A national economy in freefall. Streets filled with protesters standing shoulder to shoulder. Waves of labor organizing among writers and publishing workers. A swelling hope in socialist politics.
In his new book, “The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and Today,” journalist Jason Boog looks back at the Great Depression and sees a world that looks devastatingly — and optimistically — like our own in 2020. Boog’s history focuses on the publishing realm, excavating how novelists, poets, reporters, screenwriters and industry workers suffered in an era of mass unemployment and, perhaps more important, how they met the moment as artists and as activists. What emerges is a compelling portrait of how a seemingly atomized and professionalized workforce can join together, not just with each other but with the entire working class, to fight for a more secure life.
When Boog first began the research that would become “The Deep End,” a history of the Depression-era “crisis generation” writers and the precarity and turmoil that gripped the publishing world at that time, he was just embarking on his own career as a reporter amid the economic wreckage of the Great Recession. Journalism, his chosen field, seemed to be dissolving before he’d even had a chance to establish himself.
“I was constantly aware of how many people were willing to do the same work I was doing and how many of them would write for free,” he writes.
Boog saw a publishing world populated by isolated, exploited workers scrambling to outbid each other for a livelihood in an ever-shrinking field.
“I just felt at sea, and I needed something to hold on to,” he said in an interview with HuffPost.
He holed up in a library at New York University, where he studied journalism, and dug up more and more books from the Great Depression that spoke to the precarious lives writers faced at the time. “At this time, when it felt like no one was writing about what I was feeling,” he said, “these people were.” In the writings of the crisis generation, he saw economically desperate writers and publishing workers responding to their exploitation with solidarity. Poets and novelists wove the plight of the working man into their art; journalists walked in demonstrations with factory workers.
Most of the novelists, poets and reporters he read, such as Edward Newhouse and Muriel Rukeyser, are little read today. A handful have entered the American canon. “Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison — their work from the ’30s, it’s so prescient and their work feels very alive right now,” Boog said. But all of them, including the forgotten writers, he added, have much to offer us today.
In “The Deep End,” there is a palpable wistfulness for a writer class that stands with the proletariat, a sad understanding that such widespread protests for change and such a burst of labor organizing are unlikely to happen again today. Though writing is still almost universally poorly compensated, since the 1930s it’s become a depoliticized, middle-class profession, increasingly attainable only through expensive degrees, powerful connections or independent wealth to buffer between the infrequent paydays.
“Writers,” he argues, “have been surgically separated from the working class.”
But it’s a rapidly changing world, thanks in large part to groundwork laid by activists over the past decade. Journalists have begun to unionize their workplaces and push back against low pay and constant waves of abrupt layoffs. After years of organizing, the current outburst of Black Lives Matter protests has drawn immense crowds, week after week, to protest anti-Black racism and police brutality. Black Lives Matter has shaken up industries like the publishing world more directly; in recent weeks, Black workers and writers in both book publishing and journalism have joined their voices to denounce racist treatment they face at work, driving resignations of top editors at outlets including Bon Appétit, Refinery29 and The New York Times.
When I spoke to Boog about “The Deep End” and its uncanny timeliness, he was cautiously hopeful, and more certain than ever that the writers of the 1930s offer valuable lessons to surviving our current era. Based on his research into the literary world during the Great Depression, he said, “I think we’re going to see this sort of level of protest for many years to come, and it’s essential to getting the kind of solutions that we need.”
What has it felt like recently to see this massive economic devastation and these huge street protests, and labor activism in the [publishing] field, so much like what you were writing about, to see them all kind of blowing up right now?
It’s encouraging. I think one of the more frustrating things that was happening as I was writing this book is, at first, it felt like no one felt the same way. We would never see collective action at the scale we saw it during the 1930s. And that was always very sad to me.
So many workplaces got unionized last year, the media companies in particular, we’ve seen a lot of action there. And now with Black Lives Matter, it’s tremendous to see just everyone on the streets, and that was the kind of agitation that made the New Deal happen. People were in the streets for years until these solutions started coming.
