Sara Marcus is a graduate student in the English department and a preceptor for ENG 351, American Literature: 1865-1930. She is also the author of 2010’s Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, a critical and cultural history of the 1990s punk-feminist movement Riot Grrrl. Her criticism and essays have appeared in publications such as Bookforum, Artforum, The Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and n+1. I met with Sara to talk about her experiences as a writer and a scholar and the role politics plays in her writing and scholarship.
Joshua Leifer: You are a preceptor here, and also a politically committed writer. When did you decide that was something you wanted to do? I ask because, and maybe this is a unfair binary, but there are lot of people who tend to write and say “I’m writing for the sublime” and shrug off history or politics or political commitment, and then there are the writers who are in the thick of political or historical drama, or for whom that is a central part of their writing.
Sara Marcus: One part of the answer might be Riot Grrrl, really. My first significant publications are the self-published zines I was making from tenth grade through my first year of college, which I made fully within the context of the Riot Grrrl milieu: a community of feminist writers and thinkers who were trading zines back and forth, several years before the Internet, and politics was present from the word go. This was both because the context was usually explicitly political, and because simply to write and put out our own work, without needing the approval of outsiders, without others gatekeeping for us, felt political, intrinsically.
This link between my writing and my politics continued. During my three semesters as an undergraduate at Yale, I worked on a left-wing paper there. And then once I transferred to Oberlin, there was a magazine I worked on—you never had to append “left-wing” to anything at Oberlin, it was sort of the default, but I worked with and wrote for a magazine where we were trying to report on culture in a more magazine-y way than the campus newspaper was doing, and at the same time I was student editor of the college website.
The first piece I published in a magazine came because I was writing a press release for a protest, and when I sent it to the Oberlin alumni magazine, they said, “Do you want to just cover this protest yourself?” Every year there was a protest on the grounds of Fort Benning in Georgia, at the School of the Americas, where the U.S. Army trained military leaders who would go on to commit atrocities in Latin America. So every year at Oberlin, we would go up to the attic of the student union and take out the “Oberlin for Peace and Justice” banner that had been everywhere for the past decade, and we would drive a bunch of college vans down to Georgia, and I wrote about that. That was the first published piece I ever got paid for. This is all just to say that the question of separating writing and politics has always been a non-starter for me.
It was an accident that I started to write about music. I wanted to be a political journalist. Throughout college, I was really cued into labor journalism, and I had written some activist journalism during a one-month internship at New Haven’s alt-weekly, and there was that alumni magazine piece. So when I graduated from college and moved to Philadelphia, I had a contact at the Philadelphia City Paper from the New Haven internship, and I brought my clips up to them. I had all of these political clips, and I had two record reviews: one for the Oberlin paper, and one for Newsweek. It was 1999, and Newsweek was just setting up its website for the first time, and I had this temp job where I was copying and pasting text from the server for the magazine into the CMS for newsweek.com. There was a bin of promo CDs, and I reviewed some record for newsweek.com. Anyway, the editor in chief of the City Paper didn’t share my politics, but the paper had a new music editor who needed writers. And that’s how I started writing rock criticism.
And really, I loved music; I had played music my whole life, I had moved to Philadelphia with my bandmate to make music. A lot of the most interesting writing that I saw happening was actually in the realm of rock criticism at that moment. There were a lot of poets I knew who were also writing about music, a lot of scholars I knew who were writing about music. There was this wonderful magazine, Puncture, that was publishing beautiful writing. And even the Time Out New York pop and rock section, which I was writing for most frequently after moving to New York: Stephin Merritt was writing for them, and Franklin Bruno, and a lot of smart, artful writers. I thought, this is a fine apprenticeship. This is a fine way to learn how to churn text out on a deadline and say what I mean really fast, and find new ways to say very similar things every time.
But I always wanted to get back into writing about politics, and that was where the Riot Grrrl book came in. On one level, I had this passion to make sure the story of this grassroots feminist movement of young women from the 1990s didn’t go down in history in a shallow and apolitical way, as a bunch of noisy girls screaming into microphones. It was that, but it was so much more than that, and I was afraid the full story was getting lost. And on a second level, I realized that this could be a hinge for me: People did accept that I might have something worthwhile to say about music, and I thought I could use that to get them to listen to me about politics. And so that was how the book happened. The process took five years. I went to an MFA program at Columbia to give me structure and federal loans and health care so that I could write.
