Books In Conversation
JOHN SUMMERS and CHRIS LEHMANN with John Cotter
For over 20 years, American culture and politics have been watched over, provoked, and lambasted by t he Baffler, a gloriously liberal journal, new issues of which appeared, in their own good time, between 1988 and 2007. Because of the Baffler’s erratic publishing schedule, its 2007 disappearance slid somewhat under the radar (was this just another long wait between issues?). But if t he Baffler vanished with a whimper, it’s back with a bang now, having just released issue No. 20, The High, the Low, the Vibrant!, 200 pages of coruscating opinion about the American mindscape and the world of art, and “art,” in particular. I had the chance to chat with Editor-in-Chief John Summers and Senior Editor Chris Lehmann about the new issue as soon as it appeared.
John Cotter (Rail): As a journal of cultural criticism and political agitation, you obviously come out of a tradition as long as the Enlightenment, and including the Spectator, if you like, and the Edinburgh Review, and the Partisan Review. Which grandfathers do you most prize and how much do you look to past models when designing a new issue?
John Summers: Well, Dwight Macdonald’s Politics magazine showcased the qualities of critical intelligence—skepticism, wit, independence—that are very hard to perfect in assembling a magazine of any ambition but indispensable to its smallest success. You mention European or European-inflected journals, but there are plenty in the American grain, not to mention the first 18 issues of t he Baffler. They’re the pole stars of every new issue. That’s not to say the mag will stay the same as it always was. For one thing, it never was that way; for another, we are unleashing three issues per annum. Back in the day, the irregular publishing schedule gave t he Baffler the element of surprise—new issues would magically show up in subscribers’ mailboxes every once in a while. We’re already into our third issue this year. Then again, the country’s most authoritative voices and institutions, having been discredited, have done a great deal of the preliminary work for us. The country’s shambolic disintegration offers up a truly endless carnival of mendacity.
Rail: Steve Almond’s piece in the current Baffler was attacked by the Atlantic Monthly for being too “ serious” about “ funny” things. To my eye Almond wasn’t blaming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for making jokes, but for making the kinds of tame, winking jokes that induce comfort rather than productive discomfort. Another note the Atlantic article seemed to miss is thatt he Baffler itself is full of whimsy, albeit whimsy with a sting. You feature cartoons and cuss words and clever design that's quite obviously meant to put the weary reader at ease while you infiltrate their head space. To what extent is this a balancing act? And what do you feel you gain by sacrificing solemnity?
Chris Lehmann: There is, I’m sure, some German term that conveys the full irony of being called out for humorlessness by one of the most whimsy-free publications on the planet. As to the complaint that we committed some sort of mimetic fallacy by publishing an essay that wasn’t either a laugh riot in its own right, and/or floated a grievous demand that humorists should be serious, well, the notion of humor as undemanding fluff is exactly the alibi that Steve’s essay identifies as the Comedy Central brand’s first line of defense: Hey gang, we’re just having some fun here! Lighten up, for God’s sake!
Not only isn’t this a sufficient defense—Stewart and Colbert took the substance of their own shtick seriously enough to mount their own painfully unfunny day-long rally in D.C. on the eve of the 2010 midterms—but it also sells the whole enterprise of satire short, inviting people not to think at all about the content of their entertainment product as they’re being entertained. That’s certainly not how any of the humorists Steve cites in the piece saw their own work. From Mark Twain down through George Carlin and Bill Hicks, our most accomplished comic voices have made their audiences profoundly uncomfortable and gloried in the opportunity to mine the most “serious” material for the kind of laughs that unsettle and stay with adult listeners and readers. One of my all-time favorite literary aphorisms is the line from Dawn Powell—who was both an amazingly funny and deadly serious satirist—that “true wit should break a wise man’s heart.” Once you factor out the direct confrontation with unpleasant facts, satire stops being satire—it’s, at most, watered down parody, and at worst, a series of opportunistic one-liners, half-heartedly lobbed into the void for the sake of amusement.
So yes: It’s safe to say that I agree with your own sense that the Atlantic post on the Comedy Central essay missed the point entirely, while also neatly recapitulating the very fallacies that the piece itself catalogued. But that is precisely what this august publication is there to do in the first place, isn’t it?
As to the Baffler’s own humor, yes, we try whenever possible to make readers laugh. At the most basic level, it’s what we want sharp and vigorous prose to do—and the first obligation of editors is to publish work that they themselves want to read. There is of course a forbidding legacy in the world of left-leaning publishing of ultraworthy, unimpeachable humorlessness. We want to program against that and other conventions of dreary political predictability, as much as possible. But the real added value of publishing polemical humor, in my view, is the law of attraction: Good funny writers will see you publish good funny material, and will want to contribute some themselves. In addition to lightening up the work routine at Baffler Corp., it also makes the prospect of recruiting talent down the line much more agreeable. In short, happy workers are productive workers: Look for that slogan in the upcoming Baffler line of Successories poster. I have the perfect adorable cat photo to go with it.
