I Believe in Magazines: Proverbs for Publishing

I Believe in Magazines

I Believe in Magazines: Proverbs for Publishing

James K.A. Smith (@james_ka_smith)

The Augustine Collective | Boston, MA | 24 January 2015

This talk was given at the annual retreat of The Augustine Collective, a student-led movement of Christian journals, under the title “It Matters What We Make: A Vision for Publishing.”  Growing from the founding of the Harvard Ichthus and then the Dartmouth Apologia, the Collective brings together journals from campuses across the countryI spoke from my experience as editor of Comment magazine. 

Sometimes our callings know us before we know our callings.

I have told my wife time and again: “I feel like I was born to edit Comment magazine.”  I don’t mean to be presumptuous or arrogant in saying that.  I just mean that when I’m working on the magazine, I feel like I’m in a “sweet spot” of creation, where my gifts and God’s call intersect.  (If I were more sentimental, I might riff on that line from Chariots of Fire: “When I edit, I feel God’s pleasure.”) Editing Comment is in an exhilarating privilege and an enjoyable challenge.

But as I said, our callings sometimes find us before we find our callings.  It was only after I started working on Comment that I remembered: in fact, this wasn’t my first stint as an editor.

When I was a teenager in high school, I was a passionate devotee of the religion of freestyle BMX riding.  I invested almost every dime I earned working on the farm to build a custom ride (when my bike was stolen, I used the insurance money to buy my first car).  I rode ramps and flatland.  I built my own quarterpipe in the backyard.  I made pilgrimages to bigger cities to ride halfpipes.  I competed (well, “competed” might be a stretch) in a ramps competition with the then-emerging star Matt Hoffman in Grand Blanc, MI when he attempted his first 900.[1]  It was a rush.  (In my senior high school yearbook I repurposed a quote from a Harley-Davidson ad: “I live to ride. For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”)

But perhaps most of all, this was my first experience of a “community”: the cadre of freestylers was an organic club, a veritable movement animated by a common passion and a way of life.  Many of us, in fact, had been converted to this way of life by reading magazines.  My first subscriptions were to BMX Plus and BMX Action magazines (later added Freestylin’).  They emerged from Torrance, CA and connected me to an entire world.  The pier in Redondo Beach was my mecca.  R.L. Osborn and Eddie Fiola and Ron Wilkerson and Brian Blyther were the high priests.  But all of this was communicated to us in magazines, and the creators themselves were characters in our universe—editor Andy Jenkins and photographer Windy Osborn were as important as the riders.  This is the age where I fell in love with the mailbox, anticipating the next arrival.  The magazines were postcards from a transnational community we were part of.

Many of us tried to remake our far flung towns—whether in Kansas or Canada—into little outposts of Torrance, CA.  In the shivering cold of southern Ontario, riding our bikes in the basement in frigid Februarys, we believed.  We loved this.  We wanted others to know about it.  We wanted to encourage those involved.  We wanted to articulate our passion.  We wanted to bind ourselves together in this pursuit.  We wanted to celebrate a culture.  So what did we do?

We started a magazine.  Or more specifically, we started a ‘zine—a handmade publication we called Stoke (hey, it was the 80s).  You have to understand, this is well before even the dot matrix age. We might have had Commodore 64s at home, but our ‘zine was what we’d now call “bespoke.”  Layout was taping our photos to pages and writing captions with markers, then convincing one of our Dads to let us sneak in and use the office photocopier at night to “publish” it.  We penned editorials and competition reports and even poems.  (When I penned an ode to my stolen bike, my girlfriend thought it was evidence I was cheating on her.) We were the photographers and journalists and editors and designers. We made T-shirts and stickers. We distributed it at the local bike shop and in our high schools and peddled it at jam sessions and competitions. And it was one of the best things I’ve ever been part of.

So I believe in magazines. You could even say my devotion to Stoke ‘zine was a kind of “common grace” expression of believing in the sacramental power of the Word.  It’s like I had a inchoate sense of the unique grace and influence of a word become flesh.

All of that to say: I believe in what you are doing, and it’s an honor to think with you about this calling to publish our little journals.  To be committed to such endeavors is to believe, as Raymond Carver put it, in “small good things.”

As a way to start what I hope will be a conversation, I’d like to float just a few themes, a few maxims for publishing Christian thought journals.  I want to begin at 30,000 feet, thinking about the “big picture” of why we’re doing what we’re doing and then slowly descend to some maxims that are at least a little closer to the ground of practicality.  You might just think of these as a collection of proverbs from an editor in media res.

Fill the Earth | First of all, see your work as an outworking of the blessings and charge in Genesis 1:26-28.

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’

To create a magazine is to make a cultural artifact, and that is a mode of filling the earth (it’s not quite as fun as being “fruitful and multiplying,” but hey…).  To be a writer is to follow in Adam’s footsteps, naming the animals and the challenges and opportunities that animate our age. To faithfully create a magazine is to unfurl and unfold some of the cultural potential that God has packed into his creation. So in a significant sense, making a magazine is a way to bear God’s image.

Target Influencers | One of the things that so intrigues me about the Augustine Collective is that you are, sort of de facto, a collection of magazines that are primed to carry out James Davison Hunter’s vision of “faithful presence” precisely because you are already located, for the most part, in centers of cultural influence.  Just by writing for your peers, you are writing for elites and hence writing for influencers.  I think this is an incredible opportunity—as do you, I know—which is why you want to steward it well.

My predecessor as editor at Comment, Gideon Strauss, encapsulated this ten years ago when he looked at the example of “the New York intellectuals”:

Irving Kristol famously said that “When intellectuals have nothing else to do, they start a magazine.” At least, that’s how Michael Walzer quotes him in the wonderful study of four New York Intellectuals, Arguing the World. Joseph Dorman, editor of Arguing the World, quotes Kristol as saying that, disgruntled with the political landscape in the 1960s, “… I didn’t run for office . . . I started a magazine … it was the only thing I could think to do. We had an initial circulation of a few hundred, but that didn’t bother us. With a circulation of a few hundred you can change the world.”

Gideon cites Dorman’s own testimony about the power of magazines:

Nathan Glazer first set eyes on Partisan Review in the early forties when a fellow radical at the City College of New York thrust a copy of the magazine into his hands, insisting, in the way only one neophyte can to another, “You have to read this. It’s very important.” In high school, I can remember a teacher placing The New York Review of Books in my hands with the same insistence of tone, that italicized gravity that Glazer had heard, and understanding something akin to what Glazer had seen some forty years earlier: that the pages set before me were a gateway to another, higher world—one Daniel Bell would describe as “a world of imagination, a world of ideas.”

My colleague Fr. Raymond de Souza, editor of Convivium magazine, recalls a conversation he once had with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things: “‘Raymond,” he said, “if you want to advance an idea, write a book. But if you want to change a culture, you need a magazine. Because magazines are literally periodical, they create an ongoing community—readers, writers, editors, benefactors. And only communities can change cultures.”

Magazines of this sort are tangible expressions of Hunter’s thesis about cultural change: such magazines have a disproportionate influence on culture because instead of working bottom-up in a populist fashion, they work top-down by targeting and reaching those who wield cultural power and influence in society.  Some are inherently uncomfortable with this because they imagine that in a perfect world there are no hierarchies, or because they basically resent their own cultural privilege, and thus want to reach “the masses,” some generic audience that never really exists.[2]

But cultures are not flat, influence does happen top down, and therefore good stewardship of ideas requires that we face up to this reality.  While it can be hard to resist a numbers game, ultimately influential little magazines care more about who is reading them than how many.  [Why these endeavors need patrons—hence Fr. Neuhaus’ point about benefactors being part of culture-changing magazine communities.]

Curate the World | Influential little magazines don’t “join” conversations, they start them.  They don’t join the chorus along with everybody else chattering about whatever the latest fad or fixation might be.  Influential little magazines set the tone, chart a path, put issues on the map.  In some ways, a good magazine “curates” the world from a stance of conviction.  That means you need to have conviction; but it also means you need to be looking out on and engaging the world.

Peter Kaplan, a former editor of the New York Observer, compares good editors to filmmakers, in ways I think you’ll find encouraging.  Looking back at the golden age of William Shawn and others, Kaplan observes:

What did these guys do that nobody does right now? They inculcated their staff with an idea, with a  worldwide view.  Clay, Hayes, and Shawn were very different guys, but they infused their staffs with an idea, a worldview, and an aesthetic.  I’ve always believed that the great movie directors do their great work when they are young and full of beans—Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane when he was twenty-six, Hawks and Ford and Capa and Wyler were all young when they did their best work.  These editors were auteurs as well.  … I really believe it’s time to apply an auteur theory to great magazine editors as well.  It’s the discipline, the intelligence, the worldview, but also the neurotic disposition of the passionate displacer that makes magazine editing so important.

You are young auteurs.  Invite your readers to see the world through the lens of your editorial vision, one that should be honed by the one who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).  A magazine is an ongoing way to cultivate a worldview by curating our perception of the world.

Publish to be Overheard | I’ve just counseled that you must publish from unapologetic, centering convictions.  But there is a necessary correlate to that if you are going to be influential: publish as if you are always being overheard.  Too many magazines only serve the ends of confirmation bias, rattling their sabres to rally their tribal troops.  Michael Kelly calls these “comfort magazines”:

If you are the sort of person who wants to think of himself or herself as a New Yorker reader, The New Yorker is not going to savage that belief.  You are not going to pick up The New Yorker and suddenly find that it seems to have been written for a Guns & Ammo reader.

In their worst form, such magazines become mere echo chambers.  And if an “outsider” were ever to step inside them, they would be positively befuddled—like happening upon a service in Corinth with tongues but no interpretation.  Worse, these unexpected readers would find their own biases about Christian narrowness and triumphalism confirmed.

So even if your target audience is Christian, always publish in a way that you expect to be overheard by those who disagree.  Indeed, you might bring that audience from your peripheral publishing vision more intentionally.  At the very least, always edit with those who disagree with you on your shoulder. Your magazine will be better because of it.

Extend the Sacramental | One of the temptations for those who believe in ideas is to believe only in ideas.  Or, to put it otherwise: one of the temptations for those who care about the life of the mind is to carry only about minds.  But a magazine is not just a vehicle for ideas.  Your body is not just a meaty truck to get your mind from place to place, and your magazine is not just a regrettably material vehicle to distribute your ideas.  A magazine is always already embodied: even a magazine that only appears online has some kind of physical manifestation.  Magazines are proof that we aren’t just minds that telepathically communicate (“like the angels,” as Augustine guessed).  Peter Kaplan describes this as the “metaphysics of magazines”: “they don’t evaporate into the mist like space signals,” he notes—“they are there to remind us of our passion and our care.”

So magazines are kind of essentially incarnational: they are a material embodiment of ideas.  We might describe this as a kind of extension of a sacramental conviction: that God meets us in matter, that the transcendent traffics in the material.

This means we should care about the materiality of our magazines.  You need to be passionate about design. The best editors will be those who love the very form of a magazine and will delight in magazines that heft, that have a certain “feel” to them, where the stuff from which their made speaks to the quality of what’s being communicated and envisioned.  The best editors will be magazine junkies who might be caught in the back corner of the bookstore caressing, even sniffing, a good magazine.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  You see a magazine like Monocle and you immediately want to touch it.  The content almost doesn’t matter at some point.  I’ve spent an entire afternoon poring through issues of a magazine my daughter reads called Darling.  It’s focus, as they describe it, is “the art of being a woman.” Suffice it to say, I’m not in the center of their demographic.  But the magazine is just gorgeous.  I’ve also become hooked on Rake, a men’s fashion/lifestyle magazine I regularly score for free in the Delta Sky Club.

I will admit that I am inordinately fond of the paper you’ll find inside Comment: it’s sort of creamy and sumptuous and is meant to say, “We care.  We care about you.  We care about beauty.  We care about ideas.”  It’s also why our designer, Kathryn de Ruijter is as integral to our project as any editor or writer.  We are incarnating what we believe in, enfleshing our ideas.  And I think of that as a kind of low-grade sacramentality.

Finally, let me mention just a few concrete principles to keep in mind as you carry out the good work you’re doing:

Always Be Editing | Editing isn’t just an assignment or a task; it’s kind of a way of life.  You are always on the lookout.  You need to be both fueling your own imagination [I’ll talk more about this tomorrow] and looking out on the world.  You need to be both investing in your knowledge and deepening your convictions while curating the world for your readers.  You need to keep an ear to the ground to discern what we need to be talking about it but also keep an eye on the horizon to see the up-and-coming writers who are going to help us winsomely make sense of our world.  You don’t “do” editing; you are an editor.

Take Joy in Others | A good editor is someone who finds joy in fostering the work of others.  If you always need to be center stage, or if you always need to get credit, you won’t be a very good editor.  Much of what an editor does never sees the light of day.  The labor of conceiving, crafting, and critique articles alongside their authors will sometimes be thankless.  But if you’re a good editor, your writers should be able to concede that despite the fact you pushed back on them, and half of the first draft is on the cutting room floor, the article is now better.  No reader is ever going to know your role in that.  To be an editor is to take joy in being the skeleton not the skin.

Ideas Matter Too Much to Tolerate Bad Writing | You don’t have to choose between form and content.  And you certainly shouldn’t choose one over the other.  Our incarnational or sacramental conviction means, in some sense, that we eschew the very distinction between form and content.  Good form is its own kind of thinking; clear, powerful, winsome, captivating writing is an argument.

Here’s the disheartening realization I’ve had since becoming an editor: there just aren’t that many Christian intellectuals who are good writers.  I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant or dismissive.  But it has been my experience: there are hordes of scholars who wouldn’t know a winsome sentence if it hit them upside the head.  And there are hordes of bloggers who traffic in the poignant turn of phrase but have nothing to say.  The club of thoughtful Christian cultural commenters who are also good writers is discouragingly small.  [Here’s a plug for all of you: please become the solution to this problem!]

Editors need to have the sensibility to recognize good (and bad) writing, and then the courage to both demand and cultivate winsome writing from authors.  Now, you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration by just identifying writers who already have these gifts.  But you can also cultivate such writers by investing in the process. I’m convinced that any good author welcomes such editing.  (To be edited is to be loved, I tell my authors.)

Resist Easy Metrics | How do you know if you are successful as an editor and as a magazine?  It’s harder than you might think.  This is in part because the sort of cultural influence exercised by a magazine can often be a long game—it’s like growing an oak tree rather than growing asparagus.  The fruit of your labors might even be enjoyed by your successors.  Measuring success for such ventures is incredibly difficult.  You often won’t know the impact you’re having.

I don’t want to give excuses for retreating to the anecdotal or insulating our endeavors from accountability.  It’s just that there is something unquantifiable about the sort of cultural work we’re talking about.

At the very least I know this: Comboxes and social media are not barometers of influence; they are just easy metrics of popularity.  Those are two very different things.  Don’t judge your influence by page views or “Likes” or retweets.  I know this is easier said than done.  But we need to resist the cheap, quick feedback of a click-bait culture.  It’s heartbreaking to watch previously thoughtful magazines slowly become little more than Facebook feeds clamoring for emotive responses.  I would trade 10,000 “likes” for one substantive engagement from a reader who is—or one day will be—a thought leader in society.

I believe in magazines.  You’re here because you believe in magazines.  Ultimately this is an expression of a deeper conviction: that the Word become flesh meets us where we are.  The Good News is a kind of publication announcement: that the Father has spoken “in Son” (Heb. 1:2).  And so we publish.  In the meaty material of thoughtful Christian magazines, we fulfill both the cultural mandate and the Great Commission.  Like every good endeavor, we undertake it in hope, trusting our words are sustained in and by the Word.



[1] Check out the outstanding ESPN “30 for 30” doc on Hoffman, “The Birth of Big Air”: http://espn.go.com/30for30/film?page=the-birth-of-big-air.

[2] [I wonder if there isn’t a thesis to be explored here about Abraham Kuyper, who also founded a periodical, De Standard.  But Kuyper was in many ways a populist who motivated grassroots support for his initiatives.  But might that explain why The Netherlands looks like it does today?  I’m just wondering out loud.]


Other Keynote Addresses by Dr. James K.A. Smith from the 2015 Retreat



Photo credit: David Ritter.

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