What is the role of writers and journalists in the midst of that? How do you see their role historically and now as part of the movement, or as documenting the movement, or as keeping it going? Where do you see them fitting in?`
I think the first thing that writers do is they can build a sense of community. I’ve been coming back a lot to Richard Wright, the great novelist, who basically got lifted up during the Great Depression. They used to have, they’re called John Reed Clubs, named after John Reed, who was American, who served as a revolutionary in the Russian Revolution, and he was exiled in the ’20s and died in the Soviet Union. But he had these John Reed Clubs in his name, where radicals of all stripes could gather. And when Richard Wright walked in for the first time, he said, he saw a “boy who was going to become one of the nation’s leading painters [...] a chap who was going to become one of the eminent composers of the day [and] a writer who would create some of the best novels of his day.” And then too, “a young Jewish boy who was destined to film the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.”
It was like he walked into this room in the early ’30s and met this whole creative community that, for the next 15 to 20 years, would reshape the culture. So you have to be together at this point, you should not be off by yourself working. People of all different disciplines should be working together and just sharing ideas, because the next 15, 20 years are going to be rough and we’ll be in it together. [Wright] wrote this much later in his life, and he could see the trajectory of all of these and how they carried each other across that void. I hope we can nurture that sort of solidarity.
I would love if you would talk a little bit about the class position that writers had during the Great Depression and how they changed into the middle- to upper-middle class professionals that we think of in terms of what the paradigmatic journalist looks like over the past few decades.
Yeah. So during the Great Depression, the majority of journalists were really working-class people and they did not get paid very well, they were pretty much unprotected, and they started to unionize during the 1930s. So during that very special time, you would have a march where newspaper writers would be walking alongside playwrights, would be walking alongside department store workers, would be walking alongside factory workers. They were all marching together. And that kind of solidarity across all professions, when I started writing this book, it seemed unimaginable.
I need to say my own privilege: I am a child of the middle class, and through the opportunities that gave me, I was able to go to higher education, I graduated from New York University’s journalism school. So my privilege gave me these things and it brought me into this profession. But I arrived there and I could see how hard it was for anyone from the working class to come up. And so it seemed almost unimaginable that we could someday think of ourselves as part of the working class, as workers. And I think now, facing the crash that we’re in right now and the way this is going to reshape the literary landscape, I think maybe we could emerge from this together.
One thing that you wrote about is the way that journalists have been expected to be quite objective and not to be involved in activism. So I’m curious what you think now about the image that you wrote about of journalists as neutral functionaries of technocracy, middle- to upper-class professionals, as opposed to being part of the proletariat. Do you see a shift happening in real time now?
Yeah, and literally in real time. I think in the last couple weeks we’ve seen a tremendous shift. Many of us, for many years we worked alone, and social media kind of parceled out your thoughts into these easily consumable pieces of content. And yes, I do believe writing, it became very more fragmented and machine-like, the way you had to turn things up. There’s a phrase that always came up in different things I read from the ’30s. It was called “the merciless speedup.” I felt like this pace of content production is pushing us all toward something unsustainable, and we’ve seen how that economy has collapsed.
But the last few weeks I feel like that’s all turned inside out, like all of the great work is happening as people are turning out these really passionate descriptions on Twitter or Instagram of what’s going on on the streets, and we’re capturing it in this very vivid, emotional, up-close way. I find a lot of inspiration in that. And I think in the wreckage of the crash that we’re in, as media, as books and writers rebuild, I hope that we let go of that merciless speedup, that we reject that push to create more and more content and hit these unrealistic goals, and we go for more of that more meaningful on-the-ground engagement that we’re seeing every day now.
Obviously there’s been a lot of very heated discussion about the state of book publishing on Twitter recently — I don’t know if you’ve been following the PublishingPaidMe hashtag?
I’m curious whether there’s precedent in your research for this kind of solidarity between book authors and within the book publishing industry on behalf of writers, and what we might see as some historical precedents are coming out of this conversation? Is there a way to systematically address the concerns that are being raised?
I would say throughout the Great Depression there were strikes at publishing houses, there were strikes at newspapers, there was a lot of conflict between the managers and the publishers and that class, and the writers themselves and the workers who were helping to publish those books. There was a lot of conflict and there was a reckoning there that happened a few times over the course of the Great Depression. I talked about one or two of those strikes in my book.
