Shame, Mistakes, Compromises: n+1

 

In the Autumn of 2004, after studying English literature at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, along with fellow writers and editors Keith Gessen, Chad Harbach, Benjamin Kunkel, and Marco Roth, Mark Greif launched the literary journal n + 1 in New York City. Here he explains the trials and tribulations of such a venture.

 

Let me first say, these are purely personal memories and reflections: anyone else at the magazine would recall things differently, and I’m not speaking ex cathedra.

It’s a stupid act to start a magazine.  Before n+1 was started, I tried to find out from people just how stupid it was.  My friend Keith Gessen and I admired Joshua Glenn, who had edited a journal in Boston called Hermenaut for ten years.  Glenn welcomed me into his living room in Jamaica Plain, where I sat down on his two sons’ plastic spacemen, poking out from in-between the cushions.  The sunlit parlor behind him was the children’s playroom and he and his wife seemed to have given the house over to toys instead of magazine production.  “Distribution is a joke,” he said.  “You do it as an act of faith; you’ll get no money from the newsstand.  Advertising is a joke.  If you sell ads yourself, it’ll take more time from you than the proceeds are worth.  Your subscriptions are the key.  Subscriptions have to be your financing; plus, the letters you get from subscribers will be the only thing that keeps you from quitting.”

In the midst of the 1990s tech boom, a Hermenaut backer had convinced Glenn to go big and print 10,000 copies, which his friend said he’d pay off with his computer stock; when the friend’s company promptly went bust, the magazine died, too, and Glenn spent years making up the debt.  He advised against over-expansion.

I went to see Bill Corbett, my hero from growing up in Boston, where he’s the unofficial city laureate poet.  Now in his sixties, on top of his own books published by other houses he had put out three decades of chapbooks and journals and broadsides from a brownstone in Columbus Square.  “Why do you want to do this?” Corbett said, when I nervously told him about n+1.  He had given me his new publications from yet another press he had started, called Pressed Wafer, and they were piled on the dark wood between us.  I said: “I write things that nobody will publish, and my friends do, too, and their friends too.  We have to have a place to print them.”  “Okay,” he said, “I’m glad to hear that, because that’s the only reason to do a magazine.  I hear all the time from people who want to be ‘editors,’” and he gave the word the poisonous twist it deserves.  “They think good writing will just fall into their hands.  But it’s got to start with your friends first.  Any other way, you’ll just get crap.”

 

* * *

 n1-magazine

We were shamed into starting n+1.  The magazine began as a conversation among three of us: Gessen, and me, and Ben Kunkel.  I knew Kunkel from college.  He had transferred in midway through the four years.  He came from the West, and was older, and handsome, and suddenly the best fiction writer anyone had ever heard—he delivered the stories at student readings, and it was really something to see.  I didn’t meet Gessen until my early twenties, despite the fact that we’d grown up in the same town—Newton, Massachusetts.  The three of us would gather in Ben’s apartment in New York (both Keith and I lived in Boston) and talk about the stories and the articles we were writing and then about the folly and dishonesty of the news.  Meanwhile the only things anyone would publish from us were book reviews.  Hateful book reviews!  They’re a terrible thing when you have to shoehorn everything else you want to say into them.

Kunkel would go to his shelf and find some poem, at this stage of griping, that expressed the danger of throwing away your youthful dreams, and I never knew if Keith and I got embarrassed because our host was reading to us out loud, or because we were rightly ashamed of ourselves.  It looked like we were going to bend what we had to say to what people wanted to print.  We needed to find someplace of our own to write—we talked about starting a journal for ourselves and for people in the same predicament and of course we didn’t.  I started into graduate school, thinking there could be a way out if I became a philosopher or a scholar or a teacher.  Keith took journalistic jobs, finding ways to turn very boring forms inside-out and make something of them—negotiating the Grub Street life.  Ben took an MFA, and kept writing stories, looking for a way to hide his ambitions in comic characters who would become less intelligent, less probing, and more populist than Ben was himself.

