Intellectual situations

Say What You Mean: The n+1 Anthology, edited by Christian Lorentzen, Notting Hill Editions, RRP£10, 268 pages

Don’t be fooled: n+1 is not a journal of mathematics. It’s a Brooklyn-based magazine of politics, literature and culture whose editors declared in their first issue, in 2004: “We are living in a time when Nabokov and Henry James are read in Tehran but we have pornography and publicity at home; a time when serious writing about culture has become the exclusive province of bullies, reactionaries, and Englishmen.”

Eight years and 15 issues later, n+1 continues to publish provocative essays. A selection of them have been collected by Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books, in Say What You Mean: The n+1 Anthology.

Founded by a group of striving young writers including Chad Harbach, Benjamin Kunkel and Mark Greif, n+1 doesn’t really have a strict editorial policy. What sets it apart from more established left-liberal cultural and literary magazines is the way it casually mixes conventional ideas of genre. It blends criticism, fiction and personal essay, and applies the resulting hybrid to subjects both routine and lofty. Mostly it publishes long-form essays, giving writers as many words as they need and allowing for digression and surprise.

Take Emily Witt’s “Miami Party Boom” (2010), which runs to 34 pages. It is unlike any other piece of journalism I can remember. The essay’s subtitle – “P Diddy, Flamingos, Guantánamo” – reveals some of the topics she interweaves into a story that is mostly about drug-taking and partying, Miami- style, and the city’s property boom in 2005. It offers much pleasure and instruction. I did not know, for example, that Guantánamo Bay has an “‘interrogation room’ furnished with a plush armchair and an espresso machine”.

The anthology’s best essays share the tendency to view present-day culture through eyes narrowed by scepticism. Greif’s “Against Exercise” (2004) is an oddly affecting and scathing examination of gym culture in which he questions the strange mixture of hedonism and self-punishment that characterises rituals of fitness. “Nothing can make you believe we harbour nostalgia for factory work but a modern gym,” he writes in a tone that is both mocking and sincere.

The spirit of n+1 is perhaps best exemplified by its outspoken opening section, grandly titled “The Intellectual Situation”. An unsigned compilation of the editors’ withering views on, for example, other newspapers and “dead white magazines”, this has become the distinguishing feature of the journal and it is a shame that none have been included here.

Say What You Mean doesn’t quite represent the best of n+1, in other words, but nevertheless testifies to New York’s fast-moving intellectual climate. The anthology is bold, aggressive and, at times, full of itself. But for a journal that aims to “lead the generational struggle against laziness and cynicism”, it is fitting that it wears its heart on its sleeve.

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