BOOKEND; Cast Your Magazine Upon the Waters, The New York Times, 1998

BOOKEND; Cast Your Magazine Upon the Waters

By Daniel Pinchbeck
Published: February 22, 1998


Recently we took our literary magazine, Open City, to the streets. Setting up a table at the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets, next to the Korean sunglasses salesman, the illicit tarot card reader and the elderly black woman selling her handmade handbags in pastel shades, we flogged our journal — judged ”ambitiously highbrow” by The New York Times and one of ”the 10 best magazines of the year” by Library Journal — to anyone we could get to stop and pay attention to us. To the SoHo procession of tourist families, art gallery interns, fashion stylists, photographers and local laborers, we must have presented an anomalous and perhaps desperate sight. But that didn’t prevent the vast majority from ignoring us.

My co-editor, Thomas Beller, a fiction writer, and I were casting out lines, fishing to expand our audience base. We began Open City seven or so years ago, in a burst of youthful enthusiasm. At the time, we worked for new, brassy, celebrity-oriented magazines seeking a mainstream market. (Both eventually went belly up.) The concept of starting an uncommercial journal of literature and the arts somehow blossomed from our day-to-day exposure to end-of-the-1980’s venality and glitz. We were presumptuous and idealistic enough to think that we could find work to publish that was not just polished or professional but important and groundbreaking. To finance the first issue, Tom and I each put up a precious $1,000. Slowly and haltingly, the journal picked up its own momentum. Grants and art gallery advertising paid for the next issues, and new editors got involved, including Elizabeth Schmidt, a former assistant editor at The New Yorker, and Adrian Dannatt, a British critic. Eventually, we found a publisher to cover our printing costs — Robert Bingham, author of a recent short-story collection, ”Pure Slaughter Value” — and through him, some downtown office space.

Tom and I both grew up on the Upper West Side — the antediluvian literary Upper West Side of independent bookstores like the New Yorker, Endicott and Shakespeare & Company. The bookshelves of my mother’s apartment contained stashes of publications from the 1950’s and 60’s, such as Evergreen Review, The New American Review, Big Table, the mimeographed-and-stapled-together Floating Bear, edited by the poet LeRoi Jones, and others far more obscure. I knew about the importance of cultural journals for sustaining the Beat Generation, the French Oulipo movement, the Surrealists and the circle surrounding Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis’s Blast. I believed in the historical necessity of new literary magazines — unaffiliated with academia or the mainstream publishing world — to foster a scene, to help define and nurture a creative community, like the Vorticists, the Beats or Bloomsbury.

But life in 1990’s New York allows little time, or space, for creative nurturing and self-definition. The conditions that helped a bohemian counterculture to flourish at midcentury have evaporated, a casualty of skyrocketing rents, an oppressive ambience of capitalist anxiety and the pressures of the media hype that descends like a vampire’s kiss of death on any new cultural phenomenon.

We had our first inkling of this a few years into our venture, when we found that the parties we gave for the journal were greeted with far more excitement and analyzed much more carefully than the contents of the journal itself. Wanting to reconnect the art world with the literary world, we served cocktails and organized readings in galleries, downtown clubs and art spaces, and it was these events that led to Open City’s being written up in various glossy magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Manhattan File, along with a few other new journals. Although gratifying in a way, the articles had an oddly devitalizing effect on us as editors; they seemed to trivialize the enterprise. The vaguely patronizing tone of the trend stories insinuated that we were somehow doing the journal as a marketing strategy or ”Gen X” ploy, and added our venture to the culture’s endless roster of cheap, stimulating, instantly forgettable brain candy.

Our low-level notoriety led to an incredible deluge in submissions, much more than our small, unpaid staff was equipped to handle, and almost all of it depressingly unsuitable. It was clear that most of our would-be contributors never bought or read the journal — if they did, our financial outlook would be far brighter. We chose the title Open City for its connotation of, well, ”openness.” We wanted the magazine to let in a range of styles and voices, both raw and cooked — ranging from highly slick and intellectual to twisted and experimental. In a celebratory way, we wanted to publish our friends, and make friends with new writers we published — a roster, too long to list here, that has included young novelists like Martha McPhee, avant-garde playwrights such as Reza Abdoh, and the Dutch post-modernist Hilarius Hofstede. But we hadn’t realized that most of a journal editor’s energy goes into the tedious process of rejecting manuscripts. Our journal quickly became a more closed city than we had intended.

It is an irony of our time that while more people seem to be writing than ever before, the literary culture has gone into steep decline. These days, magazines and newspapers keep announcing the demise of the old-fashioned, outmoded world of letters in which we staked our journal. A few years ago — after reading the hundredth elegy for the death of the humanist literary tradition, the thousandth report on the fall of the independent bookstore and the rise of the faceless chain, the millionth commentary on the new, emergent culture defined entirely by marketing and public relations — we began to get testy. Anger motivated us through a few more issues of Open City — one of them featuring cover photographs of perverse Englishmen who get their kicks by imitating horses, or pretending to be infants. Responding to the suffocating cultural climate, we published neurotic stories with themes of sexual and professional degradation. We printed long, manifestolike poems, filled with cadenced rage. These poems struggled with many of the same issues that obsessed us — as in these lines from George Bradley’s ”Frug Macabre”:

we poets have a license

to speak our minds, because

we poets barely exist.

Working a medium au courant

as smoke signals, resigned

to book deals as lucrative

as lemonade stands, stuck

teaching creating writing

(all the perks of babysitting

and none of the fan harassment),

ignored, isolated, irritable,

of course a poet will ruin

the party.

Along with stories and poems by unknown writers, we unearthed what we felt were lost masterpieces — an essay by the poet and novelist Denis Johnson about traveling through Somalia in the midst of a civil war; works by Mary Gaitskill, Hubert Selby and Terry Southern; the mad literary critic Alfred Chester’s letters to Paul Bowles from the 1960’s; a handwritten story buried in a notebook by the melancholic English book reviewer and memoirist Cyril Connolly. That story, incidentally, fictionalized Connolly’s life as the editor of the literary journal Horizon. ”Helping young writers?” the protagonist muses at one point. ”But to what did he help them? To jog on for a year or two in the vain hope that they were going to make an income by their writing while the opportunity for earning any other kind of living was inexorably withdrawn from them.”

I sometimes ask myself whether the process of putting out Open City isn’t akin to one of those tribal ceremonies, described by anthropologists, in which all of the excess goods of a tribe — in our case, the editors’ time, the advertisers’ money, the artists’ work — are combined and destroyed in one huge bonfire and bacchanalia. Our situation was satirized with vengeance by Martin Amis in ”The Information.” The novel’s protagonist, Richard Tuttle, edits an Open City-like venture called The Little Magazine. ”The Little Magazine really did stand for something,” Amis writes. ”It really did stand for something, in this briskly materialistic age. It stood for not paying people.”

I have resolved my ambivalence by factoring in the enjoyment that comes from creating the thing itself, in collaboration with my friends and fellow editors. As a policy, the editors of Open City have decided to respond to the stated decline of the literary culture with intractable stubbornness: we will continue to publish long, convoluted poems, correspondences from literary critics of the past, avant-garde missives and various rants. We may not be as enthusiastic or as young as we once were, but if anything our ambition has grown sharper because of that. We are currently planning to publish our first Open City book — a debut collection of poems by David Berman — along with another issue of the journal. And one day soon, we will again set up on a SoHo street corner — building our readership one reader at a time.

Daniel Pinchbeck’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire and The Village Voice, among other publications.