An Unoriginal New Magazine Falls on Tin Eyes

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Will no one at the Voice edit Cynthia Cotts, even when she’s demonstrating the deepest ignorance about her subject? Here’s her opener to last week’s “Press Clips” column, a disastrous side trip from straight media reporting, at which she’s bad enough, into a realm of the most crass poetasting:

 

Go to the back of St. Mark’s Bookshop on East 9th Street, where you will see an information desk. The front of that desk has six shelves filled with literary magazines, at knee level. Find the one whose cover is the color of cedar and has the words “Tin House” inscribed on it. Hold it carefully and take a deep breath: this little book may very well represent the future of
literary magazines.

 

Says who? Well, the discriminating customers at St. Mark’s, for one…

 

Jesus Christ. Well, I suppose anyone who’d read a Voice media column to discern the future of literary magazines deserves such pandering nonsense.


Like almost anything touted by fools to be “the future of” anything, what Tin House really looks like is the past. Cotts concedes this, if unconsciously, when she notes: “Harper’s senior editor Ben Metcalf compares Tin House to The Baffler and McSweeney’s, two other lit mags recently arrived on the scene.


This is an extraordinary statement, on several levels. Superficially, it’s disconcerting to see a Voice columnist taking such an establishment opinion at face value and waving it at readers like a Good Taste Seal of Approval. Time was the Voice would have been mortified to display such craven bourgeois favor-currying. More importantly, it’s a bald admission that Cotts hasn’t the slightest idea what the fuck she’s talking about when discussing “lit mags”; on the strength of that sentence, I would not be surprised to learn she’s never read The Baffler or McSweeney’s before. The Baffler “recently arrived on the scene” a decade ago. It’s been around long enough to spin off a couple of books, make a minor media star of its chief curmudgeon Tom Frank and repeat its formula often enough to have fallen into a serious rut years ago now. And it’s much more a journal of political and cultural criticism than a lit mag anyway. Thanks for the heads-up, Cyn.


As for McSweeney’s, that is a much more apposite citation, but only in the sense than Tin House only too obviously strives to imitate it, not to say rip it off. The look of Tin House, which Cotts spends some time cooing over—a sepia-toned, daguerreotype-y, letters found in an old cigar box look—is suspiciously reminiscent of McSweeney’s retro design, only without the ironic wink and in a more shiny, glossy, glitzy, uglified way that rings really false. The title-page quote from Borges red-flags a fundamentally pseudo esthetic at work here.


Tin House comes late to the return to the bellettrist journal movement Cotts says The Baffler, McSweeney’s, Open House and other small publications represent. An uninspiredly organized collection of fiction, poetry, interviews and articles, Tin House chaffs its dry palms over the glowing esprit de hey-kids-let’s-start-a-salon and young-writerly camaraderie that prevent
McSweeney’s from sounding too arch today and used to give The Baffler its edge back before The Baffler commodified its own dissent. But you get no sense from this first issue that there’s a monomaniacal Tom Frank or Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s) behind Tin House, no driving vision that’s going to give this magazine its personality and sense of purpose in the world.


That’s because, as it turns out, Tin House comes straight from the heart of the literary establishment, complete with prefabricated buzz Cotts innocently seems to take for the real thing. Falling into a trap a J-school freshman would know enough to skirt, she ingenuously cites whole sections of press release flackery from literary agent and longtime scenemaker Ira Silverberg, for instance. What Silverberg’s relationship is to Tin House she never says—I guess we’re supposed to assume he’s a completely uninvolved bystander she called at random for his opinion—but if he isn’t the magazine’s official publicist, he should be:

“It’s handsome and exciting and stands out in a marketplace in which most of those journals look the same,” says Ira Silverberg, a literary agent at Donadio & Olson…

 

Silverberg elaborates, “Whereas most literary magazines in America are trapped in a mainstream aesthetic, these guys are willing to take risks. The juxtaposition of experienced and less experienced writers, new forms and old forms is going to be exciting to readers.”


I know Ira. He’s a nice guy and a smooth talker and I bet he never dreamed for one second Cotts would be such a gull as to quote whole great clots of this public relations muck so uncritically. Hey Ira, take a day off! You earned it.


