What is n+1 for?
I have a piece out for the Daily Beast about Jordan Neely and why we need looser standards for involuntary commitment. It was read by very few and quickly disappeared from the front page, which is a perfect symbol for the position it advocates.
n+1, the Vampire Weekend of political journals, has published a lengthy consideration of the current state of the media. It’s good, I think, worth reading. Appearing under the byline of “The Editors,” one of the dumbest enduring affectations of media, the piece is headlined “The New New Reading Environment.” No word on the writing environment, from this group of writers. This strangely passive perspective is shared by the piece; its gently rambling, gratingly-bemused consideration of the state of the newsmedia seems to have no place for n+1 itself or its progeny. And this, I think, has always been part of n+1’s bag. Jesus said that we should be in the world but not of it, while the editors at n+1 seem to yearn to be of the media but not in it.
I think n+1’s a good journal. It’s one of a few places I can still count on to give a shit about books, in a deeper sense than sales figures. The permanent staff there appear to be about as self-aware as people in their position possibly could be, the essay in question potentially excepted. They also just consistently put out thoughtful work by a disparate group of essayists. Of course the political breadth of what they published has tightened considerably in the past decade, as has happened for pretty much every publication I can think of. But they have an eye for talent and have going back decades. Eli S. Evans’s piece “Don’t Say No” is smart without being clever, which is a blessed thing in literary journals, a soft and surprising meditation on consent that takes its time getting to its conclusion, which thankfully is not a moral. “The Face of Seung Hui Cho” by Wesley Yang is now 15 years old, and I can tell you that few essays have stayed with me quite as much since. What I like about the essay is precisely that you could see the forces within Yang that would lead to his current incarnation as a ranting obsessive; that darkness was in the essay, and on its face, and it was given power through that frank ugliness that he saw in both Cho and himself. The essay would not work without the dynamics that now make Yang unreadable to me. I’m not really unhappy that he couldn’t get published by n+1 these days, but I am sad that “The Face of Seung Hui Cho” couldn’t get published by n+1 these days. But the industry has long since expelled pieces that skate on the edge in that way.
The piece says of Substack, “Many of these writers are irritating, even malevolent.” I think if you read Yang’s essay you’ll agree with me that the n+1 of 2023 could use a little malevolence.
Anyway, I know n+1 must be a good journal, because they published me, although not, it’s true, in the more prestigious print edition. On the plus side, that piece was better than anything they put in print that year, which is a bargain I’ll take. (For the record, the second comma in the second sentence, after “country,” is errant and breaks the meaning, as I told them at the time. Without it, the point is correct - Hartford at the time was the fourth poorest city in the country with a population over 100,000. As written it suggests that Hartford is the fourth poorest city in the country, writ large, and by the way has a population over 100,000. I have stewed over that comma for nine years.)
A journal can be for many things. For example, n+1 was once a vehicle for getting sensitive-but-horny Harvard graduates some Manhattan pussy, which is a perfectly noble and time-honored reason to start a magazine. It quickly developed a reputation as a happening place to be, and sat at an exquisitely positioned perch of the upper-upper-middlebrow, never tumbling up across that thin line above it, no French theory, just enough pretensioun to flatter without overwhelming. It was a perspective perfectly suited for a guy like me, and many people like me, and that made the founders the darlings of a cool party scene, back before you had to test your coke. The history n+1 is laid out in odd and hilarious fashion in one of those ambitiously terrible Wikipedia entries that keep cropping up ever since Jimbo Wales died and a tiny cadre of cultists took over the encyclopedia. (n+1 both is and is not the Partisan Review.) Failing to understand the essential purpose of an encyclopedia entry, again a broad failing since Jimbo Wales fell down an elevator shaft, Wikipedia says
The magazine has received mixed criticism to date. Generally, n+1's detractors decry the editors' youth and perceived elitism. As the magazine is purportedly an effort to engage a generation in a struggle against the current literary landscape, such elitism seems counterintuitive to the ideals upon which the magazine was founded.
