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Episode LX: "It's somehow an elitist problem to worry about the death of magazines"

Published 8/17/16
In this installment, I speak with Gemma Sieff. Topics include the death of magazines, her Tinder article and 'Kenneth', pretension, highbrow flatness, second-order lowbrow & more.

Today I’m with Gemma Sieff, a writer and editor with words in Harper’s, The Paris Review, Bookforum, n + 1, Vice and more. I first came upon Gemma’s work when, a few months back, I was trying to kill time in a Barnes & Noble and picked up Harper’s. I read her story “Isn’t It Romantic? Looking for love in the age of Tinder” faster than I thought myself capable. And then, a few weeks ago, a former 0s&1s interviewee recommended I interview you, because, as she said, you’re ‘bananas’; coordinating this interview has proven her right. I looked you up, reread the article, and realized I’ve been thinking of ‘Kenneth’—a character appearing late in the story, a man you met on Tinder—many times since the first read, without realizing where he came from (not giving you your due in my mental bibliography). It became a bit surreal, thinking of this image of him that I’ve kept with me (what must be a very poor facsimile of your own image of him), synecdochally using him to think of every connection in this city that’s equally intimate, arbitrary and ephemeral.

I think back on what a sublime good thing reading that piece was, and it brings me to all the people I know who, though they might enjoy that piece as much as I did, if not more, have never and will never pick up Harper’s, because of the type of words they expect inside. Perhaps if my life had been slightly different, if I’d been, who knows, a bit better at baseball, I also wouldn’t be the type of person to bother with those publications I listed up top (save, maybe, for Vice), and this feels at once like not a problem and also a very big problem. As someone who, in some way, relies on the readership of magazines like Harper’s, Bookforum, The Paris Review and friends, do you see this as worrisome, or just a part of it all?

Part of it all. I think it was Ursula K. Le Guin maybe, who wrote something that we ran in Readings when I was an editor at Harpers—sorry, Harper's Magazine, as the publisher prefers, so as not to get it mixed up with the fashion bible—anyway, she basically made a pretty snobby case for why illiteracy is not what we think it is, or more like illiteracy has been ever thus. I think stories that get written (typed up) filter into the culture in ways you have no control over, and our job as writers and editors is to put the best stories together and let them out, like animals from cages, or something happier than caged animals, but that writing and editing are acts of generosity, and it's somehow an elitist problem to worry about the death of magazines. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think worrying about the death of magazines is a productive use of time. That time would be better spent making sure what’s in the still-kicking magazine is very, very good. Now I'm worrying I'll be chastised for saying this. #nofilter.

Thank you for the kind words regarding Kenneth. We are on good enough terms. I showed him the article. He said, "you have a real good memory".

It's interesting, calling it an elitist problem to worry about the death of magazines. I understand the concept of filtering, that culture works in waves, taking new forms to permeate new barriers, and that what the 'high brow' (sorry not sorry) produces makes its way on downward, a Reaganomics of letters. But realistically, on a tangible, granular level, how do you think that's possible for the sort of nonfiction minimemoir like your Tinder article?

I think this is why I felt sad as a freelancer, like a tree falling in the forest, a particle in the ocean of time. It's disposition. I admire writers so much, full-time writers, because they're very good at being alone. I just got so lonely Andrew!

I guess I found it hard to feel . . . pushy about it. I felt embarrassed to have written that piece, but also like I had to write it. Queasy with it. Afterward, I sort of hoped it would disappear. This is why I wish I could write fiction. I used to as a kid, but I haven't cracked the code as an adult. Basically, narrative non-fiction of such a personal sort makes me feel like I might be living carnivorously. Like I'm excavating my life for material.

That's fiction for you.

It was a feeling I didn't love, the one-to-one analogue. This person, she is me, this guy, he is "Kenneth".

You changed the characters' names. You're halfway there.

True enough.

After the article came out, did you feel like you were more known to the world? (I mean not in name, obviously, but substance.)

More known than . . . ? Before? Or someone else?


Oh, that's a really good question. I suppose so. Maybe that is why I sound like I'm rooting for the death of magazines.

I imagine the flip side of that is a negative, but it's a vulnerability, and usually those are good things.

I did and didn't want people to read it. So I was like it's great there's a paywall, and Harper's is so . . .

Please finish that thought.

