Not too many years ago, I had a friend whose wife worked for a prominently fashionable clothing company. Nearly everyone she knew was Italian and worked in the fashion industry. I occasionally hung out with this crowd, going to clubs and even at times going to parties where we cooly walked through phalanxes of flashing paparazzi to make our way in.
Now the funny thing is that back then, I worked in a corporate job (before the corporate world went khaki, thankfully). I herded around with my hip friends mostly wearing a standard issue suit and stood out as if I were a body guard instead of a fashionista.
As a testament to the quality of the group, they accepted me as I was, even though I never really fit in. One very late night, one of the girls decided that my suit wouldn’t do and she unbuttoned my shirt a bit and put my collar on the outside of my lapel. It was not until the next day that I realized how ridiculous I looked, and that was the beginning of the end of my flirtation with being hip.
This is a very long way around saying that I am not hip (if my sisters are reading this, I am sure they are laughing by now, because they know how true that statement is). I don’t look hip, and certainly what I read is not hip.
That leads to two fairly new publications that seem to me to stand in contrast to one another in terms of their hipness and so many other aspects. One is Zembla, which is on their sixth issue; the other is n+1, which is yet to publish their second issue. I’ve mentioned both here before and it’s no secret by now which of these I prefer.
When I picked up my first issue of Zembla, the “new international literary magazine,” I was excited by the prospect of finding “the most exciting book reviews” and the “fun with words” that the cover touted. Zembla, by the way, is a Nabokovian term and the name of the official site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society. There doesn’t appear to be any affinity between the ventures.
The first article I came across (in issue 4) was a piece called “Judging a Book by its Cover.” Forgetting for a second that I immediately disagree with the premise, the writing was so pretentious and materialistic that I nearly threw the magazine away.
The article equates the “dynamism” of a book with how large the text is and thus, how quickly one turns the pages; that being one argument for reading first editions and “gaining access to the text as it first appeared to the world.” To suggest that reading a modern paperback novel instead of an expensive first edition is like drinking “champagne from a disposable plastic beaker” misses entirely the point of reading. In fact, I might add, to extend the simile, that great champagne would probably taste so, no matter the medium.
Somehow in this very short article, the author manages to cover his distaste for “tinpot academics”, paperbacks, cheesy book covers and critics:
Yes, I too “carp in camera.”
“I have long borne a grudge against the critics, carping in camera at errors and inconsistencies, private irritations that have only rarely found public expression in vitriolic ink.”
Most of the magazine is visually oriented with far more graphics than text. As it turns out, when they said “fun with words”, they meant that they would splash them across the page like a child playing pick-up sticks, not in a literary sense. To wit, a supposed posthumous interview with Robert Louis Stevenson was barely readable because the text was sprawled across the page in multi-colored triangles.
The original writing (the issue contains a piece by Sylvia Plath) is not bad and there are articles on interesting topics, such as Drum magazine, and Bob Geldof, who is tellingly characterized as an “old geezer”. As I suppose would be required by a literary magazine, we are told how much the “furiously passionate and passionately furious” Geldof likes to read contemporary philosophy and history. But if we’re not impressed by his erudition, we are told - in the same sentence - about how the rock promoter counts among his friends important heads of state and tribal chiefs.
When the author of the Geldof article prefaces a statement on African colonization with “In the simplistic terms dictated by the confines of a magazine article,” I knew I was in the wrong place. In sum, Zembla is the literary version of something along the lines of a lifestyle magazine, like Wallpaper*. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In stark contrast to Zembla, stands n+1 magazine with its red cover and near absence of graphics. The title alone evokes bad memories of calculus classes and states to me that the editors of this journal are clearly looking to find readers that consider themselves smart and that point is driven home by the articles listed on the cover, such as “The Intellectual Scene” and “Against Exercise,” because we all know that smart folks don’t go to the gym.
My first foray in the initial issue, subtitled “negation” I was amused by the somewhat audacious manner in which the editors chose to declare their space in the world of cultural journals. The editorial statment makes it clear that we live, despite “superstores” full of cultural magazines, in a repressed state where pornography and restaurant reviews are our literature. “The intellectual Scene” goes on to declare in a cozy “we” that The New Republic is the “designated hater” of journals and James Wood wants “to be his own grandfather;’ McSweeney’s is considered in the past tense as a briefly significant magazine, and the the Weekly Standard is, well I’m not sure why that magazine is included in this line up.
All of this is understandable, just as the newly imprisoned convict immediately kicks ass on the biggest guy in the yard his first day, a journal has to put its feet firmly on the ground to survive in an overcrowded marketplace.
But as skeptical and slightly put-off as I started, I soon found n+1 quite a good journal. It’s articles are very well written, middling long in length - about right - and it covers topical issues in, I think, unique ways. Marco Roth’s piece “Why Literature Matters When It’s Somewhere Else” puts Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran in context of what reading means to us as individuals, but also more broadly in terms of what reading means in other cultures compared to our own, about which he points out
“Even in our free society there are Americans - lots of them - who are intimidated, who make bad choices or no choices, whose lives are a script written by others more powerful.”
It’s the mark of a skilled writer when we are deftly carried from a story about one book into a conversation about a broad and important theme.
While that was probably the best article, others stand out too. “Eggers, Teen Idol; or, The Education of Gary Baum” is a vicarious view into the world of an idolatrous young blogger in Calabasas California who manages, at the pimply age of sixteen, to tap into the literati scene in New York - at least for a while, before things get ugly. An article about Russian oil tycoons veers into a statement of how beliefs inform our perceptions of what we read.
A compellingly topical article called “Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy” relates current events to the mythological story of the Iliad. While comparing Baghdad to Troy might at first seem trite, Mark Grief, the author makes us think about the destructive resolve of the Greeks by closing with ...
“resolve is a word that has been grossly misused in recent months, and yet is most relevant… Our resolve is a public self-discovery that has yet to be made.”
I’ve previously mentioned the n+1website, which continues to engage readers between issues and I’ve also mentioned the Zembla site, which continues to engage those that prefer pictures that slide by the screen to actual content. The sites seem to be representative of their respective journals.
Because of my opinion about n+1, I was surprised when I saw at Maud’s an excerpt from the n+1 site relating the difficulties of a new journal trying to sell itself on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (where I live and where n+1’s editorial home is located) because...
Bookseller: Yes, like I told you, it’s not a hip crowd. It’s not a cutting-edge crowd. These people do not want the new edgy, cutting-edge—
n+1: We’re not—
Bookseller: —they do not want the hip hot new thing.
Both magazines seem to be true to their editorial mandate and probably entertain their respective audiences, so I imagine its just a matter of personal style.
So consider the above in praise of the sublimely un-hip; may they not be perceived as too “cutting-edge” to be successful.
Read widely, think well, and write often.