The New York literary world is a fetid, putrid swamp, cloistered off from the rest of America, as inbred as the Hapsburg Empire in the 19th century. Wesleyan grads move to the City and whore themselves out to one another with reckless abandon—trading essay publications for book blurbs, three-month relationships for editorial assistant jobs, artisanal cocktails traded for reguritated opinions about Zadie Smith and the new Bolaño novel. Exchange, commoditize, exchange, that’s the name of the game. MFA appointment contracts have to be renegotiated, prestigious fellowships awarded, Yaddo applicants discussed. Everyone is supposed to meet everybody and be friends with everybody because, as the cultural elite, we’ve all got to stick together! We’re the only ones who care about books anymore! It’s a small world (everyone knows everyone) so if you have anything negative to say about anybody's work, make sure it's just muttered gossip with your friends at the bar.
Good writing plays a negligible part in this literary apparatus. There are so few writers that are considered “good” that they are passed around like worn-out Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. baseball cards. Often, these “good” writers are not actually that “good”—all “good” means is “they are the best we have in this diminished cultural moment.” Just get that new Alice Munro hardcover out, make some idle talk about the “exciting things going on in Latin American literature,” and keep the sausage grinder of culture rolling.
But then, sometimes, out of nowhere, someone turns up that you didn’t expect—someone who actually cares about the written word and its true power, who would rather stay at home with the dead than show up for the free wine and cheese.
The American Reader is a new literary print monthly who say they want to turn the literary Gorgon gaze away from Brooklyn and San Francisco and back on America. It’s a sad reflection of our epoch that a conservative project like running a tightly-designed new monthly print publication for interesting fiction and criticism, seems somehow radical and ambitious, but here we are, and it kind of does.
We sat down with The American Reader’s Editor-in-Chief, Uzoamaka "Max" Maduka, to talk about New York and the publication's future.
photograph by Alyssa Loh
VICE: Why did you start The American Reader?
Basically, we saw that what other publications were doing didn’t reflect our tastes and realized that we should make something ourselves rather than just complaining about its lack. Maybe the thing that we want—the thing we look for in the classics—is out there being produced out there right now. Maybe it just doesn’t have a platform.
Where did you all come from? How did you end up in New York?
The Executive Editor Jac and I met at Princeton, working at the Nassau Weekly. Hal Parker, one of our reviewers, was my editor there when I was a freshman. I didn't intend to come to New York. I was wary of it. I feel like there is a lot of self-censorship in New York. To be clear, I am Nigerian. I am a Marylander. I am American.
I have more of an investment in American literary production than I do in the New York lit scene. What I meant when I named the magazine The American Reader is that this isn’t something just for New York. It’s for the entire country. Our goal is for it to be something that is national, not just online, but in print.
That’s ambitious. How long has it taken you to get things going?
Eerily enough, nine months. We have an investor. We’re currently looking for a publisher who is passionate about the mission of the project.
So much of the literary world today runs on status economy rather than the real economy—“It’s a privilege for you to be published on our website.” Do you pay your editors and writers?
We pay everyone but I don't pay myself. It is important that people get paid for this kind of work. It needs to be treated with honor and integrity. Thinking about paying writers and editors, you are talking about socioeconomic diversity in how you make up your staff. That's what makes the whole unpaid thing so uncomfortable. The way it selects, by virtue of its nature, who is determining what culture is. What happens is you have an inbred publishing world where everyone feels the same thing and everybody acts the same and you get this demented, disfigured content as a result.
In New York, it feels like the only thing that is respected is total economic and social domination. Getting the book deal, getting the big advance. What part do you think failure play in literary effort? What does success mean in New York and what does it mean to you?
In New York, success means you beat somebody else. You're on top. For someone to be on top, someone else needs to be on the bottom. Winning. In that way, it follows that Hollywood model. It is box officey. Not everything boils down to money. I can't tell you how many times I hear money as a justification. “You think this person sucks, but did you see how much money they got in their book deal or did you see what happened with their TV show?” I didn't say they weren't successful. I just said they sucked.
For me, success is self-becoming. It is a progression towards truth. I am so much more interested in somebody failing and doing what is right than someone succeeding with what is mediocre or beside the point. In New York, what is mediocre is success because you got paid for it.
The language in American fiction is getting simpler. More internet-adaptable. The kind of Tao Lin-ization of American fiction. Short sentences for short attention spans. How does this tendency level with your mission?
I want someone who is alive to this moment. One thing that reading [the novelist] Stephen Benatar taught me is that there is nothing in our time that makes it impossible to write at the level of the classics. There is no excuse. I don’t mind being peddled to. You will peddle something that you really believe in. I don't mind somebody opening up the door and saying, “I'm going to talk to the Editor-in-Chief right now.” You do that to me, you're on. I love you. But what I don't want is this removed, ironic, “I'm going to pretend that I’m cool because I’m scared of myself and my emotions.”
The Believer is ostensibly a sincere American literary magazine in the model you’re talking about. Heidi Julavits, in her infamous Believer essay said—“Be honest! Be sincere! Enough of this snarky negativity!” Are you guys on the same twee sincerity trip?
We don't have the same mission as The Believer. It's not my deal. But my sense is that honesty will win the day. I don't want somebody to think there is something ridiculous about a Believer kind of thing. It was, and is, an important reactionary moment. For me, for the reader, it's about honesty and uncompromising love that says, “I want the very best out of this country and this country's literature.” I believe that exists. If I felt there wasn't anything to go for, I wouldn't be here.
Get mad! Get angry! Be ridiculous! Be over-the-top! Be a human being! That's what art is about. That's what literature is about. It is about the practice of being a human such that when other people read your things—and not just read you, but see you living your life—that you show me what is possible from this life. It is possible to be angry and still carry on. It's possible to be sad. It's possible to be ripping at each other's throats and still love each other even when you are going at each other fiercely.
Literary society has a major responsibility to the community. Over time, we have forgotten that this is part of the service we give to humanity and to this country. I don't think it’s a coincidence that there has been less conversation in the literary world, less overt personality, as there has been a disintegration of American political life.
Which magazine do you hate the most?
I am not that drunk yet.
Tell me what letter it starts with.
I'm going to say this. What I found growing up in Maryland that I don’t find in New York was a sense of community and a responsibility toward one another. I have been astounded by the lack of community in the City. It's not like everyone is awful, but I feel like New Yorkers don’t feel responsibility toward their neighbors. They have an idealized notion of their politics like, “I don’t want to oppress black people and I want gay rights,” but when it comes down to intimate human experience, it all evaporates.
When I'm here, it is constant self-censoring, constant withholding. The conversation never happens. The “hello” never happens. That intimacy is never established. Everyone is on guard.This isn’t just to bash New York. But there needs to be the social dynamics to allow people to be as bold as they are in other places. The ability to experiment and do what you want to do and really be eccentric. In the City, this is either performed or non-existent. There is never just, “This is who I am! This is what I'm doing!”
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.