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Why Can’t I Be You: Emily Nussbaum

The New Yorker’s television critic tells us how to get her job—or not.

What are the annoying things people say to you at parties or whatnot when you tell them you’re a TV critic?

“I don’t even have a TV!”

What do you say to that? “Who cares”?

Well, it depends why they’re saying it.

When they’re bragging, what do you say?

“Cool, not everybody is into everything!”

They’re so proud of something they don’t do.

Or they say something weird and insulting about TV, like, “Oh my god, how do you watch all that TV without going brain-dead?” And I’m like, I obviously chose to write about TV. It’s not like I’m being forced!

When you talk [in interviews] about the shows that have been especially important to you, you always mention Buffy, My So-Called Life, and Freaks and Geeks. Do you think there’s anything to be said about the fact that these are all teen shows, or at least shows about teenagers?

Yes! I actually have this theory that I’ve never written up: that teenage girls and middle-aged men are the source of the best modern television. They’re both emotionally labile figures going through a period of identity formation. They’re angry and horny and they bridle at the dullness of social conformity. They’re unnerved by the way their bodies are changing. They feel like the world is ending.

Those two iconic figures both been the central characters in a lot of the best shows—the cable masculinity dramas (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad) and the shows you mention, which are less often considered key to the Golden Age of TV [in the late ’90s]. But they should be, both because these shows are wonderful and because they were stealthily revolutionary, modeling all sorts of important things: They mixed comedy and drama with a free hand, they treated family and romantic drama with sophistication (rather than melodrama or sentimentality), and, just in general, they were shows that managed to be humane without being sappy. Two of them also only lasted one season, in an only-the-good-die-young sort of way, so it seems particularly important to bring them up, so they don’t disappear.

Although some of this is just personal taste, and, yes, for whatever reason, I’ve always liked smart teen stuff.

As you pointed out, you got your current job under a very lucky set of circumstances that doesn’t really exist anymore, or at least that certainly won’t when our readers are old enough to legally get jobs. What would you do if you were, by some supernatural force, made 19 again today, with the same interests and skills you had when you were that age but the knowledge of how the world works that you have now? That was more complicated than it had to be—basically, what if you had to get a job now, “in today’s media climate”? What would you do? Where would you start?

I always wave these questions off nervously, because the truth is: I don’t know and nobody knows. I’m a reasonably digitally savvy individual for a middle-aged woman, but, like many writers, I have trouble seeing the big picture in journalism, especially because it’s shifting so much. Also, as my own career shows, I was not a driven or ambitious person at 19, so I’d probably do what I did: get word-processing and babysitting jobs and move cities to be with my boyfriend. I didn’t even have the same interests back then, because while I was a major Simpsons buff, TV wasn’t a subject I thought I’d be writing about.

One thing I do think I’d do is be online and write about what I was interested in, on a blog or on Twitter. Maybe I’d start a website, the way Tavi did. I’m really impressed by young women who gain a confident online voice. I always advise that people not write graphic confessional material online, but it depends on the person—it’s hard to know what you’ll feel funny about having published at that age, and there’s a new model of self-exposure that I like reading, but never write. Online discussion knocks down barriers, if not to employment, then to conversation. Some of those relationships might lead to employment. And it’s good to put yourself in a place where you’ll meet people who are smart and funny and interesting, for both practical and non-practical reasons. If you’re somewhere isolated, I think that’s even more valuable.

If you have a Tumblr or a blog, I think it’s fine to tweet particularly strong posts at writers you like—not constantly, or it’ll feel like spamming, but in a focused way. (For instance, if you’re following up on something they’ve written about.) And if you reply to someone and they don’t respond, don’t get offended—people who have followers are sometimes overwhelmed by replies. Sometimes the main benefit of Twitter is listening, anyway. If you choose the right people to follow, you get incredible access to international voices, from all kinds of worlds. I find it really revolutionary. This sounds like wishful thinking, but I do believe that if you’re funny and generous and smart and warm, someone will hear you.

I would go to college, but everyone has to make that call for themselves, depending upon circumstance. I got a lot out of college, and not because I was such a great, focused student. If I had it to do over, I’d focus more on a range of classes I found interesting, from astronomy to all the history classes I took. And I’d maybe do more of the stuff that, in retrospect, was great and fun and creative, including a comedy radio show I did with my friends Tim and Seth.

