I’ve long been of two minds when it comes to n+1. On the one hand, I applaud any group of young critics who stake their claim with a new literary journal. On the other, Kunkel & co.’s writing often comes across as overly ambitious, to its own detriment. Imagine a little leaguer repeatedly swinging a too-heavy bat, saying, “I’m going to hit a home run!” As the fastballs whiz by, you feel for the kid. But you also wonder how long he’ll go before he gives up.
Of the few issues I’ve read, it seems n+1 aspires to be the Paris Review, the Joan Didion, or the Susan Sontag of their generation. Oh man do they want it. They’ll make bold claims, then prop them up shakily with verbose writing and a quota of classical allusions. When James Wood ties John Wray’s Lowboy to a Kafka short story, it feels organic and composed; when Benjamin Kunkel ties Proust to, well, the paucity of “good” writing about interactions with current technology, it feels grafted on.
Before I continue, I advise you to read “Lingering” in full so you can draw your own conclusions.
There are a number of things I found problematic about Kunkel’s essay, but I’ll stick with two for now. First, a formalist complaint. The arguments are too shaggy, too loose to counter on their own terms. Note how the dichotomy of internet/distraction vs offline/art doesn’t hold up, which is why Kunkel backtracks two-thirds in. His mind, or at least his editing, is as free-flowing as the type of online writing he derides. If he had followed through his claims with any evidence, there would be something meatier to contend with. Alas, we’re left with, “A regular visitor to YouTube—a realm of mostly short, grainy clips pitched to amusement—can in theory also be a fan of Tarkovsky’s long, eidetic, and solemn productions. … Only it turns out it doesn’t feel like that at all. We don’t feel as if we had freely chosen our online practices.” (I’m reminded of the “smell of books” anti-ebook argument.)
I grant that if you’re an aesthete, it can be difficult to wade through the internet to find online corollaries to your print paramours. Yes, there are laughing baby videos on YouTube, just like two of the best-selling adult trade books of the last fifteen years are both meant for teens. But there’s also Chris Marker’s “La Jetée,” an open discussion and reading of Infinite Jest, and The Institute for the Future of the Book’s scholars’ commentary experiment with Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. When I reread Gravity’s Rainbow in 2004, it was with an online book club, where we could link to critical essays and commentary with ease.
Which brings me to my second main objection. Why is everything so dichotomous in Kunkel’s essay anyway? He writes that “poetry, philosophy, history [are] modes of writing that hardly exist online.” On the contrary , online is where these modes of writing proliferate. (A scholar publishing his work in a peer-reviewed academic journal, the previous outlet for contemporary philosophy, will have an average readership of eight.) I expect if Kunkel spent some time online with a purpose, not just for browsing, he’d soon find all the article abstracts and classical poetry he could wish for. And he’d learn that one doesn’t need to be combative or hermetic about the internet. After all, isn’t getting lost in Swann’s Way the same as getting lost watching TED Talks?
NB: William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is a perfect corollary to Proust’s telephone excerpt for how our technological communications have effected our human interaction.