Wikipedia - the encyclopedia that’s alive! Yes, it’s true: there is, was, and always will be a conflict in this kind of journal between their egalitarian politics and their elitist tastes. But that’s, like, the whole bag, man. As for the youth, the founders of the journal are now all in their 50s or approaching them. Current head honcho Dayna Tortorici is 34. More to the point, n+1 has always had a decidedly Xennial sensibility, a conflicted attitude towards self, authenticity, and the dictates of ambition. Gessen’s whole crew there was a group of people who were old enough to watch Gen X go from being known as the radical activist generation to becoming the supposedly-passive generation, while young enough to be afflicted by (or, at least, see their friends afflicted by) spiraling student loan debts and the collapse of the job market, which did so much to define the Millennial mindset of passionate analysis and lifeless activism. (Optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will, as I’m sure many other people have put it.) In any event, they did that one thing that precocious literary things aren’t allowed to do - they aged - and as they did, they drifted away from the center of the journal, although they’re variously involved in its production still.
Since the (alright, fine) sad young literary men who started the magazine and then drifted off to mostly not write books, teach at tony universities, and be the antagonist in Emily Gould essays, it’s been taken over by younger generations who were hungry for a particular kind of credibility that seems very valuable to you when you’re young and much less as you get older. These people are, I’m guessing, impeccably educated and the beneficiaries of that status while publicly disdainful of that education, which is the default state of the modern intellectual. They appear genuinely to be sharp, with good if vague politics in exactly the way that grips the contemporary radical left - a communitarian movement that is motivated by no issues more than ones of the personal freedom and autonomy of select classes of people, leading to today’s convergence of right-wing libertarianism and lefty identity politics in the form of incoherent attitudes towards public order and policing. I think I like this crop of n+1 people, and as I said I like the journal. I also think they have that particular talent of being consistently perceptive and occasionally incredibly annoying. It’s kind of a legacy there.
Where would I start? Oh, I don’t know.
The site [Vox] was wonky-presenting, information-dense, user-friendly, and chatty — but chatty in the way people who hang out at Adams Morgan bars are chatty (that is, annoying).
Ohohoho! What a DELIGHT. You know what Adams Morgan is! I do too! We share the knowledge of Adams Morgan, its bars, and the people who hang out at them! This is fun. I’m having fun. Oh but to be safe let’s also discard with the very premise that such a reference hangs on and just tell people what we mean, in a parenthetical, because otherwise they won’t know, which obliterates any rationale for dropping in this kind of shit-eating reference in the first place. Look, guys, you’re either appealing to people who know this stuff or you aren’t. It’s up to you.
“The Editors” go on to say that Vox “has been spotted drifting onto strange backroads,” which is true and false. It’s true in that the Vox of today is not like the Vox that existed immediately after its founding. It’s false in the sense that there’s nothing really strange about what happened to Vox: it became a general interest publication like every other publication. As the essay says, it was once defined by a wonky sensibility and its bone-chillingly cringy addiction to “explainers.” Its tagline, at one point, was “Explain the News,” which is about as meaningful as a newspaper putting on top of its masthead the motto “Here is the News.” But Vox stopped being that; it had to, in order to survive. Like almost any publication that runs on ad revenue, Vox has had to generalize and broaden its scope to the point that its content is totally indistinguishable from what might run in a dozen other competitors. Long before literal demon Peter Thiel brought an AR-15 to the offices of Gawker the publication had lost almost all of its singular identity. The worlds of elite publishing and media it was born to satirize had shrunken so much, and anyway you can’t keep a big audience based on that stuff, and so eventually it became a general-interest shop, churning out endless glurge either produced by Neetzan Zimmerman or by his ghost. This is the way of all flesh in eyeball-based media right now - if you want to grow, you must let go of brand identity. That’s why MTV only broadcasts like two shows now and they’re both about a middle-aged skateboarder. I kept waiting for “The Editors” to make this observation, about the generalist mandate, but they didn’t.
I guess their brief capsule critiques of various publications are fine, but again, they leave me asking, where is n+1? What is your own position in this menagerie? I understand that no one can audit themselves. But the fact is that little literary journals like n+1, the type that’s long on press if low on readership, play a key role in the media ecosystem, one related to the question who of enjoys promotion and advancement within that ecosystem. I’ve been talking about professional media for at least 15 years, with people in professional media, and I’ve never met anyone who believes that the people who succeed are reliably the ones who are most talented - everyone knows success in the industry is all bound up with popularity and privilege and connections, although some people are more pessimistic than others and many act too jaundiced to care. Traditionally, a journal like n+1 has functioned for most of its writers and staff not as a destination but as a waypoint. And what’s really changed in the last few years, the issue that affects and afflicts everything, is that the list of places those ambitious writerly types are trying to get to via n+1 or wherever else has been winnowed down to one.