Not content merely to quote existing p.r. on the magazine, Cotts starts writing her own press release for it:


The force behind the Tin buzz [What fucking buzz?] is editors Rob Spillman and Elissa Schappell, a married couple who have contributed their skills to many, many magazines, including The Paris Review. “They have deep roots in the Paris Review tradition,” says Metcalf, “and now they’re doing it on their own.”


Oh, so it’s not some little outsidery hey-kids! startup Cotts just stumbled across in the back of St. Mark’s Bookshop. It’s a fucking inside job, an in-house, in-crowd, utterly establishment ringer trifling with hipster culture. Back when the Voice
still had some real antiestablishment political scruples, rather than just the rote antiestablishment political posturing of today, Cotts’ reputation would be on the line for sticking her nose so far up The Man’s ass.


Continuing in this odd, not to say right-deviationist, vein, Cotts informs us that Spillman and Schappell “couldn’t have done it without publisher and editor in chief Win McCormack, a Portland, Oregon-based investor who has long dreamed of starting his own for-profit lit mag. The two concepts McCormack insisted on were commercial-design techniques and accessibility. According to Spillman, ‘Our target audience is not just people we like, but the smart, well-read person on the street.’”


Okay, got it. McCormack is a money guy who wanted to have a little literary magazine, no doubt writes a little poetry of his own on the side, had or could round up some financing, and hooked up with a pair of Paris Review types to run it for him. Bully for all of them.


“So far, so good for Tin House,” Cotts continues, “which has just signed a deal with Ingraham Periodicals to place 5000 copies in major bookstores. But the funky start-up [What's "funky" mean in this context? Reads like a pretty standard financing-marketing-distribution setup to me.] is just the tip of what is being hailed as a renaissance for literary magazines in New York.”


And off she goes into a riff on that most dread of culture-reporting cliches, The Next Big Thing. Word on the street is literature is cool! Salons are happening! Let’s have a reading! Jesus, Cynthia, this stuff has been The Next Big Hipster Youth
Culture Intelligentsia Thing in New York City for—well, how far back do you want to go? poetry slams and Between C and D a decade ago? Patti Smith and Jim Carroll 25 years ago? Beatnik poetry in Greenwich Village coffeehouses? The Algonquin? Pick your epoch, honey.


Is there really a “renaissance” in literary magazines? Renaissance implies we’ve just gone through a preceding dark age when no or few literary magazines were being published. That’s crap, of course. Literary magazines have been steadily produced, some rising and some falling, year after year, noticed by few outside a tiny circle of writers and readers. The only thing really new about Tin House is that there seems to be enough capital behind it to buy some public relations that raises it to a level where it dings the consciousness of a Cynthia Cotts. She is falling here for the same species of spin that convinces your average clueless New York Times cultural reporter that this or that is New, Now, The Look, The Trend, The Future, On The Edge. Last month it was The Onion, remember? Everybody’s favorite satire, pissed themselves guffawing
at it every week? How many of them do you think are still reading The Onion? How many will still be reading Tin House when issue #2 comes out?


All right. At this stage, the purist out there is groaning, “Enough already about Cynthia Cotts! The woman is clearly an imbecile. Tell us about the writing in Tin House. Isn’t that what it all comes down to—the work? What’s the work like?”


And right you are. So, who are the contributors forging “the future of” literature here?


Well, let’s see. Here’s the ubiquitous David Foster Fucking Wallace, with a piece of fiction annoyingly entitled “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” Like other Wallace I’ve read, it confirms my initial intuition that this is a guy in serious need of a day job. Joyce Carol Oates: The Next Generation.


Who else? Here’s the just-as-ubiquitous Rick Moody, about whom I’ve had my say, with a paean to Eno. Eno, in a lit mag: Cynthia must have thought that was sooo cutting edge.


There’s lit-mag stalwart Stuart Dybek, with a piece of fiction annoyingly titled “fiction,” that begins: “Through a rift in the mist, a moon the shade of water-stained silk. A night to begin, to begin again.”


Merde. And merde again.