So I think we’ll see more of that. I don’t think it’s going to be settled this year; I think that’s going to be an ongoing source of conflict that will surface. But it was that conflict that caused the change to happen. I think we will see more strikes; I think we will see more actions against, I wrote, “from within and without of publishers and newspapers and media organizations.” I just think it’s going to be a very restless period, and I think we’ll see more of that. And we haven’t talked about this yet, but I still do place a lot of hope in something like a Works Progress Administration or a Federal Writers’ Project. I’m not saying that the Federal Writers’ Project solved all of our problems during the Great Depression, but it took people from the newspapers, it took people from the publishers and it took the writers, like Richard Wright, who were looking for a way to survive and carry their voice over this period, and it brought them all together for a really wild couple years.
They created some great stuff and created some really meaningful jobs for writers at a time where there were no meaningful jobs for writers, or very few. And I do place hope in that. And the only reason that happened was because all of these writers and all of these publishing professionals had radicalized earlier in the decade and had been marching, and then they all banded together. And by the mid-’30s, we had a different kind of solution with the federal government. So I do have hope that these restless conflicts that we’re seeing now can lead to something more meaningful, a solution that’s more meaningful and a larger solution, the way we saw during the Great Depression.
Could you actually talk a little bit for readers who may not be familiar, about what the WPA and FWP did for writers?
The New Deal came in the mid-1930s, when FDR could see that the country was coming apart at the seams, that there were huge problems. There were people marching on the streets every single day; you could just drop into any newspaper at that time and every single day almost there were people marching or striking. So the New Deal was founded to put thousands and thousands of Americans back to work, and it was everything from infrastructure projects, building new roads, to photography projects ― the great Dorothea Lange, she got sent to go take photos of the migrant communities and the farmer communities and the refugee communities here in California ― to theater workers who were put back to work putting on plays, musicians were put back to work doing free concerts for people.
But then there was also the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of that, and that put hundreds of writers back to work doing lots of different projects, from creating guide books to different cities all around the country, to doing folklore interviews with lots of different people. The great novelist Ralph Ellison actually was part of the folklore unit. He walked all around Harlem interviewing and taking these meticulous monologues from different people in his neighborhood and just turning it into the most beautiful prose you will ever read, and it’s in the folklore department of the Library of Congress now. And that material, he turned into “Invisible Man” and some of his great work.
They put out a book called “American Panorama,” which was just a collection of essays written by different writers in the Federal Writers’ Project, and among them was Richard Wright, and you can find that at Library of Congress as well. And his work in that is probably the finest work in that book. And so they just put these great writers to these tasks of either describing what was around them, helping people learn more about the city, or helping carry these stories forward into the future.
I really hope that we can find some way to give writers that kind of meaningful work in our future.
During the Great Recession, people kept buying books. There wasn’t a huge crater in sales of books, which is sort of odd given that no one had much money to spend. Do you think that we’re going to see something more similar to the Great Depression happening now? Or what can we expect from how this kind of crisis might affect the book industry?
I think a lot of the consolidation that we saw come and happen in the publishing industry over the last few years ― I feel like you can trace a line back to the Great Recession for that.
Publishing has streamlined. I feel like there are less slots for the big books now than there used to be. And so I think you will see traditional publishing keep streamlining, keep consolidating, that trend’s going to continue. And I think what that leaves in its wake is, it’s harder for the middle, the smaller publishers, the mid-list writers, those are the publishers and the writers that are going to struggle to survive in the coming years, and that’s where all of the great new stuff comes from. And I worry about that a lot. And that’s where you will see, I think, the most innovation around new ways of supporting writers. That’s the GoFundMe campaigns, Kickstarter, or even just the way writers lift each other up on Twitter as we’ve seen in the last few weeks.
And the organization is going to come from that middle. That’s where organization, that’s where solidarity comes from. And I hope that as things streamline, as the traditional publishing consolidates, that spirit of solidarity spreads to these smaller constellations of writers and publishers that are going to be having a harder time in the coming years.