It was interesting because, whereas for a while I had thought I’d be some sort of advocacy journalist, perhaps a labor journalist, increasingly, some sort of hybrid identity made sense to me. One key moment was seeing Barbara Ehrenreich read from Nickel and Dimed when that book came out. That was a real sort of flash of light: She was a journalist, but she wasn’t writing in this dry AP style. She was doing narrative, she was putting herself in the scene. And there was a sort of a participant observer element to her work. I was just really inspired by what she had done. And then of course, deciding to go to an MFA in non-fiction instead of to journalism school cemented this fence-riding aspect to where I saw my work existing. Now I’ve just added another fence, which is the scholarship fence. My work is constantly braiding and balancing and remixing all of these multiple aspects.
JL: What you said about being part of a political movement or scene and writing about it—the participant observer tension—is something that I think is really pressing for a lot young writers. It’s difficult to know how to strike an appropriate or desirable balance. For the first time in a long time, it feels like we can almost start talking about a movement, especially on college campuses and with the #blacklivesmatter protests, and there’s fossil fuel divestment, and divestment from Israeli occupation. It feels like everyone is speaking a similar language of social justice, but at the same time—and maybe these are just my qualms but I think others share them as well—I wonder, can we really be fully involved in these struggles and still write about them in a way that doesn’t seem dishonest, or insincere, or even worse, propaganda-ish? I think we can be critical, and write about these movements and participate in them, but there is something, especially here at a place like Princeton, or for people who read, say, The New York Times, that seems to say, “you cannot do that, you cannot participate and write.”
SM: Certainly in the old rules of journalism, you can’t. And traditional media organizations have rules about this. You’ll get fired from NPR if you show up at a protest that you’re not covering. You’ll get fired from The New York Times if you give money to a candidate, I think. But I don’t think you’ll get fired from Jezebel for going to a protest, and I don’t think you’ll get fired from the Colorlines website for organizing a meeting. There is such a range of forms of address in the media landscape now that almost makes the concern I had in college about journalism being some narrow thing practically irrelevant now, because journalism now means so many different things. It practically just as often is the Rachel Maddow model, where her effectiveness completely depends on you knowing just how she feels and her getting mad about it, as it is Brian Williams.
JL: So there are enough different kinds of platforms where, if you want to participate and write about it, it’s okay?
SM: Yes, but when you talked about propaganda, what I heard was also a concern about a certain kind of honesty or a certain kind of integrity in a work. Do you want to just write broadsides? There is something very powerful about broadsides. There is something very powerful about polemics. And sometimes those can have a poetry of their own. But that isn’t the only way to write something that has a political heart in it.
JL: I guess for me where that anxiety comes from is feeling like, and I hate when people make these kinds of generalizations, “in the internet age, in the twitter social justice age”—
SM: Isn’t that just your life? That’s like you saying “in this Earth of ours”—
JL: Yes, I guess what I meant is that especially in the past three years, it feels like there’s no shortage of broadsides or polemics. If you want a first hand account of a sit-in, occupation, or civil disobedience action, they’re easy to come by. And what feels lacking is having the movement, or having writers coming from that kind of place, making inroads into “serious” publications and “serious” journalism outlets. I think one of things that made a really big impact on me in high school was finding and reading n+1, because for the first time since the 1930s, it seemed like here were people who are producing intellectually honest, critical, but also engaged, kinds of writing.
SM: And based very much on the Partisan Review model, so connected quite deliberately to the 1930s.
JL: But when you’re a college student, and you’re ambitious, and there are all of these internships that you can apply for at places like the New Yorker, and even Harper’s, there is a certain anxiety about being too involved. There is this fear, this feeling of “don’t put yourself out there too much, be careful of what you tweet, of the pictures you post and the rhetoric you use as parts of your public Internet persona because you don’t want to be construed as someone who cannot be critical. You don’t want to shed doubt on your capacity to be critical about what you’re involved in.”
