‘Highbrow Fight Club’

“In case I fail to resolve all aspects of the Meaning of Life in this essay,” began Mark Greif, 29,

“In case I fail to resolve all aspects of the Meaning of Life in this essay,” began Mark Greif, 29, seated beneath a portrait of Gandhi at scholarly Labyrinth Books on 112th Street and Broadway last month, “rest assured: There will be a Part 2.”

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

The rangy, bespectacled Mr. Greif’s cheeks flushed crimson as he launched into “The Meaning of Life, (Part 1),” his contribution to the second issue of n+1. n+1 is the tiny, self-financed biannual literary and political journal that Mr. Greif launched with Benjamin Kunkel, Marco Roth and Keith Gessen this summer, whose ambitions include-but are not limited to-“the revitalization of civilization.”

The four editors-each, in Beatles-esque fashion, epitomizing a distinct type (the jock, the dreamer, the heartthrob, the “effete intellectual”)-continue to exude, on the cusp of their 30’s, the dewy self-possession that attends a lifetime of precocity. n+1 proposes to “revive progress” by looking back to the highbrow taste-mongering and radical politics of the New York intellectuals: Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, Irving Howe and Hannah Arendt. n+1’s attempt to restore the life of the independent intellectual begins, oddly enough, with raising the self-esteem of this beleaguered clan, one often heard bemoaning its marginalization. The boys have made, among themselves, “the n+1 laugh” a name for the “kind of laughter-deep laughter-that can overthrow kingdoms,” said Mr. Gessen. “Which mostly occurs toward things written in n+1 itself.” There is clearly a sense in which they are a Socratic gathering of mutually admiring men (whose fights are sometimes resolved by 23-year-old managing editor Allison Lorentzen) giving each other courage for a brave adventure-a kind of highbrow Fight Club.

“We’re not posing as New York intellectuals,” Marco Roth, 30, told me earlier. A graduate of Dalton and Columbia, now a doctoral candidate in comp lit at Yale, Mr. Roth is a self-described “effete intellectual” whose Parisian-inflected French apparently astonished Jacques Derrida, as he reported in an essay commemorating the recently deceased thinker at nplusonemag.com (the Web site, to which I have contributed, where they post a grab bag of commentary, e-mail and, according to a short-lived policy promulgated on the site itself, “only that which sucks”). Mr. Roth’s English wife, Emily Wilson (a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, and A.N. Wilson’s daughter) was at the reading with their newborn daughter in tow. “[The New York intellectuals] are a kind of aspiration-a hope,” said Mr. Roth.

The reading, for a crowd of 60 friends and supporters (including the historian and critic Caleb Crain, Newsday assistant books editor Peter Terzian, Vanessa Mobley of Henry Holt and New Yorker –anointed fiction phenom Nell Freudenberger), turned out to be endearingly flustered, punctuated by nervous little asides-a sharp contrast to the swaggering tone of the magazine’s inaugural issue, which featured attacks on … the entire intellectual situation. (The name n+1 is an algebraic notation for an advancing series.) At St. Mark’s Bookshop, n+1 has sold 70 copies, making it the biggest-selling venue for the magazine’s tiny first print run. “For a new journal, that’s very impressive,” said store manager Michael Russo. Slowly, others have taken notice. Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World and a frequent New York Review of Books contributor, browsing n+1 on the newsstands, “was struck by its fresh, honest and extremely intelligent stance,” and signed on as a contributor.

Upstart journals are often showcases for newcomers starting their careers; n+1 is an eccentric detour for writers already launched on them. Mr. Gessen, 29, with his big, toothy grin, wild eyes and mop of dark hair, fled Soviet anti-Semitism with his family in 1981, at the age of 6. He has written for The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic Monthly, and recently signed on to write regularly about books for New York magazine, in which he has called The New York Times a paper “owned by proper German Jews, and written by Philistines,” and pronounced “the end of the twee literary sensibility-that of Dave Eggers and company.” Mr. Gessen opened the reading by talking extempore about the inspiration behind n+1, citing Dissent, The Partisan Review, some avant-garde Russian journals, but also-something much more telling-four defunct magazines of the 1990’s.

