This year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to two American scientists, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, while the award for literature went to the Norwegian author Jon Olav Fosse. The awards represent vastly and obviously different fields. Less obvious are the differences in the material realities which produced the scientific endeavors and fiction in question. Culture at large persuades us that research and writing materialize like magic in people whose natural talents simply burst forth. But such work is always the result of personal, political, and economic circumstances which either enable or prevent award-winning work—work that can only flourish if the humans producing it are also able to thrive in ideal conditions.
Karikó’s story is unusual. She is an adjunct at the University of Pennsylvania, where she and Weissman (a professor at the institution) worked on groundbreaking research that led to the development of the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. Karikó, a Hungarian immigrant, was rejected for tenure by the university, flatly told that she was “not of faculty quality,” and had her lab space taken away. The powerful and influential journal Nature rejected the pair’s joint paper, claiming it was merely an “incremental contribution.” As the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Megan Zahneis writes, that same paper would, “15 years later, became a blueprint for the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines that saved millions of lives around the world.”
Karikó’s career reveals the kinds of slow-burning, caustic humiliations perfected by academia over centuries: if you’re not kicked out permanently after failing to get tenure, you’re compelled to hang around the edges as an adjunct, begging for classes here and there, trying to cobble together some kind of sustainable life with any number of side hustles. Gender was more than likely a huge impediment in her career—she has what has been described as a “blunt-spoken manner,” according to The Associated Press. The newspaper recounts an incident from Karikó’s memoir, when two students botched an experiment: she threw out their samples and told them, “It’s useless, garbage!” This is, of course, the kind of demanding behavior that an average male scientist would be praised for. Such a moment might, in the man’s case, be described as part of his “exacting standards” and “keen perfectionism.” (The memoir also recounts the sometimes grim circumstances in which Karikó was educated, from kindergarten onwards, and those included schools with no running water—she relates all of this with an astonishing lack of piety or sentimentality).
Karikó is one of the lucky ones. She was supported by colleagues like Weissman and an engineer husband. And she appears to have found what must have been a lucrative secondary career in biotechnology, founding her own company in 2006 and working in another till 2022.
Still, she couldn’t have been wealthy enough to fund the kind of complicated research labs needed for her work. In science, access to equipment and labs can mean the difference between, well, being a scientist or not. The general public still imagines scientists as cartoonish characters busily spending all their days and nights in lab coats until their eureka moments, unconcerned and absent-minded about everything except the results of their experiments. The reality is that scientific research, especially in the U.S, is funded almost entirely by grants and endowments, and most of that only goes towards—let us put this bluntly—the sexy kinds of work that can be described in thrilling terms in mainstream media. A 2022 Atlantic essay by Derek Thompson, “Silicon Valley’s New Obsession,” praises entrepreneurs for jump-starting some kinds of research, but the truth is that many of our most important and lifesaving medical inventions came about after hours of seemingly boring inquiries in cold labs, day after day, funded by the state. To depend entirely on either profit-driven research funding (by venture capitalists who hope to become famous) or the bureaucratic maze of state funding means that we don’t get what we need produced. And timing is key: fifteen years ago, the scientific community thought an mRNA vaccine was inconsequential. And then the pandemic came upon us.
The average scientist can’t afford to be an eccentric spending day and night in the lab: he—too often a he—also has to kiss the asses and rings of various potential donors, deans, and senior administrators whose whimsical ideas about what constitutes “good research” or, ah, “faculty quality” can mean the end of the most detailed and carefully argued projects—even the ones that promise lifesaving benefits. He is a part-time socialite, part-time fundraiser, and part-time researcher—up to 50 percent of his time can be spent trying to get grants.
The connections between funders/donors and scholars are not quite so explicit in the humanities, but there is just as much kowtowing to higher powers and a constant search for funds. The difference is in kind and degree: an underfunded English department has to count its Bic pens and keep track of its reams of printer paper, whereas the science lab’s inhabitants might want an upgrade to their first-generation Keurig. Everywhere, even when not faced with threats and restructuring from sanctimonious officials like Ron DeSantis, universities are cutting back on what they consider the inessential parts of higher education: nearly all of the humanities.
