money and reputation for enjoyment of the function.

The reason for pointing out this distinction is not that making it is evil and doing it is good, but because too often the difference becomes blurred. In choosing our paths we forget that there is a choice, forget to ask why a certain job or title has become important. For many of those who have remained aware of the choice, succeeding in private life is as important as succeeding in public. Family life—the proper raising of children as opposed to the deliberate display of children and possessions—is an antithesis of making it, a task as important as any imaginable but one accorded little public acclaim. If parents find it worthwhile to invest themselves in this fundamentally private activity, the temptations toward making it may be less strong. Children too will feel the effect: the child whose parents have assured him that, whatever he eventually does, he will be successful in their eyes is freer to choose his path without constantly watching for the reflection from the public.

In the end, the reason to insist on the choice between making it and doing it is that no one can make it for long. What can match the disappointment of the man who tries to sell out and finds no buyers? Or the writer who has entrusted his self-respect to public acclaim and finds it vanishing? Shortly before his death, feeling his powers go, William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,”

Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

We all return there eventually and must make our peace with it.

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James Fallows, who began his career at the Washington Monthly, is the author of 12 books and writes the “Breaking the News” blog on Substack.