Feed, Suck, Hermenaut and Lingua Franca pioneered a deft, swift, funny way of writing about ideas-one that was mordant about and skeptical of the pieties of the Baby Boomers, big media and academia. In the mid-1990’s, these alternative voices were reaching critical mass, and New York seemed to bloom with possibility for enterprising young intellectuals. The irony is that these journals were among the first casualties of the economic meltdown that proved their skepticism right. Taken together, their failures begin to look like the verdict of the market on young intellectuals. Though they launched many writers and editors high onto the mastheads of a half-dozen leading publications, a special way of writing and thinking lost a home. The young live and work in conditions-of extortionate rents, ruinous competition and pervasive nepotism-more conducive to turning out those familiar young New York characters: résumé polishers, internship seekers, beleaguered staffers, reluctant lawyers, toilers in think tanks, foundations, academic theory mills.

And every few years, writers have wrung their hands over or blithely reaffirmed the death of the independent intellectual in books or major articles, with the present compared unfavorably to the 1950’s “Age of Criticism.” It was in the pages of the Partisan Review and its spinoffs that the New York intellectuals showed the “powerless power” that little magazines could wield.

They wrote some of the most important essays of the century, and shaped the politics and tastes of generations of writers and critics-all without exceeding a circulation of 15,000. But before they became grave pontificators on the Responsibility of Intellectuals, Partisan Review co-founder William Phillips reminds us, the New York intellectuals were “cocky kids, driven by a grandiose idea of launching a new literary movement, combining older with younger talents, and the best of the new radicalism with the innovative energy of modernism.” n+1 has the cockiness. By proposing to fill it, the magazine exposes a vacuum in our public life.

n+1 uses two institutions- McSweeney’s and The Believer on the one hand, and the culture section of The New Republic on the other-as surrogates for “the age of demented self-censorship” it proposes to smash open. (It also puts the hatchet to The Weekly Standard.) It calls The New Republic’s culture section “the best literary section in the country” before denouncing its “wholly negative” method as a “fake refinement that turns into a vulgarity baser than any other.” “It’s a very damaging mistake,” the piece avers: “the idea that sniffing out the tasteless is the same thing as taste.”

” The New Republic seems to want to find ways to catch people out saying things beyond the pale, so they might never have to be thought of again,” said Benjamin Kunkel, the pensive, fine-mannered, golden-haired n+1 editor who just delivered his first completed novel, titled Indecision-about a prep-school boy footloose in Ecuador while taking a space-age drug to combat his terminal case of indecision. (The novel was sold to Random House “for a big pile of money,” Mr. Gessen informs me.) Despite the company he keeps, he is, Mr. Gessen says, “pure goy,” a graduate of St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire.

Lee Siegel, one of the New Republic critics targeted for criticism, responded with a brief rejoinder. “I sympathize with their aspirations for the culture,” he said, “but I wish that the quality of their work was on the level of their ambition.”

n+1’s attack on McSweeney’s and The Believer proceeds by taking Mr. Eggers and his movement seriously. (The mags did not return requests for comment.) The journal admires the way Mr. Eggers used the existing media to build an alternative one and a literary community around it.

“The form of what Eggers has done is exemplary. It shows us certain possibilities,” said Mr. Greif, who is also a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.

But content-wise, the piece argues, “the innovation of the Eggersards was their creation of a regressive avant-garde”: a veneration of childhood and innocence that mirrors the sentimental popular culture, as well as an emphasis on gags that are “absurdist in the degraded sense, that is, pointless.”

“There may be some of the narcissism of minor differences at work here,” conceded Mr. Crain at the reading, noting that The Believer and n+1 share certain important virtues-namely, detachment from the “tyranny of the publicity and news cycles.”

The Believer would likely assent to n+1’s attacks on The New Republic, and vice versa. But n+1 argues that both Mr. Eggers and The New Republic would rather shut people up than engage in an honest, public contest of ideas. At the reading, Mr. Gessen said he wanted to create a magazine that would allow people to use their intelligence to the fullest to tackle challenging and risky subjects. “It used to be, in the 1950’s, that you’d write for, say, Fortune magazine for money and the Partisan Review for love. We need a new outlet that can be the magazine that lets you say what you really want to say.”

n+1 wants to say a number of things that its editors believe responsible liberal opinion won’t permit.

“Try saying that the act we call ‘war’ would more properly be termed a massacre,” the opening editorial statement suggests, “and that the state we call ‘occupation’ would more properly be termed a war; that the conspiracy theories, here and abroad, which have not yet been proved true by Seymour Hersh or the General Accounting Office are probably, nonetheless, true and see how far you get.” In “Paranoiastan,” Masha Gessen (Keith’s big sister and the former U.S. News and World Report bureau chief) endorses the theory that the Russian security service F.S.B. blew up an apartment building a few years back and blamed it on the Chechens. “Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy” uses the original Western war epic, the Iliad, to explain the nature of contemporary U.S. warfare and, by extension, our failures in Iraq. “Against Exercise” assails the sweaty public rat cages known as gyms. “Palestine, the 51st State,” a modest proposal for extending American statehood to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is an example of the “political surrealism” that Mr. Greif hopes will awaken “a numbed and straitjacketed conventional wisdom.”