I was aware I was making a mistake—I just couldn’t decide which part of my life was most in error.  Across the street from me at Yale, meanwhile lived another student, named Marco Roth, who knew more about French literature, and the English Romantics, and philosophy in general than most people you meet.  He was, in fact, a generally romantic figure, inspired and eccentric, a maker of grand gestures, often literally, wielding a lit cigarette in his left hand while he carved a circle out of space with both arms to symbolize some grand point he was in the midst of making, which he would forget by the next morning.

Roth’s wife had won a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania and on his last night in New Haven we sat drinking beers on my front stoop.  “Sometimes—sometimes I just think of starting a magazine,” he declared, holding up his cigarette against the stars.

I admitted for the first time to anyone not Gessen, Kunkel, or myself that the three of us had been talking about doing that for a year.  I set up a meeting.  (I knew that Gessen, too, had been talking about it with his friend Chad Harbach, who was living then in Virginia—the name n+1 was something Harbach had come up with.)  Roth came to New York, and for the first time someone sat with us in Kunkel’s apartment who didn’t know that our plans for a new journal might just be idle talk.  Roth expected us to do something.  So, the plans became real.

 

* * *

 

Who had succeeded in doing what we wanted to do?  The Baffler had done it right, in Chicago, before they were done in by a fire at headquarters.  Gessen and I went through their old issues to see who we could get to write.

McSweeney’s had done it wrong.  They spoke for a generation just a bit older than ours.  Where we wanted to be serious, they clowned.  Where we wanted to spill acid, they were sentimental.  Yet they had proven it could be done, and they were truly—in fact unbelievably—successful.  I had a longstanding admiration for the Surrealists, and I saw that Eggers was their André Breton.  But what a comedown—from truth to “fun.”  I think Gessen and I were afraid that the Eggers had sucked up all the air, too, leaving nothing for anybody else.  But that didn’t mean Gessen and I were above looking for an early McSweeney’s copy, when we’d had a fight about budgeting, in the rare book shops of lower Manhattan, until a bat-eyed proprietor unlocked a glass case to let us look at a $50 copy of Dave Eggers’s issue 2, where he’d detailed his printing and shipping costs.  I read out the numbers while Gessen surreptitiously copied them down.  That’s how we checked our budget.

 

* * *

 

None of us worried about the content.  Ordinarily, I’d stress the essential intellectual issues that bothered us: a way out of the neoliberal claims that there was no history left and no political organization of society possible beyond the contemporary liberal capitalist state; the colonization of private life by medicine and spectacle for me; the collision of politics with the life of the mind for Kunkel; the shape of literary fame in a media-saturated age for Gessen; the lost possibilities for heroism and heightened experience, for Roth.  Those interests marked out a common circle of concerns.  But that’s what we talked about when we were by ourselves, drinking, relaxing, talking, emailing.  The n+1 start was really about practical planning, as I remember it—that was the new element. Nuts and bolts can’t be out of place.  I should add—to answer this question of why we had no fears for content—that we were all writers, and we wrote most of the first issue ourselves.  The second issue, too, to be truthful.  It’s always stayed with me that the publications that make a difference in the world keep a tiny core of writers and thinkers who make common cause issue after issue, and debate among themselves, and speak with harmonizing or counterpointed voices—and slowly draw the rest of the world in.

The only trouble we had with content at the beginning was how many times each person’s byline could appear in one issue.  This pushed us to make as many things as possible anonymous—or at worst initialed.

The real source of worry, as it is for all small magazines, was money.  Our belief was that we could start the thing with $10,000.  Four of us agreed to put in $2,000 each.  We would make up the shortfall by selling a prototype.  That would convince our family and friends to subscribe, and once we had their money on board we could do the first issue—and it would just have to be so good that it would keep things going indefinitely thereafter.  (That we even knew to do a prototype was the consequence of something big in the New York-orbiting literary world that year: a Lawrence Weschler prototype, widely circulated, for an expensively produced publication called Omnivore.  We suspected his pre-publication prototype cost more than our first two issues.  Weschler’s actual magazine, unable to get the necessary level of funding, never appeared.)

