Joshua Leifer (contributing editor): When I first read Adam Shatz’s essay “Writers or Missionaries” in The Nation, I was a 21-year-old intern at Dissent. It was the summer of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza. The carnage wrought by the Israel Defense Forces was shocking; whole neighborhoods, like Shejaiyah, were obliterated. The activist part of me, which was still much more active at the time, demanded that I—that we—do something. Yet I was also learning to be an editor and a writer, and at a place like Dissent, that meant thinking long and hard about the meaning of political commitment and about how to be a Jewish critic of the occupation and Israel policy.
Shatz’s essay provided the language for a dilemma that I had felt but had not been able to express: “the tension between the writer, who describes things as he or she sees them, and the missionary or the advocate, who describes things as he or she wishes they might be under the influence of a party, movement, or cause.” At the time, only nine months removed from a year of living in Israel, I did feel myself part of a movement—the Jewish anti-occupation movement. I was only beginning to understand, though, that if I wanted to be a journalist or a writer, I could not write firstly or primarily as a partisan: reality, eventually, would prove too complicated for that.
Published earlier this month, Shatz’s new book, a collection of pieces, shares the title of his 2014 essay. Shatz is a master of the intellectual profile—if you haven’t read his recent article in the London Review of Books on the storied counterfeiter and résistant Adolof Kaminsky, you should. Nearly all of the chapters in Writers or Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination center on thinkers, writers, and artists, and most (but not all) of them are on the left. There is, for instance, Shatz’s elegant sketch of Roland Barthes, and his heartbreaking piece on Juliano Mer-Khamis, the assassinated founder of the Jenin Freedom Theater. Israel/Palestine, France, and the scars of French imperialism in the post-colonial world—these are, roughly, the coordinates of Shatz’s subjects. I found it illuminating to read across the contexts, say, of Algeria and Israel/Palestine, and to see the divergences as well as the similarities.
Writers or Missionaries is a study of political writing as expressed within the unit of a human life—not just of Shatz’s subjects, of Shatz’s own. It is indispensable for anyone trying to think seriously about the ethical demands of writing and journalism against the backdrop of dark and even catastrophic times.
Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): One of the perks of working at a magazine is that you can request copies of as-yet-unpublished books. The Late Americans, by Brandon Taylor—whose debut, Real Life, about a biochemistry PhD student drowning in loneliness at a midwestern university, was one of my favorite novels of 2020—doesn’t come out until Tuesday, but I got to spend last weekend ensconced in its world. I love the way Taylor captures the charged spaces that exist between friends and lovers, showing how incommunicable needs and resentments can cohere into something almost corporal, a third body in the room. In his latest novel, the characters who form the coordinates in such a force field are mostly graduate students at the University of Iowa (where Taylor received an MFA at the famed Writers’ Workshop); they include a poet, a pianist, a painter, a group of dancers, a business student driven to quit dance by his bad tendons, and a logician and his blue-collar boyfriend, who works (to his partner’s chagrin) at a meat-processing plant. Most of the members of this loose friend group are gay men who slip in and out of romantic entanglements with one another; many are Black or biracial, navigating experiences of race that differ starkly from one another’s.
More than perhaps anything else, every character in The Last Americans wrestles with questions of money and class. Most are in the position of struggling to make ends meet while they strive to prove themselves as artists—pulling long days at a coffee shop that leave them achy by the time they hit dance class, or avoiding unfinished poems by taking extra shifts in a nursing home kitchen. (Taylor is an excellent chronicler of the body; the book’s best passages include descriptions of what the much-hated job at the meat-processing plant does to the character’s skin, to his fingernails.) A few members of the group feel conscious of having too much money relative to the rest; relationships founder on asymmetrical backgrounds or unequal abilities to cover the rent. Through this broad cast, Taylor delivers a prismatic portrait of artistic ambition refracted through 21st-century precarity. Occasionally, the crushing conditions of American late capitalism produce unexpected results: Among the best artworks created in the novel, for example, are the elliptical, enigmatic pornographic videos that one character records for paying subscribers, to free himself from reliance on his rich, imperious boyfriend.
Unlike Real Life, which tunneled deep into its emotionally isolated protagonist, The Late Americans jumps from one point-of-view to the next; rarely does more than one chapter feature the same central figure. I occasionally found this frustrating—I fell in love with some of Taylor’s creations only to barely see them again. But I also appreciated the way that the constellated form of the novel pushed subtly against the logic of scarcity that dominates the lives of its characters. No matter how alone they feel, we encounter them embedded in one another’s stories. And even in a book pervaded by lack, love and connection blossom spontaneously. (It’s worth saying that Taylor sits alongside Sally Rooney on my very short list of novelists who are good at writing sex scenes.) Characters share a surprise kiss in a grocery store that acts as an apology for a day of unkindness, or fall into bed together out of sheer wonder at managing to write a truly good poem—or at finding such a poem amid the dreck of the workshop packet. They may be exhausted by their efforts to keep a foothold in what one wryly calls the last days of the bourgeoisie, but their world is not without a sense of possibility. As the group disbands in the novel’s final pages, I too felt wistful for a little more time together.
