There's this quote from Borges I used to love. "I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as 'The Masses.' Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time."1 I came across it as a senior in high school, when I was just beginning to explore my interest in writing. That year, I began to write regularly for the Anchorage Daily News, my local city newspaper, and, the following year, I took my first creative writing course. I loved the quote not so much for what it said but for what it did: it had a conviction of purpose, it personalized the meaning of that purpose, and illuminated a romantic ideal toward which to channel it. And I, too, wanted to write 'for my friends,' whatever that meant. ('Time' was a different story; for eighteen-year-old me, it couldn't pass quickly enough.)

But when I looked at this quote recently, for the first time in a long time, it made me cringe. What had drawn me to the quote especially the 'for whom do I write' part I now found off-putting: its righteous self-centeredness, its abrasive elitism, its precious attitude toward writing. These things I now realized were selfish, arrogant, even immature. Sure, I'd like to write for my friends, but I'd also like to write for more than just my friends. I'd like for people to discover my writing in the way that I chanced upon theirs: through hyperlinks, word of mouth, or the general perusing of well-written critical pieces on the Internet. I didn't want my writing to be so esoteric, so insider baseball, so navel-gazey as to be only accessible to a select few. I didn't want my prose, as if playing in a pick-up game, to pick sides and leave some people off the team. The community evoked in the Borges quote suddenly sounded, to me, a lot like the worst of academia.

That was not the academia I encountered in my doctoral program. But attending talks or seminars, I could sense when appearances had to be kept to satisfy this exclusive and superficial ideal. I sympathized with friends who had to participate in the charade, lest they come across as ungrateful, unworthy, or unprofessional. Their professionalization into academia was quick, swift, but painful. Mine wasn't painful, but neither was it quick nor swift. It led to a different stylistic ethos than that espoused by Borges. And it led, crucially, to writing for magazines and websites for, as we sometimes put it, the public.


I remember a moment in graduate school that changed how I thought about writing. My advisor, Bruno Bosteels, was speaking at a conference celebrating the near half-century anniversary of Reading Capital, a book the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser co-wrote with several of his students, including Jacques Rancière, Étienne Balibar, and Alain Badiou. Bruno began the talk with a metaphor. "I thought I'd start by saying that this is my first time sharing at an AA meeting." He paused. "Althusserians Anonymous. Hi, my name is Bruno and I am a recovering Althusserian."2 The line got a laugh.

Jokes aside, the twelve-step program for recovering Althusserians, I realized, was an effective and eloquent heuristic. In a world where many tried to imitate Althusser's elevated style, Bruno went the other way. He took an everyday, oft-parodied element of popular culture and turned it into an organizing metaphor for a detailed analysis of Althusser's oeuvre. In between "steps" on "The Concept of Uneven Development in Reading Capital" and "A Symptomatic Reading of Althusser Himself," Bruno weaved in discussions about everything from the publication history of a Latin American translation of Althusser to the taxonomy of different uses of the term décalage. "Here's where the struggle with my addiction comes in," he'd say, before launching into a five-minute tangent on German idealism. "Here's my moment of forgiveness," he'd note, before unpacking a dense block-quote of philosophical prose. The result was that his audience was able to see the architecture of his argument, and thus be able to follow it. For a talk in which one would be forgiven for getting caught up in the minutiae of references to names and concepts, the metaphor of Alcoholics Anonymous provided a helpful banister. And the audience never got bored.

It was around the time of this conference that I considered writing journalism again. I was pushed back into it partly by my growing frustration with much of the academic prose I was reading, admittedly a reason as common as it is clichéd. But the other part of my transformation had to do with the desire to radicalize Bruno's implicit proposition: that critical theory could be explained, worked with, and advanced through playful, metaphorical, yet accessible prose. I didn't have to give up on the pleasures of reading abstruse primary texts, but I was freed from thinking I had to produce abstruse secondary ones.

