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American Writing Special — Little voice

Cultural and political magazines in the US are thriving, writes the <em>n+1</em> co-founding editor.

When we started n+1 eight years ago, things looked very bad and hopeless. Right now, things look better: very bad and hopeful. On every continent, in every country, there are visible groups fighting back against tyrannical power. Some groups are small, but broad effects come from tiny cores. n+1 has always been a literary magazine before it was anything else. We observe the world through sensibilities that novelists, artists and poets put into words and philosophers and critics into concepts. Yet it was two earthquakes in politics, bookending these past eight years, which most energised and defined the magazine. In that sense, it is a political journal.

The event at the start was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, or rather the phoney debate that preceded it. The Bush administration manifestly didn’t care about what anybody said at that time. Executive power had withdrawn itself from the democracy. But instead of attacking the usurpers and turning implacably against an evil administration, our class of self-anointed “public intellectuals”, with access to the media, just folded up. All their posturing as fans of Orwell and the Enlightenment had led us to think that we could have depended on them at least in this extremity. That intellectual scene was a waste.

It was necessary to try to recover the debased name of “intellectual” from these professional possessors of opinions. We wanted to use it again to name collective research into ideas that would be weird and new and uncertain. It was OK to start with literature and art. As long as you said what you meant, and what you really thought on reflection (subject to later correction), then if you spoke honestly about anything you would be striking a blow. The magazine started with just $8,000, which four of us had pooled, plus $2,000 we extracted from friends and relatives in $20 subscriptions, sold on the basis of 100 copies of a prototype issue we had xeroxed and stapled. When we sold our first official issue in 2004, the meaning of n+1 

as a title was simply that we’d try to document, or discover, one next step in every action that people said was settled, solved, or complete. One more step forward in the arts, in fiction, in government, in dance, in dating, in economics. We weren’t afraid of steps to the side, either, on the diagonal.

In September 2011, Occupy Wall Street was a reawakening, the second defining event. It showed that, if we have been working for eight years, everyone has been working for eight years – and longer – keeping alive all these pictures of a world that could be different. Working and dreaming. It was like watching the democracy rouse itself and shake off the darkness that some unusually wicked elected officials, taking inspiration from bankers on one side and terrorists on the other, had cast over our whole adulthoods. “Oh, no one will ever write so well and be so serious about politics again – that was the Thirties,” people used to say in the early days of n+1 when we wrote about a literary ideal of commitment. “Oh, no one will ever write so urgently or be so utopian in politics again – that was the Sixties,” when we talked about an ideal of liberation. All bogus, all fearfulness.

Several of us were at Zuccotti Park on the first day because we thought we were going to an ordinary protest, with the old feelings of isolation. By the time it became clear that something special was developing, almost all the editorial staff were involved in one way or another in the protests – not because of the magazine, but because we were citizens – recognising there the younger personnel from other small magazines and art collectives and scholarly groups, in New York and California and all over. The internal effect on n+1 was to start new teams for research and writing, and accelerate the movement of the youngest editors up the ladder, as women and men who had started as interns became co-senior editors and co-editors-in-chief. It seems now that there are friends everywhere.

The truth that appears to me now is how much continuity there is in small literary and intellectual magazines in America. Some decades leave the feeling that you may be the last one left. When we started, we felt lonely, and as if we were picking up obligations from giants.

The immediate predecessor to n+1, and a magazine we idolised in the Nineties, was Chicago’s the Baffler. It had perished, more or less, in a headquarters fire in 2001. It was mordant, it was militant and it was a truth-telling magazine. Specifically, its quest was devoted 

to identifying lies in advertising, the dotcom bubble and turn-of-the-century market fundamentalism – indeed, in any place where con­stituted power assumed a “hip” face and tried to seduce the young and energetic – which the authors self-consciously were. Two things the magazine was not, however, were literary and cultural. So we had something to contribute.

