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The New Haven Review and the Making of a New Generation of Public Intellectuals

David Fitzpatrick got a phone call after his essay appeared in the New Haven Review . It was a literary agent who invited him to turn it into a book. The essay, called “My Decade on Broadway,” is a spare, aching and tender reflection on life in a New Haven group home. Fitzpatrick spent much of his adulthood there recovering from bipolar disorder and obsessive self-mutilation. He started writing about the experience after being released in 2007. Two years later, his writing teacher suggested he submit a draft to a brand-new local journal. “My Decade on Broadway” appeared in the spring 2010 issue of the New Haven Review . His book, to be published by HarperCollins, is set for release in 2012.

This might not have happened 20 years ago.

Not like that, anyway.

Back then, the publishing world was like a closed circuit; consolidation of corporate media stymied new literary voices more often than it nurtured them. Publishing now is more like a vast open prairie. Anyone can publish anything anytime for anyone. The landscape is littered with the remains of the media giants who once controlled which books get talked about and which don’t. All that changed during the time David Fitzpatrick was recovering.

It’s easy to forget that newspapers were already doing poorly by the time the 2008 economic meltdown hit. At the time, newsrooms were shedding book editors and arts critics and in general shifting away from a commitment to ideas and culture that had been in place since the 1970s. Call it the crisis in book reviewing. Daily newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and other major cities gutted their pages or buried books behind columns about gardening and pets. By 2009, the New York Times Book Review was the last stand-alone section in the country and still is.

It was a crisis whose particulars comprised the fall of the stock-in-trade thumbs-up-thumbs-down book review but whose broad strokes suggested something larger — an abandoning of intellectual expression altogether. Yet it was in this climate that a writer like Fitzpatrick, a man haunted by demons whose writing had been published just once by an obscure website, found a readership — and a book deal.

Even as print space for books gets smaller, even as information technology continues to blast the mass-media glory of newspapers into a million little niches (thus making it harder to make money, thus making the space for books even smaller), a new generation of believers is emerging. They are weary of cynicism and the nostalgia for the past. They champion books, the craft of writing and the power of ideas. They see the present as an antidote, not as an antagonist, to the past. They see now as a time in which public intellectuals can be relevant to how life is lived.

Think of them as a kind of optimist’s book club.

There have always been independent publishers and there are certainly many blogs devoted to books. But this feels different. This new generation is printing knuckle-thick journals not just of fiction and poetry but of social and political criticism, with an eye for engaging the public and its concern for the issues of the day. Some are committed to serious web journals. Others parlay their words and ideas into live readings, musical events and even keggers. And some, like the editors of the New Haven Review, are doing the unthinkable in this age of the Kindle, Nook and iPad. They are publishing books. On paper.

Good writers in our midst

There are two things about Connecticut that make it ideal for a new literary publication. One, the area is home to writers of note: poets, journalists, novelists and critics. Two, there’s no schmoozy cocktail scene. Writers who live here are too busy writing novels or articles for Harper’s or Discover to pick up their heads. The only missing ingredient was a lasting sense of community among individuals. Creating that community takes someone determined to pull it together. Someone like Mark Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is the author of three books, two on American religion. He writes the “Beliefs” column for The New York Times . Perhaps the least recognized of his talents is an ability to connect people — Oppenheimer knows virtually every writer in Connecticut. (It does seem that way, anyway; I had to go as far away as South Carolina to find an impartial critic to review his latest book, a memoir called Wisenheimer , in the Advocate .) That came after putting the first New Haven Review together. “Important writers were living 10 miles from each other but didn’t know it,” Oppenheimer says. “We wanted to prove all the writers were there; they just didn’t talk to each other.”

Oppenheimer joined Brian Slattery and Tom Gogola (who, like Oppenheimer, is a former editor of the Advocate ) to print one issue mostly of book reviews. They thought they’d never do it again. “Unless some angel comes along, this may be the last you hear of the New Haven Review of Books ,” Oppenheimer said in The Huffington Post.

