How to describe the Baffler? Brilliant? Or "irritating," in the words of a New York Times editor?
The Baffler, more like a slim paperback than a magazine, is a no-holds-barred journal of cultural criticism, published in Chicago by a small band of Gen X intelligentsia, most of whom still hang on to their day jobs.
With a circulation of only 20,000, it has managed to attract big-name attention. Harper's editor Lewis H. Lapham wrote the forward to a collection of Baffler articles (titled "Commodify Your Dissent"), and quotes from the Village Voice, the Utne Reader and the Nation appear in promotional materials.
So why would anyone characterize this promising periodical as irritating?
Well, Baffler has a way of getting under the skin, particularly the epidermis of big business and major media and cultural institutions.
The Times editor, Penelope Green, was steamed over a 1993 Baffler article that caused some embarrassment for the newspaper's then-new "Styles of the Times" section. In November 1992, the newspaper published a trend story on the Seattle grunge music scene, complete with a glossary of "grunge-speak" terms provided by grunge guru Megan Jasper. Youth in the Northwest, the Times told its readers, referred to torn jeans as "wack slacks," platform shoes as "plats" and unlikable people as "lamestains" or "cob nobblers."
But Baffler uncovered what was intended as a harmless prank: Jasper had concocted "some of the most inspired fake slang outside of Monty Python," magazine co-founder and editor-in-chief Thomas Frank writes in "Harsh Realm, Mr. Sulzberger!" At the time, Jasper told Baffler, she was surprised by the onslaught of journalists making the pilgrimage to document the Seattle music scene and thought she'd have some fun with it.
The Times was not amused. A later article in the New York Observer recounts correspondence in which the Times accused Baffler's editors of fabricating Jasper's hoax.
"We at The Baffler really don't care about the legitimacy of this or that fad, but when The Newspaper of Record goes searching for The Next Big Thing and The Next Big Thing piddles on its leg, we think that's funny," Baffler wrote to the Times.
Jasper came clean, much to Green's chagrin. "Our piece was tongue-in-cheek, so I guess it works," she told the New York Observer. "But how irritating."
Among the acidic gems in the latest issue is Frank's dissection of '90s media and its declining reputation. "The mendacity of the press is so well-understood that it no longer requires any elaboration before being introduced as a plot device in sitcom and film," he writes. "It has given every city its own media columnist, churning out news stories about news stories that were themselves about news stories."
An outrageous -- but true -- piece titled "I, Faker," recounts writer Paul Maliszewski's strange career with the Business Journal of Central New York. Maliszewski grew tired of the disingenuously upbeat business stories he was asked to write about the stagnant economy in Syracuse, N.Y. So he began submitting bogus letters, guest "expert" columns and fake stories to the journal under various pen names. Unethical? Definitely. But the letters are highly amusing.
The Baffler is modeled after the literary magazines of the late 19th century, and it reveres the writing style of H. L. Mencken. It also has elements of Swiftian 18th-century satire, with some '90s twists and turns, such as the bizarre police log listings from Tinley Park, Ill., in the most recent issue. The political slant is decidedly left.
Many of the issues are themed, taking on such hefty topics as middlebrow culture, labor, and the business culture as exemplified by Sinclair Lewis' anti-hero George Babbitt.
For Frank, a free-lance writer, the Baffler has always been a side job. He and a University of Virginia classmate, Keith White, intended to produce a "straight literary magazine."
"We started looking around at the world of cultural criticism in 1988," Frank says from his home in Chicago. "That was very much sort of the salad days of postmodern cultural criticism in America, when deconstruction ruled the land. We were always astonished at the baffling prose. We obviously weren't interested in doing that. We named it sort of ironically, because we were going to do anything but that."
The first issue came out in 1988. Later, attending graduate school in history at the University of Chicago, Frank assembled a gang of like-minded writers and culture critics, and published issues sporadically. The Baffler has come out every nine months or so, but the goal is a quarterly, Frank says.
He wants the Baffler to help open the eyes of jaded and complacent Americans. "We hope they will think more critically about the culture, about the business culture that makes up so much of our national scene."
Pub Date: 03/28/99