Notebook: On the Way to the Forum
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Early Bookforum covers: Winter 2000, Spring 2002, Fall 1994, inaugural issue
There’s a tension when you write about books between being outward-looking and inward-looking. With Book Post I have tried to be outward-looking—in that I wonder about the audience for books and how to grow it, how to bring books more into people’s lives, help more people feel connected to books, find in books what will nourish them. But within the world of writers and editors there is (always?) a sense of being under threat: the pressing questions among practitioners are how to support the writing life, give recognition to sophisticated experiences, acknowledge brave pioneers and communities doing challenging things, defend work likely to have a small audience. Writers look for kindred spirits, or work that will move them forward; critics look for themes that will situate criticism in intellectual history, define the discipline as making a mark. Books criticism is constantly having arguments with itself that are not, perhaps, of much interest to occasional readers, about its purpose, the state of the culture, what is dead and not dead, etc. (example). The two ways of covering books are related but sometimes divergent. I have often thought that a magazine is like a room—the reader entering it has a sense that these people have been brought together, that the magazine’s writers are in conversation with each other and with their subjects, even though the actual social life of making magazines is pretty atomized. Who feels welcome in your room? Who is drawn to come in?
When Bookforum, the book-reviewing supplement to the regnant art magazine Artforum, was peremptorily shut down this week I realized that I had a strong feeling for the life inside that room, and there wasn’t another place really like it. One of the features of the room was that it was very hospitable to writers. Writerly impulses—arcane, iconoclastic, prickly, exalted—were welcomed and indulged. The capacious website LitHub is also oriented to an extent around the writing life, but in Bookforum a book could count on informed, focused, demanding attention, whereas Lithub by design sweeps in many kinds of reading and readers. There was a sense of play, of sometimes gritty glamour, but also a jolt of intellectual rigor. One felt that Bookforum’s audience was to an extent also its subject.
The outpouring of grief on literary Twitter for the demise of Bookforum was correspondingly emphatic. The formidable critic Jennifer Wilson wrote, “This is such bullshit. Bookforum understood that criticism could be fun and bold and responsible all at the same time.” Wall Street Journal critic Sam Sacks wrote, “I'm naively dumbfounded by this. Bookforum seemed to be completely successful at being exactly what it set out to be.” New Yorker (and former New York Times) book critic Parul Sehgal: “Devastating. Bookforum was a perfect magazine + my first intellectual home. [Editor] Michael Miller taught me how to write. Terrible news for all of us who care about books + criticism.” Former New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere Jones: “It’s no mistake that many writers wrote for this and not other places let’s not let this be the end of the larger project that Bookforum understood so completely RIP.” Poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum: “Literature is always disappearing from the limelight. I will miss this vital forum, where I felt at home.” Novelist Brandon Taylor, succinctly, over the announcement, “ABSOLUTELY NOT.” Its former book critic David Ulin, in a “(hopefully premature) obituary” in the Los Angeles Times, wrote that Bookforum was like “a fabulous party where the guests are not just brilliant but also personable … It encouraged me to read ambitiously.” There were calls for a billionaire to step up and save the day.
How did this particular Bookforum flavor come about? I realized that I didn’t really know, it had appeared at one point, like Brigadoon, and I had taken its existence for granted. Since it had not had to stoop to brand-conjuring “launch,” it had never seemed obliged to explain itself. In 2001 The Village Voice called it “the best kept secret of the bunch,” among a crop of then-newish literary magazines that included McSweeney’s, Open City, Fence, and Tin House.
In fact, Bookforum was created (and at first edited) by Artforum editor Jack Bankowsky in 1996, as a biannual books supplement tucked inside one of the art world’s central chroniclers. In 1998 Bookforum reportedly had a circulation of 40,000, 30,000 of whom were Artforum subscribers; by 2022 circulation was pegged at 60,000. Bookforum and Artforum shared office space, a top notch design staff, and, often, editors. Stacy D’Erasmo, formerly of the (Village) Voice Literary Supplement (VLS) was brought in pretty soon out of the gate to create a fiction section alongside a slate of hefty art-book reviewers like Arthur Danto, Linda Nochlin, and Peter Schjedahl; that role was assumed in 2000 by Albert Mobilio, also formerly of the VLS; Mobilio stayed on until 2012, and a bit longer as a consulting editor. By then Michael Miller, was also trained up at the Voice, had come on as editor.
Bookforum and the VLS had more than editors in common. Both of their sponsoring publications were substantially profitable the old-fashioned way and could shelter a less-profitable offspring. The Voice had a thriving newsstand and classified advertising income: generations of us remember showing up at Astor Place at the crack of dawn to grab the latest Voice for its coveted real estate listings, then the only way to find an apartment in New York City. It was also the only way to find out who was playing in the clubs, to locate a romantic partner with one’s fetish of choice, not to mention follow the roster of celebrity downtown observers whom one might also bump into in those very clubs, galleries, lofts. As Albert Mobilio pointed out to me, The New Yorker back then did not cover art and performance outside the establishment. The Voice was the map to a whole swathe of experience that made New York New York.