Then it was a question of each of us putting together the $2,000.  Mine came from a U.S.-government graduate school stipend (to repeat the Pavement lyric: Thank you, Jacob Javits).  Gessen’s came from his magazine work, Kunkel’s from the advance on the first novel he had just found a publisher for, and Marco’s from an inheritance from the untimely death of his father.  Harbach, still in Virginia, and scraping by on a stipend, didn’t come in on the first issue.

 

* * *

 

Gessen and I put the thing together, planned and executed it.  Gessen is Russian-American.  He had a network of dissidents’ and refuseniks’ offspring who had inherited their parents’ attachment to literature above all things.  He found us a perch at Ugly Duckling Presse, a one-room handmade poetry press run by his childhood friend Matvei Yankelevich, stationed temporarily in a Brooklyn factory basement.  We got permission to do our first issue there.

I, in contrast, was straight suburban-American, heir to many shelves of cookbooks, self-help volumes and home improvement manuals.  I went to the Barnes and Noble megastore to buy a book called Small Time Operator, so I could set up the company finances.  I got Starting and Running a Successful Magazine or Newsletter, so we could set up everything else.  I read passages over the phone to Gessen, to his impatience, and he promised me we could trade or barter for all things, to my skepticism.

The more I made lists, organization charts, editorial prospectuses, tables of contents, the more I saw the idea’s hopelessness.  I comforted myself with lists of the titles I meant to write.  This was the time of the run up to the second American war in Iraq, so you got used to feeling hopeless, powerless, infuriated and disgusted, angry with yourself and your country and the world.  Finally one night when sleep was impossible I turned on the TV to a Frontline documentary on Saddam Hussein’s brutal seizure of power and merciless career.  That decided it—grimly.  “If one man can seize a whole nation through treasonous plotting and rule it by terror for decades,” I thought, “then surely we can start a simple literary magazine.”

Afterwards, all I remember is activity.  I put my dissertation research aside.  In New York, I stayed with my grandmother on the Lower East Side for as long as it took to do production—months.  Gessen had already moved to the city, and sublet an apartment far uptown that looked over the Hudson River.  We had long, intellectual, subtle, then crude, brutal, and personal arguments over the proper phrasing of an idea.  My initial manifesto made it into the prototype, but only after many indignities and excisions; it was suppressed when the first issue eventually came out.  Roth joined us to fight over fonts.  The Ugly Ducklings gawked when a rich friend swept in to say she would give us $5,000 in funding—money which never came, of course, though the promise destroyed our standing with the hand-to-mouth bohemians.  Gessen smoldered in a rage for days, I forget why—no, I remember, it had to do with some words that Roth had changed when Gessen went home to sleep.  Then I blew up over something else—I don’t remember, Keith I’m sure will remember.

The chief miracle, to me, of n+1 was that Keith and I came out of it friends.  Something more than that, too, something like “business partners.”  That’s a category of friendship that I had never know and had never expected to experience.  It seemed archaic or vulgar to me, which shows you how stupid and insular my life was in grad school.  I had never built anything to that point.  I had grown up in an atmosphere of post-1970s “sensitivity” and “feelings” and truthfully that isn’t enough to sustain a friendship when things get really ugly—when, that is, you suddenly have what feel like life-or-death conflicts over concrete things, and when you insult another person grievously and vice versa, and yet you still have some goal that makes you work with your new enemy and him with you.  I remember conflicts with Gessen that made me really want to kill him, just throttle him: or think him out of existence.  And of course the feeling was mutual.  Then there was the maneuvering through proxies and allies.  I remember yelling battles and battles over taste and sensibility and behavior and the right treatment of others and the expenditure of money, and then the way a line in an article had been written, down to the use of a word.  All absurd, all necessary for the magazine.

 

* * *

 

All my life I had wanted to know what Bohemia was like, and I finally found out.  Bohemia is as Herbert Gold described it in his book: a small number of people doing something at the center, too busy and obsessed and tired to enjoy it, so that really they could be anywhere—the Mall of America or Mars—surrounded by crowds of people who do nothing really, who enjoy themselves and form romantic alliances at the fundraising parties.

