On Prestige

and to whom it is granted.

The dictionary definition of “prestige” is “widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.” In this definition, “perception” is doing the heavy lifting, is the operative word. Something has prestige because it is perceived to be prestigious. I’ve written a lot about “prestige” and how it functions as a gate-keeper, whether in awards, media, or taste. I constantly use the phrase “prestige media” without really defining what I mean, because I’m basing it upon my own perceptions of what is prestigious. In doing so, have I held up publications and award systems that I don’t actually believe in? Because I’ve given them this status in my own mind and my own writing?

To step back, though I’ve written before about how if I wanted to write for “prestige” publications, I would have “contorted myself differently,” it’s not completely accurate. It’s simply self-mythologizing. I would absolutely come running if I was offered a worthwhile feature assignment for, say, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, or other publications that—and here I’ll define what I perceive as prestigious—most people have heard of, publications that would impress even the least media literate of family and friends. However, I don’t really seek out those opportunities, nor do I position myself to do so. But I am here, and I am available, and I would feel a sparkle in my soul upon looking at the byline. This is the power of perception, and of prestige, even for someone like me, who (thinks) she can intellectualize her way out of wanting almost anything if only she could be a good enough Marxist, a good enough Catholic.

This is personal, yet even in my own definition, prestige matters because of what it confers to other people about my worth, my brain, and my role in the world. Having a self-published newsletter? No matter how many people sign up or how much money I make, it won’t be prestigious because no institution or entity has conferred such a status. Writing a book for a small press that has published important texts by James Baldwin and Herbert Marcuse? Prestigious, but without (in the moment) real monetary value or financial safety. Funny how these things tend to go hand-in-hand, right? To confer prestige does not always mean to bestow riches, because those who have access to what is prestigious are understood to already have enough money to survive and buy the right pair of shoes for the job to boot (to even know what the right pair of shoes would be).

These ideas are all tangled up, though, and because we live in a capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarchal society (at least those of us under the rule of the U.S. empire), they get even further entwined—cultural capital, which is just a more democratic version of prestige, I’d argue, and all that. See my interview with Alejandra Ramos, who regularly appears in elaborately executed segments on Today—and, during the pandemic, is her own stylist, makeup artist, food stylist, producer, and videographer—for free, because of the cultural capital and prestige that come with it and allow her access to work that pays actual money. For whom is that kind of labor reserved? 

That labor—of work for just the status it confers and no or low pay—is certainly not reserved for all the conservative and/or transphobic and/or racist and/or simply insufferable white men who have moved their operations to Substack. Andrew Sullivan has increased his pay more than double by doing so, and though I believe we have very different audiences, I feel like an asshole-by-proxy because I’m also a person supported by this platform (though by one very meaningful zero of difference in terms of revenue). Glenn Greenwald, who’s likely done the same in terms of money, is here because he hates being edited. I think there are others, too. I try not to pay attention to them, because I don’t actually care about the writing of egomaniacal men.

Unlike these men, I and many other people are here writing a newsletter because it seemed, initially, a good idea for the same reasons Ramos does Today: a place for ideas, a place for gathering links to published work, a place that could increase my regular visibility as a working writer.

But self-publishing isn’t for everyone, as demonstrated by the fact that the most successful people tend to be those who have also found grand financial and cultural success in the media economy writ large. And who really is supported in the media economy writ large, especially the food media economy? We know that it’s not Black and non-white Latinx writers: The experience of restaurant critic Patricia Escárcega at the L.A. Times proved this, even after the summer of Instagram black squares and promises to “do better.”

Who’s out there really “doing better”? Who’s not counting on people’s desire to do equal or more labor in exchange for less pay or just cultural capital? Who doesn’t expect Black women and women of color to accept less?

Escárcega has been tweeting for months about her attempts to close the pay disparity between herself and the paper’s other restaurant critic, Bill Addison (who’s a great writer). Last week, she revealed that the two-page memo she received was “extremely painful to read”:

The letter says I deserve to make only two-thirds of what my co-critic is paid -- even though we have the exact same job responsibilities -- because I do not bring prestige to the paper, and because the company says our job classifications aren't the same.