Who gets to do research in this climate? Which PhDs have the time and resources to continue to spend hours on writing articles for the journals in their field, without even the scant resources that are available in tenured positions? Which professors, as they scramble to teach and write each semester and are anxious about their own jobs evaporating at any minute, have the time to advise their students? Increasingly, graduate students are told to find occupations outside academia. For most, that means the generally fruitless task of endless pitches to various publications, all in the hope of obtaining one of the unicorns of the publishing world: a book contract, a steady gig as a columnist or an editor, a Substack deal.
Sometime in February of this year, the writer L. Mad Hildebrandt posed a question on Twitter, “If someone has never been poor, what is something they wouldn’t understand?” In response, Sam Haselby, the historian and senior editor at Aeon, tweeted, “That a portion of the mind, including imagination and the ability to make long-term plans, is in effect disabled by the pressing problem of providing basic necessities.”
I’ve had that tweet saved on my laptop all these months: an eloquent reminder of the usually unseen links between a sustainable living and the ability to write. Professional writers like me—people who make most or all of their income from writing—are the last dinosaurs roaming the earth, barely dodging the meteorites crashing into the ground around us as publications everywhere shut down permanently, often because the venture capitalists who funded them are now bored and looking for the next new thing. Given all this, it’s no surprise that most writers now write on the side, financed either by families or well-paying jobs that pay the bills. Privileged writers are not lesser writers, to be clear, and there’s no need to resurrect any hoary ideas about how poverty and a hard life somehow make you a better writer (they don’t: hunger is a powerful deterrent to creativity). But there is a world of writers shut out of publishing because they lack the resources that would let them write without the constant fear of penury.
What becomes of writing itself in these conditions? Karikó was fortunate that she had a supportive family in her husband and daughter and that many along the way saw the value of her work and made sure she had access to labs and the enormous and often expensive resources she needed to carry on her research. She was also determined that she would carry on the work regardless of whether or not she was recognized for it. But, again, she was able to do that with material support. Similarly, writers today have to find ways in which to continue their work and that often means either choosing to chase a lot of assignments that they do purely for the money (such as puffy celebrity pieces) or by combining the better-paying gigs with the work that is more like what they might want to produce: experimental fiction, perhaps, or nonfiction essays on matters unrelated to whatever is trending on social media. More often than not, American writers in particular end up succumbing to the pressures of a market-driven publishing world. The result is that good writers end up writing bad books.
To add to the messiness: writing programs have exploded to the extent that they’ve become gateways (and gatekeepers) to writing careers. It’s no longer even the MFA (made famous by the University of Iowa): many universities now offer PhDs in writing. It’s still a matter of debate whether the existence of the writing PhD has made writing programs better or simply created a false demand such that a writer today has to have a PhD in order to perhaps get a job in a department that offers a PhD in writing, in order to teach writers whose best bet at job security is to graduate with PhDs in writing that might get them jobs in programs that offer PhDs in writing, and on and on.
There’s a longer history to be written about how the explosion of MA/PhD programs has led to a tyranny of style and the enforced popularity of formulaic kinds of poetry and fiction and nonfiction. (Do you really like that hot new novel, or are you trying to make sure you’re reading what everyone else is talking about reading?) The biggest writing programs have the biggest writing stars who are inevitably plugged into the biggest publications, including the New Yorker, which produces the worst—but also the most successful—fiction. It’s not hard to discern the stamp of an MFA in a novel because it inevitably bears all the signs of a million workshopping sessions: the very deliberate and overwrought hooks at the beginning, stark endings that resonate (with what, it’s unclear, but resonance is achieved), and the utter lack of originality, long beaten out of it by the demands of one’s peers who pored over every comma.
What would it mean to be a writer who didn’t have to worry about the constant and looming concerns about healthcare, childcare, or housing, as the average American writer must (unless they are protected by wealth)? What would it mean to be a writer who could simply write without the burden of having to have their work first vetted and picked over by a group of peers, without having to worry about whether or not a work was “marketable”? Or whether or not it paid homage to the professor who runs the class that’s supposed to teach you all about plot?