SM: You don’t want to seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid. But at the same, I think maybe there’s a difference, The New Yorker versus Harper’s. I have a friend Emily Greenhouse, a very committed feminist, and she worked at The New Yorker for several years and was writing for the blog there. Now she is at Bloomberg and she has very strong principles and beliefs. Certainly at Harper’s, where each issue Rebecca Solnit writes her latest impassioned critique… maybe there’s a sort of jaded, distanced feel to the Readings section, but I don’t feel the features follow that mold at all.
Which is just to say that I’m familiar with this sense that, “Oh, there’s no room for me there, I can only write for Mother Jones.” But I think that’s a thing that we do to ourselves more than is done to us. I think that people who come into a leftist state of mind, often that comes in part from having a strong ability to identify with whoever is being left out of something, and that can very easily spill into assuming that you, too, are being left out of something. That feeling isn’t necessarily coming from the outside; it’s coming from one’s own keen observations and analyses of the ways insides and outsides get constructed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are being kept out of a place as much as you might think you are. Does that speak to your question?
JL: I mean, it’s encouraging.
SM: I want to encourage you to listen to the Longform podcast if you don’t already. The Longform podcast is the most marvelous invention to me, it’s one of the best things being done for journalism overall. There are hundreds of them at this point. And you might want to start with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s episode. He’s such a role model and such a magnificent writer and thinker, and cares deeply and is deeply critical all the time. If we could even begin to approach the balance and power of his work, we’d be doing really well. He speaks of these issues of access, and so do many of the Longform episodes. Another really interesting one is Katie J.M. Baker. And you just start to hear the different ways people made access for themselves and made inroads for themselves. It’s very, very inspiring.
JL: Narrowing to Princeton, one of the things I think Princeton students only very rarely get to do is talk frankly with a faculty member or even a preceptor. I think it’s very easy for Princeton students sitting in the seminar room to forget that our preceptors were once in our seats and have a lot of insight into what is happening inside and outside the classroom.
One of the things I’ve wanted to ask for a long time since I got here is about the way critical theory is introduced to students and how they’re supposed to receive it. More broadly, there has always been something perverse to me about teaching future CIA or future State Department officials The Wretched of the Earth, a book I know a lot of people my year read. It’s bizarre to see how assimilated the radical canon has become. As someone on the left, it’s great to see that there isn’t a barrier to access these texts. But at the same time, doesn’t this in some ways neutralize the radical canon’s political potency?
SM: Have deconstructive notions, like denaturalizing regimes of knowledge, come back to bite the left in the ass in the form of climate change denial, or anti-vaxxers? Are the sorts of critiques of hegemonic knowledges actually really horrific when they are put into practice in particular ways, and these conceptual tools that seemed so liberatory actually really changeable depending on what purpose they’re being put to? That’s kind of going afield of what it means to teach theory at Princeton, and it’s interesting to me that you’ve had critical theory introduced to you at Princeton, because I had a sense that it’s really a ghostly presence here if at all, at least in the English curriculum.
I taught Althusser in my precepts recently. We were reading Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. I just gave them around ten pages—I sent them the whole “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” essay, but I was like, “You don’t have to read the whole thing, just a couple of snippets. Let’s just get this on the table so that we have a vocabulary throughout the semester, so that if we say ‘ideology’ we know what we’re talking about, so if we talk about how subjects get formed through practices and through being called via institutions, that that is something we’re awake to.” And it was really so much fun. I thought we had a marvelous time working through these very complex and nuanced notions. I think that it is useful for everybody, no matter where they are in a social order, to gain some sort of criticality about how these things are working—to denaturalize them, if you will. I don’t think it’s giving away any secrets of the underground, to raise the question that people have been debating for centuries, “How did we get set into this or that social role?”