“Prestige” is doing a lot of work here, and one can only assume that what Addison writes about and his reputation as a writer are prestigious because of proximity to whiteness, maleness, and their food equivalents. He has won a James Beard Award; he has had more jobs at bigger outlets in major cities, and, perhaps as a result, also has more Twitter followers (Escárcega’s numbers notably climbed as she told her story). They do the same job and cover more or less the same topics, though one can see with a brief perusal that Addison’s work is a bit more connected to fine dining and famous chefs. Escárcega has words like “undocumented,” “revolution,” “racism,” “hunger” in her headlines, but in content, they are doing the same work. 

What makes Addison’s work prestigious? The support, materially and reputation-wise, that he has been given in his career and that has resulted in accolades. Who benefits from the system as it is built? Men. White people. Everyone else, it seems, must be expected to put in a lot more hustle, a lot more labor for less, if they want a chance at prestige.

New hires at the Washington Post and New York Times food section really do seem to mark a change, but I have also noticed over the years (the 12 years that I’ve worked in digital media) that there are freelancers and there are people who have full-time jobs. The latter shuffle around. This isn’t to say that those people aren’t talented; it is to say that those doing the hiring, the gatekeepers, aren’t imaginative and readers are less challenged for it. And people who are kept as freelancers have their voices stunted because of it, because of how much (how little) they’re able to do.

“In a system that is designed to exclude certain people from benefiting from their own creativity and labor, gatekeepers decide who has access to funding, accolades, and public awareness,” wrote Jackie Summers in a recent piece for the James Beard Foundation. “It is one thing to admit meritocracy is a myth. It is another entirely to make the kind of structural change required to dismantle institutions that perpetuate race-based inequality.”

In recent history, many institutions, many publications, have found it to be enough to make admissions of guilt, to say they’re ever so sorry for all the discrimination that has resulted in material inequality and inadequate access to opportunity, to prestige for Black and non-white Latinx writers—writers who wouldn’t find it so simple to get another staff job after speaking out, who might not be able to eke out a living through self-publishing, or don’t want to try. The game is rigged, we all know. How do we un-rig it? If I knew, perhaps I wouldn’t know how much I’d light up at an email from an editor at one of those fancy publications. The only people who are allowed to stop playing, to rake in hundreds of thousands through a newsletter because their co-workers have hurt their feelings, are the ones for whom the game is set up.

Prestige is so complex and plays so dirty because we attach it not to our bodies or good looks, but to our brains. Perhaps it’s just another issue that we’re failing to solve because we’re not working collectively to do so, just shaming ourselves for our attachments to what seems prestigious because we can’t afford, financially, not to do so. Prestige won’t take its boot off our collective neck until we no longer have to worry about our basic needs. When will that time come?


On Wednesday, paid subscriber discussion threads are back: How do we kill prestige—in our hearts and minds, as well as in reality?

Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Kevin Vaughn, Buenos Aires–based writer and the man behind Matambre, an independent bilingual publication looking at food culture and politics in Argentina.

Published:
I did the Good Beer Hunting podcast!

Reading:
I’m back to My Struggle Book 2 after an interlude with Brian Dillon’s fabulous Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction, which will undoubtedly inspire and appear in Monday essays to come.

Cooking:
Italians, cover your eyes.I made pesto without any nuts in it, because I simply forgot that pesto has nuts in it. I wondered what I did wrong because the texture was off, but guess what? Tasted great! (It was basil, garlic, lemon juice, salt, nutritional yeast, and olive oil.)

I’m testing vegan pumpkin pies, or I think I’m testing vegan pumpkin pies—I know like everyone knows that the best vegan pumpkin pie is just pumpkin and silken tofu and some other stuff. But I’ll get that recipe down for ya! Pictured above is some roasted slices of apio (celeriac) that were then seared in the cast-iron as one would (or as I imagine one would) a steak made from the flesh of a cow, dusted with flaky sea salt and nice Diaspora Co. pepper and chile.