Should Writing Be an Art or a Career?

There’s a very funny photograph taken by Brassaï of Pablo Picasso posing in his Paris studio. Picasso had acquired a giant oil painting of a nude woman from an antique shop, and he strikes an affected pose before it, his brush poised and his little finger extended, as though he’s preparing to make the finishing touch on a masterwork. The actor Jean Marais is stretched out on the floor beside him, pretending to serve as the model despite being fully dressed. The target of the joke is clear: Picasso was ridiculing the pretensions and conventions of the professional painter. “I am not a professional artist,” Brassaï recounts him repeating, “as if he were claiming innocence of a slander.”

The same question vexes literature, too: Is writing an art or a career, or can it be both? The Unprofessionals, the title of a new anthology of American writing from The Paris Review, defines itself against the emergence of a hyper-professionalized breed of fiction writer. In his preface to the anthology, editor Lorin Stein laments that a familiarity with social media has made young authors almost unthinkingly proficient as publicists for themselves and their friends. Even in M.F.A. programs, he argues, the tricks of self-promotion have been woven into the craft of writing, resulting in “less close reading, less real criticism, lower standards, and less regard for artistic, as opposed to commercial, success. … Young writers, in other words, were encouraged to think of themselves as professionals: to write long and network hard.”

Read the rest from New Republic