The early days were smoky, at Ugly Duckling; poets still smoke, as a point of honor, though among us prose writers it’s no more common than in the general population.  The factory building was chilly and dark.  Only shortly afterwards, it was developed into luxury condominiums for the Wall Street traders whose offices you could sort of see across the East River, when you took a break in the park underneath the Manhattan Bridge.  Bohemia was the reason developers of the building invited artists in—that is, before they removed the artists and gutted the place.  The artists delivered some penny ante rents and, more importantly, they made the neighborhood fashionable in the run-up to redevelopment.

I got used to spending long hours in the building called “the Nest.”  We Xeroxed our prototype issue at Kinko’s, multiple times, because when we left the pages overnight for cutting by a skeleton crew the Kinko’s staff kept cutting right down the middle, despite our injunctions, and we needed the spreads whole to fold and staple them by hand.  I think in the end we finished just a hundred prototypes.  They’re rare now; I assume people threw them out.  I wish they were in libraries with the other issues, because the prototype had unusual content: the original manifesto, for one thing, and rarities from Kunkel and Gessen.  A few great things came from the existence of the prototype.  Allison Lorentzen had joined us as our managing editor, and she took prototypes to a magazine fair at the Housing Works bookshop, where the proceeds from sales go to AIDS charities.  Our new email account received a message from the woman who selected essays for excerpt in Harper’s magazine, about an essay called “Against Exercise” whose first half had appeared in the prototype: If the second half was as good as the first, she said, she’d run part of it in her next issue.  That was a boost.

The prototype also led to the last civilized party we ever had for n+1: our friends came and subscribed, as hoped.  We hit our goal of $10,000 in the bank.  Then number one went to our printers, in Michigan, and we sold it through independent bookstores, on consignment, and sold it out.

The proceeds meant enough money for number two.  Gessen and I did it in Allison Lorentzen’s apartment in Brooklyn, on her wheezing tiny Macintosh laptop.  It was just the three of us this time, plus our art editor, Sabine Rogers, and a designer.  No one else.  For about a month, in the dead of winter, production went on and it seemed Keith and I were entirely cut off from the world except the contributors we were bringing in by email.  Each night Allison took her bedding out to the couch in the little hallway that connected her room to her roommate’s; her hallway also contained her kitchen.  To maximize the time between night and morning Keith and I split shifts editing on the computer and napping, when strictly necessary, on the hardwood floor.  That’s how number two was completed.

Then number two sold out.  We had enough money for number three, plus a little left over.  At this stage, college students were sending in requests to come be interns; this had its comic character, because they assumed there was a place to come do an internship, and its practical problem, because Gessen encouraged them to come to headquarters—which became his living room—and he had to let them in the front door in his underwear.  Correspondents seemed to assume that we had an office, or staff, or a phone number.  We had published Elif Batuman in number two.  It was her first time in print but Gessen and I kept saying that it was such a masterpiece that as soon as the issue came out, David Remnick would call from the New Yorker and get her to write for him instead of us.  As predicted, Remnick called for her number, and Elif started writing for the New Yorker.  I was bitter about this; Keith was philosophical.  Elif didn’t abandon us, thank God.  (I still like the work she does for us better than her publications anywhere else.)

I was doing all of our subscriptions fulfillment at this time out of a coat closet and I kept our subscriber database in my personal email account.  Our circulation grew.  Harbach moved up from Virginia and got an apartment with Gessen.  I turned thirty, and while we were celebrating my birthday a phone call came that the New York Times Sunday Magazine wanted to interview us about the magazine, which I thought was a nice birthday present.

 

* * *

 

Many people have the intuition that the publicity system is rigged, including me.  We’re right.  I know that it was rigged in our case, with the Times magazine, though I’m still not sure exactly how.  Ben Kunkel’s book had come out, and so it seems most likely that the New York Times was interested in that, or that a Random House publicist had somehow gotten to them.  Kunkel and the author of the article, A.O. Scott, used the same agent, a fact Scott put into his article, though knowing Scott’s integrity and the way editors assign stories this seems unlikely to have had much to do with it—it was the fact, though, that commenters on the web glommed onto, to explain the craziness of it.  I liked to think that I had been the avenue of unfairness, though I have no proof of it: one of the editors at the magazine had also been my high school history teacher for a year when he was unemployed after college.  Anyway, many literary magazines come and go without a Times write-up, and I know our good luck was unfair.

