Reading as resistance

US newspapers are closing their book review sections and the internet is killing concentration. The

In 2009, the Washington Post closed Book World, its stand-alone book review supplement. The paper still publishes reviews but among US dailies with a national reach, only the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle continue to carry a discrete section devoted to books. The demise of Book World was the symptom of a decline in newspaper reviewing in the US that had set in several years earlier. For some, internet evangelists many of them, this was cause for celebration – professional reviewing was giving way to the cult of the amateur; the critic to the blogger and to the author of the Amazon customer testimonial. 

For others, however, the tyranny of instant opinion was something to be resisted. Among them were the founders of two literary magazines, the Believer and n+1, which launched within a year of each other, in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Although these magazines have very different sensibilities (as readers will see from the pieces that follow), they nevertheless share a commitment to something important: Heidi Julavits calls it “room to roam”, to ruminate – above all, to think. 

Indeed, questions of length and space strike the editors of these journals as more urgent than the now “ephemeral” conflicts between print and online that, as Mark Greif recalls on page 43, preoccupied the editors of n+1 in its early days (although Julavits is more exercised by what the internet might be doing to readers’ ability to concentrate on long-form literary journalism than her East Coast counterpart). Both publications now happily exist in print and online.

The commitment to, as n+1’s first editorial statement put it, trying to say things “in a complex way, at some length, expressing as you do so an actual human personality” is not just a literary matter, either. It implies a politics, too – or at least an attempt to think outside the narrow tramlines of conventional wisdom.

At the end of his classic 1962 book The Other America (see page 51), Michael Harrington, who was also a product of the “little magazines” (he helped to edit Dissent), looked forward to a new mood of “social idealism” and “political creativity” that might rescue the American poor from invisibility. That mood came and went in the space of less than a decade. Today, after Occupy Wall Street, it is back and small magazines in cities across the US are helping to foment it. In this Critics special, we try to offer a flavour of a scene that hasn’t been this lively in 50 years.