Critics predicted the death of literature for much of the twentieth century, but at the dawn of the Internet age, the mantra is becoming conventional wisdom. Listen to conservative critic Terry Teachout, crowing in the Wall Street Journal: “55 percent of Americans spend less than 30 minutes reading anything at all.” The reason, he argues, is that “the novel is an obsolete artistic technology.”
This is silly. The Internet does not publish much great literature, but neither did the talkies, television or radio, and the printed word managed to survive those threats more or less intact. True, there is no writer’s slot on Letterman or Leno anymore, and no smart/pretty/sexy young writer will ever be sought after as a dinner guest in quite the way Renata Adler or Mary McCarthy once was. The slots for book reviews in the newsweeklies are shrinking. But whatever impetus drives young people to wish to be writers (and publishers to support them) seems to be growing paradoxically healthier in our merger-frenzied, get-rich-yesterday decade.
First novels, for so long the orphans of the industry, are fashionable again. In 2000, Random House and its sister imprints in the Bertelsmann behemoth will publish a robust sixty-three. Even more amazing, given the underlying economics, is the quiet renaissance in independent literary magazines, a business that makes writing a first novel look lucrative. Staring death in the face in more ways than one, Nobel-laureate novelist and awe-inspiring procreator Saul Bellow, together with his friend Keith Botsford, recently embarked on an admirably quixotic quest to publish, with their own funds, News From the Republic of Letters, which they describe as a “tabloid for literates.” And what is a literate? The editors don’t say, but Daniel Bell, writing in the hyperliterate newsletter Correspondence, explains, “The title, as those who are literate will know, comes from ‘Nouvelles de la république des lettres,’…published by the French philosopher Pierre Bayle between 1684 and 1687.”
I knew that.
Bellow and Botsford call themselves “a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature” and believe that “ingenious technology has failed to give [readers] what they so badly need.” This turns out to consist of commentary, short stories, short novels and essays by writers unknown in the English-speaking world, forgotten literary correspondence and the occasional Bellow original. Most affecting of these so far is the master’s deadpan account of the 1994 luxury Caribbean cruise on which he almost died from food poisoning. Appropriately, the journal has no apparent print schedule and press runs of barely 2,000 copies.
The expansive new Tin House emits a different scent entirely. Edited and published by Portland-based Nation investor Win McCormack, assisted by two New York editors, this thick, handsome paperback magazine is as glossy as a literary magazine can be without actually being a glossy. Indeed, its aesthetic is supposed to be part of its appeal. Previous literary magazines, co-editor Elissa Schappell explains, strike her as “boring, elitist tracts, dense, hard to read and ugly.” Aesthetics aside, its most engaging gimmick is to publish writers you’d expect, writing on subjects you would not. For instance, No. 1 had Rick Moody on Brian Eno, Ariel Dorfman on Roman Polanski, and David Gates on the strange survivalist how-to guide Possum Living. No. 2’s highlight proved to be an extremely confusing attack by the novelist/critic Walter Kirn on his own first novel–which may or may not have been a parody of a Tom Wolfe attack on said novel.
The oddest of the new entries is undoubtedly McSweeney’s. Printed at significant expense and for no earthly reason in Iceland, it has old-fashioned titles and gray-and-white graphics that give it the look and feel of the kind of magazine that old Pierre Bayle used to publish. Deliberately obscure titles explain virtually nothing about the contents but come with helpful estimated reading times (“Amusement Park Convention Letters,” four minutes; “Fat Ladies Floated in the Sky Like Balloons,” ten minutes). Nevertheless, McSweeney’s guiding spirit (and former Might Magazine maven) Dave Eggers has done what most of us would have thought impossible in an age of postmodern knowingness and retro/pseudo sophistication. Not yet 30, he has managed to create something wonderful and original: a hybrid that is part traditional literary magazine, part running commentary on media hubris, part National Lampoon goes to lit-crit grad school, with too many other parts to mention. What’s more, to hedge its artistic technological bets, McSweeney’s also has a terrific website (www.mcsweeneys.net). Check it out for classics like “I was Alan Greenspan’s Roadie” and more than enough articles, poems, haikus, etc., about the sickly imagined private life of David Gergen to satisfy the most Gergen-starved among us.
Finally, in a brief respite from their plan for world domination, Starbucks and Time Warner are reported to have “partnered” to create a fairly decent entry in this strangely crowded sweepstakes, called Joe. Unfortunately I cannot confirm this. The manager of my corner Starbucks informs me that their copies “expired and had to be returned.” Seattle headquarters claims to have no information at all and directs me to the website, www.joemag.com. This flashes an interesting-looking magazine cover for maybe a microsecond before collapsing into a horrific Starbucks homepage. Is this part of some secret conspiracy whose code is known only to Steve Case, Gerry Levin and selected members of the WTO? Perhaps, but leave that to Bill Gates to worry about. Next time you’re on your way to Starbucks for a $6.50 latte, why not spring for one of the independently produced journals described above? My guess is they provide a bit more caffeine with a lot less froth.
News From the Republic of Letters: 120 Cushing Avenue, Boston, MA 02125; $25/4 issues. Tin House: 2601 N.W. Thurman Street, Portland, OR 97201; $19.95/year. McSweeney’s: 394A Ninth Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215; $34/year or 4 issues, whichever comes first, though subscription price appears to fluctuate depending on its editor’s mood.