Forgotten. That's nice and accurate too. I mean, here's the thing. The BuzzFeed piece regarding the Stanford rape case, I found that whole thing pretty troubling. For a few reasons. The first is the traffic question. The garish red background. The news anchor reading it aloud. The victim’s anonymity versus his mug shot, there are Hester Prynne vibes. This is NOT to suggest that rowers should go around raping people—swimmers sorry. It's to say that I'm not comfortable with the think pieces that follow some of these sex cases, which her letter was, a think piece—even if it was addressed to the judge. As Sarah Nicole Prickett just wrote about in n+1, it can be read very literarily, and indeed I had a strange response to that letter. I hesitate to admit that it was funny, in a very very dark way. Not the places where she talks about her anguish (I felt for her), but the Swedes on bikes. What makes me uncomfortable is a certain kind of mob mind that takes over when language is very easily forwardable and digestible, when it's about things that are murky and difficult and bad. Even the Ke$ha case. Lena Dunham in Lenny was all for Ke$ha, but later the judge was like there's just not enough proof. I don't want to be reading or writing about this stuff too quickly or early. Sensitivity takes time, and the culture of writing has sped up in some ways that make me uncomfortable.

You started with what you're really ending up at here, I think, which is traffic. With something produced so fast, and with such emotion, there's the truth that they're doing it to get paid, usually, always, sometimes, and they get paid for clicks, and so the words they choose are, always, always, bent toward that goal.

Yes. That said, profit incentive also produces quick clean stuff. Less pretentious. More straightforward, so . . . a balance. The very best writers, or the writers we remember and continue to read now, were often bestsellers in their day, isn't that so? Dickens etc, not that I love Dickens so much, but there's something to be said for being able to write in a way that affects many as opposed to few. Stephen King and JK Rowling. Hearts and minds.

It's curious who still does read Dickens, and I think that point of view may be an error of retrospect, that previously the best writers were the bestselling, but no matter, I'd rather discuss other things. Like how you define pretension and how magazines end up being called that and how and if any deserve it.

"I'd rather discuss other things". Not pretentious, but a little . . . brusque. That's ok I can take it.


This is an excellent question, one I've been thinking about a lot. I guess the pretentiousness I think is right to be wary of, is the kind of masturbatory stroking of sentences, the little fillips that are for showing off. Luc Sante's Kill All Your Darlings. We could all kill more of them. It has to do with something being over-honed. The kind of pretension we need to protect is deep specific knowledge. I would never call the NYRB pretentious, but some would. Sometimes the NYRB is boring, but I don't think its form of expertise is pretentious.

Which NYRB. Of Books or just Books?

Oh, I meant "the paper". PRETENTIOUS.


The book side is not pretentious either, though, in my opinion. It might be strange, but it doesn't feel . . . puffed up?

Ok, so there's pretension and then there's boringness, and I think we're all fine with the latter. If someone's not into the pulp of what you're writing, then that's that, but if they're turned off because they think abstruseness or prettiness is part of the point, then, I think, that's how we lose readers, and that's why some of my best friends would never pick up Harper's. It's not the topics per se (maybe they think every essay's on, I don’t know . . . P.G. Wodehouse, and maybe eventually there should be a redesign to make it look like not every piece is on P.G. Wodehouse), but the coverage of those topics. No?

Yes, well put. For the record, I don’t think there should be a redesign. I like the way Harper’s looks. Stuffy / classic, like a good armchair, which is a good place to sit whilst reading it.

It also seems too easy to blame this or anything on the internet. That people want 'shorter' or 'snappier' pieces (as if the bulk of people didn't also want that in Mailer's heyday). How much of your own personal begrudging is aimed at our Great Digital World?

Not much. I mean, People Magazine is a very, very well-edited magazine. I don't subscribe to it, but if I pick it up I'm impressed every time. It's all exactly right. For instance, after the Orlando shootings, within a couple of days, they did a piece that assembled pictures of the victims, with a detail—plain, not maudlin—about each of them. A strong, tonally correct lede, then on the next page they listed congresspeople and phone numbers, and urged their readership to act, and put pressure on their person, regarding gun control. I was quite floored by this, since People does not usually take a strong political stance—though they love the Obamas because they are Kennedyesque. That said, a lot of the stuff in People is the same stuff that people blame the Internet for encouraging. Cute, short and colorful. So it's not Digital's fault.

There's a thing—and I'm not saying what you've just said is it, but it made me think of it—where smart people applaud lowbrow publications, people, art. Spend their smart words to uncover the true genius behind our simplest pleasures. And it feels good, kind of like a tying together of all ends, an Uber pool with two ideas that should have never met, and every time it happens it makes me think of the people who were meant to enjoy the lowbrow thing in the first place, and how that implanting of a second-order analysis of the first-order pleasure just further cleaves the general population from those that produce slightly more complex ideas. A few minutes ago I tried to come up with a middlebrow magazine as an example and couldn't, and I wonder if such a thing exists. Is the middlebrow, like the middle-class, as they say, disappearing?

I think I'm pretty guilty of the above actually. I was forbidden lowbrow pleasures as a child.