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Artforum, for its part, as one of a small number of compulsory reviewers of new art, raked in a bundle on expensive gallery advertising. “The art world is like high school with money,” the Voice noted in 2005. Artforum served it both rigorous criticism and “the flings and bling of an insular group of art worlders who regularly mingle with and applaud one another.” Jerry Saltz wrote in Vulture in 2017 that Artforum’s recently discredited publisher Knight Landesman “had managed to sell as a luxury commodity” the “forbidding, serious, semi-academic, long-form piety and criticism” it published “to gallery advertisers who made the magazine a painfully exclusionary inside-baseball art-world Vogue.” Indeed a certain uneasiness about the uncomfortable proximity of wealthy patrons and transgressive work may have been part of the impetus behind starting Bookforum: a demonstration of intellectual seriousness, to balance the frivolous plutocratic social reports and uncomfortable mogul clientele.
Another impetus may have been to offer a riposte to the clotted, jargon-packed language that was becoming the lingua franca of art criticism, a perhaps-necessary gloss on high-concept work seeking well-heeled admirers. A “grim vortex of all the impenetrable hyperacademicism,” “a subcontinent of hermeticism,” Jerry Saltz called the prose of Artforum and its ilk. “The magazine’s writers tut-tutted galleries as compromised by the market, the magazine they wrote for was utterly allied with and 100 percent funded by galleries and hypercapitalism. That’s straight-up privileged insularity and boutique radicalism.” Little sibling Bookforum, though fed by this same tainted well, was released at least to cover style with style: Lynn Tillman writing on Don DeLillo, Hilton Als on James Salter, Mary Gaitskill on “the lesbian image.” It also featured, like its elder cousins Bomb and the lavishly resuscitated Vanity Fair, fulsome interviews with distinguished figures (in early issues: Nadine Gordimer, Lorrie Moore and Rick Moody, Salman Rushdie, William Vollman and Dennis Cooper).
The art world’s affection for critical theory however would have made Bookforum’s audience and staff more amenable to academic writing than outlets dependent on a broader readership. Covering the university presses was also a specialty at the VLS, in part via the Voice’s anti-establishment penchant for critique. Plus the salience of performance and situational experience in the contemporary art being covered by Artforum dovetailed with the Voice’s imbeddedness in the downtown performance scene. Gary Indiana, who became a Bookforum regular, had been a Voice art critic; Lucy Sante had written for the Voice about music; J. Hoberman, film; Guy Trebay, the city; Colson Whitehead, TV. D’Erasmo, Mobilio, and Miller lifted the Voice’s chorale of lower Manhattan aesthetics—pop and avant-garde culture, punk, poetry, small presses, revolution, spoken word—and set it down in a room full of people looking for authenticity in contemporary art.
The Voice struggled to find a revenue model after the death of subscriptions and newsstand sales and classified ads and eventually let go of the VLS as it cycled through reinventions. Gallery advertising remained strong however so the relatively modest sums needed to produce a books supplement alongside a lavishly produced art magazine were apparently not hard to scrape up, though Bookforum editors say they were never sure how long the train would keep running. Even modest bids at Bookforum to expand audience were squarely intellectual: when Artforum editor Eric Banks was made editor of Bookforum in 2003, with the charge of increasing the magazine’s visibility, he was called on to “reemphasize the coverage of scholarly and art books.” Contributing editor Arthur Danto considered Banks’s readiness to cover Gadamer and Foucault a sign of his eye for the job. In 2008 the publishers brought on Chris Lehmann from Congressional Quarterly to add current affairs to the mix, stirring “fears that there would be less room in Bookforum for books.” Banks promised “meaty” essays on culture alongside the nonfiction. Bookforum jumped on the aggregator bandwagon by acquiring a blog called “Political Theory Daily,” which became “Omnivore,” provoking a trend-siting from none other than David Brooks.
As books coverage fell away everywhere else, life at Bookforum seemed relatively serene, until Penske Media, acquirer of “entertainment properties” like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Vibe, Women’s Wear Daily, and Spy bought Artforum earlier this month, claiming as they wrapped up the trifecta of America’s three major art magazines (they bought Art In America and ARTnews in 2018) that Artforum would somehow remain “editorially independent.” They shut down Bookforum a week later, disappointing those who hoped that Penske’s owner, racecar heir Jay Penske, himself a bibliophile who collects rare books and has even opened an LA bookstore, might not shrink from the modest cost of keeping this beloved offspring’s heart beating.
To me there is something delicious in the fact that Bookforum’s particular way of not being commercial arose from precisely the commercial impulses of a magazine business that did actually live off its audience. Bookforum’s source of funds may have been compromising, but it was compromising in a way that grew Bookforum’s special nature like a flower. If only we could find other points at the intersection of audience, aspiration, medium, and message, in which to generate an ecology of ideas as bountiful as Bookforum’s. It is a rare blessing for a culture to have an opportunity to talk with itself.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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