Then, on May 25, 2014, one of the most unexpected things happened. An unknown left-wing, anti-austerity, and assembly-based party called Podemos received over 1.25 million votes and five seats in the European Parliament elections. Founded just four months earlier, the party was led by a ponytailed 30-something who spent his days as an adjunct professor of political science. Overnight, he became the new political hope of a generation of Spaniards who, thanks to the financial crisis, had seen their friends and family evicted from their homes, their employment prospects evaporate, and their debts skyrocket. This generation had managed to cut across demographic lines and organize their fellow Spaniards into the largest protest movement in Europe back at the time of the Arab Spring. But since the indignados protests in the summer of 2011, they hadn't managed to challenge the two-party system that kept a stranglehold on Spanish politics. With Podemos, they might be able to. It was a remarkable story.

A moonlit reader of left-wing magazines such as The NationDissent, and Jacobin, I noticed that none were covering the Podemos story. Only a handful of people had written at all on Spain for these and the other magazines I read: Jonathan Blitzer, Dan Kaufman, Eli Evans, Max Holleran, Aaron Shulman, and, every once in a while, Jon Lee Anderson.3 (No women, I know.) Spain was where half of my extended family lived. It was not, for me, at that point, a subject for intellectual inquiry.

My attitude was deliberate evasion. Thinking about Spain felt like obsessing over one's family tree. It felt staid and tedious, not cutting-edge and rebellious. It felt like something I might do later in life, but not now. And it might hit too close to home. Though I was born in the United States, I'd spent my summers growing up in a small village in the heartland of Spain. I knew that probing even tangential questions about Spain's most recent past could quickly create problems in the tiny, Catholic, conservative place I called home for part of the year. I didn't know what side my grandmother was on and didn't want to risk upsetting her. Talking to my friends and family about this new political party might lead to a boisterous dinner conversation about corruption, horse-trading, and the recent economic crisis. But it could also slip into a deeper conversation about Spain's past to the so-called "pact of forgetting," the Franco regime, and the Spanish Civil War itself.4

But someone in the small orbit of left-leaning US media, I thought, should cover Podemos. Maybe I could, though I had no idea where to start. In addition to not wanting to stir things up at home, I had no real bylines, no unique expertise, and a writing style that paid homage to the greatest hits of postmodern literary theory. I was in no place to write for the public. There was another problem: I also had no sure-fire connections to the world of public writing. Scholars who write for the public don't often belabor this point. The world of non-academic publishing is difficult to break into if you don't have the right connections. Connections can mean a lot of things. In the case of writing for magazines and websites, it mostly refers to editors or people who have written for such publications before and who are willing to introduce you to an editor, or even help you craft your piece for a specific venue. But "connections" can often just mean email addresses. In many cases, the biggest barrier to entry is getting your emails read by the right editor, on the right day, at the right time or getting them read at all.

Most academics know someone who has written for the media. I did, too. Each scholarly discipline has its own peculiar relationship to public writing. Spanish and Portuguese is unique among academic departments because a sizable minority of professors also write creatively. The distinction in Spanish and Portuguese departments between writing novels, poems, essays, and memoirs, and writing scholarly criticism is not as dramatic as it is, for instance, in many English departments, where creative writers have their own professors and classes. The trouble I faced was that professors in Spanish and Portuguese departments wrote for places like the Folha de São PauloEl Punt Avui, or El Norte de Castilla. They didn't usually write for the American press. So, I had to look elsewhere. The right connection, in my case, was George Ciccariello-Maher, a political theorist and scholar of Venezuela who often wrote journalism and appeared on television. He'd recently given a talk at my university, so, hoping he'd remember who I was, I reached out. One draft, some comments, several email addresses, an email chain, several rounds of edits, and a week later, the article appeared on the Jacobin website.5 This is often how it starts with public writing. Without putting too fine a point on it, George's one hour of generosity opened up an entire new world for me. It gave me newfound confidence in my ability to write. It introduced me to the "brief, stressful, concentrated cycles of critical scrutiny" that Hua Hsu sees as the "thrill of journalism."6 It gave me an intellectual and writerly itch that I've had to scratch every once in a while ever since.

