Thursday, July 9, 2015

Interview with Jon Baskin—May 15, 2015

Jon Baskin is co-founder and editor of The Point magazine in Chicago. He is also a graduate student at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought and the author of many essays and works of criticism for venues such as The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Nation, n+1, The New York Observer, BookForum, Salon, and The Point. Earlier in his career he was a fact checker for various magazines, including Popular Science, Inc Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and n+1. The interview was conducted at the office of The Point in Chicago on May 15, 2015. Baskin talked about the origins of The Point (00:20); what is The Point? [intellectual mission] (2:55); where ideas meet flesh (5:26); ethical challenges and dialogue (9:30); becoming an editor (13:30); the platonic editor (14:45); the Baskin-esque editorial style (15:25); how The Point acquires pieces (17:10); measuring the “success” of an article (18:30); the reader on the other end (21:15); reaching an audience (23:15); new magazines and Silicon Valley start-ups (24:30); touching ground through The Point (29:00); high points and low points (30:15); the future of intellectual journalism (35:20); aspirations for The Point (38:13); running a magazine out of Chicago (39:18); writing from the “I” (44:08); the importance of affirmation, a critique of critical theory (48:40); a Wittgenstein-ian language game on the theme of Ben Lerner (54:45); language gone stale (57:57); Baskin the writer vs. Baskin the editor (1:01:00); the editor-writer relationship (1:02:50); the editorial high (1:04:35); how to be a better editor (1:05:18); the invisibility of the editor (1:06:07); are these the glory days? (1:07:43). To download and listen to the complete interview, click here.

Jon Baskin (left) with Christopher Siegler (Chicago Manual of Style in hand) and Rachel Wiseman at the office of The Point in Chicago. 

Quotes from the Interview

I remember going to n+1's first launch party in New York at a time when everyone was saying, 'Print journalism is dead; you’re crazy to start a print magazine,' and then seeing a thousand people in this grammar school gym they had rented out and thinking, 'Well, maybe it’s not dead yet.'

We were in this program The Committee on Social Thought, kind of like a 'Great Books' Ph.D. program, where you sit and discuss the relevance of Plato and Hegel and Hannah Arendt for contemporary life. That sort of ethos was so attractive to us, but we found that when we went to write about these topics, we were forced or encouraged to do so in a way that was academic, that didn’t speak for the relevance they actually had for us. That was the impetus behind deciding 'Maybe we should start a magazine where we can do the kind of writing that we want to do.'


Great books speak directly to our lives and have something to say to help us think about challenges we face—whether politically or culturally or personally—in a really direct way. I think our magazine takes that idea seriously.

The other thing to say about the mission [of The Point] is the Platonic idea of the good life—one should always be asking what things are for and how they’re related to our ideals about what 'the good' is. You can see that permeate the magazine in various ways.

One negative thing that distinguishes us from a lot of magazines is that we don’t see ourselves as having a political agenda; we’re not pushing a specific view of the world. What we are pushing is the idea that reflection involves dialogue, really grappling with another thinker.

When you hear me talking about ‘intellectual’ and ‘philosophical,’ for me the ethical is completely built into those things. It’s not just about an intellectual challenge: if you don’t see that challenge as also being ethical, as speaking to your values, you’re missing something.

I always learn a lot whenever my own work is edited, because editors are so different from one another, but there wasn’t someone I watched do editing who taught me. I really was winging it when I started.

How Baskin would like to be described as an editor: 
He’s careful, he’s respectful and thoughtful about what I’ve written. He pushes me to think about things I might not have thought about that are relevant to the piece, and he lets me write in the style that the piece demands.

So much a part of the early magazine that I loved was that we [Baskin and the two other founding editors, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick] would meet on the weekends and literally go through every article, almost sentence by sentence, arguing, bringing up objections, fighting (especially if it was one of us who had written the article). It turns out the three of you don’t have the same image of what the magazine is going to be. 

I feel more connected to the world outside of academia because of The Point.

The first issue was very stressful. The interpersonal aspect has its dark side. What was most surprising was how psychologically and emotionally taxing the relationships with writers, sometimes with each other—were. All of us had to learn how to take criticism, and also to give it.