Put it this way. I was struck by the piece’s one lonely personal endorsement, of Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times. The plug for Bouie particularly in and of itself doesn’t interest me, and had it come amid others, I doubt I would have noticed it at all. What I find so odd is the desire to praise an employee of a publication whose employees have already summited the mountain. If you’re going to do this big sweeping overview of the state of contemporary media, and within it you’re going to awkwardly hand out accolades for a single writer, why make it someone who has to be among the ten most professionally secure people in the entire industry? Bouie is one of the stars of the only publication that still enjoys an enviable combination of prestige and financial security. He’s not going anywhere, and if he wants to, it will be to someplace else at the absolute top of the totem pole. Why on earth would you spend your piece’s advocacy on someone who needs it least?
I will acknowledge that this general dynamic is a constant in media; this business is forever coming up with listicles called, like, “ONES TO WATCH” and you click and the first entry is a staff writer at the New Yorker with a three-book deal at Penguin. Thanks for the tip!!! The point of such things is always to do the direct opposite of their ostensible purpose – not to lift up those who might need it in a brutal niche labor market but to wave frantically at those who can do the helping later on. “Hey, remember when I listed you in 30 Under 35-38, Taylor?” This is a favor-currying industry, and I think, frankly, that while the endorsement of Bouie was no doubt based on organic esteem, I also think that “The Editors” felt they needed to moderate their mild criticisms of the most important publication in the world. The section on the NYT is not wrong, in general, but it feels oddly desultory to me, a punch not so much pulled as designed to land in the least-vulnerable places. All of the complaints are things that you could simply copy and paste from any given day on any given media Slack channel, including at the Times itself. I don’t think “The Editors” were deliberately going easy on them, but I also think that the kind of people who work for n+1 are the type who very much want to keep the possibility of employment at the NYT alive. And that goes for anybody. The New York Times has now developed so much gravity that it warps the industry, and more and more things get pulled into its well.
The Times is, I think, a great paper. They are one of the best news-gathering services in the world, and they’re one of the few remaining that has the resources to (say) embed people in Syria for the production of a few long-but-little-read stories. Their opinion pieces are hit or miss but they have the kind of reach that they can always pull out a surprising and worthwhile missive from somebody. I also think they care deeply about getting it right; yes, they have consistent liberal Democratic biases (not left biases), particularly on cultural and social issues. But they also can be counted on to faithfully present a variety of perspectives on topics of controversy and to do so in a way that actually fairly represents those perspectives, with some painful exceptions. In general, I think they tend to hire the right people, though they’re subject to the same incentives that distort who gets to climb the ladder as anywhere else in the past decade. It’s a flawed organization that lurches around as the various factions within it battle for control, but the outcome is a tremendous amount of quality reportage and commentary. Usually.
And at the same time, the Times has become a distorting, perhaps actively-malign force in the industry. The Trump-era boom in media has died out, and only one publication still reaps its benefits – again, the publication that needed it least. I think back to the predictions made at the dawn of the internet era and I have to laugh. All of those bozo futurists were saying that none of the big players would exist anymore in five or ten or twenty years, that the affordances of digital production would tear down all of the advantages of incumbency in media. The dinosaurs would be no more. The Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin made a somewhat notorious prediction about the value of visual art in an era of photography; he thought that, in an age where an image could be mass reproduced with perfect fidelity, the value of original artwork would drop to zero. But of course, the opposite proved to be true: the mass production of visual art coincided with a vast flowering of public interest in seeing the real thing, huge lines at art museums, the reproductions simply contributing to the sense that the original was worth reproducing. Something very similar happened with those predictions about the demise of legacy media: as more and more independent shops opened up, the value of prestige only increased. The more opportunity writers had to publish anywhere, the more they jockeyed to publish at a place that everyone recognized as somewhere. The big losers were small-city newspapers that couldn’t attract national attention and hemorrhaged local support. Legacy institutions have few cards to play, in this media environment, other than legacy. And nobody’s legacy is worth more than that of the New York Times.
