On the n+1 symposium

Until now the most mysterious aspect of n+1 has been “The Intellectual Situation,” an unsigned survey at the front of each issue that appears to reflect the opinions of all the editors (Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Benjamin Kunkel, and Marco Roth). How, I’ve wondered, do four people with such divergent critical voices manage to put together, without loss of life or limb, a single, seemingly cohesive statement?

So I enjoyed the editors’ introduction to the symposium, featured in the fourth issue, on the state of “American Writing Today.”

In Number Three, n+1 published a long reply from the critic James Wood to our earlier commentary on contemporary fiction and criticism. With all the ardor of critics facing an honored adversary, the Editors sat down to reply to Wood’s reply and to clarify the position of a progressive and confrontational literature against his defense of the permanent and humane. Editor 1 wrote an elegant manifesto — which Editor 2 crossed out before writing his own. Editor 3 cut the result in favor of his contrary views. Editor 4 mixed in. This went on for weeks. Once everyone had deleted everyone else’s unique position, we were left with a magisterial 250-word thank-you note.

We concluded that perceptions of contemporary writing and criticism differ so sharply, even among those who think they agree, that the last word should not belong either to Wood or to us. We’ve asked a number of critics and writers representing different areas of contemporary writing to join the debate.

Contributors were asked about the conditions of production of new work; its character and traits; and the figures and creators who have most influenced each field. In an era of repetition, we need a debate on American writing that begins where academic histories end.

In the next week or two, I’ll be interviewing Keith Gessen and Mark Greif, the n+1 editors whose criticism I always make a point of reading, about the symposium.

I didn’t make it out to The Kitchen for Tuesday night’s panel discussion. If you did, email me your thoughts and questions, and maybe I’ll incorporate them into the interview.


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