In the classroom, it can sometimes seem almost like The Breakfast Club, where everybody is this or that type. And I think at Princeton, where you’ve got different clubs for the different clubs, that gets intensified. But these aren’t naturalized things. How do we inscribe ourselves in them? How do they get made up? Are some of these practices and some of these roles serving particular interests of folks who aren’t necessarily even in the room right now? I think everybody can benefit from asking questions like that. I’m in this room to teach everyone to see complexity in texts and to mine ambiguities, even if they’re not going to become literary critics or writers at all.
As a teacher, I’m there for everyone in the room. Yesterday, we were reading The Awakening and I asked, how is The Awakening a feminist text? And someone said, “It wasn’t very empowering, I would rather have something empowering.” And some people said, “She’s made a terrible mistake. She needs to be more responsible to her children. I guess it’s a feminist text because feminism in the sixties and seventies was all about empowering women to throw away their responsibilities to their families.” These are all valid interpretations of a text and I’m in the room for everybody. I’m not in the room to get people to agree with me, or to push one idea.
JL: I’ll preface this question with saying that it is often very difficult to know what and how to read when you’re at a university. You have your assigned readings, and you know you have to read those, and hopefully your classes relate to your intellectual interests in an un-alienated academic experience, but that doesn’t always happen. How did you go about, when you were in college and after you were in college, cultivating a literary frame of reference that wasn’t tailored by a syllabus or a curriculum? How do you read for yourself?
SM: That’s such a wonderful question, and it’s one that I remember really wondering about in college, too. At that point, I would just ask a lot of friends what they were reading. I don’t know if I was great at it then, actually. I wanted to know about queer theory and I wanted to know about feminism and so I would just sort of comb the shelves wherever the feminist stuff was. I would just go through until a title jumped out at me. And if you’re interested in a particular subject matter, that’s very easy. But if you just want to read some theory, or some fiction, or some poetry, of course, that’s much less feasible.
Now that I’m in graduate school, it’s very easy: I’ll read a book that I like and then I’ll read some articles and criticism that deal with that book, and they’ll mention some other books, and I’ll put them on the list. I have a very large “to be read” list that I may never finish getting through. But advice for an undergrad? I think that if one wishes to read recent books, keep up with Bookforum, which reviews so many wonderful books every issue that you’re bound to be intrigued by something. The LA Review of Books, which is online, is also a fantastic resource.
There are also syllabi online. You can think, “What’s the class I wish I could take?” And then google some key words and “syllabus” and you’ll often come up with someone else’s syllabus at some school that can give you some wonderful ideas. Also, asking professors and preceptors and saying, “I was really interested in this thing that we read, what else is like it, or feeds into it or what might go with it?” Or you can even talk to a professor you haven’t had a class with, just say, “I saw that you taught postcolonial theory last semester, would you send me the syllabus for it? I’d really like to do some reading on my own.”
JL: To close, is there anything you think someone sitting as an undergraduate in a university, writing for an arts and culture magazine, someone who wants to continue to write after college, maybe for a living or maybe not for a living since it’s not always possible, should know or should remember or should try?
SM: I think one thing is to write a lot of awesome things and put them on the Internet somewhere. There are so many outlets to which the barriers to entry are not tremendous. It seems to me that if you were to really bang out a fantastic essay about a topic you care about, that quite possibly The New Inquiry might publish it. They publish wonderful things, and I have a sense that they’re a great place for people who haven’t published very much to publish their wonderful things. And I think it’s really valuable, and the growth of outlets like that is a fantastic opportunity. I think the n+1 website has published a lot of things by people in college or just out of it. These things can really be your calling cards, especially if you manage to write something that kind of makes the rounds a little bit. Then, when you’re going around and trying to meet editors and convince them to take a chance on you writing something, you’ve got something to show them that could really make an impact on somebody.
I think another piece of advice would be to pick a beat for a while. You don’t have to stick with it forever, but really getting to know something super well can help you be so much more authoritative on that topic than someone who says, “Well, here’s a movie that I thought was all right, and here’s an ad campaign that interests me.” I always think about how Katie Baker owned her topic to the point that she was the person breaking these stories, and then she could move on to the next thing. It’s not like it brands you for the rest of your life, unless you let it. But it’s not always the most expedient to be purely a generalist all the time.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]