All the Broke Young Literary Magazines
Flooded Highways, Disinterest in California, and Other Minor Setbacks on the n+1 West Coast Tour
"Thanks, everybody, for coming," Keith Gessen said, although he was interrupted by three women with long dark hair and knitted winter caps and shoes that clackety-clack-clacked on the tile floor while they crossed in front of the podium to take seats in the front row. At 7:15 p.m., the turnout at Elliott Bay Book Company had looked like it was going to be dismal, with three or four people sitting in chairs, but by 7:25 p.m. the crowd had grown to 20 or 30, and now that the reading was underway it was as big as 45 or 50. "This is a really nice turnout," Gessen said. And still more people kept stumbling in. One of them was a guy more or less the size of New Hampshire who, apparently deciding he couldn't fit into a seat if there were people on either side of him, pulled the seat out of the row and created a sort of island for himself.
Gessen is one of the founding editors of n+1, a "twice-yearly print journal of politics, literature, and culture" that was started a couple years ago in New York City by a bunch of guys who met at Harvard. It was the subject of a big New York Times Magazine piece a while back, but it doesn't yet have a huge presence on the West Coast. "The magazine began in a very aggressive fashion," Gessen told the crowd. "We felt literary culture had become too nicey nice." Then he went on to list the various subjects and institutions n+1 "attacked" in its first five issues: The New Republic, McSweeney's, happiness, dating ("too expensive"), cell phones, blogs ("which we came later to regret"), internet pornography ("although not pornography itself, but just that you have to look at it on the same computer you use for work, which is confusing"). "The vast majority of our contributors are still from New York, because that's where people know us," Gessen said. "That's why we hit the road."
He was wearing jeans and a sport coat and an expression of slightly eroded optimism—the road was not as kind to n+1 as they'd hoped. Gessen and executive editor Chad Harbach and managing editor Alexandra Heifetz, who sat onstage with him, had just been in San Francisco where they'd tried to throw a fundraiser that ended up losing money. "We overestimated how many people loved us in San Francisco," Gessen said.
Then Heifetz read excerpts from an essay of hers in issue six about independent bookstores, and Harbach read from a short story about blowjobs, and Gessen read from poetry by Kirill Medvedev that he'd translated from the Russian. (Gessen is also a fiction writer—his first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, comes out in April.) And then they took questions. Somehow the readings and the Q&A failed to overcome the problems inherent in literary readings, failed to conjure the same excitement that comes from just sitting down and reading n+1 yourself, and a lot of the audience left without buying stuff.
It was also probably a mistake that Gessen, Heifetz, and Harbach didn't talk up What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, the 126-page pamphlet n+1 just published that's a conversation among writers about college—specifically, what they were made to read in college that they regret reading, or conversely what books they regret not having read sooner. I read What We Should Have Known in one sitting and loved it. It's funny. It's got references you might not know (the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess) but it's unpretentious. Caleb Crain compares reading Henry James to smoking crack. Mark Greif talks about his sadness for college teachers, because some of their students "have much more power in their brains and they have youth on their side, and they pick up teachers and fall in love with them and abandon them, throw them away like bits of trash or crumpled-up paper. But this is what you have to do as a student." What We Should Have Known is only $9, and it's free if you can prove you're a college freshman; nevertheless, they sat there, unsold.
After the reading, Gessen was carrying a box out of the store and someone said, "Are you taking out the trash?" and he replied, "I'll do anything for a buck." Half an hour later, over beers at Cyclops, the n+1 editors were asked about What We Should Have Known and they said they weren't even allowed to bring it to Vancouver, BC, the next day's stop on their tour, because they didn't have the permit to import it. And they didn't know how they were going to get from Vancouver to Portland, Oregon, the day after that, what with the highway being flooded.
The idea was floated that n+1's hostility toward capitalism was having a karmic effect; capitalism was being hostile back. When someone brought up the failed fundraiser in San Francisco, Harbach told the story of an earlier fundraiser in New York City that was a smashing success attendance-wise but also ultimately a financial disaster, because a thief made off with a cash box with $3,000 in it. The upshot of that loss was that the New York media, which was in the midst of an n+1 backlash (the top editors are all white, they're all men, and so on), started writing charitable things about the journal again. Harbach added, "But I don't know if anyone's writing articles about how sad it is we lost money in San Francisco."