A much more distant ancestor was the Partisan Review, probably the greatest US journal of the 20th century. It loomed so large because it had been literary, friendly to modernism in writing and the arts, but also politically engaged without straining or being sanctimonious. It nourished a pretty all-encompassing medium of culture that made the tie of literature to politics quite natural. If you had the point of view of a militant critic, an aesthete and a radical, you could take an interest in everything, but not accept things as they were. You didn’t just suck up to novelty. Culture had purposes.

Partisan Review started communist, quickly became Trotskyist, then FDR-left-liberal and socialist, before ending up somewhat confused in the Sixties (still, it discovered Susan Sontag and James Baldwin) and ultimately spent, pointless and neoconservative. Whether you only loved the PR of 1935-41 (until the editors split over participation in the Second World War), or approved, too, of the middle period of 1941-55, or even extended your charity and warmth to the complicated but fascinating 1956-68 (which included some dark moments of hard anti-communism), you had to concede that it had a long run of making the arts and culture in the US better. Unfortunately it limped on until 2003, but when it finally expired, that left us even more karmic room, we felt, to start n+1.

The virtue of Partisan Review, in addition to its range of interests and fierce criteria of judgement, was that it inspired other magazines. It held together a solar system of orbiting positions. Dissent emerged to aspire beyond it with democratic socialism. Commentary emerged to kibbitz with it from a standpoint of Jewish-minoritarian liberal humanism. Even the Paris Review of the Fifties came about from philistine annoyance (and some impulse of literary independence) and the desire to free fine patrician writing from criticism and political thinking.

Our immediate antagonist at that time was McSweeney’s, and then its adjunct the Believer. These were recognisable right away as big contenders; but they seemed to us to embody the sense of closure, of acceptance of the existing terms, “the end of history”. It seemed that if such enterprises stood out as all the resistance our generation could muster, we were sunk.

Plurality and disorder are the key. Even when one small magazine is wrong, in its literature or its politics, another should exist – so that you can say, “Oh, this time X has got it right. 

I see the truth.” The point of small magazines isn’t to represent, always, the same doctrinaire standpoint, as partisan and officially political much bigger magazines must do. It’s to stimulate motion.

The field of US small magazines has grown in the past few years. On every side we can recognise disagreements, corrections, superiorities and inferiorities – but, above all, critical allies. 

I care about the New Inquiry, Triple Canopy and Jacobin in New York, the Point in Chicago, the Los Angeles Review of Books on the west coast. They disagree with us and correct us. The ephemeral conflicts over print and online that vexed n+1 in the earlier years – originating from blogs which thought that the 200-word squib was the only future of writing – have been superseded, and all the new journals have moved beyond a print-online divide. The Baffler has even been revived, twice.

If the fiction of generational overthrow was central to n+1’s moment of birth, the current moment seems more intergenerational, too. 

It is possible to acknowledge more fully now the inspiration, support and intellectual pressure of the continuous journals that are deeper in history or wisdom: Dissent and New Left Review, the two political magazines we always read, where each issue constituted an education, and required research, into facts and theories a twentysomething (even a thirtysomething) would not yet know.

In all kinds of ways, 2004 seems like a straitened political world. On the first page of our first issue, we published a terse editors’ statement about immediate practicalities, crimes of the moment. “Try saying that the act we call ‘war’ would more properly be termed a massacre,” we wrote of the prevailing “demented self-censorship,” “and see how far you get.” But we had backed away from a more utopian manifesto which had run in the xeroxed prototype issue, less concerned with media and public intellectuals, and dreamier about art and the people. 

Before the 2008 election n+1 heard complaints that it wasn’t “doing enough to elect Obama”. 

I loved Obama. I was happy to be a Democrat for Obama, but n+1 obliging itself to heap on yet more praise for Obama seemed like fake work. If the big voices are all saying the same thing, they don’t need the small ones. The small ones have other work.

Though the neoliberal menace hasn’t lessened, and the destroyers in finance have razed even more institutions, the prospects for left-wing cultural life seem more generous in 2012. Maybe that’s because the ethos that you should make art and thought, not to feel like an artist, but because you have something to say, has found an opening in history again. 

Mark Greif is a founding co-editor of n+1

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial