Notebook: Making & Unmaking Magazines, Part II

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Read Part One of this post here!
Among magazines that are still in one piece, a few announced new leadership in the last few weeks. In January Mary Kay Wilmers retired and left The London Review of Books (which seems to have successfully preserved its print identity alongside an active digital incarnation) in the hands of proteges, provoking some high-profile reminiscence of the particular character of editing she practiced, again demonstrating how magazines are drawn up in mysterious ways by living human character. (Hillary Mantel: “These watchers in the psyche are more important than almost anyone else in a writer’s life because you depend on them not only for their judgment but also for the confidence they impart. They are shadowy because they hold the secret of your potential”). The London Review incidentally was founded under the wings of the New York Review in 1979, at the time edited by Karl Miller with Wilmers, and went its own way a year later. (Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, which we mentioned in our last post, is filled with family trees like this, showing how much torch-passing goes on behind the scenes in magazine-making, redounding to the ways writing finds the world.)

The New Republic announced in late March that it is hiring the political writer and editor Michael Tomasky to be its new editor and bringing the magazine’s center of gravity back to Washington, DC, after a six-year sojourn in New York. There was some grousing apparently among the current staff, a faint echo of the howl of dissent that heralded its journey here under the auspices of a previous would-be patron. I can’t speak to the office politics here, and I’ve read many excellent New Republic pieces in recent years, but I do remember the old DC New Republic with affection. Some observers say that digital politics-watchers Axios and Politico so dominate insider political coverage there is no room for a dinosaur like The New Republic in DC now, but back in the day (it seems to me) the magazine worked to construct a kind of agora of policymaking and the arts and scholarship that would seem welcome now. The place was a veritable Hogwarts of journalists. I remember getting scooped into a meeting at which visiting St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak invited exiled poet Joseph Brodsky to return to his homeland, over sandwiches at a big fluorescent-lit conference table nudged around by the office chairs of bigwigs and junior staffers. What it means for a magazine (or anything) to “be” someplace now is of course an open question, but perhaps throwing young aspiring writers who are not necessarily policy types into close quarters with people who make news is not a bad idea.

Speaking of being someplace, the literary magazine Paris Review, which has been in New York since 1973, announced that its newish, youngish editor Emily Nemans was leaving to pursue her own work, opening that storied magazine up for another consideration of its role in the new world. Paris Review virtually invented a particularly American kind of literary magazine, purposefully drawing the form away from the criticism-centric model that had previously prevailed (and still does in other countries), to create a magazine devoted to writing and writers, to the practice of writing rather than the analysis of it. To look today at, say, Catapult, which sponsors workshops and mentorships alongside publishing books, and its neighboring organization, the writing website Literary Hub, and to consider, as I mentioned in Part One, the cultivation of readers-as-writers by the university writing departments, one can see how the writing culture we live in now has evolved downstream of this innovation.

Paris Review had recently passed through the hands of two high-profile youngish men, one mostly from literature (Lorin Stein, who remained a consultant at book publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux throughout his tenure) and one mostly from reportage (Philip Gourevich, a New Yorker staff writer before and after his Paris Review tenure). These two knitted the magazine more emphatically into the mainstream writing marketplace. It seems to me (could be wrong) that if you are an established writer with a short story that is not being published in one of the glossy magazines, Paris Review is where your agent takes it. Nemens will be replaced by another industry veteran, Emily Stokes, formerly of The New Yorker, T (the Times’ “style” magazine), Harper’s, and the Financial Times.

In spite of a thriving web presence and this prominent place in the commercial publishing ecology, Paris Review has forever been supported by philanthropy, marshaled by the high-powered board that from its gestative moment was the ardent project of founder George Plimpton. My former boss, Bob Silvers, who arrived in Paris as an unknown drifter and succeeded Plimpton as Paris Review’s editor (thence to go on to, yes, Harper’s, and after that to found the NYRB), remembered how Plimpton always managed to find “a record producer or an heiress” from his wide social circle to take the thing on when collapse loomed. As with the unpaid internships and low-paid entry level jobs mentioned previously, culture, as we’ve set it up, relies on the kindness of (rich) strangers.

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Paris Review may not be in the Paris of the present, but it is in the Paris of the past, in this way and others. It arose from the ferment of Paris after the war, where many young Americans with vague literary ambitions went to find their way. As one of the Paris Review band, William Becker, recalled in a colorful group reminiscence (a signature Plimpton form):
We were living like kings. In Paris, on the black market in the mid-1950s, you could exchange a dollar for six hundred francs. My hotel room cost three hundred francs. For a hundred and eighty francs, you could get a steak pommes frites with a bottle of Beaujolais. Paris was filled with GIs who were living on their seventy-five-dollars-a-month GI Bill money.
(The magazine was actually founded as cover for the writer Peter Matthiessen’s day job of reporting on this crowd, and their dalliances with the local leftist intelligentsia, to the young CIA, but it immediately outgrew this tainted origin, encouraged by Matthiessen.)

Beneficiaries of the GI Bill show up again and again in Menand’s book, as the future titans of American civilization are given time and money to knock around for a while while finding their path. I started Book Post noting that the GI Bill brought my own immigrant-child father into close quarters with my future boss Bob at the University of Chicago after the war, a moment that Bob later credited with informing the sense of broad culture that seeded the creation of the Review.

As an engine of mid-century American growth of all kinds, the GI Bill, along with its prewar sister the New Deal, has more and more been fingered for leveraging contemporary racial inequality, channeling mid-century opportunity to White people by design. Menand describes the extension of the benefits of the postwar Parisian scene to Richard Wright and James Baldwin, but they are a rare pair in a flood of startlingly unencumbered White guys. The federally funded summer camp that was postwar Paris, and similar scenes in Greenwich Village and San Francisco and across the land, juiced by the social networking opportunities of federally funded access to elite universities, brought nobodies like Bob within two degrees of separation of, on the one hand, heirs and princes, and, on the other, types like Hemingway and E. M. Forster, a confluence that the natural flow of commerce can take no credit for.

The knock-on effects of the opportunities that nourished magazine culture, and its benefits to writing and to readers, are still with us, then. The recognitions of racial inequity lay bare the financial underpinnings of moments we sometimes romantically think of as cultural kismet. I keep wondering, within the cutthroat mass economies of Amazon and click-based advertising and consolidated corporate publishing, where such nourishment will come from for the road ahead. So much of what we think of as immutably American was, at its birth, fragile and provisional. Are “magazines,” where the reader signs on to and subsidizes an editorial vision and expects a growing palette of ideas, going away? What would that mean? Business editor James Ledbetter recently announced that the financial magazine Worth is restoring its print edition, after a pandemic-driven hiatus, because advertisers like the finish of print and subjects thrill to be featured on a cover. But that’s only good news for advertisers and subjects if a contract between editors and readers supports it. For now the power brokers of commercial publishing are reaching for racial inclusion. That’s good. But a well-intentioned oligarchy is still an oligarchy.

In their different ways, the stories of Harper’s, the NYRB, Paris Review, teach a counter-commercial message: making things that last is more than this or that editorial choice, this or that hire, this or that buyout. It involves creating conditions that allow people to accrue cultural power according to their own lights, to build their own institutions following a creative or an intellectual imperative. A great magazine both knows the tastes of the audience, and imagines them, gives the audience something they don’t know they want and gives the culture something it doesn’t know it needs. As we pick ourselves up again from the disaster that has engulfed us, we should think about what has made that happen before, and how to make it happen again, and equally this time.

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