Digital media obviously is very quickly being very visibly slammed by the economic situation and the pandemic, but [the state of the industry was] already very bad and it seems to have been accelerating for a while. The forces that keep driving this, are they really reversible? At best, are we looking at something like a Federal Writers’ Project, something that is governmentally instituted?
So the first answer that I would say is the way the internet works and the way digital works, there’s always going to be some new publication or some new model, and that will rise brightly, give lots of people hope. But Cory Haik, the Mic publisher ― it was 2018 when she was leaving Mic. And Mic was once the great big hope ― she said, “Our business models are unsettled, and the macro forces ... are all going through their own states of unrest. If anyone tells you they have figured it out, a special plan to save us all, or that it’s all due to a singular fault, know that is categorically false.”
And I’ve hung on to that quote for the last year and a half. On the one hand, I don’t want to try to predict what the future’s going to look like, because I agree with you, I don’t think anyone knows the answer. And we’re going to see other models come up, but yes, I do believe that the underlying problem that you just described of our wobbly media economy, that is not going to get stronger. We’ll see other new things up and they’ll be flashy and fancy, and be helpful, but the overall problem with our media economy is not going to be fixed by any one publication.
It’s going to have to be a much more structural fix.
I loved all of the work that you’d really dug into from poets and novelists of the crisis generation, and I thought it was interesting how overtly political work was circulating at this time. When I was getting my education and coming up, it seems like the idea of being sort of pedagogical in your fiction or poetry was not really part of the accepted landscape, it wasn’t considered art in the same way. It seemed like a lot of the poets and writers that you wrote about failed commercially. Do you think that there can be success for political, radical poetry and fiction within the context of a capitalist publishing world? Is that just a tension that is too much to overcome?
I think you will see, and this is I think what happened in the Great Depression: It’s an eruption. I think corporate capitalist publishing, and our society can keep those forces down, they can tamp it down, they can keep it underground mostly, until you hit a moment like we are now, where all of these things are coming to the surface, just years and years of mistreatment of our African-American communities, from that to the fact that just more than 40 million people are unemployed right now. So when you have really intense things like those surfacing, you can’t keep it down anymore, so you see this eruption of radicalism, see this eruption of new ideas.
But then by the time you get to the 1940s and World War II, you see those things being pushed back down again and you see the framework being laid for the Red Trials of the ’50s. So you see society kind of converging again, and a lot of these writers would back away from some of their more radical ideas as they went on to have longer careers; or in the case of blacklisted writers, the work that they did during the ’30s actually kept them from working again.
So I think we’ll see an eruption, we’re going to see a lot of turmoil, a lot of conflict, but then when you get on the other side, if the Great Depression’s our example, I think you’ll see people pushing it back down again. And that was a very unfortunate time, I think, the way that was handled. I think a lot of great writers lost their careers because they were part of this, and I hope that doesn’t happen again.
If you look at the Great Depression and what went on in the industry as a model for what’s coming now, what would you want to see writers and people in the publishing field do today to secure real gains? A lot of what happened in the Great Depression era very quickly led us into the ensuing decades of conservatism and reinstatement of those capitalist attitudes. What do you think lessons people are going to take away to move ahead in a more sustainable way?
I think the most important lesson that I learned while writing this is that writers need to think of themselves as part of the working class, that we’re workers just like everyone else, and bad working conditions and the exploitation that’s going on for workers affects us as well, so we’re all in this together. And if we’re going to move forward, we have to move forward together with the workers. I think we have been separated for a long time, just by the degrees that it takes to get in or the long ladder you have to climb to get into the ivory tower of publishing, I feel like we’ve treated it for many years like this thing that you are separated from the working class and you are separated from the rest of the world.
And I think that has to come down, we have to say, “We’re all in this together and we need to bring up the voices that wall kept out.” That’s what makes this moment so important right now. We’re seeing people saying, “Here’s how much I got paid. Here’s how I got to where I am.” And they’re comparing notes and we’re treating everyone as equals, and we’re thinking of ourselves as in this together rather than separated.
It’s going to be a hard next few years. And without that sort of sense of identification and solidarity, we’ll never make it through.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.