Symposium 2 : Deprofessionalisation

The Little Magazine, Between Journalism and Academia

Though my intention is to talk about the function of the little magazine at the present time, I should begin by discussing a bit the little magazine where I am an editor, and what I perceive its particular role to be…

The Partisan Review, April/May 1935.

The Little Magazine, Between Journalism and Academia

Nikil Saval

Though my intention is to talk about the function of the little magazine at the present time, I should begin by discussing a bit the little magazine where I am an editor, and what I perceive its particular role to be. n+1 is a journal of literature, culture and politics. It was founded in 2004 in New York City, where it is still published, initially at an irregular rate of twice a year, but since 2012 at a regular rate of three times a year. (In that regard we’ve professionalised somewhat, but we remain stubbornly under-specialised and unprofessional in many others.) Among the impulses for founding the journal was the fact that the journal of ideas and culture in the US seemed to have, for the moment, expired. The Partisan Review,perhaps the most outstanding example of just such a magazine, where leftwing politics sidled up unembarrassedly next to modernist poetry, published its last issue in 2004, after 70 years of existence. Other journals still in existence, such as The Paris Review, were literary in a narrow sense, consisting only of poetry and fiction; or, like The New York Review of Books , they had become, to the eyes of many, excessively stuffy, hidebound and institutional, relying every issue on the same sonorous, sententious cadre of contributors. Even though any kind of day of intellectual life consisted of a variety of experiences, cultural and political, there seemed to be no desire on the part of editors to represent these in a single space.

Moreover there was a problem of genre. By 2004 it seemed a hardening had taken place around the forms of writing that could be done in magazines. Memoir, the short story, investigative reporting, the book review, the political essay: impassable boundaries had become established around these genres, and it seemed inadmissible to transgress them. Writers became identified with their genre of choice; people became ‘memoirists’ or ‘reporters’ rather than writers. The example of memoir is a telling case: in the early 2000s, dozens, maybe hundreds of memoirs were published in the United States, so many of which told of singular lives, steeped in bad childhoods and miserable marriages and battles with substance abuse or depression. Though many of these had therapeutic value, and a few literary value, few of them assumed that there was any social relationship between the memoirist and the society at large. A person’s abasement was always extraordinary. It was a formula designed to exclude politics or reportage or history or even fiction from the account of a life, even though all of these could naturally fit the genre. n+1 was founded in part to make room for generically unstable writing of this kind. It’s worth pointing out that the editors of the magazine had written many such essays themselves, and had them rejected by established magazines. So in a sense, n+1 was founded to publish the essays of the founding editors themselves. They then discovered that many other writers were being excluded from mainstream publishing in similar ways.

There was an obvious correlate—perhaps even more obvious correlate—in academic writing. In the early 2000s some versions of academic writing, particularly those associated with practitioners of Critical Theory or deconstruction, had become notorious for their obscurantism and impenetrability. This was in fact less common than a much blander, pseudo-professional, slack academic prose, whose superficial clarity belied an essentially mercenary if also unavoidable purpose: the desire of the writer to publish as much as possible, in order to secure academic tenure. More than obscurantism a kind of standardisation of forms of writing and modes of address had taken hold in academia, which limited not just the kind of writing that could be done but the sorts of subjects that ought to be treated. Much public attention to obscurantist prose by ‘theorists’ occluded the fact that a desiccated, anti-flamboyant mode of academic writing was fast becoming the norm. To academics who wished to escape this dispiriting turn of events — and I should point out now that initially there were actually not very many, so complete and dominating was the hold of the professional ideal over academic life in the early 2000s — n+1 offered a way out. Our idea was not, as many other organs did, to provide a forum for specialist academics to as it were come down from the mountaintop and explain, in folksy, condescending prose, the public meaning of their discipline. It was rather the opportunity to do academic work, perhaps even outside their field of expertise, but for no reward in the profession — in other words, to offer the potentially liberating opportunity to write seriously, indeed for a nonspecialist audience, but in a way that assumed the highest intelligence possible, if not necessary access to the codewords and shibboleths of specialised academic prose.

Finally the magazine had a political purpose, and this was simply socialist and anti-imperialist. A shocking number of American intellectuals had lent their support to the American adventure in Iraq, and the magazine took a clear and continued stance against the manner of thinking (or thoughtlessness) that led to endorsing that horrific invasion. There was a clear connection, it seemed, between the professional obligations and confinements of the commenting classes and even some seasoned reporters, and the drive towards war. It seemed a different, non- or anti-institutional voice such as a small magazine could articulate the reasons for an anti-imperialist stance more clearly than the existing organs of journalism and opinion.

The magazine was in other words offering an imaginative, literary solution to various impasses and failures that were not only literary but political. In other words the magazine was performing in one sense a time-honoured function. ‘When intellectuals can think of doing nothing else, they found a magazine,’ Irving Howe, the founder of the venerable socialist magazine Dissent, once said. This was the spirit in which n+1 was founded as well.

But—with apologies to Karl Marx—though literary journals make their own history, they do not do so in a manner of their choosing. In 2004 processes were at work that made the project of starting a magazine at once opportune and foolhardy. And these processes have to do with the way the ideals of professionalism—and accordingly, the value of deprofessionalisation—were being reshaped by material and ideological changes in the cultures of publishing, journalism and academia.

Print journalism was one of the more obvious sufferers of the changes of the early 2000s. The internet, which then appeared to be a stinging jellyfish rather than the world-swallowing leviathan we know it to be today, had already made a serious dent in newspaper and magazine advertising revenues. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both shaved inches off their broadsheet size; the New Yorker began to slim alarmingly, some weeks showing up in the mailbox the size of a sheet of lasagna noodles. What began to appear, as layoffs of newspaper employees became more and more common, particularly at regional dailies, was the recovery of the idea of the specialised beat reporter, whose job was increasingly in danger. Professional ideals that had long been taken for granted, and subject in certain instances to regular critique—for example, the idea that a crime reporter might become captive to her police sources, or a finance reporter might become seduced by his Wall Street sources—suddenly became reanimated.

From another perspective the internet was failing to create opportunities for publishing that it had long promised to do. In the mid- to late-1990s, as the first dot-com bubble swelled, the first wave of internet-only magazines appeared, and, flush with venture capital, began to pay writers at rates competitive with actual print magazines. When the bubble burst, investment dried up, and these promising websites went the way of many tech companies of that era. In their wake, a new ideology arose: the notion that ‘content’ (for this is suddenly what writing came to be called) ought to be given away for free. As newspapers declined blogs seriously came to be entertained as partial replacements for their function; ‘citizen journalists’ became possible alternatives to professional journalists.

Americans in particular will remember this period as one beset by what was being called ‘the reading crisis.’ An alarmist and entirely credible report from the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts indicated that rates of reading, chiefly of works of fiction, were on the decline, and had reached the point where less than 50 percent of Americans could claim to have read a single novel in the last year. This set off a wave of worry among liberal literary circles that their work was going unread, and it became important to uphold the value of ‘reading’ as such. The merits of particular literary works were being shelved in favour of the idea that one should simply read, that reading as such was the supreme literary value. Thus, the blazing success, in that era, of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, was seen as a triumph not of literature but of reading. A correlate to this upholding of the value of reading was a denigration of the act of criticism: for criticism had the potential to damage the sales of books—in other words, to keep people from reading—and so the traditional work of criticism had to be discounted. One American magazine that enthusiastically endorsed this anti-critical trend was The Believer, founded by affiliates of the American novelist Dave Eggers. The Believer refused to publish critical book reviews; its sole criterion for publishing anything was enthusiasm.

Finally the humanities professions in the academy were undergoing a further stage in their own devolution. Since the 1980s the number of credentialed, tenure-track positions in academia had been on the decline, while at the same time the importance of specialisation and professionalisation were held to be of utmost importance. It was seen as imperative that something similar was at work, therefore, in academia as in publishing and journalism: the notion that a particular ideal of professionalism had to be defended, vociferously, precisely because it was being undermined. But the people who defended the ideal were recognizably the last beneficiaries of it, and in little position to do much more than argue for its importance, as its actuality was being dismantled.

n+1 was founded in this climate. Unexpectedly, the magazine has not only survived but is the elder statesman of a whole host of leftwing magazines of culture and politics, many of them print institutions. Among them are the socialist magazine Jacobin, the online journal of culture The New Inquiry, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Certain magazines that foundered in the 1990s or were dormant in the 2000s have been conspicuously revived, such as The Baffler and Dissent. All of these magazines occupy a space between journalism and academia—borrowing writers from both, but refusing to follow the protocols and the constrictions of either. Indeed, in the last ten years, there has been a remarkable transformation in the extent to which writers are willing to shed their professional or career obligations in order to publish writing in a small journal, for very little money and, compared with the big magazines, an extremely small, niche readership.

At the same time, as an editor, I can’t help but notice the extent to which deprofessionalisation in the spheres of journalism and academia have benefited the little magazine, without the journal, or these journals, in any material sense replacing those institutions. Indeed, as people have been thrown out of academia and journalism—as full-time jobs have been shed in both—many have made their way to n+1 and other journals. It has led to a radicalizing of a certain sphere of academic and journalistic output, but in the meantime there is a serious gap between the erosion of professionalism, whose mechanisms of credentialing and exclusion at least guaranteed for a brief period a stable cadre of reasonably compensated work to many people, and the rise of the alternative, where precariousness and low or even no pay are the rule. Indeed, the alternatives are not only constituted by the little magazine, but by the rise of venture capital-subsidised institutions such as Buzzfeed or Medium, which are able to sustain decent salaries for a small number of writers (if nothing on the scale of a national newspaper, or even what local newspapers used to command), for which the greatest rewards ultimately accrue to investors and owners. The state of affairs at these publications brings to mind what Amit Chaudhuri has described, in an essay about Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, as a situation in which the contemporary culture does not want to dispense with intellectuals, it only wants them on its own terms. The terms on which contemporary culture wants the deprofessionalised intellectual may be terms increasingly difficult to accept, if also difficult to avoid.

To speak of de-professionalisation as an ideal, or an alternative, we have to define what we mean what we speak of when we speak of ‘professionalisation’, and perhaps what is meant when the term is used negatively. From sociology, we have the classic analysis of Magali Larson, for whom professionalisation is about a closed group defining a market and excluding participants from it. In her 1977 book The Rise of Professionalism, she writes, ‘I see professionalisation as the process by which producers of special services sought to constitute and control a market for their expertise.’ In other words, ‘professionalism’ was an ethos that effectively created its own reality. The onerous training burdens for doctors and lawyers, but also increasingly historians and scholars of literature, were meant, in Larson’s analysis, to limit the number of credentialed experts so as artificially to heighten not just the demand for their work, but the prestige of it.

What went hand in hand with professionalism was specialisation, the fragmentation and disunity of the field over which professionals held sway. Concomitant with specialisation, weirdly, is a certain amount of ‘overtraining’ involved prior to specialisation—the creation, for example, of an endless amount of ground to cover within an academic discipline—was one of the ways that the dignity of the field could be protected, its legitimacy secured. In this way, specialisation isn’t seen as a narrowing down of competence, a limitation to one particular sub-sub-subfield, but rather an enhancement of the professional’s abilities, an added skill. Moreover, the overtraining prior to specialisation protects the ‘dignity of the whole’—because professionals gain a sense of the scope of the service they provide, before they are asked only to provide one tiny part of it.

Ultimately professionalism, and the process of professionalisation, confers status rewards to their practitioners. In the literary field, we can define this—following another sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu—as ‘the economic world reversed’, a situation in which symbolic, rather than actual, capital is conferred on writers for their career achievements. The net result of a field defined by status rewards is one in which other, collective forms of organisation become threats to the dignity of the profession. A signal version of this threat is trade unionism, to which many professions — though by no means all — have been hostile. Status rewards are individually acquired and represent milestones on a career path; trade unionism seeks in principle to protect the interests of craftsmen, or in some instances of an entire class, in a way that is potentially anathema to careerism as such. There is also a sense in which organisation through a trade union prevents alliances with other sectors of the ruling class, which might benefit the professional, or even the profession. For this reason, critical accounts of professionalism such as Larson’s have come out of this hostility of professionals to trade unions, and to the importance of professionals in ensuring the reproduction of an unequal class society.

So if professionalism and professionalisation are based on exclusion, control and status, and if what is objectionable about the literary, journalistic and academic versions of professionalism has to some degree with its systems of standardisation and prestige, the anti-professional ethos of the little magazine exists, at least in part, to promote anti-standardisation and to ruin the economy of prestige or at least transform it. And a little magazine can do this, for at least a little while. Over the long run, however, a little magazine which is ‘successful’ to any degree will become partly captive to the institutions that it seeks to challenge or undermine, and the possibility of a certain kind of conservatism—in the broadest sense—begins to set in. The reason for this has chiefly to do with the problem of money.

Part of the anti-professionalism of the little magazine is sustained by the idea that no one is working on it for money. In the case of n+1, where all the editorial work is done on a volunteer basis, this is quite literally the case. The founding editors were budding novelists and graduate students living off of stipends. For a long time, I subsidised my n+1 work by working in book publishing; later I went to graduate school in literature, and then became a freelance writer. Similarly, the writers for a magazine like n+1 did not, at least initially, seek payment for their work. Writers for the print edition of the magazine would receive, much to their surprise, a cheque of $150. Writers for the website received nothing at all. For a long time this state of affairs was never questioned. There was perhaps an unspoken contract written between editor and writer, and between magazine and public, that the creation of art worked best as a gift economy. So writers gave their work, editors gave their time, and a modest number of people subscribed in order to read the magazine and subsidize the cost of printing and distribution.

This state of affairs is at once extremely taxing and utterly idyllic—one whose hermetic pleasures are impossible to communicate to anyone who has not indulged them. But at some point the idyll must come to an end; how and why is dependent not just on the success of the magazine, but the conditions under which it succeeds. n+1 emerged in an era when the dominating ethos was the idea that copyright was a massive block on creative freedom, and that all content should be free. The financial crash of 2008, which exacerbated the loss of jobs in both academia and journalism, did not put an end to this ethos, but it seriously compromised its rationale. Writers being thrown out of work no longer felt that getting paid was a luxury, or a version of selling out; it was simply a necessity, and not to pay, or to pay poorly, was increasingly seen as poor form, if not vaguely criminal. That staple of the publishing world, the unpaid internship, increasingly came under attack for its exploitative potential. Many institutions, such as the publishing conglomerate Condé Nast, were sued for using unpaid interns. At the same time, a bull market in the tech industry began to emerge and fueled a number of publications—most notably, Buzzfeed—which began to be seen as alternatives to what bloggers, in the early 2000s, derisively referred to as the ‘MSM’, or mainstream media. Many of these same bloggers who had once endorsed the ‘free culture’ movement would find themselves, in the late 2000s, employed by dot-com companies masquerading as news sites. A certain rebelliousness has begun to attach itself to tech sites, even to behemoths like Amazon, which claim to offer, through self-publishing platforms, a different way to readership than the gatekeeping of publishing conglomerates.

The place of n+1 in particular, and the little magazine in general, in this climate was an equivocal one. On the one hand, there was no question that little magazines were not able to pay as much as newspapers or the new tech sites. At the same time, the continued existence of the magazine, and its growing prestige in the world of publishing, journalism, and academia, meant that it was increasingly somehow scandalous that it was unable to do so. Editors of the magazine were going on to write for the New Yorker and take up tenure-track jobs in academia; many of its writers were publishing heralded novels or works of nonfiction. Attempting to escape the economy of prestige, n+1 had become in some sense the head of it, captive to it. In attempting to challenge literary culture, many of its writers were taken up by it, perhaps co-opted by it. This, in a sense, could be counted as an achievement of the magazine’s goals: a change, however modest, in the reactionary literary and political culture at large, the carving out of a space between academic and journalism.

But it was not a replacement for what was happening in academia and journalism. As clerical workers organizing a union at Harvard in the 1970s used to say, ‘you can’t eat prestige!’, and the lack of professional advancement strictly within the magazine meant many writers found themselves ‘graduating’ from n+1 to other publications, or simply pitching their stories to richer tech sites, which—in keeping with the anti-professional ethos—hardly did any editing, and therefore imposed very few burdens or obligations on the writers.

The literary world of the last decade, in other words, has seen two distinct trends. One has been the increasing disaffiliation of academics from academia, sometimes by choice but more often not, and the increasing disaffiliation of journalists from the institutions of journalism, with many of them similarly not choosing to be cast out of the temple. A robust sphere of anti-professional little magazines has arisen to channel the disaffection of these writers, towards something like a liberated form of nonspecialised expression. At the same time, these magazines, in spite of themselves, have undergone a certain kind of professionalizing process, under pressure from a wider sphere in which new venture-capital driven news sites have sought to reconstitute, at least partially, the professional world that was in the process of being dismantled.

All of this is another way of saying that the challenge offered by little magazines is in some way only a partial one, and one that has can have a self-undermining quality. ‘Deprofessionalisation’, in this sense, is a good, but ultimately limited, ideal; there is the possibility that it participates in the exacerbation of class inequality. In the current climate it begins to feel insufficient to lodge protests through magazines against the wider literary world, when the dependency on it is too great, and the changes being wrought in it have detrimental effects on the capacity of magazines to carve out separate spaces. There are certain material, even revolutionary conditions that would make the little magazine a more viable alternative—a militant union of writers; a basic income. But these political proposals are far from any kind of realisation.

One alternative does come dimly into view: that the burgeoning mass of little magazines signals a larger reorientation of cultural forces towards the political left, that the material deprofessionalisation of writing will empty out the ideologies of careerism that long sustained professional ideals. Writers not only less interested but simply barred from pursuing traditional professional career models will not only try to create new modes for themselves, but for others as well. In this sense the little magazine offers the potential of being not just a different kind of publication, but a different kind of organisation, a form of collective expression for political dissent—one that would herald the creation of something much larger and more significant. These, to me, are the hopes offered by this trying, breathtaking and unpredictable time.

Nikil Saval was a co-editor of n+1 magazine. He is the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, and is now a member of the Democratic Party, representing the 1st District in the Pennsylvania State Senate.

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