Who else? Ron Carlson, Charles Simic, C.K. Williams (the writer, not the fragrance), an Ariel Dorfman twofer (once as writer, and once as interviewee), David Gates, James Kelman, Francine Prose, Christopher Merrill, Peter Matthiessen.


All familiar, some too-familiar, voices. Are there any new voices in Tin House? Yes: exactly two. Neatly set aside in a little ghetto handily labeled “New Voices.”


For the rest, as a list of contributors to a new literary magazine the only thing remarkable about these names is their unremarkability. I don’t mean to disparage these people—well, most of them—they’re generally good, solid writers, and Simic’s a hell of a poet—but not a one of them represents anything remotely resembling “the future of” literature. Any random contributors’ list in, oh, Ben Metcalf’s Harper’s, or The Paris Review, or any new lit mag put out by Random House or Knopf or Time-Life or Putumayo or Starbucks would include at least three-fourths of these names.


Did I say Starbucks? Finally demonstrating how much a Voice writer she is, Cotts snares an opportunity for a lazy, gratuitous swipe at this easiest of knee-jerk anti-chain-store targets outside of Barnes & Noble and McDonald’s. “Never one to miss a trend,” she writes, “Starbucks has just launched Joe, its own literary magazine, in partnership with Time Inc. Custom Publishing. Packed with brand-name writers (think Douglas Coupland), corporate ads, and full-color art, Joe lacks the alternative appeal of Tin House or Lit, but it stems from the same market analysis.”


What dazzling hypocrisy. Here she is, not missing the “trend” herself, but because it’s Starbucks she allows herself to sneer at them for doing exactly the same thing. It’s true Joe is awful; I went into a Starbucks, flipped through it, bought a frappaccino, left Joe there. Couldn’t bring myself to give them $3 for it. It’s more an in-store/in-flight magazine than a literary one.


But Joe is only more “corporate” than Tin House in the sense that Joe is what Tin House might be with a Starbucks budget. They already share the “same market analysis,” same bogus trend, same sort of public relations, same I’ll swap you a Doug Coupland for a David Foster Wallace level of “brand-name writers” (indeed, poor has-been Coupland is far less a currently viable brand-name than Wallace, thus arguably a more daring editorial choice). But because it’s Starbucks Joe is automatically worse, it “lacks the alternative appeal of Tin House.” Which, as Cotts has just spent some number of grafs evidently unintentionally demonstrating, is nonexistentTin House is as “alternative” as the CDs in the alt-rock bin at the Virgin Megastore, and just as consciously crafted and “commercial[ly] design[ed]” to appeal to a certain market segment as Joe is, and Cotts must have a stupefyingly naive view of cultural production and consumption in today’s world to think otherwise. It’s an insult for Cotts and, for that matter, Metcalf to equate this small-cap me-too boutique product with genuinely
original, highly personal, out-of-pocket enterprises like The Baffler and McSweeney’s.


Cotts comes off so self-contradicting and out of the loop here it makes me wonder if there was a hidden agenda behind this column. Come clean, Cynthia: as your predecessor would say, full disclosure time. What exactly about Tin House really prompted you to write this absurd column-length press release? Friends on the masthead or among the contributors? Spillman and Schappell old chums? That’s fine. It’s nice to do friends a favor. Though you should have said that’s what you’re doing. Or were you scratching around for copy and this thing just fell in your lap, p.r. attached? That’s fine too. It’s summer.


Or are you simply out of your depth when talking about literature and literary publishing?


(And then she went on to write strangely about current Voice union negotiations, but I’ll let Andrey Slivka tell you about that.)



Afterwords

There’s a chart on page 28 of the June 26-July 2 issue of The Economist that so struck me I wondered at first if it wasn’t a mistake. But then this is The Economist, written on Parnassus, published from Olympus. For an article warning that Americans have become dangerously addicted to casino gambling, the chart showed “American spending on leisure activities” in 1997. First came “Video, audio and computer equipment,” at $80 billion. Casino gambling ran third, at $20-odd billion.


What struck me was beside the point of the article. It was what came in second: “Books and newspapers,” at around $50 billion. Way beating out movie tickets, video games, spectator sports and recorded music, each down somewhere under
$10 billion.


You’d want to know all the types of expenditures they lumped together to get to that $50 billion, but still: second place? If it’s true nobody reads anymore, who’s spending all that dough?


