For more than two centuries, time has been felt to be passing more and more quickly. Scholars tell us that since the twin revolutions of the 18th century — industrial and political — a general sense of time speeding up has been recorded with regularity in documents of all kinds. Political and technical progress somehow meant that people were always losing ground, unable to keep up, out of breath.
The Intellectual Situation
Labor & Letters
In June 1934, the workers of the Macaulay Company, a publishing house, attempted to join a white-collar trade union, the Office Workers Union. One of the workers was fired, and they subsequently went on strike. This was the first strike in the history of American book publishing. The Marxist magazine New Masses remarked on the strangeness of the incident and the industry in which it took place. Publishing, they wrote, was “like horse-breeding, a snob-and-specialty industry.” Unionization had been rare in the industry because it cultivated “an aura of gentility which leads to self-deception on the part of many workers in it.”
I was an office worker at Columbia University. I had just graduated from college, and I was working in office jobs, thinking I was going to go to graduate school. It was back in the ’80s. We started organizing office workers there, and it quickly became the most compelling thing I was doing in my life.
In many cases, Shawn and only Shawn “knew” why doing Y instead of X would bring ruin to the New Yorker. Our stylebook was to be kept secret. Payment rates for fiction were kept secret. Negative mail about writing was generally kept secret from the magazine’s writers. Negative mail about a short story was often kept secret even from the story’s editor. What appeared to be perfectly innocuous nonfiction assignments were often kept secret. Salaries were, of course, secret.
One day from my doorless office I saw the publisher, John MacArthur, who goes by Rick, look in on Roger, who was eating a croissant at his desk. Rick took note of the breakfast and said he’d come back. A little while later, he went in and shut the door, a thin glass door with a rice-paper blind. Rick’s blurred figure said something indistinct, to which Roger replied, “You’re firin’ me?” with more West Texas than usual, which happened when he was exasperated.
Irving Howe founded Dissent in 1954 — a bleak time for the left. Howe and his cofounders thought the magazine would put out a few issues and then “go bankrupt,” having made a “heroic effort.” The historian Stanley Plastrik and his wife Simone offered their home on the Upper West Side as the “office.” A founding legend is that all the subscriber records were kept in a shoebox shoved in a closet at the end of the workday.
n+1’s first employee was Isaac Scarborough. It’s hard to recall just how he became an employee: he was an NYU student in political science and had been our second-ever intern, and then new interns arrived, so Isaac could no longer be an intern, but he stuck around, doing things — most importantly, entering subscriber information into our FileMaker database. At the time, the n+1 office was located in an apartment shared by two of the editors in Brooklyn, and Isaac would come a few days a week, we would make him some coffee, and he would do his work.
Fiction and Drama
The text she had in hand had been a most fortuitous acquisition. On her way to this date with Miguel, Kamtchowsky had descried a hamster-colored mane next to the ticket machine in the Malabia station on the B line. They hadn’t seen each other in months; her mother gave her a kiss, asked how she was doing, and informed her that she was on her way back from a meeting with the guys at the publisher. She had with her the proofs of Aunt Vivi’s diary, and the book was almost ready. Do you want to have a look?
The smell of Onondaga Lake hits your sinuses like cheap cologne, a nauseating one-two punch of flaming mothballs and something stronger, more organic. I have tried many times to pinpoint what it is, but I think it smells like armpit.
Fruit is literally made to be eaten — it’s a piece of excess that falls off the branch on its own, a carbo-loaded gift, and the relationship between an apple tree and the creature that eats the apple and transports its seed to some other promising location is symbiotic, a form of barter rather than theft. What better basis for a community could there be than fruit, which is symbol and sustenance at once?
I wish I could say that it’s been years since I’ve thought of Juiceboxxx when he tells me, out of the blue, in a text message one night in September, that he’s coming to New York. The truth is I have been thinking about him a lot — periodically checking his blog, wondering what city he’s living in, hoping he’s doing all right. A series of videos he has started uploading to YouTube every week, in which he stares in a sickly manner into a camera and talks in awful circles about his upcoming projects, has left me with the distinct impression that he is on the verge of cracking up.
Different master narratives, with very different emphases, look to the Seventies as both the end of an era and the origin of the present crisis. The contexts can be of divergent scales — from American politics or labor history to transnational cycles of production and capital accumulation — but there is a common purpose, even a shared vibe: the stillness of remembering what we had and what we lost.
The challenge for women writers who came after the crest of the second wave was how to integrate the ideas and experiences made possible by feminism into a sophisticated and rigorous literary style. One answer, taken up by Ann Beattie, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, and, of course, Davis, was a specifically female take on minimalism. Though nothing could be more minimal than a two-sentence story, Davis refused the dirt as well as the realism of “dirty realism.”
It is science fiction that offers the best example of that distinctively 21st-century blend of affect: eagerness and wistfulness. YOLO + FOMO. Technostalgia. This is the genius of the time stamp to Kazuo Ishiguro’s retro-dystopian Never Let Me Go: “the late 1990s.” We’ve already missed the future.
One doesn’t want to be a dreamy romantic all the time, but being woozy from the vapors of your own self-importance turns out to be a better condition for making art, at least in my limited experience, than being convinced that art is reducible to capital just like everything else. It keeps the fires burning, when otherwise art-making seems like a ridiculous game, a kind of meaningless middle school politics.