The first issue of The Point we sold out the initial print run and that was great. In terms of the lows, there was a time around issue 6 or 7 when we all thought ‘Is this worth it?’ That was when we decided to do a Kickstarter campaign which ended up bringing in over $100,000. It’s been exciting trying to see how far we can take this and to what extent we can grow.

I was really sad about what happened to The New Republic books section. I particularly felt like that was a place that published things that were unusual and challenging to its readership in an intellectual way that’s very rare.

I don’t just think that reading is good or that it’s good that there’s serious journalism around; it really depends what it’s doing and how it’s challenging its readers.

What I would like is for us to become is more influential and relevant to the culture.

The mood and ideas of the magazine reflect the University of Chicago in some way. Hyde Park is much more intellectual than the rest of Chicago, so there's a natural interest in what we're doing there; in the rest of the city it's a harder sell.

I don't think any of us would have started this magazine in New York; it's too competitive, too expensive. Being here there was a real space, both in the market and the culture, for this kind of thing. There’s no one else here doing what we’re doing. We’ve also found out why: here you have to convince people, to appeal to them in a more direct way, and there’s not this network of people that’s going to publishing parties.

It’s very, very important to us that people feel the affirmative in our articles. Our guiding ethos is in some sense a reaction against the rhetoric of critical theory, the rhetorical moves that are so common in critical theory, and then also in more complicated ways some of their political assumptions. On the rhetorical level, critical theory privileges unmasking and deconstructing over affirmation, as though affirmation is always naïve. But it’s harder to be affirmative than it is to be critical, and that’s exactly why we value affirmation.

The typical critical move is 'All these people like this thing for this reason and I’m going to tell you why that reason is wrong.' If someone is going to criticize something for us, they first have to tell us what they thought was good in it.

Is Ben Lerner a fraud? 
No. He would probably say he was a fraud, but it’s a boring category—we’re all frauds in some sense. None of us acts spontaneously all the time. We need better words for talking about this. Fraudulence and authenticity: this binary has become such a trap and obsession. Part of what prompted me to write about Lerner was that I thought 'I can’t believe we’re still talking about this. This used to really interest me. Why am I not interested anymore?'

On stale language: 
I’m starting to see the word 'affect' show up a lot. People keep saying English departments are dead, yet they keep coming up with new words that we have to deal with until everyone gets tired of them. I try to ask: are they using the word in place of real thought, or is it expressing something that a reader who is not an expert in affect theory can understand? I’ve never said 'no' categorically to a word, it’s more about words being used habitually rather than thoughtfully.

There’s one thing that’s scary about editing for your own writing and that is that you realize how little the writer is capable of seeing his own tics, habits, and shortcomings. It’s true of every writer, so you know it must be true of yourself as well. And you hope that through editing you’ll be able to recognize those things more within yourself. But I find that still I hand my work in to someone else and they tell me “You use the same sentence structure 22 times…” It creates humility, in a good way. There is a part of this process that is dialogical; getting feedback is so important and it’s helped me in my ability to take feedback and be productive with it.

On the relationship between writer and editor: 
At its best, it is a dialogue. The writer is the one who's in control of the dialogue, and you're the interlocutor. The writer started the conversation and he's going to end it, but in the course of that conversation you have the chance to push him to places that he might not have gone otherwise. I think those are the best editing experiences.

On the editorial high: 
When you read through that article and for the first time you just feel like it works, especially if it’s been a particularly thorny experience. I feel excited especially when I see it’s going to connect with the readers.

What does it take to get better at editing?
Probably just editing.

On the invisibility of the editor:
Having the team aspect of editing, you get this sense of shared achievement when you’ve brought an article along and gotten it to the place where you’re really satisfied with it. I’ve never felt like 'Oh, I wish the readers knew how much I had to do with this article.' Every time we get this magazine out it feels like 'Oh, my god! I can’t believe we did it again!'

The list includes some of Baskin's favorites from pieces he's written and edited.

From The Point:

Adam M. Bright, "Here, Now"

Julie Park, "On Tiger Moms"

Jacob Mikanowski, "Cloud Gate, Tilted Arc"

Charles Comey, "The Love We Use"

Jon Baskin, "Death is not the End

And here's my favorite:

Jon Baskin, "Always Already Alienated: Ben Lerner and the Novel of Detachment," in The Nation, Feb. 11, 2015