Not Salon investors, apparently. Even as Salon‘s long-awaited IPO came and fizzled last week, founder David Talbot was enjoying a little wavelet of anti-anti-Talbot backlash in various corners of the media. Kind of an “Aw, c’mon, you cynics, lay off him” thing.


You’ll recall that Salon‘s announcement that it was going public was received with huge levels of skepticism throughout the rest of the media, including us here at NYPress. The thesis of this last-minute mini-rally of support for Talbot was simple: The skeptics were just jealous. Salon‘s own James Poniewozik, who’s leaving for Time, put the most humorous spin on it in his “Toto, I’m not Dave Kansas anymore” column (Kansas is the editor of the online money magazine The Street who suddenly became, on paper at least, $9 million richer from that IPO in May). It was an element of Carl Swanson’s report on the IPO’s unglorious launch in last week’s Observer. Lawrence Spivey in the online magazine Impression went the farthest,
ranting that the skeptics were a bunch of “babies” who’d let their envy cloud their judgment. “The fact that Talbot is about to get extremely rich isn’t what really bothers them,” he wrote. “It’s the fact that they aren’t.”


Now, one rival has clearly been jealous as hell: Salon‘s IPO has been Michael Kinsley’s weeniest hour. Since the day it was announced, the Slate editor, who’s proven in both print and praxis that he knows as little about the business side of magazine publishing (“new media” or “old”) as Cynthia Cotts knows about lit mags, bitched and queened all over Salon‘s potential good fortune. It hasn’t been pretty.


Kinsley’s green eyes notwithstanding, the thing is that the skeptics weren’t wrong. As recent Internet IPOs go, there’s no way else to put it: Salon‘s was a dud. The timing was off, too late to catch this year’s big wave of Internet investor euphoria; by June 22, when Salon hit the street, Internet stocks generally were on a long, steady downhill slide from their peak this spring.
And the controversial “Dutch auction” method of offering the stock seemed to have further dampened the already tepid enthusiasm for an overvalued online magazine, just as the doubters said it would.


On its first day of trading, Salon‘s stock opened at $10.50, the bottom of its projected price range, and closed 5 percent down from that, at $10. Compare that to the shot-from-guns opening of other Net ventures like MarketWatch and The Street, which enjoyed triple-digit increases when they debuted (although they tend to slide back toward Earth after that). Talbot did not get “extremely rich.” On paper, he only made $3 million—I say “only” because it’s a lot less than the upsiders had predicted he’d get and a lot less than the paper fortunes Kansas, Jim Cramer and Marty Peretz made from The Street‘s booming liftoff (although, again, they’re all worth less now that the stock has plummeted from its initial high). If Talbot cashes in, then lets his pal Bill Clinton’s tax man take his cut, he’ll hardly have enough for the down payment on those dream houses he fantasized about in that infamous Wired interview.


Over at The Street, interestingly, Cramer (who’s said to be worth somewhere over $90 million on paper from The Street‘s going public) put the most charitable spin on Salon‘s IPO. Pointing out that for all the negative reviews the offering got, it also got Salon a nice market capitalization of $107 million (compared to The Street‘s stunning $613 million), he writes on June 28: “If Salon.com is worth $100 million, what would Talk be worth if Tina Brown added a dot-com to the name? Gee, Tina, just call it Talk.com, bring it public on the heels of all this Brooklyn Navy Yard hoopla and raise enough money to stay in business for years to come.”


Noting how tough it is for magazines to raise capital from corporate or private backers, he writes, “If I were backing Talk, where I would have to expect to lose millions and millions of dollars just on parties alone to generate offline buzz and envy, I would have to be asking, ‘What is the point of using my money?’ Why not just add a dot-com and let the public pay for the darn thing? Why lay out your own dollars when you could go to an investment bank and get other people’s?


“To me, this Salon deal is a watershed deal. It ensures that Talk will be the last offline magazine ever launched in this millennium or any other millennium. Because no media company, let alone wealthy individuals, can afford to compete with the public’s dollars. They just don’t have enough.”


And then, in a parting shot, he adds, “And, obviously, the public has too many.”

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