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): Los Angeles—where I’m from, and where I have spent the past few months—is often described as an industry town, a place centrifugally organized around its best-known commodity: entertainment. I’ve always thought my childhood illustrated this well, not because my family worked “in the industry,” but because the industry was omnipresent despite the fact that they didn’t: Simply by virtue of proximity, child actors and personal assistants and set designers made regular cameos in our lives, a presence both persistently glamorous and totally banal.
This month, which began with the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) calling a strike of film and television writers, I’ve been excited to witness how powerful that omnipresence can be in the context of a labor struggle. It’s easy, outside LA, to forget where television comes from. Here, though, the Netflix building with its big red logo looms over a stretch of Sunset Boulevard, and for the past few weeks, anyone driving by—or passing the Amazon building in Culver City, the Disney headquarters in Burbank, or several other film and TV complexes—has encountered the picketing writers, who are calling for these media companies to stop shrinking writers’ rooms, whittling down the screenwriter payments known as residuals, threatening to outsource scripts to AI, and generally turning their livelihood into miserable gig work. I’ve joined the Netflix picket twice with some screenwriter friends, and every time someone honks in solidarity, which happens constantly, I’m pleasantly shocked—they like us? They really like us?
I am being somewhat appropriative when I say “we,” since I have never set foot in a writer’s room, but on several accounts, I’ve felt an easy identification with the screenwriters on the picket line. For one thing, we share a union: Most members of WGA’s East Coast branch work for publications from Good Housekeeping to Jewish Currents, but some write for TV companies like HBO. For another, the first time I arrived I was delighted to find that there was an unofficial dress code—an open shirt over a closed shirt—and that I was already following it. Picketing is exhausting, yet everyone seemed sort of high on the novelty of being outside. Finally, it is perhaps an aspirational relationship, as I would one hundred percent take a screenwriting job if anyone offered me one in the glorious future once WGA members win a fair contract. In any case, I am excited to spend more time on the line, borrowing a charmingly high-concept sign quoting Michael Scott from The Office or threatening to “spoil Succession.” When we are there it feels true that, as the chant goes, “LA is a union town.”
This week, then, in lieu of recommending a movie or TV show, I encourage you to check out what the WGA is doing to make life better for the writers creating them.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Victor S. Navasky’s brilliant history of the Hollywood blacklist, Naming Names, is still in print more than 40 years after its original 1980 publication not only because it’s a thorough history of that wretched time (which one of its victims, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, aptly called “the time of the toad”), but also because it’s a magnificently thought-provoking study of morality. Through his examination of how those involved in the Red Hunt of the decade following World War II—from the studios to writers to lawyers, unions, and Jewish organizations—Navasky demonstrates how even good intentions can be perverted to serve evil ends, how readily we can give our worst acts a positive coloration, and how fluid our notions of heroism and cowardice can be.
Navasky’s stance is clear from the start: The notion that in this time there were no “heroes or villains,” but “only victims”—the title of actor and scholar Robert Vaughn’s book on the blacklist, borrowed from a speech Trumbo gave decades after the events—is not to his taste. For Navasky, there were plenty of blameworthy perpetrators, who devised elaborate or simplistic justifications for informing on their peers, and he shows them all to have lacked any moral grounds for their actions. If they were motivated by political principle, why did they wait to attack communists until the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) called on them to do so, threatening their jobs? Many thought that by giving HUAC a finger they would prevent it from taking an arm. But all learned that in conceding something, they ceded all—not least their honor and dignity.
Naming Names tells these moral tales through the experiences—and in the voices—of both the blacklisted and the informers. With a few notable exceptions, like director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, the informers came to feel some shame for their betrayals. (Kazan and Schulberg, for their part, made art out of their excuses; their 1954 film On the Waterfront is the greatest defense of snitching ever produced.) But even among the ashamed, most viewed themselves as the ones who suffered most through ostracism, which they painted as worse than the poverty, ruined careers, exile, and even deaths of those on whom they informed.
One of the highlights of Navasky’s book is his extensive and open-minded treatment of the debate between Trumbo and screenwriter Albert Maltz—two of the Hollywood Ten, a cohort of unfriendly witnesses who were jailed for refusing to answer HUAC when asked whether they were communists. Trumbo’s “only victims” line found no favor with his former comrade. In their lengthy correspondence, Maltz put forth a position that Navasky summarizes nicely: “that it is our duty to the ‘real’ victims of the blacklist . . . to honor their martyrdom by carrying on their fight. People who commit crimes, even moral ones, must be punished, and if the punishment is merely social ostracism, then all the more reason to maintain it.”
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