Ever since The Baffler left town and Stop Smiling ceased publication, Chicago's small-press scene has been on life support. Now, an indie journal of cultural criticism is poised to fill the void.
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The Point, published since 2009, has drawn favorable notice nationally and abroad. London's Times Literary Supplement called it "subtle and various, empathetic and argumentative and more unexpected than it seems at first acquaintance." J.C. Gabel, founding editor and publisher of Stop Smiling, said "The three founding editors of The Point are culture warriors, waging, to borrow a Martin Amis phrase, 'a war against cliche.'"
The magazine is notable both for its ambitious scope and pedigree. The idea and editorial direction are the brainchild of three graduate students in their early 30s enrolled in the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought graduate program. Jon Baskin, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick hatched the idea in a campus pub in late 2008. The first issue debuted in May 2009.
Issue 7 will be released later this month at select bookstores locally and in 20 other markets, including New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Cambridge, Mass., and as far afield as London and Berlin.
Thakkar says he and his co-editors share an interest in journalism. Thakkar says he wrote for a student magazine at Oxford University while Baskin's writings have appeared in The Atlantic and Bookforum.
But students don't go to the University of Chicago to study journalism but rather big ideas. The Point's editorial statement of purpose declares the journal "is for anybody who is frustrated with the intellectual poverty of the majority of today's journalism and public discourse."
Thakkar says he finds magazines such as The Atlantic shallow. "They raise topics at the center of contemporary life, but at a certain point, they just give up," he says. "They tend to string together a series of quotes from experts who state the obvious. Our essays have a unity of voice. They are personal, intensely argued reflections that go deeper and evoke a connection by readers."
The Point's bi-annual issues typically consist of four or five lengthy essays covering culture, politics and society; an equal number of reviews; and a section, "Symposium," featuring multiple articles on a single topic. Past issues addressed "What is Film For?" and "What are Animals For?"
Issue 7 presents eight essays ruminating on "What is Marriage For?" with titles such as "A Matter of Life and Death," "Joiners and Quitters," "Alternative Arrangements" and "Not for Anything."
Contents are generated entirely by Baskin, Thakkar and Zwick. They pick each issue's theme, recruit writers and edit submissions. Each editor has a different editorial focus. Thakkar favors topics in philosophy and political science (he wrote a two-part essay on "Socialism We Can Believe In"), Baskin leans toward literature while Zwick gravitates to social theory.
They get help from a quasi-think tank that includes Princeton scholar Danielle Allen, Columbia historian Mark Lilla and University of Chicago philosophers Jonathan Lear and Martha Nussbaum. Doug Seibold, head of Evanston-based Agate Publishing, where Baskin once served an intern, facilitates the magazine's national distribution.
The Point carries a colloquial tone free of scholarly jargon. Its contents — "serious and seriously entertaining essays" — target a general, well-educated audience.
"I think we were all uncommonly interested in the world outside the academe and not so interested in becoming academics," Thakkar says.
Lilla gives Point editors high marks for, as he wrote in an email, "creating their own niche … between journals like n+1 (without the Brooklyn self-absorption ), Common Knowledge (without the academic archness) and a host of other small journals too idiosyncratic to list .... It's a joy to find it in the mailbox."
The magazine's print run is 2,000 copies. The Point survives on subscriptions (estimated at 1,200), donations and a series of local launch parties for each issue. Past parties have been held at Chicago's High Concept Laboratories, though Issue 7's party will be at the Bridgeport Art Center.
The Point launched a Kickstarter campaign that has exceeded its $10,000 goal, even though it still has 12 days to go. Proceeds will be used to pay writers, develop apps for use on e-readers and rent an office, which until then continues to be Baskin's apartment. Thakkar says editors will be paid last.
Readers can download many of its articles for free, yet Thakkar emphasizes the editors' commitment to a print edition. "There's a real sense of achievement with a physical product that you can hold in your hand. Something to behold, that's put together carefully."
Subscriptions, single past issues and a Kindle e-reader edition can be ordered at thepointmag.com. The Point is sold in Chicago at 57th Street Books, The Book Cellar, Quimby's, Women and Children First, the MCA and, in Evanston, Chicago-Main newsstand.
Tom Mullaney is a Chicago freelance journalist with a special focus on the arts. He edits a blog at ArtsandAbout.com.
$10; $18 annual subscription.