BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 07 JUN 06
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Issue 100

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A great magazine is one which invents its own readership

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BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 07 JUN 06

For those of us addicted to magazines – who have been known to wake in the small hours from a dream in which we’ve actually founded the perfect periodical and staffed it entirely with our lifelong heroes – there is no publication so compelling as the one that doesn’t yet exist. It’s the stylish summation of all those epiphanic moments when you accidentally stumble, in the pages of an unknown journal, on the artefact, idea or individual that alters everything. But who might read such a compendium of surprises?

Recently, in the middle of a meeting with a brilliant, well-funded editor about his prospective magazine, it dawned on me that we were courting a pure fantasy. It was a vision in which he, the meticulous and generous editor, would allow me, the erudite and mercurial writer (the drink had taken hold by now), to write, literally, about anything at all. I’d be dispatched, daydreaming of Walter Benjamin and Joan Didion, to cover the farthest-flung topics I could find. Deadlines would stretch, word-counts inflate, reputations flourish. Later, half-sober, I realized the magazine’s sole chance of existence, never mind success, lay precisely in one fact: we had at no point imagined it having actual readers.

A few days later two books arrived to confirm the suspicion that a great magazine is one for which its readership is a wholly unknown quantity. The first – The Best American Magazine Writing 2005 – is one of those satisfying, worthy anthologies put out annually by an industry that, in the US at least, prides itself among its upper echelons on a certain attention to literary quality. (There is no equivalent tradition in Britain, nor a sense that mainstream magazine stories could stand anthologizing.) And the quality is certainly there, in Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker essays on Abu Ghraib or Jed Perl’s waspish take on the redesigned Museum of Modern Art. But the book also embodies the central, and crippling, cliché of magazine life. As Nicholas Lemann phrases it in his introduction: ‘every good magazine creates a little civilization around itself.’

A successful magazine, so received wisdom has it, invents its readership: it corrals a constituency nobody knew was there. But what to do with your new coterie once you’ve conjured it into being? As Lemann acknowledges, ‘a magazine has to be familiar and new at the same time’: you have to keep reminding your readers of that first flirtatious thrill, even as you settle into something like domestic routine with your faithful subscribers. At which point, in a sense, you’re already sunk: you’ve begun to second-guess your readers’ motives – or worse, to service their whims: their sensible preference for information over style, their taste for gossip, their impatience with illegible typefaces.

Unreadability, however, is your only real hope if you truly want to live up to the ideal of a magazine that is ever new, always unpredictable. The second book to arrive is David Foster Wallace’s latest collection of magazine journalism, Consider the Lobster (2005). Foster Wallace, whose playful fiction – most notoriously his massive novel Infinite Jest (1996) – has garnered him admiration and spite in equal measure, can do the standard tour-de-force Great American Magazine Piece in his sleep. The title essay of his latest book is a case in point: an account, for Gourmet magazine, of the Maine Lobster Festival, which notes all the necessary local colour, then veers into complex, undercutting reflections on the ethics of boiling crustaceans alive. But at his most extreme Foster Wallace is another sort of prospect entirely: an essay entitled ‘Host’ – a profile of a talk-radio presenter, written for the venerable Atlantic Monthly – is an unruly mass of appended text-boxes: blankly technical or fanciful footnotes that threaten to take over the story itself. He doesn’t, of course, always manage to smuggle this stuff past his editors, but when he does, you have the reassuring sense that you, the reader, have become quite immaterial.

Magazine readers have always been, from the point of view of writers and editors, a ghostly sort of crew. In 1711 Joseph Addison, co-author with Richard Steele of The Spectator, told his readers an anecdote in which, in the guise of ‘Mr Spectator’, he finds himself at an inn, sitting in a gloomy corner while a group of women tell each other ghost stories by the fire. At the end of one tale a woman turns to Addison and wonders if he doesn’t look a little spectral himself. The story is actually about the relationship between the writer and his invisible audience: Addison has been told that The Spectator sells 3,000 copies a day; but each copy is read by 20 people. There are therefore 57,000 phantom readers of whose existence he has no real evidence: he has to write into the darkness, always as if addressing his readers for the first time.

Which leaves a long-running magazine where, precisely? Dedicated, I think, to its own untimeliness; to ignoring, where necessary, everybody else’s Zeitgeist; to a sense that expectations are there to be confounded and readers are to be dreamt of but not believed in.

Brian Dillon’s memoir, In The Dark Room, won the Irish Book Awards non-fiction prize 2006.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.

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