Not more than a month later, I got the itch again. This time, I wanted to do something more than write a piece of explanatory journalism, covering events and the reasons why they might be relevant to the magazine-reading American left. I knew that there were many academics interested in Podemos. But I didn't have a clue what else could be done with this incipient academic interest and energy. By chance I came across an interview in English with one of the Podemos leaders I'd spoken to for the Jacobin article.7 The interviewer was an established scholar of the Spanish Civil War with a pair of books and dozens of academic articles to his name. "I don't know if this would be feasible, but I'd love to organize something on Podemos," I wrote to him over email. Maybe, I suggested, tepidly, "a panel at a conference?"8 Send.

He wrote back the following morning, "I'd love to do more on the whole thing. I'm not sure if a panel or conference would be the best format since our target moves so fast."

This was Sebastiaan Faber. The established scholar and, now, friend with whom I would go on to write nearly two dozen articles had the pulse of the moment. "Pitching something to The Nation," the email continued, "co-write something?"9 Of course, I thought. In hindsight, it seems obvious that a conference panel, which would take place some nine months, at least $500, and a hundred political news cycles later, would be too slow for what we were after. If my first essay gave me the itch for public writing, that first article for The Nation gave me full-blown chicken pox.10 In between writing scholarly articles, applying to the academic job market, and, of course, finishing my dissertation, I tried to scratch the itches every way I could. The most useful thing I did, accidentally, was to try different forms of journalism: reported features, op-eds, book reviews, film reviews, historical essays, and television, radio, and even podcast appearances. Each one exercised a slightly different intellectual muscle. Together, they forced me to collaborate with very different kinds of people: the anchors of a slick Wall St.-focused national broadcast; an idiosyncratic, ironic, and voice-driven editor at a small, beloved website; and a crossword-puzzle maker and graduate student. Together, they became my image of what academics mean when they say they want to write for "the public."

My journalism unwittingly began to dovetail with my academic interests. My reporting on Spanish politics, my reviewing of Spanish literature and film, my interviews with other journalists about contemporary Spain these all produced one major unintended consequence: they catalyzed my disciplinary shift from nineteenth-century Mexico to twenty-first century Spain. As my journalistic work grew and became more widely-known to both my family and the scholarly community it didn't feel anymore as though my delving into the past and present of Spain would present unwanted roadblocks, especially to my academic success. In fact, the opposite was true: people simply assumed, academically and otherwise, that I was an expert on Spain. Imposter syndrome sealed my decision to actually become an expert on Spain. I found Spain, all of a sudden, an appropriate subject for intellectual inquiry. I became a moonlit writer for the very magazines I'd been reading.

Having written regularly for public venues over the past half-decade, I've discovered perhaps to the surprise of no one that if I'm known at all by my academic colleagues, it is for my public writing. Usually it's only after they've come across my public writing that they then look into my scholarly writing. By the same token, my public work has given me certain unexpected trust among my colleagues in an academic setting. For example, I'm currently editing a scholarly volume. I've asked each of the contributors whether they would be okay with my editing their prose as a magazine editor would. To my surprise, I have not received the least bit of pushback. Not only that, but each one of my colleagues has welcomed the idea with open arms. Scholars often get a bad rap for being precious with their prose. Even I bought into this stereotype. But I haven't found this to be the case. I wonder if this marks a change. Would a consensus of the kind I'm witnessing in the volume have been possible even five or ten years ago? Perhaps the stereotype is still true elsewhere in the academy and Spanish and Portuguese departments are outliers. But it is more likely that, in literary studies fields across the academy, the times are changing.


When I began my odyssey in public writing, I quickly put on the hat of a talent scout. I wasn't just reading that week's most-read New Yorker article, that Sunday's most devastating panning in the New York Review of Books, or the latest explainer from Vox or hot take from Jezebel. I was reading with an eye for writers who also happened to have academic training. Like many academics my age who aspire to write beautiful prose, my first writing crush was Elif Batuman. Batuman earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford. In a series of essays for n+1Harper's, and The New Yorker, later collected in the book The Possessed, she reflected on graduate school, reading Russian literature, and the quirky, idiosyncratic experience of mixing these two worlds.11 Her writing was eloquent without being wordy, learned without being pretentious, and, yes, funny. But, as David Wolf, the commissioning editor of The Guardian Long Read, told Jo Livingstone, a medieval-English-scholar-turned-The New Republic-staff-writer, "I actually wouldn't tell academics to emulate Elif Batuman's writing because it's too unique   if you tried, it'd just be shit."12

