At a time when the eyes of the world are turned ever closer towards America it’s comforting to see a journal like n+1 publish informed and proudly partisan content on the social and political landscape in America.
n+1 is a literary magazine that publishes collected essays, fiction, poetry and reviews online and in a thrice-yearly print publication. The print edition resembles more of a book than a magazine, and casts itself in the “American tradition of politically engaged literary magazines,” knowingly invoking the spectre of the Partisan Review and others like it.
The first issue of n+1 was produced in the summer of 2004. A time when, according to the website, “the intellectual scene felt disturbingly fragmented and drained of vitality: political magazines didn’t care about literature, literary magazines didn’t discuss politics, and big ideas had to be buried in tiny book reviews.” They aimed to make a magazine that saw literature, politics, and culture as aspects of the same project.
So, thirteen years later, we’ve reached Issue 27, over a decade has passed and - despite the long list of gold-certified endorsements on the magazine’s website - it’s easy to wonder how far the journal has actually achieved any of its lofty ambitions.
Over the course of 27 editions, n+1 has weathered the financial crisis, the occupy movement, Barack Obama’s presidency, the escalation of the war on terror, the Arab spring, the rise of IS and - a prominent part of this latest issue - the election of Donald Trump. The battles the editors set out to fight in 2004 seem even more urgent now: apathy amongst young people, a lack of reasoned debate, and a platform for it within the left, and the abandonment of critical theory in political writing.
Can the thoughtful and academic n+1 have a place in political debate today, where the victor is usually the person who can shout loudest? Why don’t we open Issue 27 and find out.
Let’s talk contents first. The issue begins, as all issues begin, with The Intellectual Situation: an editorial essay on the current state of politics that introduces the theme of the issue more generally. The theme is Deep End and the essay is entitled No President. This essay is framed by the existential crisis of the left, in the wake of Trump’s recent victory, and in it the editors truly do feel out of their depth as they attempt to navigate the new political situation they find themselves in. It attempts to truly reflect on how America ended up with President Trump amidst the flurry of rolling news and analysis following his election in November. It is a call to arms, urging people to resist and refuse, and initiates a strong editorial voice that echoes throughout the rest of the magazine.
Following this is a dissection of Barack Obama’s speeches by George Blaustein; fiction from Thomas Bolt, and an essay by Sam Frank about the Ultimate Fighting Championship, its ties to the Trump administration and the way it casts the experience of violence as pure entertainment. In Tbilisi, a piece of graphic reportage by Victoria Lomasko provides a welcome break from the text heavy magazine, with beautiful graphic novel style illustrations of her recent experiences meeting with historians, artists, journalists, activists and squatters in the Georgian capital. The magazine ends with thoughtful in-depth reviews and letters from readers.
Sparsely scattered throughout are elegant black and white reproductions of works of art at the beginning of each piece of writing, loosely illustrating the themes within. Other than that, the design of the magazine is straightforward and follows the conventions of journals and literary magazines. The cover is a simple, stylised illustration of a chain link fence, which advertises the content inside with enigmatic straplines.
It’s a nice object in and of itself - the binding opens with ease and the slightly larger and squarer than a5 size is easy to read and hold - but it’s clear that content is more important to the editors than design. Think The White Review with more political bite and less concern for paper stock. It always makes its leftist politics clear, and politics is what it does best.
Besides the barnstorming first editorial essay, the best piece in the magazine is by Joshua Cohen entitled The Last Last Summer. This essay sees the rise of Trump through the prism of a misspent youth in Atlantic City. Cohen returns to Atlantic City as a successful writer in the summer of 2016 and embeds himself amongst Trump’s failed investments and dodgy dealings. He gives a nuanced and complex picture of the situation in New Jersey and America as a whole and makes no assumptions. The writing is personal and engaging but always critical and mindful of the political situation at large.
Taken together, this issue paints a portrait of a divided and conflicted America from the point of view of the educated left - the metropolitan elites at whom the current wave of populism is supposed to be sticking it to. You won’t find a mythical gun-toting, wall-building, Trump voter reading this magazine and in that sense it doesn’t break out of it’s own liberal bubble. However, I feel like that is the point of the magazine, and especially this issue.
It is about examining the conflict at the heart of the democratic party from within, a kind of self-examination that is necessary in figuring out what the hell to do now. It doesn’t seek to go and change people’s minds or shout over the political parapet. It is a physical space for reflection where the length and depth of the writing allows for shades of meaning and nuance, and gives you time as a reader to think about it.
This is the time for long-form journalism, these are issues that are incredibly complex and require more attention than a scrolling glance, or Facebook share, can achieve. The left, in the UK as well as in the US, needs to look inwards and understand how it got into this situation in order to mount an effective opposition. It needs to talk to itself. It is here that n+1 can best affect the change that it set out to achieve and this issue is a good start.
n+1, Issue #27, published in New York, December 2016. Softcover. 212 pages.