An Unoriginal New Magazine Falls on Tin Eyes

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:21

    Will noone at the Voice edit Cynthia Cotts, even when she's demonstrating thedeepest ignorance about her subject? Here's her opener to last week's "PressClips" column, a disastrous side trip from straight media reporting, atwhich she's bad enough, into a realm of the most crass poetasting: Go tothe back of St. Mark's Bookshop on East 9th Street, where you will see aninformation desk. The front of that desk has six shelves filled with literarymagazines, at knee level. Find the one whose cover is the color of cedar andhas the words "Tin House" inscribed on it. Hold it carefully andtake 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 thefuture of literary magazines deserves such pandering nonsense. Like almostanything touted by fools to be "the future of" anything, what TinHouse really looks like is the past. Cotts concedes this, if unconsciously,when she notes: "Harper's senior editor Ben Metcalf compares TinHouse to The Baffler and McSweeney's, two other lit mags recentlyarrived on the scene.

    This isan extraordinary statement, on several levels. Superficially, it's disconcertingto see a Voice columnist taking such an establishment opinion at facevalue and waving it at readers like a Good Taste Seal of Approval. Time wasthe Voice would have been mortified to display such craven bourgeoisfavor-currying. More importantly, it's a bald admission that Cotts hasn't theslightest 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 neverread The Baffler or McSweeney's before. The Baffler "recentlyarrived on the scene" a decade ago. It's been around long enough to spinoff a couple of books, make a minor media star of its chief curmudgeon Tom Frankand repeat its formula often enough to have fallen into a serious rut yearsago now. And it's much more a journal of political and cultural criticism thana 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 Houseonly too obviously strives to imitate it, not to say rip it off. The look ofTin 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'sretro 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-flagsa fundamentally pseudo esthetic at work here.

    Tin Housecomes late to the return to the bellettrist journal movement Cotts says TheBaffler, McSweeney's, Open House and other small publicationsrepresent. An uninspiredly organized collection of fiction, poetry, interviewsand articles, Tin House chaffs its dry palms over the glowing espritde 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 Bafflerits edge back before The Baffler commodified its own dissent. But youget no sense from this first issue that there's a monomaniacal Tom Frank orDave Eggers (McSweeney's) behind Tin House, no driving visionthat's going to give this magazine its personality and sense of purpose in theworld.

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

    "It'shandsome and exciting and stands out in a marketplace in which most of thosejournals look the same," says Ira Silverberg, a literary agent at Donadio& Olson... Silverbergelaborates, "Whereas most literary magazines in America are trapped ina mainstream aesthetic, these guys are willing to take risks. The juxtapositionof experienced and less experienced writers, new forms and old forms is goingto be exciting to readers." I know Ira.He's a nice guy and a smooth talker and I bet he never dreamed for one secondCotts would be such a gull as to quote whole great clots of this public relationsmuck so uncritically. Hey Ira, take a day off! You earned it. Not contentmerely to quote existing p.r. on the magazine, Cotts starts writing her ownpress release for it: The forcebehind the Tin buzz [What fucking buzz?] is editors Rob Spillman andElissa Schappell, a married couple who have contributed their skills to many,many magazines, including The Paris Review. "They have deep rootsin the Paris Review tradition," says Metcalf, "and now they'redoing it on their own." Oh, so it'snot some little outsidery hey-kids! startup Cotts just stumbled across in theback 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 therote antiestablishment political posturing of today, Cotts' reputation wouldbe on the line for sticking her nose so far up The Man's ass. Continuingin this odd, not to say right-deviationist, vein, Cotts informs us that Spillmanand Schappell "couldn't have done it without publisher and editor in chiefWin McCormack, a Portland, Oregon-based investor who has long dreamed of startinghis own for-profit lit mag. The two concepts McCormack insisted on were commercial-designtechniques and accessibility. According to Spillman, 'Our target audience isnot just people we like, but the smart, well-read person on the street.'"

    Okay, gotit. 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 upsome financing, and hooked up with a pair of Paris Review types to runit for him. Bully for all of them.

