The Invisible Art of Magazines

Paul Constant

October 19, 2015

Magazines fill a very particular literary void. We read novels for their depth and substance, we read comics to be dazzled, we read poetry collections to be immersed in the brain of a person who sees the world differently than we do. But we read magazines when we want to hear a chorus of voices, when we want to travel, when we need to filter a large expanse of the world through a singular organizational perspective.

When most of us read the internet, what we’re doing is creating our own magazines. With the help of our friends on Facebook and Twitter, we curate a magazine out of blog posts and recaps and Tumblrs and longform pieces. The collapse of the magazine industry indicates that for most of us, this ramshackle way of mimicking the magazine experience is good enough, it does the job. We are our own anthologists.

But the thing that disappears when we graze the internet to create Me Magazine is editorial intent. This is an underrated part of any magazine experience. It’s the invisible aspect of magazine production, but it’s the most important piece. A good magazine isn’t just a bullpen full of writers, it’s the product of an editor who guides and cajoles and corrects those writers in service of the greater institutional voice. If you’ve ever passionately loved a magazine, and if that love affair has ever come to an abrupt end, the thing that likely happened was the departure of an editor. The writers may stay, and the quality of their writing may even continue to be strong, but the person at the top, the one with an eye on the finished product, is gone. This is the problem: an orchestra without a conductor is about as enjoyable as an all-volunteer kazoo band.

John Freeman was, for a very long time, an editor at Granta magazine. There, he became that rarest of creatures: a famous editor. When you think of Granta today, that institutional vibration you’re picturing in your brain — the surety of voice, the questing spirit that brings young artists and international writers together between two covers — was set in motion by John Freeman. Now, two years after leaving Granta, Freeman is getting back into the book-shaped magazine game. His new twice-yearly magazine, a co-production with Grove Atlantic, is named Freeman’s. And the first issue of Freeman’s is undoubtedly the most attention-getting debut since The Believer first launched into the world.

Each issue of Freeman’s is based on a theme. This first issue’s theme, appropriately, is “Arrival.” In his introduction, Freeman writes:

It would be traditional at this point for me to explain why Freeman’s needs to exist: to gripe or complain, to slight fellow travelers, to declare an aesthetic manifesto, or to apologize for bringing more. I won’t do that. Any reader wants more — more life, more experiences, more risk than one’s own life can contain. The hard thing, perhaps, is where to find it in one place. My hope is that, two times a year, Freeman’s can bring that to you in this form: a collection of writing grouped loosely around a theme. A collection of writing that will carry you.

It’s sneaky of Freeman to smuggle a little mission statement into the same paragraph that begins with an unequivocal refutation of mission statements. But it’s wholly appropriate, too. Freeman has been in this business a long time, and he’s developed confidence. He knows the one thing that every good editor knows: you don’t tell. You show. He’s not going to boast about putting a brilliant magazine together. He’s just going to do it.

I don’t know what Freeman’s call to action for Freeman’s looked like. Most likely, it began as a mass email, or a series of phone calls. But the cast of contributors in this issue makes me imagine an Ocean’s Eleven-style montage, where Freeman travels to exotic locales recruiting the best in the business for this new job he’s trying to pull off. He interrupts Haruki Murakami in the middle of a jazz show in Tokyo. Murakami is sullen at first, but then he agrees. He calls on Dave Eggers at the back offices of 826 Valencia, where Eggers stands over a tank of dolphins, trying to teach them how to write memoirs. He finds Anne Carson on an archeological dig, intervenes in a bar fight Aleksandar Hemon kicked off in some New Jersey backwater, and flies to London to recruit a skeptical Tahmima Anam to join the team for one last job.

If anything, the first issue of Freeman’s is too star-studded. Nearly any of these names could have provided a centerpiece for their own issue, further down the line. It’s the kind of literary dream team masthead that makes you wonder if Freeman can keep up that kind of enthusiasm for future issues. Hopefully, as Freeman’s develops, he’ll make room for debut authors and champion emerging new voices who can’t find purchase in the dwindling establishment magazines. Freeman has helped launch too many careers for the magazine that bears his name to not continue that charge. We look to him to find the new voices, and this first issue responds with beloved voices. It is a treat, but it is not enough.

