Keith Gessen, one of the editors of the Brooklyn-based magazine n+1, thought I would like it and sent me a couple of issues, Number One (from 2004) and Number Nine (from 2010). He was absolutely right, I like it very much, and if I’d happened on the first issue when it came out, back when I was still a citizen of New York and frequenting its literary bookstores (and a corporate wage-slave with money to throw around), I certainly would have bought it, and probably subscribed. It starts off with a nice short Editorial Statement (every new cultural venture needs a manifesto) which nobly states that “civilization is the dream of advance—to find the new, or take what we know from the past and say it with the care that only the living can claim” (and goes on to quote Herzen, which of course won my heart). This is followed by a regular feature, “The Intellectual Situation,” which begins exhilaratingly with an acerbic dissection of The New Republic, a magazine for which I feel a helpless and anachronistic affection, despite the dismal swamp into which it has sunk, because when I was in high school it was genuinely exciting, opposing the Vietnam War before it was fashionable to do so and publishing excellent poetry and criticism. And n+1‘s analysis is so penetrating because they feel the same sadness: “It didn’t have to be this way: if only they had allowed more positive individuality, cultivated something new, and still kept an old dignified adherence to the Great Tradition, running continuously to them (as they hoped) from the New York Intellectuals, whose ashes were in urns in the TNR vaults if they were anywhere. This was a magazine that began with Edmund Wilson!” I’ll quote their paragraph on James Wood, a critic about whom jamessal and I have had more than one discussion (jamessal respects him more unreservedly than I do, or at any rate he used to):
Poor James Wood! Now here was a talent—but an odd one, with a narrow, aesthetician’s interests and idiosyncratic tastes. He got crowned the Last Critic. The magazine’s chief writer on fiction since 1996, he became a man of whom it could be said, as Hemingway said of Mencken, “so many young men get their likes and dislikes from him.” They liked his swift, impacted style, to be sure (it was perfect for online reading), but also, perhaps, his ready assimilation to the youth culture’s mode retro. His lodestars were invariant, Coleridge and Hazlitt, Tolstoy and Flaubert—not just because they were on his school reading list, but because Wood seemed to want to be his own grandfather. In the company of other critics who wrote with such seriousness, at such length, in such old-fashioned terms, he would have been less burdened with the essentially parodic character of his enterprise. But there was no one else, or they were reviewing movies. His only way out was the hit-piece, to which Wood alone brought dignity. He came on with sword and dirk, a courtly eviscerator: to see him stab a writer’s flaws was a Roman delight. The one author he really championed and helped canonize was Sebald, whose deadpan pessimism pastiched a 19th century Gothic style no actual writer ever practiced. Yet it was instantly recognizable as a style we long for from the past, like Wood’s own—the silhouette of an intellectual world that was once rumored to exist.
Whether you agree or not, that’s superb cultural criticism, as is this one-two punch from the following page: “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think.” The takedown of Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s is equally penetrating. And there’s fiction, and reviews, and reporting (including “Paranoiastan: Khodorkovsky, the FSB, and Me,” by Masha Gessen, Keith’s sister, who now has her own magazine, about which I wrote here), and a translation of a goodly chunk of Vladimir Sorokin‘s wild novel Norma (The norm)… well, I’m very much looking forward to finishing this issue and moving on to the more recent one. And this comes from someone who only reluctantly resubscribed to the NYRB because there’s just too damn much to read.