Unpaid internships are an ugly truth of this post-recession world—the best repay bright-eyed neophytes with exhilarating professional experience, while the worst are something like indentured servitude. Publishing has recently become a stronghold of the unpaid labor market, luring the most promising college graduates to expensive cities in order to gain knowledge and affix the name of an established house or publication to their resumes. We’ve all heard the Devil Wears Prada-like horror stories beyond the usual coffee-fetching—a friend with a Masters Degree, for instance, was recently tasked with scraping paint off a particularly ugly radiator at her prestigious unpaid internship in New York. The job took days to complete.
The recent job listing posted by Dalkey Archive Press, an esteemed publisher known for its commitment to avant-garde literature, may be the worst step on the publication career path we have ever seen. What Salon has already deemed “the worst job posting ever” calls for unpaid interns—and, perhaps, two paid workers on short-term contracts—to staff an expansion of Dalkey’s London office as its “base of operations.” If that term evokes the Death Star, perhaps that is appropriate: The posting describes ideal candidates as storm troopers of sorts, preprogrammed individuals “determined to have a career in publishing and will[ing] sacrifice to make that career happen” with no families or personal obligations to speak of:
The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who… want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.)
In addition, potential interns should be prepared to lose their coveted positions in the event that he or she commits the following grave misdemeanors:
“coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way… DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.”
When the Irish Times contacted the founder of the Dalkey Archive Press, John O’Brien, to ask him about the listing, he defended it as satire in the style of Swift, Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien. As he said in in an email to the paper,
The advertisement was a modest proposal. Serious and not-serious at one and the same time. I’ve been swamped with emails (I wish they’d stop: I’ve work to do), and with job applications. I certainly have been called an “asshole” before, but not as many times within a 24-hour period.
O’Brien assured the Times that he “[takes] internships very seriously.” However, he projects a particularly potent brand of intern-hate in the next few paragraphs, disparaging that many apply with six or more previous internships on their CV which “smack of ‘we looked, we evaluated, and didn’t think the person was good enough to keep.’” According to O’Brien, the main problem with these upstarts is that they expect too much out of the experience, though they “don’t have much to offer because they don’t have the knowledge or experience to do very much.” Isn’t gaining experience and learning the entire point of an internship, and most especially of an unpaid one?
Forgive me if I do not find the stunt a laughing matter. Even if the post was crafted with satirical intention, it tastes too bitterly of harsh economic reality to be taken lightly. Because even if O’Brien was “joking” with the tone of the listing, the actual terms of employment he is suggesting are, it seems, very much real. I am an unpaid intern myself. And though, like previous unpaid Slate interns, my own experience has been very positive, I now find myself looking to apply to another such position for the summer, facing a sea of over-qualified candidates and the vague but present threat of exploitation. (Today is my last day at Slate.) The Dalkey job listing, even if it is a sardonic exercise in style, does not in fact clear away the “the sanitised language” of usual job postings—it only muddies the waters of a real problem.