That was 2007. Today, the New Haven Review , as it’s now called, has become a biannual journal of poetry, short fiction, memoir, essays, criticism and journalism (its website hosts original reviews and think-pieces on books, local theater and visual arts, among other brainy fare). The journal has also grown to become the center of a thriving literary culture that includes pub crawls, a short-story reading series called “Listen Here” (performed by members of the New Haven Theater Company), a radio show on WNPR and now the publication of original books by Connecticut authors: How to Win Her Love , a satire by Rudolph Delson; Blue for Oceans , poetry by Charles Douthat, father of the op-ed columnist for The New York Times; and Kentauros , a novella by Gregory Feeley. Each will read from his work on Jan. 26 at the New Haven Public Library. (6 p.m., 133 Elm St., free, 203-946-8130).

The journal’s first issue featured respected writers like novelist Amy Bloom, journalist Bruce Shapiro and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Debby Applegate. Since then, Oppenheimer says, the journal has discovered numerous “not-famous writers,” like Paul Beckman (a short story author in Madison), Michael Milburn (a teacher at the Foote School in New Haven) and, of course, David Fitzpatrick.

“In every issue since that first one, we’ve had writers coming out of the woodwork,” Oppenheimer says. “These are national-caliber writers in our midst.”

Reacting to the crisis in book reviewing

It was fun, but the aforementioned crisis was a key motivation, says Slattery, who works as an editor for public-policy think-tanks (he also moonlights as a humble yet critically acclaimed science-fiction novelist known as Brian Francis Slattery). “It was definitely a reaction to that,” he says. “There were a ton of book reviews in that first issue. We wanted to engage books in more than 600 words.”

Slattery understands why newspapers have moved away from literary criticism. “There’s logic to the belief that if people read less, why produce reviews,” Slattery says. “Newspapers have to make money. But if literary culture is important, there are reasons why it’s worth doing for free.”

The idea that you had to get something in return for your investment in book-y things — whether articles about books or books themselves — is a phenomenon of recent history, Slattery says. Publishing used to be regarded as a civic duty, a profession of acquired pleasure. There was even an allure to it. “People have forgotten that,” he says.

Since the 1980s, publishing has gone through a draconian process of commercialization. With that has come the enormous cost of maintaining huge corporations. Yet when you strip away all the overhead, when you get right down to what it actually costs to publish books, how much is it?

“Not much,” Slattery says. “We don’t need all that.”

Along with institutional print journals like The Yale Review and the Connecticut Review (a group effort by the Connecticut State University System) and long-established web journals like The Fairfield Review and The Drunken Boat (Chester), at least four new web journals have emerged in Connecticut since the book review crisis began: Brink Magazine (a literary quarterly), Gently Read Literature (monthly book reviews of independent publishers), The Hydra (a blog of heady cultural criticism by Yale students) and The Dirty Pond (art and literary bimonthly mostly about New Haven).

Elsewhere, The Second Pass and The Critical Flame , both web journals, have attempted to replace what newspapers have left behind. The New Inquiry , A Public Space and n+1 in Brooklyn, The Point in Chicago, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion in Los Angeles and Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture in San Francisco — all are independent journals with web accompaniments that are reactions in one way or another to the diminishing space for intellectual discussion in the mainstream. And they’re bravely, defiantly doing it in print. Newest is the focus on community building around literary events. Most outlets now host all sorts of events, from public readings to concerts to parties.

The death of the review

On May 2, 2007, a Times headline said it all: “Are Book Reviewers Out of Print?” The Dallas Morning News axed its long-time critic. The Los Angeles Times scuppered its stand-alone book section. Alarming cutbacks at the Chicago Tribune , San Francisco Chronicle and the Hartford Courant ensued. The Associated Press closed its review desk. Virtually the same thing happened at The Boston Globe . The print version of The Washington Post Book World died in 2009. (That’s the same year that Time-Warner sold ex-dial-up giant AOL, sending the $164 billion merger into the dustbin of history.)

Attention to what was happening galvanized when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution , then the most widely circulated newspaper in the Southeast, decided it was no longer in the newspaper business but in the “information distribution” business. It fired its popular book editor, Teresa Weaver.