For an answer, we might turn to Norway, which has produced Jon Fosse and Karl Ove Knausgaard. In a 2013 essay about Knausgaard’s “3,500-page, six-volume magnum opus, My Struggle,” Sophie Pinkham describes the author’s long, desultory passages about cleaning (70 pages), and taking his daughter to a birthday party (50 pages). She quotes the author explaining how his novel and style came to be, in response to the creative writing workshop he once attended:
Some simple rules dominated, and the most important one dealt with quality: if a sentence was bad, you removed it. If a scene was bad, you removed it. The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism.
Pinkham writes that the people described in My Struggle are, to an American audience, curiously untroubled by the daily tensions that fill our lives. The (autobiographical) protagonist who shares his name with the author lives a life untroubled by, for instance, the hospital bills that come with childbirth, or the costs of childcare, or education for his three children, or his aging parents.
Knausgaard’s best friend, Geir, is an unsuccessful writer, but that doesn’t seem to put a damper on his coffeehouse lifestyle. When Geir worries that he’ll never succeed, he frames his anxiety in terms of artistic success and recognition, not in financial terms.
Pinkham’s larger point is that a work like My Struggle, which she describes as a masterpiece, can only come about in conditions where writers and other creative individuals simply concern themselves with the writing, letting it go where it will. Comparing the American approach—where everything is determined by an often hazily understood marketplace—to the Norwegian one, she writes, “Of course, either system can produce a masterpiece; life has its surprises, its moments of transcendence. But as My Struggle shows, it is more often predictable, and material conditions can be as decisive as fate.”
Could we have a similar set of conditions in the U.S.? I doubt it, and not just because universal healthcare, free education, and a life free from debt still seem so incredibly far away—even as groups like Debt Collective wage their increasingly successful campaigns to make change. The problem is that the publishing world in the U.S. (at least) has become so attuned only to marketplace concerns that writers are now forced to see themselves as influencers rather than as creators of original work. Time and again, I hear from writers frustrated when editors and publishers push them to produce whatever it is they imagine the “market” will want (and too often that translates to, “Write an autobiography about your trauma”—no matter the topic, whether biotech or travels). There are class distinctions in publishing that few will acknowledge: I can always tell which writers are sustained by private resources because they’re the ones who sneer at the rest of us for staying on social media to promote our work (we hurl links into the void, like messages in a bottle across an ocean). Those with regular (if fast disappearing) jobs at publications can afford to stay off Twitter and all its iterations because their workplaces will do the endless work of promotion for them. The rest of us are in a constant state of panic and anxiety, worried that yet another magazine or newspaper will fold and take publishing opportunities with it or that our Substack or blog incomes might soon dwindle and dry up as the economy worsens.
But there might still be hope: not in the world of mainstream publishing but in some suggestions by Katalin Karikó. In another Chronicle article, also by Zahneis, the researcher suggests ways in which people like her might be might be supported by universities in more intentional ways:
Scholars who’ve already made it could advocate at the university level for colleagues whose work they feel is promising but hasn’t gained traction. Grant funds could be pooled in a discretionary bucket and distributed based on internal recommendations, to help sustain work like hers. And, Karikó adds, institutions should reward advocates like Barnathan and Langer [fellow researchers who helped secure her institutional support] for helping boost their colleagues’ profiles.…
Just as importantly, Karikó advocates for a “a kind of pure-mindedness.… The sole goal should be to gain an understanding of one’s field, to resist to whatever extent possible the siren song of career advancement.…” For writers, this isn’t an easy task, but as I’ve written, the question should not be, “Am I more popular now?” but, rather, “Am I a better writer than I was five years ago?”
And yet. I return to Haselby’s words and wonder: how do those of us struggling to make rent and pay bills even find ways to carve out time and space to write? How do we nurture those portions of our minds, “including imagination and the ability to make long-term plans,” without constantly feeling like we’re “disabled by the pressing problem of providing basic necessities”?
How do we create a world where writers do the unthinkable and simply write?
Yasmin Nair would like to move to Norway. A version of this essay was previously published on www.yasminnair.com on October 13, 2023