Lit­tle mag­a­zines that could

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - GREG SHERI­DAN

SMALL mag­a­zines with big ideas. The world is full of them and they re­main, blog­gers of the world not­with­stand­ing, a cen­tral por­tal to the in­tel­lec­tual life. Books are more im­por­tant than mag­a­zines. But small mag­a­zines oc­cupy a cru­cial ground be­tween the 100,000- word treat­ment of an idea, a treat­ment that is meant to last for years, and the im­me­di­ate dis­cus­sion of pub­lic pol­icy in news­pa­pers.

The in­tel­lec­tual mag­a­zine typ­i­cally gives you longer pieces and aims at a clev­erer tone, as­sumes a wider range of knowl­edge in its reader, the ed­u­cated lay­man.

Many years ago I thought Bri­tish mag­a­zine The Spec­ta­tor the best of the small mag­a­zines. But The Spec­ta­tor , like the other Bri­tish cul­tural ex­port The Bill , has gone off in re­cent years. You read The Spec­ta­tor now as you watch The Bill , for glimpses of its old style, the oc­ca­sional en­ter­tain­ing episode and out of the residue of in­creas­ingly fit­ful habit.

I find I read it less and less. It has be­come too pre­dictable and it has got the bal­ance be­tween style and sub­stance wrong. It is try­ing so hard to be clever that there’s not enough knowl­edge bang for the style buck. And, as you may ex­pect, when you over- em­pha­sise style at the ex­pense of sub­stance, the style suf­fers as well.

The is­sue of Fe­bru­ary 9 is a good ex­am­ple. The sec­ond billed story on the cover screams ‘‘ Inside Ha­mas: Mike Cham­ber­lain gets unique ac­cess’’. But when you read it, it adds up to noth­ing. It’s a story about a television doc­u­men­tary- maker do­ing a story on Ha­mas and, as for sub­stance, it is al­most en­tirely vac­u­ous.

And its point of view is in­evitably slightly proHa­mas, de­scrib­ing the ter­ror group’s pol­i­tics as ‘‘ for­eign to a West­ern au­di­ence’’ in­stead of to­tal­i­tar­ian and ter­ror­ist, which would be the ac­cu­rate terms. In the past 10 years The Spec­ta­tor has suc­cumbed to anti- Amer­i­can and fre­quently anti- Is­raeli prej­u­dice. What was once an en­ter­tain­ing crank­i­ness and bravado is now just a sour Tory dis­sat­is­fac­tion with ev­ery­thing.

It lost its last claim to dis­tinc­tion when it lost Cana­dian Mark Steyn as its film reviewer. Steyn is a witty writer. I of­ten don’t like him much on is­sues of sub­stance be­cause the wit gets in the way of se­ri­ous anal­y­sis, but as a film reviewer he was per­fect. The Spec­ta­tor ’ s re­place­ment film reviewer, Deb­o­rah Ross, is ap­palling, oc­ca­sion­ally even re­sort­ing to four- let­ter words as a sub­sti­tute for wit.

One rea­son I think small mag­a­zines are still more im­por­tant than blogs is that they are edited to a much higher stan­dard than blogs. The edi­tors of a good mag­a­zine en­ter a com­pact with me when I buy it. They have edited and vouched for ev­ery­thing in the mag­a­zine. Unedited blogs, and even edited blogs, are not only pro­duced to a much less lit­er­ate stan­dard, many of them con­tain count­less er­rors of ba­sic fact. The web­sites I look at most of­ten, there­fore, are the ones that re­pro­duce elec­tron­i­cally what they else­where pro­duce in print.

One small mag­a­zine that never lets me down is US jour­nal The New Repub­lic .

This is a small- l lib­eral, pro- Demo­crat maga- zine, but it would be fair to say it’s a mag­a­zine of lib­eral hawks. I find in ev­ery is­sue it chal­lenges and sur­prises me, and de­spite its for­mal po­lit­i­cal al­le­giance it gives off the air of in­tel­lec­tual in­tegrity. For ex­am­ple, it is fiercely anti- Bush but, un­like the pro­vin­cial Bush haters of Aus­tralia, it ac­knowl­edges when Ge­orge W. Bush does some­thing good, and it oc­ca­sion­ally even ac­knowl­edges good mo­ti­va­tion by Bush and his team.

The New Repub­lic ’ s film reviewer, Stan­ley Kauff­mann, is a gem. He must be 100 years old, as he seems to re­mem­ber ev­ery as­pect of an­cient film his­tory, but he writes beau­ti­fully, with pre­ci­sion and el­e­gance and un­con­trived eru­di­tion. The mag­a­zine’s lit­er­ary ed­i­tor Leon Wieseltier is, I think, the finest prose stylist in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism.

At The New Repub­lic writ­ers give the im­pres­sion of strug­gling with the world as they find it, mix­ing their own in­sights and learn­ing and cu­rios­ity, and reach­ing their con­clu­sions as hon­estly as they can. This process some­times sur­prises the reader, it some­times sur­prises the writer.

Wieseltier, for ex­am­ple, un­ex­pect­edly de­vel­oped some real doubts about Barack Obama and some sym­pa­thy for John McCain. On Jan­uary 30, he wrote: ‘‘ All this ador­ing talk has the con­se­quence of mak­ing Obama stand for lit­tle more than his own iden­tity. But ev­ery iden­tity, even the most ex­otic one, is nar­row, un­til life widens it. No­body is ad­e­quately equipped by their ori­gins to man­age hu­man af­fairs.’’

Wieseltier went on to record his some­what sur­prised sym­pa­thy for McCain, an un­ex­pected po­si­tion for him to take, ex­pressed beau­ti­fully, and in­tensely in­ter­est­ing.

Re­cently I have be­come very fond of The Weekly Stan­dard . ( Full dis­clo­sure: The Weekly Stan­dard is owned by News Cor­po­ra­tion, the par­ent com­pany of News Lim­ited, which owns The Week­end Aus­tralian , and I have writ­ten for the Stan­dard .)

Like The New Repub­lic and The Spec­ta­tor , the Stan­dard is a po­lit­i­cal mag­a­zine that deals widely with cul­ture. It op­er­ates, as Lionel Trilling put it, ‘‘ at the bloody cross­roads where lit­er­a­ture and pol­i­tics meet’’.

It is edited by the most bril­liant of the neo­con­ser­va­tives, Bill Kristol. Its witty and clever film reviewer, John Pod­horetz, is a con­ser­va­tive, but not just a con­ser­va­tive. He is first a film reviewer who merely hap­pens to be a con­ser­va­tive. Amer­i­cans at this level are good at hav­ing an ide­ol­ogy but not let­ting it dom­i­nate ev­ery­thing or blind them to in­con­ve­nient facts.

When the Stan­dard first got go­ing I was a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed in it. Its ar­ti­cles were too short and it seemed, as one critic put it, to be television pun­ditry by other means. Now it is both meaty and en­joy­able, sub­stan­tial and stylish, en­ter­tain­ing to read but full of sub­stance at the same time. This is one of the hard­est things in any jour­nal­ism: to take se­ri­ous sub­jects se­ri­ously, but at the same time write about them en­ter­tain­ingly and wit­tily.

The best of Aus­tralia’s small mag­a­zines has al­ways been Quad­rant , mainly be­cause of its un­apolo­getic in­tel­lec­tual am­bi­tion ( which it doesn’t al­ways ful­fil), its con­trar­ian stub­born­ness and its de­fi­ant cos­mopoli­tanism. ( Fur­ther full dis­clo­sure: though I have not been in­volved with it for many years, I was once Quad­rant ’ s as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor and for a long time a mem­ber of its edi­to­rial ad­vi­sory board.)

Small mag­a­zines can cast gi­ant shad­ows. Of­ten full of bitchy gos­sip, in­tensely iden­ti­fied with their edi­tors, fre­quently writ­ten by ob­ses­sive neu­rotics, they are the true and nat­u­ral home of the in­tel­lec­tual life.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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