Journaling: An Interview with n+1's Mark Greif

by by Drew Dickerson

illustration by by Sarah Grimm


In the fall of 2004, the first issue of n+1 was released, a triannual literary magazine featuring essays, criticism, and fiction with editors Mark Greif, Keith Gessen, Chad Harbach, Benjamin Kunkel, and Marco Roth at the helm. They were young. They were and remain, according to Kunkel, “angrier than Dave Eggers and his crowd.” Issue one was titled “Negation” and offered only negative definition. Now in its fourteenth issue, the journal has received blurbs from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Jonathan Franzen and has put out a number of small books—the most recent of which, The Trouble is the Banks, is available November 13. The book collects letters from the website Occupy the Boardroom, letters from ordinary citizens to their bank executives detailing their problems and experiences within the financial system. It is well-bound and the order form allows the buyer the option to make a tax-deductible donation. The Independent spoke with Mark Greif over the phone at his New School office. Our conversation began after multiple false-starts.

The Independent: The Trouble is the Banks is the second book n+1 has put out about Occupy Wall Street. I was curious: what is the publication’s relationship or obligation to the movement?

Mark Greif: I don’t know if we have an obligation or not. I think that four years ago when Obama was running for president for the first time, people—friends of ours—actually criticized us, saying: “There’s a long historical connection between small magazines and a kind of political stance. And you all, n+1, have been all over the map politically. Maybe on the left, but eccentric in some ways. Here Obama’s running. Here’s your chance to do what your obligation should dictate that you do and get him elected. Endorse him.” Funny, because I think all of us were certainly voting for Obama. But we also had this strong feeling that it wasn’t our obligation as n+1 or as a magazine because speaking well of Obama, and endorsing him as a candidate was something that you could find everywhere else in the world. I guess the reason that Occupy was very exciting right from the first days in Zucotti Park was that we could recognize it as the kind of parts of life that get called ‘political’ that really do interest us. They involve a set of unknowns—possibilities that feel like they have not already been exhausted in what other people already have to say or already know. The thing that both the Occupy Gazette and this book, The Trouble is the Banks, have in common is that each of them, rather than expressing things we think we know, helps us to get answers to things we don’t know. Insofar as The Trouble is the Banks is a book that collects what people want from American democracy whom you never hear from—who don’t get to be in the newspaper, who are not on television, but who are writing these eloquent letters from all over the country—each of them made sense as an n+1 project as something that fulfilled whatever obligations that had been set in our own initial agenda for ourselves.

Indy: It seems to me that the strength of projects like Occupy the Boardroom and the “We Are the 99 percent” Tumblr is in the particularity of any one account. But the rhetoric of Occupy—“we are the 99 percent,” at least in that sound-bite—it seems like identity politics are being denied or bracketed. It’s this weird confluence of a lot of different issues. Is there a tension between the categorical unity of Occupy and the individuality of the occupier?

MG: I think it’s funny because, generationally, so many of us have been so steeped in identity politics—especially in college. I feel we’re so used to constantly thinking about potential confrontations or confluences of these things that people are surprisingly chill about it. Just as one of the things that marked Occupy was that you could feel the very gentle but very deliberate will of people to hang out in that same place as a common movement who, if they argued details or doctrine, would definitely disagree. In much the same way, I felt like you were in a space where people were so used to thinking about differences of identity or subject-position that they had reached a state of mind or were remarkably calm and gentle about trying to be with other people, who, if pressed, would likely articulate very different backgrounds and identities from which they were coming. And I think that was a hard thing for traditionalists especially to deal with when they wanted particular kinds of public statement from occupiers. Because points of doctrine and the kind of factionalism of doctrinal difference did mark the way that parts of the ’60s ran, for better and for worse. The very fact that people, especially when they looked out to the media, acted so deliberately unconcerned about these matters was disconcerting to a certain set of expectations.

Indy: You use the past tense in talking about Occupy. Is The Trouble is the Banks an attempt to narrate a past event or does it treat the movement as ongoing?


MG: I have the feeling that, and not happily do I say this, the event feels over. The event of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement. I don’t know if it will return as something that you can give a date to. It’s certainly true that you see a lot of groups working under different names who understand themselves to have come out of working groups in Zucotti Park or Oakland or all over the country. With The Trouble is the Banks I think the goal is to capture the sense that the underlying conditions that made people go out and camp out in squares and parks actually haven’t changed very dramatically. The kind of deeper wishes that people have to improve politics in America and also to improve the rules and laws for banks in America have not gone away. They kind of have to continue on their own, to be talked about and have demands made about them, regardless of the vicissitudes of larger scale, more ambitious social movements. I think of The Trouble is the Banks as coming out of the Occupy moment because that’s what made these people who met in Zucotti Park and created the original website ever try to collect these voices from all over the country. But those voices where people are saying: “Look. Here’s why my bank sucks. Here are the things that were done wrong.” They need to be heard right now by the people who are sitting in rooms working out the details of Dodd-Frank implementation. They need to be heard by politicians who have to decide what their priorities are. Probably they need to be heard most of all by the average citizen who feels alone with his or her thoughts. The Brown student who’s like: “Are my parents still the only ones who have an underwater mortgage?” No, these are large scale patterns and experiences that Americans are still having regardless of the success of different movements to speak to them.

Indy: Do you think the little magazine or small press is particularly well situated to start these conversations?