I figured this out fairly quickly. So, I began to follow other writers who had academic training. Some were political scientists: Katrina Forrester, Alyssa Battistoni, Corey Robin.13 Most were historians: Thomas Meaney, Rachel Nolan, Timothy Shenk, Samuel Moyn, David Marcus.14 Others were from elsewhere in the academy: Amia Srinivasan, Jack Hamilton, Sarah Bond.15 With the exception of Hua Hsu, none of them were literary critics.16 I admired many of these writers for their ability to bring academic sensibilities to bear on everything from a book review to a reported feature to a blog post. That element, I assumed, would be missing closer to home, in literary criticism. I pictured literary criticism as a world dominated by the James Wood-style reviews I'd grown accustomed to reading aesthetic purism, basic prose, and an allergic reaction to politics. Then, I actually looked. I found the same thing I'd found elsewhere: academically-trained writers (or writerly-trained academics) such as Maggie Doherty, Tobi Haslett, Merve Emre, Elias Muhanna, Evan Kindley, and many others.17 Nearly all of the people I've listed are from roughly the same generation, an eclectic snapshot of academic millennial writers. That's on purpose. I was seeing how I measured up against writers of my age who had more talent and experience than I did, but whose writerly abilities I someday aspired to have.

Over the past year or so, I've focused more of my public efforts on editing, first for Marginalia, now for Public Books. I still feel like a talent scout, except now instead of scouting talent to make myself a better writer, I'm scouting talent in the service of making academic knowledge a public good. I've commissioned essays from academics who are new to this kind of writing as well as from seasoned veterans, from journalists as well as from professors with multiple proper nouns in their titles. Each commission has its own peculiar expectations and requirements in order for it to be successful. These can be everything from timing a request with someone's sabbatical to sending them books that are just enough in their field for them to want to write about. Academia, as ever, has its own rhythms and norms. Some of them we cannot escape. I fully subscribe to the view of Timothy Shenk, an intellectual historian and co-editor of Dissent, when he says, "If I ever thought writing for the public would compromise my scholarship, I'd give it up in a heartbeat."18

These constraints the rhythms, norms, standards, and expectations of scholarship are a hallmark of academia. They often inhibit us in ways that increase the quality of the scholarly knowledge we produce. They have unintended virtues, too. "The luxury of academic work is that it can resist this market pressure to make all knowledge instantly usable," Hua Hsu writes. But these constraints have often produced their own irrational hang-ups, endowing academics with the confidence to assume that anything that goes off the beaten path can't be taken seriously. Here's Hsu again: "The problem in our profession is that writing well . . . is often disparaged as pandering and surrendering to a populace that merely wants to be entertained. Clarity and accessibility are not pandering. Editing, thinking about structure and length, and revisiting our reliance on jargon and shorthand: these are not forms of surrender. Understanding one's audience and critiquing 'neoliberalism' without using the word are not forms of retrenchment. Understanding how journalism and the media work does not tarnish our profession."19 With the growing resurgence of "little magazines" whose mission is political critique and whose writers are often academics from n+1 to Jacobin, from The New Republic to Current Affairs  the opportunities for professorial onlookers to shoot from the hip about journalism have all but evaporated. Whether we call what we do writing for the masses or for a real or imaginary community, we are writing for the public. That public may include many readers whom we will never even meet. The porchlight of clarity signals whether we will let them in.

Bécquer Seguín is assistant professor of Iberian Studies at Johns Hopkins University and co-editor of the section on literature in translation at Public Books.


