Little magazines that could
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