Question: What advice do you have for an aspiring literary critic?
Louis Menand: I think the only way I can answer that is to say it, in my own case, because people do, students do say, “Well, how did you get to be a professor and also a magazine writer?” So, my answer to that is that I didn’t plan it, A; B, that to be a professor, you have to pay your professional dues, there’s no kind of shortcut to that. So you have to write a dissertation, you have to publish an academic monograph, you have to have, you know, respective peers in your scholarly field and all of that stuff, you can’t kind of substitute book reviews for that.
At the same time, one of the good things about the profession of being a professor, is that you also have time to do what interests you and what you care about or what you’re good at. In my case that was, it did turn out to be magazine writing, I don’t know that I would’ve predicted that, but that’s how it turned out.
So the fortunate thing for me is that my writing is such, the way I naturally write is such that it’s just commercial enough for magazines to publish it and just academic enough for me to have a career in the academy. So it’s worked out really well. But I’m not one of the people who has a kind of scholarly hat and writes in a certain way for an academic audience and then puts on a public intellectual hat and writes a different way for a different kind of readership. I generally write the way I write, no matter what and it seems to have worked for me.
So I think in general there’s no point in going into a field like English literature if you’re not going to have fun with it. I mean, you’re not going to get anything else out of it, you’re not going to get rich, you’re not going to get famous, and you’re not going to really have a big affect on, you know, foreign policy. But you are going to do things that if you’re interested in it, that nobody else can do with their careers. And if you’re not going to enjoy it and have fun with it and feel like this is what you care about, I definitely would not advise going down the very long road to get there.