Rail: Thomas Frank tackles ‘vibrancy’ and city art this month, wherein the “ creative class” is encouraged by city fathers to perform creativity in hopes of attracting what those city father's genuinely desire enormous capital enterprises. Frank writes: “History is more than a conflict between bogue millionaires and cool millionaires . . . How about, instead of serving some targeted fraction of the master class, we chose to give an entirely different group of Americans what they wanted? Even if those Americans weren't cool? What would that look like?” To what extent is this a motto for what is to follow in issue No. 20?
Summers: Tom’s salvo, sure, is a lament for the squandered potential of the successful artist, just as Matt Hinton’s “Billionaire Ball,” Heather Havrilesky’s “Sit-Cons,” and Tod Mesirow’s “Maze of Doom”—all available in the current issue, incidentally—are laments for the athlete and the writer in the service of indurables. Just as every new technology is spoiled by business’s intricate schemes of collaterals and securities, so does creative talent lose its way in the twisted path of profit. Either that or it’s ignored, discarded, or discouraged until it becomes obsolete and superfluous. Anyway, the social class divide in the creativity biz has kept this magazine fresh with new material for a long time. I sort of miss the days when the Ivy-credentialed members of the creative class’s fiction squadron trooped about in uniforms of black-rimmed glasses, flannel pajama pants, blow-dried hair, and baby blue sneakers. Luckily for us, upmarket hipsterdom in all its latter-day permutations is still hysterically funny.
Rail: You and your writers clearly have no fear of sacred cows. Chris Bray refers to the Barack Obama we all know and love as a “narrative construct,” almost a simulacrum of a real politician. Chris, you indict the Washington Post for cozying up to the powerful and recklessly profiteering from an industry it should, by rights, be policing. Eugenia Williamson proves how the structure and tone of This American Life are antithetical to the sort of in-depth telling-truth-to-power that they attempted with the Foxconn story. Presumably, these are some of the things your readership holds most dear. Question: Is nothing sacred?
Summers: No. A magazine that offered nothing but profaned cows, though, would soon be too predictable and therefore too tedious to read; this is all the more true when the magazine loses confidence in itself and turns ad hominem. The targets of our cultural muckraking in the last two issues are all institutions with established cultural power and influence (that is, market share) and sorely in need of scrutiny: the Washington Post, the Atlantic,the Daily Show, This American Life, the M.I.T. Media Lab, Harvard University, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pulitzer Prize, Barack Obama, his hero Ronald Reagan. If these are sacred cows, one wonders what’s acceptable to scoff at. Meanwhile, with salvos by Tom Frank, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jed Perl, and David Graeber, to cite just a few bylines from the last couple issues, we’ve been very much interested to feature writing that’s organized around a paradox, contradiction, or unrecognized social problem, and that attempts to some playful extent to resolve it. I find both registers, the scoffing and the speculating, equally important in a journal like this, and gratifying for different reasons.
Rail: You also run fiction and poetry. As the issue itself was largely about the forms art takes (or is twisted into) in our hyper-capitalist society, I wonder if you could speak to the place of the literary arts in your enterprise. The nonfiction in your latest issue, for example, focused mostly on domestic issues while the fiction was largely international. Was this a deliberate contrast?
Summers: The stories and poems we’ve published don’t really represent a predesigned “place” in the magazine; we published them because we enjoyed reading them. That we’ve published any at all, though, is, yes, a deliberate effort to falsify the conventional wisdom among the naysaying literati, who reflexively complain about their declining prestige as if declining prestige had anything to do with the scarcity of good fiction and poetry. Emma Garman’s salvo about the prestige-fiction genre is in our current issue—I might as well tell you, the title is “A Bad Day in Brooklyn”—and has some terrific insights into the pathological insularity of the scribbling class. As for the rest, the talk of decline in prestige seems a fancy way of rearranging the ashes in the grave of mid-cult, and it’s impossible not to notice how our culture lords and managers echo the planned-obsolescence-speak of corporate marketers. In this, as in other things, we plan to practice an ethic of non-cooperation with the consensus and to see what comes. After all, the consensus will tell you that a printed magazine of unpopular thoughts like, well, t he Baffler, has no “place” in the logic of progress. And obviously the consensus is wrong.