  1. Jorge Luis Borges, "Author's Note," The Book of Sand, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: Penguin, 1979), 2.[]
  2. Bruno Bosteels, "Reading Capital from the Margins: The Logic of Uneven Development" (presentation, "Reading Capital, 1965-2015" conference, Princeton, NJ, December 6, 2013). It was subsequently published unfortunately without the AA scaffolding as "Reading Capital from the Margins: Notes on the Logic of Uneven Development," in The Concept in Crisis: Reading Capital Today, ed. Nick Nesbitt (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 113-165.[]
  3. For a sampling of what I was reading at the time, see Jonathan Blitzer, "Memory Politics," The Nation, January 20, 2014, 33-36; Dan Kaufman, "A Secret Archive," The Nation, January 24, 2011, 31-34; Eli S. Evans, "Spanish Spring, Fall," n+1, June 8, 2012; Max Holleran, "Starchitects in Spain Left on the Plain," Dissent 60, no. 3 (Summer 2013), 5-8; Aaron Shulman, "Dignity and Indignation," The American Scholar 82, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 8-11; Jon Lee Anderson, "Adolfo Suárez, The Man Who Came After Franco," The New Yorker, March 25, 2014.[]
  4. For some context, see Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín, "Spaniards Confront the Legacy of Civil War and Dictatorship," The Nation, July 18, 2016.[]
  5. Bécquer Seguín, "The Syriza of Spain," Jacobin, July 25, 2014.[]
  6. Hua Hsu, "In the Context of Infinite Contexts," PMLA 130, no. 2 (2015), 462.[]
  7. Sebastiaan Faber, "Fighting the New Fascism: Juan Carlos Monedero on Podemos, Spain's New Political Force," The Volunteer, September 2014, 15-18.[]
  8. Bécquer Seguín, email message to Sebastiaan Faber, September 11, 2014.[]
  9. Sebastiaan Faber, email message to author, September 12, 2014.[]
  10. Bécquer Seguín and Sebastiaan Faber, "Can Podemos Win in Spain?" The Nation (February 2, 2015), 12-17.[]
  11. Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010.[]
  12. Jo Livingstone, "Can the Academic Write? Part II," The Awl, August 15, 2016. See also Jo Livingstone, "Can the Academic Write? Part I," The Awl, August 11, 2016.[]
  13. For some examples, see Katrina Forrester, "Lights. Camera. Action," The New Yorker, September 26, 2016, 64-68; Alyssa Battistoni, "Monstrous, Duplicated, Potent," n+1, Spring 2017, 164-178; Corey Robin, "Nietzsche's Marginal Children," The Nation, May 27, 2013, 27-36.[]
  14. For some examples, see Thomas Meaney, "The Machiavelli of Maryland," The Guardian, December 9, 2015, 33-35; Rachel Nolan, "Displaced in the D.R.," Harper's May 2015, 38-47; Timothy Shenk, "Apostles of Growth," The Nation November 24, 2014, 17-28; Samuel Moyn, "The Burkean Regicide," The Nation, September 1-8, 2014, 33-39; David Marcus, "Post-Hysterics: Zadie Smith and the Fiction of Austerity," Dissent, Spring 2013, 67-73.[]
  15. For some examples, see Amia Srinivasan, "The Sucker, the Sucker!" London Review of Books (September 7, 2017), 23-25; Jack Hamilton, "Wu-Tang Forever," Slate, November 13, 2013; Sarah Bond, "Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism And Color In The Ancient World," Forbes, April 27, 2017.[]
  16. See, for example, Hua Hsu, "The Great Translator," Grantland, April 1, 2014.[]
  17. For some examples, see Maggie Doherty, "Cool Confessions," n+1, Winter 2015, 158-168; Tobi Haslett, "Moving On Up," Bookforum, April/May 2017; Merve Emre, "The Ferrante Paradox," Public Books, December 15, 2016; Elias Muhanna, "Translating 'Frozen' Into Arabic," The New Yorker, May 30, 2014; Evan Kindley, "I Did Not Approve This Message," The Paris Review, May 1, 2014.[]
  18. Dana Ter, "Poking Our Heads Outside the Cave: Why Academics Should Freelance," The Freelancer, June 24, 2014.[]
  19. Hsu, "In the Context of Infinite Contexts," 465.[]