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NYT Style Section Loves a Literary Salon Redux: "Moveable Feast-type stuff" at The New Inquiry

By Harriet Staff

The New York Times is really digging the literary salon of late. In addition to their piece on The Wilde Boys, the Style section takes a look at The New Inquiry, "a scrappy online journal and roving clubhouse that functions as an Intellectuals Anonymous of sorts for desperate members of the city’s literary underclass barred from the publishing establishment." This time, the weekly meets happen at an "invitation-only party at a cramped, bookshelved apartment on the Upper East Side." Though they are "[f]ueled by B.Y.O.B. bourbon, impressive degrees and the angst that comes with being young and unmoored, members spend their hours filling the air with talk of Edmund Wilson and poststructuralism." And there's more to the story:

“They’re the precursor of this kind of synthesis of extrainstitutional intellectualism, native to the Internet, native to the city dweller,” said the novelist Jonathan Lethem, an early champion.

“They’re not trapped within an old paradigm,” he added. “They’re just making it their own.”

The New Inquiry is edited by Rachel Rosenfelt, 26, who graduated from Barnard College in 2009. Though she had some luck finding work, her exposure to the literary establishment left her unimpressed. “It killed my interest in publishing,” she said of her internship at The New Yorker during her freshman year. “It just felt like they had all ‘arrived.’ It was boring. No one talked. The only real rule was, ‘Don’t mess this up.’ ”

Young, Web-savvy and idealistic, she and two friends — Jennifer Bernstein and Mary Borkowski — wanted to create their generation’s version of cultural criticism, equally versed in Theodor Adorno and Britney Spears. Finding contributors was easy: their social circle was filled with overeducated, underemployed postgrads willing to work free to be heard on subjects like Kanye West’s effect on the proletarian meta-narrative of hip-hop.

After earning a master’s and writing on a farm in upstate New York, Ms. Chapman returned to the city uncertain about what to do next.

“I met Rachel on one of my first days back,” she said, “and she was like, ‘Be our new literary editor.’ ”

There was no thought of turning a profit. But who cared? No one was making any money on the traditional path, anyway.

“There’s something incredibly liberating,” Ms. Rosenfelt said, “when you realize that climbing that ladder is a ladder to nowhere.”

The Times searches for the sexy angle, only to find Situationists:

Despite the fact that everyone was young and attractive, no one seemed to flirt or network. Instead, they traded heady banter about the Situationists and reveled in an atmosphere of warmhearted mutual support; it felt like an oral dissertation mixed with a ’70s encounter group.

At one point, a few debated, only half-ironically, whether a new bank in a former Dunkin Donuts nearby was philosophically akin to the French reactionaries’ construction of the Sacré Coeur basilica on the site of the Paris Commune’s insurrection in 1870.

Then, around 10 p.m., Ms. Rosenfelt called everyone into the main room. The highlight of each salon is a group reading in which each person selects a three-minute reading on the predetermined topic.

“We’re reading about ‘failed revolutions’ tonight,” Ms. Rosenfelt reminded the crowd. She started with a passage from “To the Finland Station,” “in which Edmund Wilson couches the inevitable failure of Marxism in Edmund Wilson’s idea of the national and ethnic identity of Marx.”

The room exploded in vaudeville-style hoots.

Continuing around the circle, Ms. Fitzgerald, the would-be magazine writer, read from “The Cantos,” by Ezra Pound. Mr. Osterweil, the frustrated novelist, read from Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.” Tim Barker, a junior at Columbia, awkwardly admitted that he, too, had chosen a reading from Debord. (What are the odds?)

Learn about the group's half-hearted turn to the "mainstream" (N+1 and Dissent?), despite arrests at OWS and living with the rents, here.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2011