3 on n+1: Literary Magazine’s Editors Give Wesleyan the 411

n1On Allbritton’s top floor last night, three young women  – Carla Blumenkranz, Dayna Tortorici, and Elizabeth Gumport – gave Wesleyan students an eagerly anticipated glimpse into their lives as editors of n+1, a Brooklyn-based print (three times a year) and online outlet for political and cultural commentary founded in 2004. After a brief introduction and reading of a selection from the magazine, the editors took questions and engaged in dialogue with each other and the student attendees for over an hour. Despite extra chairs and the wide surfaces of tables shoved to the corner of the room, the event was packed enough to draw a crowd above seating capacity. Senior humanities majors, students active in progressive politics on campus, and others who I can’t put into a stereotypical box quite as quickly asked questions and heard detailed answers from the editors about n+1‘s history, ideological project, and inner workings, as well as more personal anecdotes about how and why the speakers became involved in the magazine and a recurring joke from the editors identifying their goal for n+1 as perfection “in the eyes of God”.

n+1 self-identifies online as “a print magazine of politics, literature, and culture founded in 2004 and published three times yearly.” At their session, Blumenkranz, Tortorici, and Gumport spoke of the magazine’s group of core editors and writers as a “collective” –  decentralized and minimally hierarchical – of like-minded young people, working on something like a shared passion project. The magazine’s propensity to take on problematic aspects of what they perceive as the left’s literary establishment took front and center last night, too: the brief reading from the magazine, an excerpt from n+1‘s regular, collectively written editorial The Intellectual Situation, critiqued The Atlantic and Harper’s Magazine, largely from a feminist standpoint that the three characterized as a recent development in the magazine’s writing in their interview for the Pyxis blog.

Some of the most interesting and enlightening moments, of course, were produced by more confrontational or challenging questions. One student took umbrage with the magazine’s characterization of Harper’s as a product made disproportionately by and for men (from the editorial I linked in the last paragraph: “Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacations.”), highlighting women in powerful positions at Harper’s, including its current editor-in-chief and art director. The n+1 editors defended their claim, pointing out that the pervasive influence of Rick MacArthur in the magazine’s voice and financial backing, the dominance of male content authors, and lack of substantive engagement with women’s and feminist issues as supporting their view. The editors had similar distaste for The Atlantic and its recent attempts to restructure itself for a new demographic (women) and a new medium (the Internet); refer to the editorial in question for the critique itself.

Another student challenged the editors to confront their privilege, drawing attention to the magazine’s audience and creators as disproportionately white graduates of elite schools (the Ivies and small liberal arts institutions like our very own), and asked if they felt a responsibility to speak to potential readers who didn’t fit that description. Though they collectively pointed out the perceived difficulty and importance of the question, one editor in particular made two pointed suggestions: first, that they considered n+1 fairly accessible and readable to the general public, even if that didn’t happen to be their audience; second, that their magazine might not even be a good medium for attacking the potentially problematic nature of their position in the literary world and in broader leftist movement for social justice. In illustrating the second point, she mentioned a book – The Trouble is the Banks – put out by members of n+1‘s collective which assembled the stories of the hardships of the financial crisis by selecting, with permission, more than a hundred letters written to Bank of America from a pool of about four thousand. She characterized these writers as very much unlike n+1‘s typical audience – often older, often parents, and typically still living with the deleterious consequences of not only decades-old student debt but overwhelming mortgage debt from the housing bubble and its 2007 collapse. (One of the editors, in defending their critique of left-leaning literary and commentary establishments, claimed that – this is almost a quote – one would hardly think that women and black people exist if they flipped through the pages of Harper’s. While many women were in attendance, I was one of a rather minimal set of brown or black listeners.)

All in all, I found the event, organized by Samantha Maldonado ’13, a stimulating intellectual experience and an interesting case study (from the inside) of the dynamics of an influential intellectual culture of highly educated young leftists – the editors identified themselves as peers to websites and publications like The New Inquiry and Jacobin. The final question of the night asked for advice for aspiring potential writers or editors at projects like n+1; in response, they encouraged the crowd to write with honesty, not get discouraged at rejections, and most importantly, to just send pitches to them and ditch tentative emails asking for permission to do so. Oh, and I almost forgot – they repeatedly called for the abolition of student debt (which the average Wesleyan student is leaving with $30,000 of, if you believe NYT interactive infographics), so if you’re looking to write the next Bad Education, you’ll likely find a sympathetic audience.

Assent and dissent with the analysis given here is more than welcome in the comments – especially if you think I got something wrong, have details worth adding, or are an n+1 editor and are amused or annoyed that this “review” even exists.

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