This, though, is a quibble. What Freeman is doing here is showing, not telling. He’s giving us a demonstration of his editorial powers (and maybe bragging about his Rolodex a little bit, which is a fine thing for the editor of a new magazine to do) and setting the table for future get-togethers. He’s overwhelming us in the hopes that we’ll return every six months, our expectations raised a little more every time, looking to be overwhelmed again.

This first issue represents an abundance of genius. Colum McCann uses the short term parking lot at Dublin Airport as a symbol of Ireland’s economic turbulence. Murakami’s short fiction about a man tormented by his dead wife’s infidelity, “Drive My Car,” is the best piece he’s published in a few years. Etgar Keret shares a funny anecdote about getting way too high just before his first reading. Michael Salu’s “The Nod” is a science-fiction story about being trapped in a banal video game that’s fraught with all the anxiety and heartbreak of real life. Laura Van Den Berg’s “The Dog” begins as domestic literary fiction but then warps into something bizarre and lovely and absolutely perfect. Helen Simpson writes a story about a woman reflecting on the end of her fertile years just as…

…Her own girls, fifteen and sixteen, were at the start of it all. They still hadn’t gotten used to their bodies gearing up, thought Liz with a pang; they oscillated between pride and outrage at the new conditions of life to which they now saw they would have to reconcile themselves (and in strict silence, too, publicly at least). Emerging into lunar beauty, they were virulently critical of her appearance and frighteningly sensitive about their own.

There’s not a bad piece of writing here, and it’s all positioned just-so, into a fine blend of poetry and fiction and non-fiction. (It would be nice to see some comics and criticism in future issues.) But the drama of the book walks on a tightrope drawn between two extraordinary pieces of autobiographical writing.

Garnette Cadogan’s “Walking While Black” begins with an account of Cadogan’s beginnings as a flaneur in his native Jamaica. The nation was suffering from an apocalyptically bad crime rate, Cadogan explains, and wearing the “wrong color in the wrong neighborhood could mean your last day.” But his love of walking transcended his fear of violence, and he developed strategies for survival, including bellowing random words and phrases at awkward moments, as though he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, to appear sympathetic and harmless to anyone who would wish to do him harm.

But then Cadogan moved to the United States, and he learned that walking the streets as a black man in the US was in many ways worse than walking the streets of Jamaica. People would cross the street to keep away from him, and the police would harass him repeatedly. One time, he found himself in handcuffs because he dared to offer a friendly wave to a policeman. He concludes that “Walking — the simple, monotonous act of placing one foot in front of the other to prevent falling — turns out not to be so simple if you’re black. Walking alone has been anything but monotonous for me; monotony is a luxury.”

The climactic story in the first issue of Freeman’s is an essay from Lydia Davis about her efforts to read an incredibly boring Norwegian book of genealogy. The catch is that the book was not translated into English, and Davis does not speak Norwegian. Worse, Davis decided to place constraints on her reading that would seemingly make the task impossible:

Soon after beginning, I decided to continue as long as I could, making my way word by word, regardless of how much I understood, through the whole of the book. I would also do it “cold”—without looking anything up in a dictionary and without seeking help (hjelp) by turning to a native Norwegian.

Davis’s story is small in scope (though large in ambition) and the allure of it comes in her description of wrestling with the text by staring at every single word and willing its meaning to reveal itself. It’s a thrilling account, and one that is uncharacteristically chatty and generous, coming as it does from Davis, who has garnered a reputation as a master of minimalism.

The beauty of a magazine, though, is that each piece has at least two meanings: there’s the writer’s intent, the question of what they’re trying to communicate to readers, and then there’s the editor’s intent. What is Freeman trying to say by making Davis’s story the last one in the magazine? Maybe it’s this: every text has meaning. Or maybe: good reading takes time. Freeman’s demands your attention, inspires you to be a better reader, and encourages you to appreciate the magazine for what it is: a collaborative work of art, inspired by a singular vision.

Books in this review:
  • Freeman's
    by John Freeman

    October 01, 2015
    297 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound