Fine Print: A Tale of One City

For his monthly column, Drew Zeiba spends 24 hours partying in Manhattan’s alternate literary realities

I arrived late. We heard they were turning people away at the door, though our group had no problem cutting the line—“just don’t get me in trouble,” the clipboard-armed woman chirped as she admitted 12 of us. Upstairs, in a sweaty Canal Street space leased by a post-crypto startup, a mob of under-35s were acting as if they’d gotten into their first frat party, leering, laughing at the emcee who attempted Hitler jokes between the readings. (To announce these, people screeched, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”)

This was the event of the week? The social media commentariat was always blathering about Forever Magazine’s launch parties, but I couldn’t say I was smitten yet. Rather than resign myself to passive disdain, I pushed toward the “stage” to hear the last performance better, but it ended by the time I got to the front. I felt a tap on my back. An acquaintance had parted the Online Ceramics-clad shoulders of two revelers to hand me a magazine. I settled antisocially into a corner and peeled it open. “It was the [REDACTED] of times. It was the [REDACTED] of times,” the editors’ letter to issue six began.

Earlier that same Thursday evening, I’d attended the release of the literary journal Granta at a double-story apartment on Ninth and University: A chandelier dangling low and dazzling from a barreled, coffered ceiling. Sensible bouclé seating, a mirrored bathroom, and strange display grids of fluorescent-colored flashlights and matzo crackers. A Juliet balcony, overlooking the living room, from which Thomas Meaney delivered a self-effacing speech.

The Granta party was populated by people who worked for The New York Review of Books, had worked for The New York Review of Books, or had written for The New York Review of Books. Like the Forever party, it was largely white, hetero, and hostile—though no one dared confront each other: “You can feel the silent loathing beaming around the room and bouncing off the walls,” a critic said to me and Whitney Mallett, the eponymous editor of The Whitney Review of New Writing, who’d graciously brought me as her plus-one. Most men wore blazers, except for a professional devil’s advocate who paired a multicolored scarf with white carpenter jeans. I bore tremendous cleavage. The host had strategically placed liquor on the tables and floors throughout his apartment, and, as Vivian Gornick discovered to her dismay as she sought fresh air, people smoked out the windows. It was giving Lorin Stein plus Christian Lorentzen. I spoke for a while to the writer Gary Indiana. We realized we grew up in the same backwater New Hampshire town. People hearing this would say, Oh, I summered in New Hampshire as a kid, except for those who’d boarded at Exeter.

“The magazine was one thing, the party was another, and I wondered what percentage of the celebrants cared that there was a magazine, other than in the abstract.”

“What brings everyone here together?” I asked a mutual at the Forever party. “Probably the casual racism,” he quipped. (“There are so many voices influencing mine. I want to be provocative, but I am conflicted. Before publishing I must go through the manuscript and redact slurs,” reads Peter Vack’s story “Sillyboy” in the latest issue.) At the Silicon Valley-funded event, drinks cost money unless you’d been gifted a beige cardstock ticket. (A Square-enabled iPad accepted all major debit and credit.) Several photographers roamed, one of whom was seven feet tall. “These vibes are not good,” I heard an editor at a mainstream literary magazine whisper-yell to a friend as she left. “Did you catch so-and-so’s reading?” people would ask of one of the performances that evening, anticipating you’d declare it had sucked.

As I left, hopefuls were still jostling the front door.

Readings in the 2020s offer sliding-scale Botox or take place in Comme des Garçons stores. They turn into raves or they happen in the nude. Some even have curated scents sprayed for each performer. I’m not complaining—for too long literary events have been the stodgy purview of Blundstone-footed pontificators. But at the Forever party, the performances felt beside the point. The magazine was one thing, the party was another, and I wondered what percentage of the celebrants cared that there was a magazine, other than in the abstract.

In physical form, Forever Magazine takes the dimensions of a fashion glossy, not a lit journal. Every page is full color. The typefaces are non-traditional and sometimes illegible, though I don’t know if that’s on purpose. The content’s flanked by micro-gallery ads, cigarette ads, and clothing ads that have been soft-canceled online for ephebophilia. In fact, the publication’s peculiarly fascinated by “cancel culture,” though mostly the phrase serves as shorthand—as if to say, You’re on our side, right? Or are you a pussy? Or maybe “cancel culture” is just so much noise, the stories’ background, like sidewalks or weather or Starbucks. I appreciate that art’s printed throughout the issue, crowding the text, sprawled over each spread rather than shunted into the flaccid portfolios most journals jam in their middle—even if Forever’s taste skews a little The-Jogging-but-make-it-coquette. Some of the writing is decent, even good: text-based performance artist Caroline Calloway’s Scammer excerpts tore and I liked the late Molly Brodak’s sensorial poem; a quiet collection of paper objects from artist Micah Lexier proved a welcome slowdown; I’ll always read Ariana Reines.

When asked about a performance, I’d think most people would prefer to be able to respond, “Yeah, that was great,” instead of aspiring to be haters, but I get that sneering is part of the apathetic affect the Forever partiers were after. It could’ve benefited those literate among the Dimes Square wannabes to open the issue to encounter Lexi Freimank’s (slightly muddled) satire from her novel, The Book of Ayn, or Joshua Citarella’s investigation into the horseshoe-politics of new age supplement devotees. But I wonder if in this context such pieces can operate as critiques, or if they just “signal” their content, and thus become about their aboutness: it doesn’t matter if they’re shit-talking post-rational libertarians, it only matters that the post-rational libertarians are there. All press is good press, as they say. “Sad to see so much backlash about the new issue but you can’t make everyone happy,” the Forever editors tweeted as post-party self-promotion.

“The writer might be without morality, but writing’s not without politics.”

Friday, the night following the Granta and Forever events, I sat on the Poetry Project floor for a sold-out reading by Mohammed Zenia Siddiq Yusef Ibrahim and Nora Treatbaby. Will Farris and Kaur Alia Ahmed gave them thoughtful, lyrical introductions—rigorous and sweet. Both poets performed for ideal amounts of time. The night wasn’t uptight, or even reverent, but it was earnest. The kind of seriousness that can only be accomplished through joking: “Reality is / collaborative but / not consensual,” read Treatbaby, whom Ahmed had described as “a prophet who can chill.” When she incants “…awaiting your turn / to ripen in the / freezer aisle, / near Mom, soul / dilating in the / resplendent stucco / of Kroger,” I feel the sutures grafting us into our consumer empire being harshly and generously undone.

In Catherine Foulkrod’s “Lish Notes from 2009”—part of a portfolio in the Forever issue from students of the legendary fiction editor Gordon Lish—she’s recorded him saying, “The writer is without morality.” The writer might be without morality, but writing’s not without politics. Given the options of a magazine spotlighting “‘Eva Braun’s’ Personal 25 ACP Deutsche Ortgies Semi-Automatic Pistol,” a journal with a gold-foil logo hosting parties stuffed with men of all ages who haven’t shrugged off their sports coats since private school, and an organization selling broadsides for Palestine Legal, I know where to stand.

We stood in the St. Mark Church’s yard after the Poetry Project reading finished. Someone told us we had to move. We discussed our issues with authority, but then, after being told again, exited through the wrought-iron gate onto Second Avenue. We loitered some more. We tried one bar. Full. We ate leftover sushi on its outdoor tables anyway. We traipsed five-ish blocks to the East Village institution The Boiler Room. I watched poets and essayists and artists and lovers and friends rack a game of pool. “What did you do last night?” a translator I knew inquired as I absently fingered a straw’s paper sheath. I recounted yesterday’s parties. “Forever Magazine?” they screwed up their face. “What’s that?”