It’s an n+1-derful life

Perhaps the surest sign of success for a small magazine is when its tote bag is a token accessory among trendy college students. But then again, college students often look more disgruntled than fashionable. So perhaps a magazine proves its clout when it is the subject of numerous bloggers’ harsh censure. Bloggers, however, should probably not be the ultimate arbiters of influence. Maybe a magazine has succeeded, then, when it is engaged in a notorious clash of literary theories with the Eggers Empire (McSweeney’s and The Believer) and The New Republic.

By any of these standards, the magazine n+1 is a triumph. n+1 is a physically hefty print journal with political, social and literary criticism as well as art, book reviews, poetry and short fiction. It is based in New York City and is published twice yearly, although its Web site is updated on a weekly basis. This past Tuesday, Labyrinth Books held a reading by editors Keith Gessen, Mark Greif GRD ’04 and Marco Roth of essays from “The Intellectual Situation” section of n+1’s fifth issue, which critiques almost every aspect of the current cultural climate.

In interviews before the reading, intern Lexy Benaim ’06 and Roth explained the mission of n+1, and their respective ties to Yale.

“n+1 has new things to contribute to intellectual discourse,” Benaim said. “It has original insight and is not afraid to grapple with big questions.”

“There is a style of writing and thinking that has inspired all of us,” said Roth, who worked on his dissertation at Yale. “In college there was an emphasis on studying people, but if you wanted to emulate them you were laughed at, told to study them in a disinterested way. We are interested in a revival of theory as it relates to everyday life.”

Although Roth explained at the reading that “judging a magazine by its editors is like judging a book by its cover,” the three men, all outfitted in the traditional tousled garb of an Ivy-League intellectual, exuded both scholarly confidence and a mischievous, playful camaraderie.

For example, just as Gessen described the “working masturbator” viewing a cum shot on his cubicle desktop, a scene from the n+1 essay “The Porn Machine,” a cell phone rang to the tune of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Greif later declared that, “At Connecticut College I refused to sing the Luddite song,” also printed in issue five, “but because Keith did the masturbation piece, I mean read the masturbation piece, I’ll sing.”

When asked about n+1’s past conflicts with bloggers and certain established publications — what Gessen joked were “the ‘n+1’ Passover questions” — the editors began to rehash what was clearly a tired debate.

“Don’t talk about The Blog War!” Roth exclaimed.

“It’s tearing n+1 apart,” Greif said.

In its most recent issue, the editors criticized literature blogs for their emphasis on gossip rather than considered criticism. Bloggers responded, sparking a vitriolic — and personal — debate.

“If you don’t say anything, you’re arrogant,” Roth said. “But if you respond, suddenly you’re on the defensive. There is no principle of charity in their criticism at all.”

Greif said he recently had a nightmare where a friend called to tell him that someone had posted a photo of him on the TMZ web site.

“It’s like the La Brea tar pit of psychological recrimination,” Greif lamented. “We should have stayed out of it.”

By contrast, n+1’s debates with other contemporary publications were deliberately sought out. Part of n+1’s mission, Greif said, was to see what could be accomplished with “impersonal disagreement” in the world of small magazines. Journalist James Wood at The New Republic wrote a lengthy response to “n+1”’s criticisms, fostering the type of discourse that the editors saw as productive. McSweeney’s and The Believer, on the other hand, never pushed back publicly and responded only in private e-mails, they said, missing the motive behind the critique.

n+1 has been criticized for having a voice marked by aloof, masculine snobbery. But Roth insisted in an interview that an n+1 reader can be “pretty much anybody who reads and is interested in the history of the novel.” When an audience member volunteered that his female friend thought that the “we” speaker in “The Intellectual Situation” was beginning to sound less exclusively male, Greif was elated.

“Yes!” he cried out. “Victory!”

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