    "Sofar, so good for Tin House," Cotts continues, "which has justsigned a deal with Ingraham Periodicals to place 5000 copies in major bookstores.But the funky start-up [What's "funky" mean in this context? Readslike a pretty standard financing-marketing-distribution setup to me.] is justthe tip of what is being hailed as a renaissance for literary magazines in NewYork."

    And offshe goes into a riff on that most dread of culture-reporting cliches, The NextBig Thing. Word on the street is literature is cool! Salons are happening! Let'shave 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 youwant to go? poetry slams and Between C and D a decade ago? Patti Smithand Jim Carroll 25 years ago? Beatnik poetry in Greenwich Village coffeehouses?The Algonquin? Pick your epoch, honey.

    Is therereally a "renaissance" in literary magazines? Renaissance implieswe've just gone through a preceding dark age when no or few literary magazineswere being published. That's crap, of course. Literary magazines have been steadilyproduced, some rising and some falling, year after year, noticed by few outsidea tiny circle of writers and readers. The only thing really new about TinHouse is that there seems to be enough capital behind it to buy some publicrelations that raises it to a level where it dings the consciousness of a CynthiaCotts. She is falling here for the same species of spin that convinces youraverage clueless New York Times cultural reporter that this or that isNew, Now, The Look, The Trend, The Future, On The Edge. Last month it was TheOnion, 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 aboutCynthia Cotts! The woman is clearly an imbecile. Tell us about the writing inTin House. Isn't that what it all comes down to-the work? What's thework like?"

    And rightyou are. So, who are the contributors forging "the future of" literaturehere?

    Well, let'ssee. Here's the ubiquitous David Foster Fucking Wallace, with a piece of fictionannoyingly entitled "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the AcclaimedNew Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon." Like other WallaceI've read, it confirms my initial intuition that this is a guy in serious needof 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 apaean to Eno. Eno, in a lit mag: Cynthia must have thought that was sooo cuttingedge.

    There'slit-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-stainedsilk. A night to begin, to begin again."

    Merde. Andmerde again.

    Who else?Ron Carlson, Charles Simic, C.K. Williams (the writer, not the fragrance), anAriel 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 "NewVoices."

    For therest, as a list of contributors to a new literary magazine the only thing remarkableabout these names is their unremarkability. I don't mean to disparage thesepeople-well, most of them-they're generally good, solid writers, and Simic'sa 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 magput out by Random House or Knopf or Time-Life or Putumayo or Starbucks wouldinclude at least three-fourths of these names.

    Did I sayStarbucks? Finally demonstrating how much a Voice writer she is, Cottssnares an opportunity for a lazy, gratuitous swipe at this easiest of knee-jerkanti-chain-store targets outside of Barnes & Noble and McDonald's. "Neverone 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, andfull-color art, Joe lacks the alternative appeal of Tin Houseor Lit, but it stems from the same market analysis."

    What dazzlinghypocrisy. Here she is, not missing the "trend" herself, but becauseit's Starbucks she allows herself to sneer at them for doing exactly the samething. It's true Joe is awful; I went into a Starbucks, flipped throughit, bought a frappaccino, left Joe there. Couldn't bring myself to givethem $3 for it. It's more an in-store/in-flight magazine than a literary one.

    But Joeis only more "corporate" than Tin House in the sense that Joeis what Tin House might be with a Starbucks budget. They already sharethe "same market analysis," same bogus trend, same sort of publicrelations, same I'll swap you a Doug Coupland for a David Foster Wallace levelof "brand-name writers" (indeed, poor has-been Coupland is far lessa currently viable brand-name than Wallace, thus arguably a more daring editorialchoice). But because it's Starbucks Joe is automatically worse, it "lacksthe alternative appeal of Tin House." Which, as Cotts has just spentsome number of grafs evidently unintentionally demonstrating, is nonexistent.Tin House is as "alternative" as the CDs in the alt-rock binat the Virgin Megastore, and just as consciously crafted and "commercial[ly]design[ed]" to appeal to a certain market segment as Joe is, andCotts must have a stupefyingly naive view of cultural production and consumptionin today's world to think otherwise. It's an insult for Cotts and, for thatmatter, Metcalf to equate this small-cap me-too boutique product with genuinely original, highly personal, out-of-pocket enterprises like The Baffler andMcSweeney's.

