N+1 AND THE INTELLECTUAL SITUATION.

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.

Comments

  1. They liked his swift, impacted style
    Uh-oh. Despite disliking the way “impact” is used in blurbs nowadays, I think the author doesn’t really mean “impacted” here, but rather something like “hard-hitting” or “impactful” (shudder). Usually it’s teeth that are impacted.
    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.
    What is “parodic” supposed to mean here ? That Wood parodizes other people, or himself ? How would this chime with “wrote with such seriousness” ?

  2. Sebald, whose deadpan pessimism pastiched a 19th century Gothic style no actual writer ever practiced.
    It’s not possible to pastiche a style that never existed. Given so much sloppy writing in the single paragraph quoted, it might be appropriate to rename the magazine to “n-1″.

  3. Wow, Stu, really? I would never have expected you to be such a pedant.
    First of all, “impacted” clearly means something like “tightly-packed, compressed,” as in “impacted colon.”
    Second, the idea that he’s “essentially parodic” and pasticheing a style that never existed should be familiar to anyone who’s read, say, Boris Akunin. The point is that he’s not imitating a particular exemplar: he’s imitating (or emulating) a simulacrum, much like pastiche or parody imitates not reality but an abstract and distorted representation of it.

  4. (In other words, Akunin’s novels are not imitations of any particular nineteenth-century Russian writer or work–they’re imitations of something like a vague and retrospective “nineteenth-century style” that would have been unrecognizable to actual nineteenth-century readers.)

  5. Stu is just trying to live up to his Grumbly self. But I agree, he’s straining there.

  6. Oh well, if you guys are content with such writing, then there’s not much I can say. Anyway, I was expressing only my opinion about the quality of the writing in that paragraph – the opinion I still hold.
    My experience has been that people who write and think sloppily (judged by my own criteria) are unlikely to produce much conceptually that I find worthwhile (judged by my own criteria). This is merely the result of a standard cost/benefit analysis. I have reliable criteria for the books I should spend time reading, and the people I should spend time talking with.
    I rejoice at every new magazine/book/author I encounter that doesn’t meet my expectations, because I can then dismiss them without fear that I am missing something (judged by my own criteria). It would surprise me to hear that other people do not do this as well – though perhaps they would not describe it as sniffily as I do here.

  7. Kári Tulinius says:

    Something weird happened to James Wood when he crossed the Atlantic. He was on the Booker Prize committee which chose James Kelman’s brilliant, angry and experimental How Late It Was, How Late as its winner. Almost as soon as he started writing for The New Republic he turned into some kind of cartoon Englishman. Now his reviews in The New Yorker are parodies of criticism, unintentional surely, but parodies nonetheless.

  8. (jamessal respects him more unreservedly than I do, or at any rate he used to):
    Used to. I still look forward to his pieces — he writes well and has a good nose for bullshit — but I haven’t trusted him for a while. Not since I witnessed him greedily step over the dead body of Hugh Kenner as Wood rushed to lay claim what he calls “free indirect style” and what Kenner before him called “the Uncle Charles principle.” From How Fiction Works:

    The critic Hugh Kenner writes about a moment in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Uncle Charles “repaired” to the outhouse. “Repair” is a pompous verb that belongs to outmoded poetic convention. It is “bad” writing. Joyce, with his acute eye for cliché, would only use such a word knowingly. It must be, says Kenner, Uncle Charles’s word, the word he might use about himself in his fond fantasy about his own importance (“And so I repair to the outhouse”). Kenner names this the Uncle Charles principle. Mystifyingly, he calls this “something new in fiction.” Yet we know know it isn’t. The Uncle Charles principle is just an edition of free indirect style. Joyce is a master at it. “The Dead” begins like this: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” But no one is literally run of her feet. What we hear is Lily saying to herself or to a friend (with great emphasis on precisely the most inaccurate word, and with a strong accent): “Oi was lit-er-rully ron off me feet!”

    First, Kenner didn’t say that a narrator’s language had never been at all inflected by a character’s before Uncle Charles came along; he said, in Joyce’s Voices, that Joyce was the first to use this technique to such a considerable degree: “This is apparently something new in fiction, the normally neutral narrative vocabulary pervaded by a little cloud of idiom which a character might use if he were managing the narrative.” Second — and far more outrageous — the example Wood uses to bludgeon Kenner is stolen from Kenner himself, here, a mere two pages from the “mystifying” sentence! You wouldn’t have to be as stingy as Wood is to Kenner to reach the conclusion that Wood just couldn’t stand having been beaten to the punch.

  9. Another moment of disillusion came when I read a handful of the stories in Updike’s collection Licks of Love. I had been sending Wood’s review of it in the LRB to everyone on my email list, and was surprised at how little the review had to do with the stories. “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace” is especially wonderful.

  10. Funny. As a maths teacher of sort, I can feel myself wanting to protest about your changing “n+1″ to “N+1″ with shouts of “THEY’RE NOT THE SAME THING!”.

  11. Sili, I suppose you mean that N is often a variable that ranges over non-negative integers, while n ranges over all integers ?

  12. Stu, N rather denotes the set of positive integers, and is not considered a variable.

  13. Chris: N rather denotes the set of positive integers, and is not considered a variable
    Ah, I see. I am accustomed rather to ℕ for that constant, and even ratherer to ω. But there’s nothing wrong with ω+1, ya know.
    + is never an operator on variables, in any case, but on the elements of the domain of the variables.

  14. Well, N and n just aren’t the same letter in any way.
    Conventionally, though, N is used for a parameter (over the Naturals, not the integers). Usually as a big, but still fixed number. n on the other hand is a variable. So “For alnl n>N: dist|x_n-x*|<ε”.
    In chemistry (and physics) N is number of atoms/molecules/&c, while n is molar amount (n=N/N_A).

  15. I looked at their donations page and found something strange.
    http://nplusonemag.bigcartel.com/category/donations
    If you donate $50, that’s Trotsky level.
    If you donate $1000, that’s Nietzsche level.
    Why? And Balzac and Woolf are in between, at $100 and $500.
    Do they like Nietzsche better than Trotsky?

  16. If we’re getting stuck into this gentleman’s style, how did this get past the wolfhounds?
    He came on with sword and dirk, a courtly eviscerator: to see him stab a writer’s flaws was a Roman delight.
    Do ‘dirk’, ‘courtly’, and ‘Roman’ belong in the same sentence? I guess they came together at some conjunction in history, but I’m not sure which one.

  17. I suspect japery.

  18. Er, that was in response to stephen. Also, Trotsky was probably a cheap bastard. You know the saying, “The Trotskys lead the revolution and the Bronsteins pay for it.” He figured the Bronsteins would also leave the tip.

  19. Do they like Nietzsche better than Trotsky?
    Don’t you? Don’t you like him better than, better than Virginia Woolf, for God’s sake? Sheesh.

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