A lot of people will pay for Hulu or Netflix or HBO Max, but feel that paying for more than one feels like an extravagance. I think this dynamic plays a big role in media, and the Times is the beneficiary, like Netflix when other services were still desperately trying to spin up quickly enough to capture market share. Only this market is already mature. Or maybe the right analogy is to Apple, a company which is both not a monopoly and yet which has such a particular kind of dominance that its entire industry bends toward it. Everyone is talking about the collapse of the industry, while the Times putters along, stealing more talent, shamelessly hiring people who for a long while defined themselves as upstarts and outcasts and who then sheepishly talked themselves into working for the man. Who wouldn’t want a desk at that weird building? Right near the scenic Port Authority Bus Terminal! Going to the NYT is simply the most rational thing you can do, if your goal is to claw out the sort of professional security that, time has shown, Vice and Gawker can’t provide. “No one dast blame that man,” I think the line goes. I would do it, were I not a disgraced and widely-disliked middle-aged controversialist who’s too tired and medicated to get animated by anything anymore and who would never be able to get hired. You would too. But that’s the problem - “who wouldn’t say yes to Apple?” distorts an industry. And so does “who wouldn’t say yes to the New York Times?”
Ben Smith has been doing a publicity tour for his new book. I haven’t read it yet, but I have been struck by the fact that he’s operating under the pretense that his position stems from the fact that he was at the forefront of digital media as head of the recently-axed Buzzfeed News. He knows as much as anyone about digital-first publishing, is the hook. Which is true, and provides us all with something that’s always valuable, an opportunity to make fun of Jonah Perreti. But when I look at Smith in his interviews, I can’t help but think that he doesn’t act like a guy who used to work for Buzzfeed News; he acts like a guy who used to work for the New York Times. I think Smith is bright, if a little defensive, and like so many present and past NYT people he’s talented. I know a few people at the Times today and used to know more. (People lose my email address a lot, which is OK - those are the wages of my own behavior.) They’re almost entirely bright, committed people, and I wouldn’t say that they’re arrogant or boastful. Quite the opposite, usually. What they all share is an absolutely preternatural lack of self-knowledge about what the Times is, what being associated with the place does for someone’s career, and how that affects how other people in journalism and writing see you. I think it’s just too uncomfortable, really, to recognize that you play for the Globetrotters, especially if you have perspective enough to realize that you could have ended up on the Washington Generals.
Media needs more competition. I think the New Yorker remains a great publication with fantastic talent, though its sense of self-regard can be suffocating, and I’m told its financial picture is far shakier than you’d realize. The Washington Post does good work and is hanging on to its position as Brown to the NYT’s Yale. The Atlantic enjoys editorial independence from political trends that’s enviable, and their roster is very deep; they are, however, hampered by leadership, exemplified by being run by a guy whose inaccurate reporting played a key role in getting us into Iraq. The Wall Street Journal, which puts out a lot of great journalism, is for various reasons about as secure as it gets and will survive Armaggedon, though whether it should is another question. Supposedly USA Today has twice the circulation of the Times, which makes me feel the way Avatar being the biggest movie of all time makes me feel. But, good for you guys. There are publications that have a lot of history and style but not much influence in “the conversation,” like my beloved Harper’s, and there’s dozens of places with good people who have found something like a foothold and are just trying to hold on and do good work. But there’s only one place that enjoys the prestige of the New Yorker and the financial muscle of the Journal. In the long run, that isn’t healthy.
Here’s a perfect example. Jonathan Rosen’s The Best Minds is, as I said in my review, the best book on mental illness I’ve ever read, and I’ve read very many. It advances an absolutely essential case that we’re failing both mentally ill people and those around them with our romanticization and minimizing of what mental illness can do. And so I was patiently waiting for the NYT review - nothing else starts a conversation in the same way. I was therefore terribly disappointed, even a little angry, that the review was so bizarre and awful. The book is not merely a memoir of Michael Laudor’s life, but an ambitious, passionate, and incredibly patient argument about mental illness and its perception in public life. It’s a deeply political book, in its own way, and it makes an argument that could hardly be more relevant or controversial in our culture right now. But Alexandra Jacobs’s review almost totally excises the actual argumentative portion of the book. It’s profoundly odd, and because of the stature of the Times, a profound missed opportunity: we need to have this conversation, people are uncomfortable about it and try to avoid it, an NYT review could have forced it, but because of what’s left out of the review, that conversation didn’t happen. I really genuinely wonder if that decision was motivated by the editors and not Jacobs. In any event, the point is that one publication shouldn’t have that much sway, but it does.
