Monday, November 22, 2010

n+1: highbrow (and not sorry about it)

The Editors of n+1 are on a mission: to create a space for an unapologetically highbrow discussion of the problems of the contemporary world and to wage a literary struggle against intellectual laziness. Keith Gessen, Marco Roth, Benjamin Kunkel, and Mark Greif launched n+1 in 1994 in response to the commencement of the Iraq War and some of the disappointing dialogue surrounding it in the literary community.

If you spend any time searching for these guys on the internet, you’ll quickly discover that they have serious beef with a number of writers, journals, and organizations. In fact, in the first 10 pages of their very first issue, they called the New Republic, “Designated Haters,” McSweeny’s, “A Regressive Avant-Garde,” and The Weekly Standard, “PoMo NeoCons.” You can imagine (or google) the conversations that followed.

These guys are smart, serious, angry, and not afraid to stake a position on any issue - from Palestine and war to dating and pop music - and hold firmly to it. They are also well published, both by big-time publishing houses and, in what to me seems an alarming frequency, by themselves in n+1. About 20% of every issue is written by them or other of their editorial staff, a fact for which they are often criticized. They’re also criticized for being (until recently) an all white, all Ivy League educated group of 30-something New York dudes.

At first, I was tempted to post a bunch of juicy gossip about them, but the more I read, the less I really cared about the above criticisms. Sure, I’m a little annoyed that they publish so much of their own work while claiming that n+1 is a forum for a conversation on the commodification of culture. But really I’m impressed at the ambition of the journal. As a labor organizer, I’ve always been a sucker for a call-to-arms. And n+1 often reads as one. I like that they take seriously the idea that there are things worth organizing for and struggling around, like literature, like culture. I’m drawn to the fact that they call n+1 a research institute that has taken the form of a literary journal, that it treats literature as an action, a practice. I think it’s about damn time someone start defending literature and cultural criticism in a serious enough way to launch the kinds of attacks they’ve made (even if I don’t agree with all of them).

The most recent issue I read in full is the Winter 2008 (the UA library seemed to stop carrying the journal after that, but there is a lot of content available on their website), which was only four issues ago since n+1 is a twice annual publication.

The issue is parsed out as most of their issues are; beginning with a section of short pieces of cultural criticism called, “the intellectual situation,” a diary written by the editors, followed by a section of short pieces under the heading “politics,” the first of which is written by an editor, which is followed by a contributor letter, which gets responded to at length by three of the editors. On page 37, we get the first chapter of a novel by Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff, on page 77, we get a series of translated poems by Kirill Medvedev, and finally, on page 88, we get an essay by a contributor. It is followed by an essay by an Assistant Editor, another piece of fiction, and 4 book reviews (2 of which are written by editors).

I’m laying out the contents in this way both as evidence to my (still only mild) annoyance over how much of it the Editors wrote and to explain why I’m heading on from here to talk about Wesley Yang’s, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho.” And that’s because it is the only essay in the 235 page issue written by a contributor.

And as essays go, it’s pretty good. It does some things that good essays - especially good n+1 essays - do; it talks about some of the real problems that exist in the contemporary world. At its heart, the essay is about the unloveable, the abject, and its place in our beauty obsessed, perfect body/teeth/hair/skin obsessed, reality-shows-about-botox-in-a-classless-utopia obsessed world. It’s about violence; both the bloody violence of student massacres and the quiet violence inherent in the hierarchy of wealth and beauty. And it makes interesting juxtapositions that intersect these kinds of violence without making a simple cause and effect relationship between the two.

n+1 tends to publish long essays that make good use of extensive research. This essay does that. From deep fact gathering to making personal and anecdotal connections, research is one of the strong points of the piece. Though there are moments (“Cho did not think of himself as Asian, he did not think of himself ethnically at all,” for example), that I question the veracity of and evidence for and wonder how they hold up to the stated level of intellectual rigor at n+1.

The first two sections of the essay are centered around the stories of two Asian boys who become school shooters, then there is a section about a seemingly benign loser and Rutgers student who had personal beef with our narrator, which is followed by a section about a guy who gets lots of responses to his online dating profile. While the sections are held together (at times brilliantly) in their consideration of the violence of beauty and by the presence of personal narrative throughout, the transitions between them felt a bit clunky.

I often feel with essays (including my own) that collude the personal with research that the juxtaposition of the kinds of information and the kinds of voices employed is interesting, but that the meaning behind the juxtapositions is not fully uncovered or realized. And I feel that here. The author is writing about violent atrocities - premeditated massacres - and their connection to the abject while including personal narrative with sentences like, “[My friend] told me that I was ‘essentially unloveable,’” and of the “perpetrator of the largest mass murder in American history,” he writes, “He looks like me...” These sentences mean something, and I have theories about what that something is, but the essay fails to interrogate them, or really any of the personal, enough for me to know what it means by them.

n+1’s Keith Gessen told the New York Inquirer, “The point for us is we're much more focused on the idea of a story’s or essay's necessity—is it necessary, does it explain our situation, some part of our situation? If so, then we'll edit it until it's good. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how good it is.” My first thought: Yang’s essay is case in point, at least on the necessity front. My second thought: don’t they ever get anything that is both necessary and already good?

n+1, have you ever heard of rodeo queens?

1 comment:

  1. I'm a fan of N +1, uh reluctantly. It's a good journal to browse through, well thought out pieces, but I lean more towards A Public Space in the New York hip-literati lit mags. I got an extra copy of the Spring 2010 issue if you (or any other nonfictioner) wants to get a hold of it.

    Sucks the Poetry Center doesn't carry it anymore. It makes me wonder how many Nonfiction-centric journals the PC actively subscribes to!