“We say the thing that seems like craziness, but goes for the underlying principles most commentators can’t loosen their ties to remember. When I watch the network news, I think: “Who’s insane, them or me?” he said. Mr. Greif, at the age of 17, discovered the “excremental philosophy” of Georges Bataille at Boston’s Commonwealth School and realized that the “thing I most wanted to be when I grew up … was a French intellectual.” (He ended up pursuing this goal at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, where he’s currently a doctoral candidate in American studies.) He continued: “Until the day he’s asked to draft some legislation, a dreamer had better be reckless.”

This “recklessness” has, unsurprisingly, been received with praise and criticism. The New York Times Book Review and Salon critic Laura Miller, a supporter of the magazine, voiced a common skepticism about the bid to reclaim the legacy of the Partisan Review crowd: “I don’t really see the point of determining that you’re going try to be a reincarnation of some previous cultural moment. I don’t lend much credence to people who obsess about Paris in the 20’s, or to the idea that if we could just get to the right place with the right sort of people, everything would be epochal and romantic.”

Paul Berman, attacked in an editorial statement lamenting that “some of the best people in our intellectual class … gave their ‘critical support’ to a hubristic, suicidal adventure in Iraq,” was a good sport. “In my view, n+1 has the right spirit,” he wrote via e-mail. “The editors have their opinions, which I agree with X% of the time, and not X+1. But they are dedicated to their own liveliness more than to any particular opinion, and this is the important thing-to be alive to the moment. They don’t seem to need a cane to get up from their easy chairs. They want to escape the provincialism of American intellectual life, on which I agree with them X squared %. All in all, their magazine had better be pretty good-if not, our future is screwed.”

But the suspicion is that n+1’s freedom to aspire to lofty things is merely the prerogative of privilege-notably, gender privilege. The founding editors are all male, and out of 20 articles in the first issue, 19 were written by men.

“These guys should know from their studies at Yale that, as Harold Bloom said, every generation of young men comes along and kills the father and says they are going to start a revolution and say the things no one has ever said before,” said Elizabeth Merrick, the co-founder of the Cupcake Reading Series. Ms. Merrick was recently named New York’s “Best Feminist Literary Whistle-Blower” by The Village Voice for criticizing the established journals of opinion- The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books-for their 80 to 90 percent male (she counts them up) cast of writers. Ms. Merrick admires n+1’s writing, but “the real revolution would’ve been to have half women and half men. Another elite boys’ club-we have enough of those already.”

“How can they possibly call us chest-thumping Neanderthals?” mused Mr. Gessen. “I mean-have they looked at Marco?” Mr. Roth’s feline features and wild Jew-fro make for the kind of profile you picture caricatured on a Barnes and Noble bag: the languid eyes, the pallor, the graceful arabesques of a cigarette-bearing hand, the suggestion of innumerable allergies, the diminutive man’s proud hauteur. For Mr. Gessen, the “male-centric” problem will be solved with the next issue, which is slated to have at least three new female contributions, including “a magnificent 20,000-word essay from a six-foot-tall Turkish woman,” Elif Batuman, about Isaac Babel.

Mr. Roth concedes “there is probably an intensity to our bonding-and our fights-that being all male has helped.” He continues: “The women in our lives are successful professionals. Their attitude toward this project has been one of justified condescension. Now the magazine exists, and we’ll see what happens next.”

It’s too early to tell if n+1 can realistically expect to close the yawning gap between its improvisatory origins and its historical ambitions, or yoke together its founders’ highbrow tastes and far-left-of-center politics in a coherent way, or build (as they claim to want to) a movement of young intellectuals. Or, for that matter, if the return of the New York intellectual style-with its egotistical polemical tone and taste for the grand generalization-is really what the world wants, or needs. Despite this, n+1 is ready to take its swing.

“I kept waiting for someone to take me aside and say, ‘Write what is highest and best in you to write,'” said Mr. Greif. “In retrospect, it was an absurd thing to believe. I slowly came to the realization that if I wanted the freedom to say all that I wanted to say, I would have to do it myself.”

‘Highbrow Fight Club’