When asked the question “what do you do?” who is entitled to reply “I’m a writer”? That’s the question animating an essay by Tom Coyne in the most recent issue of Notre Dame Magazine. There are many fine things in Coyne’s essay, but the most interesting part of the issue goes largely unexamined: it’s that strange misfit between the verb of the question—what do you do—and the verb in the answer—I am a writer. We gloss over the slippage from doing to being, because we live in a society that largely equates work activity with identity, but that equation is not obvious everywhere.
One of my great touchtones, when it comes to how identity is defined, is a moment from a conference I attended years ago, in which the Tanzanian scholar Joseph Mbele rose up and asked the assembled scholars, who had been talking about identity, when we would consider the criteria for identity—family, clan, tribe—that applied in the world he came from. One did not, in the village of his youth, define oneself through an occupational identity so much as through a kinship network. Even in Western societies, the notion that one’s identity is primarily a matter of work activities is of fairly recent vintage. The scholars Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, in their excellent study Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, note that even in what was then the nation most advanced into modernity, England, it is only in the early to mid nineteenth century that work activity began to displace other forms of identity (such as “gentleman”) as primary terms of identity definition. To a degree, this was because the economic conditions that drive us toward specialization had yet to become dominant. As they put it,
…tasks which are now specialized and seen only properly performed by experts, were then still vaguely defined. The task or function was the focus, not a full professional identity. People moved between activities and used a variety of ways to support their livelihood…. Both men and women had to balance their time and energy between a wide range of duties.
What is more, family identity was still, as far as official documents were concerned, more important than individual identity. The census itself did not account for individuals, but for families, and from 1801 to 1821 “roughly categorized families as agricultural or in ‘trade manufacture.’” But by 1831, “families were abandoned and adult males were divided into nine major occupational groups.” If you were a man, you were starting to be defined by your work, and by 1851 it had become standard to equate “masculine identity with an occupation” (if you were a woman, there was some question as to just what you were—a question that animated a great deal of conversation and fuelled a great deal of activism).
So to answer the question “what do you do” with “I am a writer” (or dishwasher, or bond broker) is to already declare “I live in a gesellschaft rather than a gemeinschaft world,” a world of abstract economic relations rather than a world of concrete kinship bonds. You live in a world where you are defined by your profession.
But is writing a profession? For Coyne, the first answer seems to be “no,” if being a professional means living off the money earned by writing. “[C]alling oneself a writer,” he declares, “has nothing to do with whether or not you have been paid as one” (one hears the poets of the world cheering in the background, their voices faint like those of the slain warriors Odysseus visits in the land of the dead). But being a professional has always meant more than being paid. As Burton J. Bledstein puts it in The Culture of Professionalism, a profession involves a certain kind of background and a certain ethos. Traditionally, becoming a professional meant something like this:
During a fairly difficult and time-consuming process, a person mastered an esoteric but useful body of systematic knowledge, completed theoretical training before entering a practice or apprenticeship, and received a degree or license from a recognized institution. A professional person in the role of practitioner insisted upon technical competence, superior skill, and a high quality of performance. Moreover, a professional embraced an ethic of service which taught that dedication to a client’s interest took precedence over personal profit, when the two happened to come into conflict.
It’s an interesting mix of regulation and autonomy, isn’t it? A self-policing entity, a profession maintains standards through institutions and certificates, and in so doing places itself above the standards of a marketplace—good medicine trumps good commerce, for the true professional (although this principle is sometimes, scandalously, in abeyance). The thing about writing, though, is that for the vast majority of its history it has been extra-professional. Indeed, one reason for the great growth in the numbers of writers in the nineteenth century is that, unlike many other paths through life, writing did not require any particular qualification or license, so it became a refuge for educated youth shut out of other fields (César Graña’s Bohemian vs. Bourgeois offers an excellent discussion of these issues). Even now, when universities have made the MFA a credential for writing, and when many writers, including Coyne, work at universities that issue degrees in writing, the idea of the writer as a professional in the sense outlined by Bledstein has not become fully dominant. The very title of a recent book on what it means to be a writer—MFA vs NYC—indicates that there are two prominent cultures of writing in contemporary America, only one of them close to the traditional idea of professionalism.
Coyne eschews the idea that one is a professional by virtue of being paid, and does not discuss the culture of professionalism as it is seen by social historians like Bledstein. He does, however, distinguish the professional writer from the amateur by virtue of the professional’s attitude toward his or her writing. “If you write when you don’t want to,” he says, “if you go back when it’s hard, if you pry open the laptop when you would rather be watching BBC America”—if you do these things, “you don’t just write. You’re a writer.” This is a bit of a grim picture: it’s almost as if to count as a writer, you have to be alienated from your labor, experiencing it not as fulfillment but as drudgery. There’s certainly a work ethic here, but it seems to be imported from the more exploited forms of labor. And it is through this ethic of drudgery that one earns the identity of the writer.
One wonders, though: if adopting this alienated attitude is the cost of claiming a writer’s identity, is the prize worth it? Or might we borrow a page from Michel Foucault, who argued in History of Sexuality, Volume One, that it is possible to conceive of sexuality not as an identity, but as a set of activities? Could we, when asked what we do, reply in terms of activity (the terms of the question, after all), rather than identity? When asked “what do you do?” could we reply not “I am a writer” but “mostly, I write”?