Job-wise, maybe the best move you can make is to find a way to work, in any capacity, at a small, going venture where you will get noticed, where it feels like everyone is going places. This was true for me at Lingua Franca and Nerve. If you work for a startup, you’ll get training by osmosis, because there’s an everyone-does-everything quality to such places. I hate that there are unpaid internships, because it means that the only people who can afford to take the gigs are already privileged, but it’s undeniable that once you’re at a place, you can ask to do more, because you’re not a stranger. I’m also seriously worried about what it does to people to get trapped in the low-paid blog mines, but that doesn’t mean that those gigs can’t get you to a better place. Also, while there’s nothing wrong with writing for free early on, the goal is always to get paid. Ask for more, politely. Also, push for more-ambitious assignments—editors want responsible writers, but they also want ambitious ones who have ideas of their own. The worst they can do is say no, and if you don’t ask, you’ll get a no anyway. Might as well go for it.

In any case, that’s the limits of my expertise! One thing that is nice about this career is that it’s not one in which you need to be a success or on some clear path at 22—the only things you actually need to do are to make some kind of living, live your life, read all the time, and pursue your passions. Nobody successful I know went to journalism graduate school, and the one person who did (my husband) dropped out in a rage. The truth is that you can take greater risks when you’re young, especially if you don’t have anyone dependent on you, like little kids; it’s the best time to make mistakes. ♦

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9 Comments

  • amanda April 10th, 2014 1:03 AM

    I was looking forward to this one ever since the thumbnail showed up on a weekend (I think). Only read the first two pages so far but this is already my favorite WCIBY (Jessica Hische’s is a close second). Her candor is so wonderful, being told how things actually work instead of hearing “work hard and things will just fall into place” is refreshing.

  • honorarygilmoregal April 10th, 2014 4:10 AM

    Great interview! Emily Nussbaum seems so wise and cool.

  • Brodie April 10th, 2014 5:21 AM

    Emily is one of my FAVE pop culture writers and I am ALL ABOUT THIS CONVO!!!
    “I actually have this theory that I’ve never written up: that teenage girls and middle-aged men are the source of the best modern television. They’re both emotionally labile figures going through a period of identity formation. They’re angry and horny and they bridle at the dullness of social conformity. They’re unnerved by the way their bodies are changing. They feel like the world is ending.”

    yeeeeeesssssss!!!!!!

  • Viaperson April 10th, 2014 9:50 AM

    wow — i appreciate emily’s honesty so much. it’s SO reassuring to hear a successful person confess that they got very lucky, that many of the doors leading to their position are now closed, etc. feels like we’re spoonfed ideas about how HARD WORK ALONE will get you ANYTHING (this obviously has economic parallels haha) so hearing a different and truer perspective is refreshing. as an american studies student and aspiring cultural analyst (maybe??) i do worry about the financial consequences of pursuing my interests…but knowing that the process getting work in this field is way more complicated and unpredictable than going to j school or doing a few fancy internships is somehow comforting. like, if i fail, my self-worth as a writer won’t be torn to shreds :)

    also, emily, i, like anaheed, am a HUGE fan of your writing and follow it everywhere! so excited you did this interview!!!

  • thebrownette April 10th, 2014 10:07 AM

    THE APPROVAL MATRIX IS MY FAVORITE THING EVER!

  • thebrownette April 10th, 2014 10:24 AM

    On a more serious note, this article is scary, saddening (collapse of paid criticism pipeline, etc), and inspiring.

  • autumnsweater April 10th, 2014 8:17 PM

    I LOVE THIS

  • Aoife April 10th, 2014 10:37 PM

    This was amazing. And scary. I’m doing a masters im journalism at the moment and it is terrifying to think of the difficulty thats coming at the end…

  • April 12th, 2014 12:39 PM

    I love Emily’s writing in the New Yorker. I get excited every week I see that she has a column and I find her perspectives (even when I might not agree with them) totally refreshing and interesting. She always brings up things I had not yet considered. And how wonderful to have such a great, feminist writer writing about TV.

    She is a National Treasure!