Anyway… n+1. Here you have a publication that has become, against the odds, a legacy publication itself. Its initial sense of legitimacy mostly came from the journal’s status as a vanity project for a bunch of Harvard boys, added to the novelty of Marxist branding in the early 2000s, but you gotta sell the show somehow. Since then they’ve shuffled along nobly, I think, as well as any publication in their vein could. They have not, however, been able to shake the bifurcation of fates that has arrested any publication that has arrived with dissident pretensions in my adult lifetime. Pretty much any vaguely literary/highbrow/theoretical publication launched since the turn of the millennium has ended up in one of two places: they’ve gradually petered out, burning up whatever buzz they once had, making just enough to keep a ghost ship going or shuttering completely; or they turn into a farm league for “the big places,” which as I’ve suggested now consists of the NYT on a singular and august tier and then your Atlantics and Washington Posts and similar, and like the rest of us live in the perpetual shadow of the Times. The New Inquiry is a similar journal, if not as old, and as has happened with the founders of so many such publications, its founders and early staff have mostly gone on to success in the conventional worlds of publishing and media. Because sooner or later, you have to pay the rent. Somebody tell the people at The Drift.
I like n+1. I’m happy to live in a world where it exists. But its status as a repository for literary aspirations and tweedy Marxism is indicative of a much broader identity crisis. Marxist literary magazines combine two of the great loves of my life, the kind of interests that were handed down to me by my parents so early on that I never thought to imagine a life without them. Both are now in a strange place in the world of ideas - they’re perpetually declared dead, they live in a constant state of precarity and decline, and yet there’s never been as much interest in them as there is now, and they will never die. It’s a confused, confusing time. I think the best thing for all of us to do is to admit that we don’t really know where any of this - left politics, literature, the marriage of the two - is going.
There was a time when people thought a thousand flowers in media would bloom, and in a sense they did and are; if like me you care about reading, as reading - the new new reading environment - then this is a great time to be alive. But whatever insurgent spirit once existed that suggested that media might shake off its prestige obsession and make a journal like n+1 the place to be for an ambitious and talented writer is long dead. Everybody understands this now: you can go independent and chase money, if you’ve got the chops, or you can pursue that dream gig at the Times and make less money than you thought but earn the most valuable kind of prestige. You can then console yourself that you can leverage your role at the NYT to get a book deal, which you probably can. The book won’t sell, but then, whose does? What you can’t do, absent familial wealth or a side career that’s really your main career, is stay at boutique lit mags forever. You can’t eat prestige. Were I a Times staffer and making what I make on this newsletter, I would be in something like the top quarter of highest-earning editorial employees. Not having the prestige but making a little money is nice consolation. But of course, I would trade it away to be able to, to pick a relevant example, force a real conversation on involuntary commitment, which a Times columnist could do if they chose to. I have told impressionable writers so many times that their assumption that prestige and money in media are highly correlated is false. Now that one paper rules the landscape, it’s perhaps becoming more true.
As if to underline the strange absence of n+1 itself in the essay, they close by saying
At least there are still magazines, one thinks, only to remember the news about Bookforum and Astra, the near-closure of the Believer, and all the other increasingly precarious institutions. It is important to subscribe — but what if it’s not enough?
Indeed, there are still little magazines. One is a chunky curio with consistently terrible cover art, occasional missives from big-timers, and a lot of desperately striving young writers who must be forgiven, whatever their pretensions, because what they ultimately want is to live in and with ideas. If they’re hoping to parlay their work at n+1 to climb up the ladder, then that just makes them human beings in a world of need. I suspect that, at the heart of things, they want most to know that they don’t scribble about ideas and politics and books and the heart for nothing, that caring about these things matters. And if I have no other role in this business, let it be to say: yes, yes it does.