Spreading Objectivism: Tips on Getting Published in Popular Media
I was recently published in the New York Daily News' Big Town Chronicles series. The News began this series in 1998, first as a centennial history of New York City, then, as a history of famous New Yorkers. The current series, "New Yorkers of the American Imagination," focuses on New Yorkers in fiction. My article, "From The Fountainhead: Howard Roark," followed the standard formula of the series precisely: It introduced the character; gave a synopsis of the story; mentioned a film version; talked about the story's author; and discussed connections between the character and The City.
When the series debuted in early 2002, my knee-jerk reaction was: "What a perfect setting to tell the story of any of the major characters in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged!" It's almost as if the series were created to highlight Randian protagonists like Roark, Rearden, or Dagny Taggart—all of whom embody the achievement that is New York. But none was more symbolic of that achievement than the Master Builder himself, Howard Roark. Here's a guy who alters the skyline of the most magnificent city on earth, a tribute to human ingenuity.
I'd actually queried the News a few years back when its Big Town Chronicles focused on the lives of famous New Yorkers. I thought that Rand would be the perfect New Yorker for that series: an immigrant, like so many others who had come to these shores, seeking to build a life, and succeeding beyond her dreams. A woman who worshiped New York City as "the will of man made visible." But that query went unanswered—and Rand was never among the scores and scores of New Yorkers of "Big Town Biography."
Not to be deterred when I saw the debut of the newest Big Town Chronicles series, I tried again. And even though I received silence from the editor at first, I queried another News writer, with whom I've enjoyed cordial correspondence over the years, and he agreed to look at the piece. Though I had a track record as a writer of books, encyclopedia, and magazine articles, I had to submit the piece, virtually "on spec" (that is, for inspection), because I'd never made any previous contributions to the series. Crafting it in the same form as previous installments, I made sure to touch upon every major New York aspect of the story. Knowing the profound impact of 9/11, I suspected that a story on a great architect would inspire News readers, who look to a future downtown Manhattan rising from the ruins of Ground Zero.
I authored the piece on Friday, July 19th; it was submitted with a few revisions to the editor on Monday, July 22nd; it was accepted for publication on Wednesday, July 24th, and it was published on Friday, July 26th. Not a bad turnover for a hot summer week! I received hundreds of emails thereafter from appreciative readers. (The News, which has one of the biggest circulations of any urban daily in the United States, archives the piece at: http://www.nydailynews.com/city_life/big_town/story/5964p-5560c.html; it is also archived by The Atlas Society at: http://atlassociety.org/cms_howard_roark.asp).
I've always believed that Objectivist writers should work toward publishing in more and more popular venues. Clearly, Rand has become a part of the cultural Zeitgeist. She can be found in popular music (e.g., the progressive rock band, Rush), in film ("The Passion of Ayn Rand" and "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life"), in television series ("The Simpsons," "South Park," "Judging Amy," and "Queer as Folk") and even in comics (especially those of Steve Ditko and Frank Miller).
One way to affect the dialogue is to work toward packaging Objectivism for popular audiences. Here are a few tips on how to work toward that end:
First, learn to be an intellectual entrepreneur. The Austrian economists have helped us to understand the role of entrepreneurship in the market. The word "entrepreneur" literally means "undertaker"—not as in one who embalms the dead, but in active terms as one who undertakes a plan, organizing and directing activities toward the achievement of a goal over time. In Austrian theory, the entrepreneur seeks out profit opportunities. The entrepreneur often serves an epistemological function, bridging the gap between ignorance and knowledge, sometimes directing resources toward the satisfaction of consumer demand, sometimes creating the resources for whole new markets that serve human needs.
An intellectual entrepreneur can serve a similar function. Take an active role in bridging the gap between public ignorance and your knowledge of Objectivism and Ayn Rand. Direct your energies toward satisfying the public's continued interest in Rand, while creating the context for a whole new appreciation of what Rand has to offer. This means keeping your eyes open to "profit opportunities." If a newspaper is running a series that might be relevant to Objectivist ideas, craft a piece that meets the needs of the series while serving the goals of education. Pay attention to current events: If a specific news item is calling out for a specifically Objectivist response, do your best to craft that response with reference to those events. Answer editorials or op-ed pieces with letters to the editor. Remember to follow the style and length requirements of the letters section of the newspaper in which you seek publication. Don't give them an excuse to reject your contribution. And don't sweat it if you can't get Rand's name into the newspaper; ultimately, it's the ideas that matter.
Second, learn to craft these ideas for the distinctive audience that you target. Every audience has its context of knowledge and its interests. Study the venue for which you wish to write. Study its "flavor," its "style", the ways in which ideas are conveyed. This is not a question of "selling out" your style; it is a question of packaging the substance of your message in a manner that is accessible to the audience you wish to reach. The needs of a scholarly or specialized audience will be different from the needs of a general audience. Always aim for unit-economy in your exposition. (For terrific hints on writing and on judging your audience, see Rand's Art of Nonfiction; see also my "Dialectics and The Art of Nonfiction," The Free Radical, http://www.freeradical.co.nz/content/47/47sciabarra.php.)
Third, get some feedback from other readers prior to submitting the piece. Odds are, if somebody has an objection to the way you use a word or formulate a point, somebody else out there will voice the same objection. You can't write a piece by committee, but you can preempt criticism or outright rejection of your piece if you pay attention to your critics.
Nobody likes rejection. But sometimes, you need to take a chance. Be persistent. Don't give up. As Mom used to say: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
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