Everyone does.

Forbidden a bit strong.

Did you grow up in art-inclined household?

Yes, though most of my family are doctors. My mom was a journalist in London and in Africa, but then she went in a health/development direction. Yes lots of art books, and travel. I was privileged in ways I only recognize now.

It's a form of irony though, this thing, isn't it? And doesn't that not appear until much later?

What the high-low fascination?


And the adolescence I experienced a decade late? Yes, a big irony. You don't realize it's ironic while it's happening, because it's really interesting, and (I think) the interest is ingenuous, but later you see that everyone saw straight through you, and they were kind of humoring you as you got really excited about Lil Wayne at 29, who's a genius, but anyway. WHAT'S MIDDLEBROW NOW. Some would say the New Yorker. Those people would be wrong. USA Today?

Come on.


First of all, for the record, you're saying New Yorker is higher than middle?

YES, duh.

USA Today’s design scheme pretty much says 'shapes and colors—if you know these two things you'll do just fine'.

It's true that I don't really feel familiar with USA Today, because I haven't read it in a while, or ever. I was going by the words. USA. Today.

USA, lowbrow. Today, high.

What you wrote above has me thinking, regarding something someone else said to me recently. We were talking about . . . I don’t know I was tipsy so I can't recall the specifics, but it was about inequality. And I felt he was making a point that was a little Marxist or something, so I said something dumb about self-actualization, something like, I think anyone can be self-realized. The Secret type thinking. (I’m ashamed, yet this confession feels good. Perhaps you should consider a career in the pastoral sector?) Anyway, he called me on it. He was like, the self-realized tend to emerge from one class more than another, and you might think about how you come across when you say things like that, as if you are suppressing or repressing snobbery. Anyway it made me think, and so did your remark above. I don’t know how we got onto this hot button topic so fast, but it's good.

Well saying high/middle/low brow—that's not really divorced from the term's reflection, high/middle/low class. And truly, we could go on all day about privilege and how privilege gives you other privileges, like dissecting the new Bieber single as if you were the very reincarnation of Roland Barthes, but what I want to know—and I'm really reaching to rope us back in to the very first part of the interview—could your Harper's Tinder article have appeared in another publication, sans all the Harper's' signifiers, and make the same impression on someone who'd never pick it up, as it did on me. (Openly, I will say I hope and believe the answer is yes.)

Yes. I think?

But the truth is, if it appeared in People Magazine, it would have to be a different article, wouldn't it?

Yes, it had no 'angle'. It was just some factish things. This does go back to sensitivity and taking one's time, because a lot of places would like you to have a hot take that can feel applicable to many, and of course there are interesting things about the technology, but I didn't know enough about tech to write about those. It is a democratizing app. Anyone with a smartphone can use it, which is a lot of people these days. It's kind of a great equalizer. Tinder was a friendly person's wet dream.

So that's sort of the style isn't it, of magazines like all those we're talking about, the highbrowers, of just stating the facts, having the cold-edged, warm-filled delivery of someone intent on not having any sort of angle?

Totes. This sort of publication implicitly trusts its readers to draw their own conclusions. It doesn't infantilize them by shoving messaging down their throat. This, to me (and to square your Uber pool circle), is what highbrow has in common with the Biebs. His song lyrics are infinitely interpretable. Quite flat in their way. Not to get too Barthesian. Look at this beautiful thing.

Is that from Cabinet magazine?


Did you ever read Within the Context of No Context? George Trow. It’s considered so pretentious and elitist—and he was I think? He went very crazy, because of . . . TV. Moved to Italy to escape the next iteration, the wicked internets. But that essay is very much what you describe. It's totally flat. It's very hard to understand for that reason, I find. Yet I also find it kind of entrancing. The writing is ugly and nice at the same time.

Wow. I am looking this up and flabbergasted I hadn't seen it before. It's . . . perfect.

Books are another story, against this highbrow and pretension thing. I just read The Selfishness of Others, which was fantastic, and I really do think that's something anyone might find and decide to buy. Perhaps a lot of that is marketing, but still. No one will ever get turned off by the FSG logo like they might that Harper's font, or just the word Harper's.

I agree with you that that book was very good, but I disagree that it's for everyone. I think a lot of people would find it self-indulgent, even though she isn't. Simply the subject matter is a turn-off somehow. What she does with it is smart. She turns it inside out. What did you think was perfect?

Trow just looks perfect. And yes, maybe some people would find it self-indulgent, but not any more so than any book that would bill itself as an 'essay'.

I think we've settled all of the issues: pretension, class, privilege, literature, nonfiction, magazines. All that's left is . . . eco-regulation? Another day. Thanks for your time and words Gemma.

Thank you Andrew. That was real fun.