    Cotts comesoff so self-contradicting and out of the loop here it makes me wonder if therewas a hidden agenda behind this column. Come clean, Cynthia: as your predecessorwould say, full disclosure time. What exactly about Tin House reallyprompted you to write this absurd column-length press release? Friends on themasthead or among the contributors? Spillman and Schappell old chums? That'sfine. It's nice to do friends a favor. Though you should have said that's whatyou're doing. Or were you scratching around for copy and this thing just fellin your lap, p.r. attached? That's fine too. It's summer.

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

    (And thenshe went on to write strangely about current Voice union negotiations,but I'll let Andrey Slivka tell you about that.) Afterwords There'sa chart on page 28 of the June 26-July 2 issue of The Economistthat so struck me I wondered at first if it wasn't a mistake. But then thisis The Economist, written on Parnassus, published from Olympus. For anarticle 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 struckme was beside the point of the article. It was what came in second: "Booksand 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 wantto know all the types of expenditures they lumped together to get to that $50billion, but still: second place? If it's true nobody reads anymore, who's spendingall that dough?

    Not Saloninvestors, apparently. Even as Salon's long-awaited IPO cameand fizzled last week, founder David Talbot was enjoying a little wavelet ofanti-anti-Talbot backlash in various corners of the media. Kind of an "Aw,c'mon, you cynics, lay off him" thing.

    You'll recallthat Salon's announcement that it was going public was received withhuge levels of skepticism throughout the rest of the media, including us hereat NYPress. The thesis of this last-minute mini-rally of support forTalbot was simple: The skeptics were just jealous. Salon's own JamesPoniewozik, who's leaving for Time, put the most humorous spin on itin his "Toto, I'm not Dave Kansas anymore" column (Kansas is the editorof the online money magazine The Street who suddenly became, on paperat least, $9 million richer from that IPO in May). It was an element of CarlSwanson'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 theirenvy cloud their judgment. "The fact that Talbot is about to get extremelyrich isn't what really bothers them," he wrote. "It's the fact thatthey aren't."

    Now, onerival has clearly been jealous as hell: Salon's IPO has been MichaelKinsley'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 businessside of magazine publishing ("new media" or "old") as CynthiaCotts knows about lit mags, bitched and queened all over Salon's potentialgood fortune. It hasn't been pretty.

    Kinsley'sgreen eyes notwithstanding, the thing is that the skeptics weren't wrong. Asrecent Internet IPOs go, there's no way else to put it: Salon's was adud. The timing was off, too late to catch this year's big wave of Internetinvestor euphoria; by June 22, when Salon hit the street, Internet stocksgenerally were on a long, steady downhill slide from their peak this spring. And the controversial "Dutch auction" method of offering the stockseemed to have further dampened the already tepid enthusiasm for an overvaluedonline magazine, just as the doubters said it would.

    On its firstday of trading, Salon's stock opened at $10.50, the bottom of its projectedprice range, and closed 5 percent down from that, at $10. Compare that to theshot-from-guns opening of other Net ventures like MarketWatch and TheStreet, which enjoyed triple-digit increases when they debuted (althoughthey tend to slide back toward Earth after that). Talbot did not get "extremelyrich." On paper, he only made $3 million-I say "only" becauseit's a lot less than the upsiders had predicted he'd get and a lot lessthan the paper fortunes Kansas, Jim Cramer and Marty Peretz made from TheStreet's booming liftoff (although, again, they're all worth less nowthat the stock has plummeted from its initial high). If Talbot cashes in, thenlets his pal Bill Clinton's tax man take his cut, he'll hardly have enough forthe down payment on those dream houses he fantasized about in that infamousWired interview.

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

    Noting howtough it is for magazines to raise capital from corporate or private backers,he writes, "If I were backing Talk, where I would have to expectto lose millions and millions of dollars just on parties alone to generate offlinebuzz 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 layout your own dollars when you could go to an investment bank and get other people's?

    "Tome, this Salon deal is a watershed deal. It ensures that Talkwill be the last offline magazine ever launched in this millennium or any othermillennium. Because no media company, let alone wealthy individuals, can affordto 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."