Outraged, and fearing a portentous trend, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) launched a “Campaign to Save Book Reviews.” The NBCC amassed 10,000 signatures to protest Weaver’s dismissal. Salman Rushdie, the novelist, was among them.

A place for new public intellectuals

The New Haven Review , and others like it, were a reaction to the crisis in book reviewing. The crisis in book reviewing was itself a late-breaking result of a confluence of forces: the internet, the macroeconomic thinking behind Reaganomics (what’s called neoliberalism these days) and business decisions that made media companies so big that they virtually collapsed under the weight of their own success.

But there’s another reason why someone like David Fitzpatrick, who suffered from bipolar disorder and from years of self-mutilation, who could not function on his own for the better part of a decade, could find expression in the pages of a new literary journal (he submitted to the Advocate , but his essay was, um, too long, even by the Advocate ’s unorthodox “standards”) and find an audience with a major publishing house — and it’s not because of the book review crisis and it’s not because the internet “breaks down barriers,” though those both play an obvious part.

The reason is a change in attitude.

Age has something to do with that. The editors of the New Haven Review are under 40. So are most of the other editors discussed here. They were born after the culture wars began and have no memory of a time before television. If they know the disappointments of the preceding generation, it’s only through their parents, and that, alone, is reason enough for an attitude adjustment. This new generation is educated, motivated and buoyed by a kind of literary idealism. While David Fitzpatrick’s memoir might not have fit into a traditional print journal, Mark Oppenheimer’s and Brian Slattery’s cast of mind influenced how they conceived of the New Haven Review : They didn’t put constraints on the kind of writing to appear in its pages as long as the writing was good. Most importantly, they believed in Fitzpatrick. In a world in which reviews, if they get printed at all, are shorter and shorter, and in which reading is condescended to even by those who make a living as writers, that’s downright rebellious.

Jonny Thakkar, of The Point , agrees.

“Many felt patronized by an older elite that keeps on telling us that people our age no longer read,” he says. “What it’s created is a weird sense of rebellion against these apologists for the supposedly inevitable future, who claim to be awakening us to our ineluctable fate but are in fact ‘deciding’ to damage what we value, all the while claiming to do so on our behalf.”

Thakkar says there’s a link between the new optimism and print. “Our generation grew up during a couple of decades of increasingly empty materialism, in which there really didn’t seem to be any political alternatives, especially after the supposed ‘end of history’ in 1989,” Thakkar says. “Many of us yearn for something of real value, something produced with craft, for a real purpose, and we treasure it when we find it. It’s no accident that one of the most successful literary magazines of our time is called The Believer — the title speaks for anti-cynicism.”

Indeed, amid the rending of garments over the loss of intellectual engagement with the public, intellectuals have been engaging with the public. Arts & Letters Daily has been a thinking-man’s staple since 1998. Crooked Timber and The Valve are just two vibrant group blogs hosted by scholars. The Chronicle of Higher Education has its own pixilated passel. Yet these are online-only and affiliated with schools (the Chronicle ’s bloggers are all professors). Most print journals pay deference to their institutional benefactors and most don’t engage in political debate; instead they stick with fiction, poetry and scholarly essays. Which is fine. But that’s precisely what makes n+1 , The Point , The New Inquiry and the New Haven Review — independent print journals whose core is challenging orthodoxies of power, taste and creed — feel alive and new.

What’s more, these new optimists come at a time when more people earn advanced degrees than ever before. There are fewer jobs awaiting them in academe. Even if jobs were there, many eschew the scholar’s life, hoping to apply what they have learned to the “outside world.”

Scott McLemee has said the golden age of the public intellectual will never return, unless history “accidentally recreates some of the constitutive elements of the old cultural order: a body of surplus intellectuals who are not very well integrated into the system.” Sound familiar?

“Maybe we are mythologizing the past, but there used to be something called the public intellectual,” Brian Slattery, of the New Haven Review , says. “There doesn’t seem to be outlets large enough to handle longer, more considered pieces. All of us have the feeling there should be more writing done in non-jargony ways so ideas can have an effect. Lots of academic writing has societal value.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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