MG: I think so. There’s a mystique around the small magazine, that it often has wider effects than its circulation would suggest. I think there’s still truth to the mystique insofar as it’s very inexpensive to do a magazine and it’s very inexpensive nowadays to publish a small book. There is a good world of independent bookstores that will stock it and if people need to hear the words in that book, they’ll buy it. If your goal is to keep certain kinds of thoughts alive that don’t get spoken elsewhere or if your goal is to just find a place for people to say things that everyone must be thinking but are somehow unsayable in the newspapers and publishing houses, then the small magazine and the small book become the only place to get that kind of thinking and conversation going.

Indy: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like n+1 as a magazine and institution is very centered around the academy. I’m calling you at New School right now. All of the founding editors went to Ivy League schools. What sort of perspective does that offer?

MG: I think, very explicitly from the beginning, we wanted to try to make a magazine that stood between the university and what gets called “the literary world.” I was a grad student when we started the magazine and I was like, “God. Graduate school is the worst. Really I should be a writer and to do that it seems all I can do is publish book reviews.” Which, at that time, you still could do. The other editors—Keith Gessen, Ben Kunkel, Chad Harbach—they were all working on novels or short stories and thinking about the gap between their lives alone trying to write fiction and the really dignified and grandiose, meaningful visions of the novel that they had learned about in college. That’s the thing: they too could only publish book reviews. It meant this life of a double dissatisfaction. You could do things in the academy, which is definitely where I have my day job and where I’m very happy, or you could do things as an independent novelist—which is where those guys wound up, making enough money to live, although they had to take a lot of other jobs along the way. Yet it felt like the two did not adequately come together in a third place where you wouldn’t have to pretend your ideas only came from some new book or record that you were reviewing and you wouldn’t have to do these endless, redundant literature reviews like in academia and you also wouldn’t have to suffer the journalistic or fictional fate of not getting to say something titanic. So I think you’re absolutely right. The university creeps in in certain ways. But the goal, originally, was to have it be suspended between these two worlds.

Indy: Would you describe n+1 as a young person’s magazine?


MG: It’s embarrassing for me to describe it as a young person’s magazine because now I’m old. But the answer is definitely yes. I think that if I can say it without embarrassment or fakery it’s because there’s been an effort to try to hand it to younger editors. People who were formerly our interns. And also I guess it always had the young person’s vision on an insistence on the new and a kind of generational revolt, or generational overthrow whenever people became too settled as writer or thinkers, in a kind of narrow definition of what art counted, what phenomena mattered. That consciousness of a young people’s magazine, whatever it would be, always cut against a kind of wish, right from the beginning, that a certain generational continuity be restored in the ways that people had fun or the ways that people had fun for nerds. Intellectuals’ fun. Talking about books and ideas. I remember when I was still in college, one of the best things that ever happened to me was someone took me to a Paris Review party. Not that I was a huge fan of the Paris Review. But, as it turned out, I was really a fan of their parties. What struck me was: “Oh my God. I’m going to see actual writers. I’m going to see actual literary people.” Here was George Plimpton and here was Norman Mailer and here was a crowd of people and they seem to really enjoy getting 20-year-olds drunk. They actually had this aesthetic of intellectual hospitality where, when new people showed up in New York like me, they felt it was their obligation to let them come to a party and hang out. But I said, “All of these people are like 80 years old. They belong to a world we lionize, these small magazines of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s but, curiously, they’re still doing it. And they really should be moving around with walkers and canes, if they’re not already. How come the people who are 40 aren’t doing this? What happened to those intervening layers?” This sounds particularly bizarre, but I think there was ambition from the earliest days to create a place that would still be having parties and still be having conversations and times when people would be sitting around a table that would still welcome the 20-year-old who showed up in New York and wanted to talk about ideas.

Indy: As I understand it, the Paris Review of today is relatively young.

MG: I guess I would be more inclined to say that the rejuvenation, in the literal sense, of the Paris Review is a real event. It’s something really particular. It really happened because Lorin Stein took over there. The whole group there is of people who are a lot closer to our heart or beliefs at n+1 and what a magazine like this can do. And Lorin himself is somebody who was always a kind of collaborator in another world. He used to be at FSG (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) when we were trying to figure all this stuff out too. I remember Keith, Lorin, and I would try to figure out how n+1 could ever publish books at FSG. And it seemed like this impossible task. But it was fun. That’s what you do. You sit around saying: “This is impossible. How are we going to do it?” I do think something really particular has happened. I look around and you see the newly revived Paris Review and you see all these younger people with whom one often both likes and disagrees with. I often disagree with their vision of parts of literary life. But I like them.

Indy: What parts?

MG: Well it’s funny because the Paris Review has always had a vision of literature—and it’s one that I think the new Paris Review sustains—which is focused on literature as a kind of autonomous sphere and art as something that may make life worth living, I believe that too, but needs to be kept more independent from criticism and more independent from the flow of things we think of as non-fictional. I think n+1 is more devoted to trying to figure out the ties and effects back and forth between the world of art and all the other things that bother you.

Indy: And it feels like you see this aesthetic autonomy sometimes extended to publication itself and everything becomes hyper-precious. Do you guys still exist in as an antagonistic relationship with the McSweeney’s publishing empire as you used to?

MG: I feel as a point of honor I should maintain our antagonism. Because actually, even sometimes when you like the people, there is something really valuable to keeping real disagreements alive. If they’re real. Kind of the way we all think, certainly the way I find myself thinking, is through alternatives and getting to look at the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and going: “Well… clearly the Beatles got it right about this, but the Rolling Stones got it right about that.” The more people seriously mark out divisions, the better the world works and advances a little bit. So yes, I would maintain my very strong antagonism to the McSweeney’s project even though, The Believer especially has been a place where a lot of our younger writers and interns will publish pieces that are great. And it’s certainly the case that even I will pick up The Believer and read pieces from time to time. Yet I do think their orientation is still different from ours.