Introduction to Happiness

On a cold morning in 2003 in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment, twenty-eight-year-old Keith Gessen—former fictioner in the Syracuse MFA Program, where I teach—showed up with two of his pals to talk about founding a literary mag.

Their mag would fix all that. n+1, they were calling it.

Happiness cover (detail) by Joanna Neborsky.

Happiness, the n+1 anthology, is out today from Faber & Faber. Mary Karr shares her introduction to the book, below. Order a copy in the n+1 store. —Eds.

A proper introduction oughta circle the collection like a hostess at a cocktail party, saying a little something nice about everybody. But propriety is not my forte, nor is it the n+1ers’.

They’re intellectual outlaws of the first order. They zigzag across the cultural landscape (both highfalutin and pop), scouting for beauty among the young, the unpublished, and unheard of. Hand to heart, I swear the best literary writing in English blooms inside each issue. If they had a sandwich board, I’d wear it; if they had a flag, I’d wave it.

Not so at first blush.

On a cold morning in 2003 in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment, twenty-eight-year-old Keith Gessen—former fictioner in the Syracuse MFA Program, where I teach—showed up with two of his pals to talk about founding a literary mag.

Gessen was a Russian Jew who had, as far as I could tell, spent most of his time at Syracuse playing hockey. Bespectacled Mark Greif was dark, lumbering, and in the muddy midst of a PhD at Yale. Slim Benjamin Kunkel was laboring on his soon-to-be-big-deal novel Indecision. He was quieter and almost too blondly pretty to look at head-on.

Over bagels, they chatted about the decline of lit crit, The New Republic taking potshots at youngsters, the cult of McSweeney’s, how online journalism was leaning in the glib direction of Salon and Slate. Their mag would fix all that. n+1, they were calling it.

My judgment was swift as a swinging blade. Boneheaded idea! Publishing itself was circling the drain—hadn’t even the august Lingua Franca just bitten it? And Partisan Review—after seventy years! Those heroes couldn’t drum up the requisite dough to pump out pages—how did these yahoos expect to? Waste of time. Nyet, no, nevah.

Then I wrote them a check.

And their vision started to grow on me. They wanted sprawling, ambitious articles you couldn’t squash into single sound bites. They were the antivenin to the elevator pitch. They wanted to establish themselves as curious thinkers, not pious knowers.

[Serious] writing about culture has become the exclusive province of bullies, reactionaries, and Englishmen.

(Issue One)

The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. An attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them. Thought adds something new to the world; simple intelligence wields hardened truth like a bludgeon.

(Issue One)

As they bundled into coats, I offered the ultimate gift—my own writing! I would deign to permit the likes of them to publish, say, an essay by moi. Which idea they failed to fall on like wolves. Were they studying their feet? Shifting their eyes from mine? Ultimately, they demurred.

“You’re too well known,” Keith said.

Shocking, this. Many (most?) little mags court the established scrivener, maybe even publish medium-shitty work by said writer so as to flaunt her name in the contents. These n+1ers sought quality from the ranks of the invisible. The sheer quality of the work would magnetically draw readers to the unknown. That they believed this made them possibly the dumbest young literary humans I’d met in a while.

Soon I was at the Pink Pony at a benefit hosted by none other than The New York Review of Books’s Barbara Epstein. The other editors—Marco Roth, Allison Lorentzen, Chad Harbach—wowed me much as the first phalanx had. Money was being scraped up. Gessen was sleeping on the sofa of the neoghetto office downtown, and contributors were being paid off in beer.

Still, I gnawed my thumbnail before the first issues burst into print to solid acclaim.

The editors took on lesser mags without being snarky. They opposed the war in Iraq—this was in 2004, when such an opinion was not yet mandatory in New York—and they were willing to stand up to the people who cheered for it.

Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise” still hangs among the brightest stars in my nonfiction constellation. In an age when food and body worship have become near-religious among our educated classes, Greif denigrates the whole practice by making it worthy of Kafka’s penal colony.

Best of all, n+1 ponied up with the promised luminary unknowns—those Susan Sontags- and George Orwells-to-be emerging like sirens from the fog of oblivion into print.

Elif Batuman took on Isaac Babel with a voice I got a girl crush on right off. Batuman had the wise charm of Hannah Arendt—if Arendt wore a red rubber nose and floppy shoes.

The “millennium” edition of Tolstoy’s Collected Works fills a hundred volumes, and weighs as much as a newborn beluga whale . . .

Comparing Tolstoy’s works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch.

Batuman has long since been “discovered” by The New Yorker et al. A lot of their writers have. And a magazine that began as white/Jewish and very male has become less white, and a lot less male.

Ten years in, I still find the most rereadable writing—Coleridge’s old test was rereading—in n+1.

There are only two things wrong with this assemblage.

One, it’s not big enough. Where’s Nikil Saval’s history of the office, or Carla Blumenkranz’s history of the website Gawker? Where’s Elizabeth Gumport on feminism, privacy, and Chris Kraus; Christopher Glazek’s attack on the prison-industrial complex; or Dayna Tortorici’s hilarious (unsigned) editorial denouncing the online “rage machine”? The anthologist has stinted. A proper anthology should weigh as much as—in Batuman’s metaphor—a big­mouthed bass at least.

And two: after ten years, this magazine remains too much of a damn secret. The editors have proved pretty good at editing; at promoting this thing, they’re as clueless as they were in 2003. The concocters of this fantastic literary endeavor still have to hustle to grind out issues. Contributors are paid, but barely. This brave, hard-won offering to the world needs many more people reading it. They will be those who believe in alchemy—that adding the fresh mystery of beautiful, relevant writing (n) to the lone reader (1) is to forge a coin of untold value, precious, imperishable.

Order a copy in the n+1 store

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