But it was of great interest to us that we were paired with Dave Eggers’s new enterprise, The Believer.  Here we had started in part because Eggers was making a sentimentalizing joke of all our hopes and here he had started a new publication to be serious—and here he was, sentimentalizing again!

The Times Magazine piece made us a magazine, suddenly.  I went to my email account on the morning it ran and watched the subscriptions roll in.  We went from nothing to something—our subscriber base tripled within a two-week period.  We’ve been a stable magazine ever since.

 

* * *

 

As people have taken the magazine more seriously over time, and as the stability and reputation of the thing have grown, I find I notch our defeats and compromises.  There are many things to do wrong in this particular line of unpaid work, some very hard to resist.  One of them has been getting to know people who are already “writers” and “editors,” and particularly people with a name or reputation.  You do it because you’re on the lookout for new work – and because this is what it seems natural to do, to know others in the “literary world” – and also, I think, and here is the compromising part, in all the years that you dreamed of someday being “a writer” a part of the dream involved deep conversations with other writers, and maybe worst of all, just the opportunity to talk to your heroes, to write them letters about weighty matters and have them respond.  This is a terrible trap.  The more people you know, and the more people you understand as human beings, behind their work – the less honest you can be about what matters, namely, their work itself, the words and ideas that are attached to their name.  The sponsor of a bad idea is rarely a bad person.  But progress in ideas doesn’t come from knowing people, it turns out: it comes from independence of mind, from sitting in your room somewhere, removed from compromises, saying what you really believe.

The “literary world” is, really, nothing, and nowhere.  At its best, it’s an extensive volunteer support staff of secretaries, facilitators, and friends who will help to publish the writing of that small number of people, living elsewhere, who can write something of value.  At its worst, it’s a large apparatus saddled with commercial motives to preserve confusion about what’s really of value in writing.

Another of our defeats—or compromises—has been occasionally to suppress pieces written by the editors which were too offensive, too stupid, or too insulting to someone who had been encountered personally by one or another of the editors (see above).  We’ve also published some bad things, and been accused of being offensive and insulting—but I find I never much regret the bad things we’ve published; yet I do think, on a regular basis, how much I regret the things that we’ve failed to print.  For that matter, the things I regret most were those that polarized the group of editors: pieces that two editors loved, and fought for, and two or three or four others were lukewarm about or hated.  Looking back, those pieces include a story by a then-unpublished writer who went on to win the Booker Prize; a pastiche-essay that I think, published at the right time, might have named and shifted the debate about a widespread current aesthetic associated with coyness, hipsterism, and an unctuous sincerity, that still bumbles on without real criticism; and at least a couple of polemical pieces that one editor or another took as directed at himself, which had something to say to everyone.  As a rule of thumb, if an essay pushes enough people’s buttons—and if it’s not either wrong, or stupid—it simply ought to be published, and to hell with feelings.  To say this another way: if the blade is sharp enough, you ought to publish it no matter what, even if it’s coming down on your neck.  I suppose that’s the best advice I can offer to anybody starting a new magazine, and the hardest to remember in the heat of the moment.

I find I enjoy the whole thing.  I hate it still that most of my time on n+1 goes to organizing and very practical things, and that editing is only the luxury you reward yourself with for a lot of drudgery that, elsewhere, goes to paid staff.  It bothers me that I have a day job to pay bills and n+1 as labor for free: but, as Flaubert said, we are workers de luxe, nobody can pay us for what we do.  That’s the truth about art, of course: it’s possible for editors and workers at mass-market magazines to draw a salary, because their work is so trivial it could be measured in dollars.  We work for free because it’s precisely freedom that’s at issue.

 

Mark Greif is co-editor of n+1. This article originally appeared in The Raconteur (Spring 2009).