Lecture Hopping: The Original Witerary Magazine

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Roger Hodge, E.I.C., discusses Harper’s
Graduate School of Journalism, 4.6.2006

Harper’s Editor-in-Chief Roger Hodge explained “I… like to hide behind the written word.” . . . Hodge is not the impromptu-thinking type, and his speech at the J-School last Thursday showed it. The moderator had recently handed him a shopping list of points to cover, and though he valiantly tried to address these, and stabbed very accurately at the manifestations of his magazine’s personality, he missed the vitals every time.

His presentation of Harper’s came after a long exposition of his intellectual background and that of the magazine. Everything was very disconnected, and only started to come together in the Q&A that followed his talk: Harper’s is run in madness; the method of its conception and production is largely implicit for the public, but it is implicit, too, for the staff and editors.

Perhaps this is what makes Harper’s such a wonderful read: it is coherent issue by issue–and coherence is the house mission now–but it is not (and as Hodge suggested, never has been and never will be) dedicated to any ideology, any readership, any theme, or any style. Hodge called the magazine a Skeptic, and referred to it as a ‘who,’ a person or entity of sorts. Harper’s selects articles for distinct authorial voice and unique ideas–but it is not, Hodge stresses, a ‘magazine of ideas’. Not only is that a redundant categorization, he believes, but it suggests a dedication to principles, to which he makes no pretensions.

Because Harper’s is not answerable to a readership (it is sustained by a private foundation), because its publisher is engaged in the most disinterested way (he stops by every day but demands no changes), because its core staff is small, and because it takes on unpublished writers (claiming that a good clip could just be the work of a strong editor), it can do whatever it pleases: screw with the AIDS research complex, argue for the social benefits of war, suggest the impeachment of the president, hold a symposium on a theoretical home-grown coup d’etat, or just discourse on pig masturbation and send reporters on luxury cruises. Harper’s only principles are skepticism, caprice, and respect for superior wit.

The problem with this approach –and Mr. Hodge almost put his thumb on it–is that, while the magazine isn’t answerable to any separate entity, writers have to make a living, and they do it by paying attention to current events. While their editor-in-chief is a newspaper-eschewing (didn’t turn a broadsheet for three years of his undergraduate experience), television hating, long-view thinker, the writers of Harper’s have been as preoccupied as the rest of us with current issues like Bush’s dishonesty and Gulf War II. The only time Hodge seemed more uncomfortable than awkward was when he was pushed towards the conclusion that his magazine is becoming more and more absorbed in war and government reportage. He’s had a lot of good writers coming up with (admittedly unique) political stories instead of the usual socially relevant oddities; the problem is not that the usual stories aren’t there, but rather that writers are ignoring them because they are too immersed popular concerns.

This is what made Hodge so uncomfortable. A bitchy graduate student accused him of sexism (and the masthead is nine-tenths male), but he’s most worried about being intellectually coöpted by circumstance. Harper’s is not meant to be distinguished from mainstream print media by its written style, though that’s important, but rather by its intellectual style. Harper’s is supposed to be independent in every way, full of tension and conflict and ignorance and acute interest. Three days into his job as Editor-in-Chief, Roger Hodge is determined to keep it that way, though he’s not sure how or why he’s doing it.

-John Klopfer

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  1. grateful

    Thanks, bwog, for covering this. I meant to go, but couldn't! It's nice to know that I never have to leave my computer if I don't want to.

  2. RA

    1. Is this sudden appearance of diaeresis marks a sign of a style guide to come?

    2. Harper's sounds a lot like the Blue and White. Or at least what the Blue and White wants to be.

  3. harper's subscriber

    long have I subscribed to harper's, the greatest magazine under the firmament. when I came to columbia and noticed that b&w was the same thing (after two years of thinking it was actually the yearbook for some reason) I was agape!

  4. JK

    Grateful, nö pröblem: I didn't take a nötepad tö the J-Schööl, but Hödge was just sö damn interesting that I needed tö write aböut it.

    RA/subsc., nöt fair: B&W has an audience and something öf an editörial vision.

  5. lewis lapham

    I notice you guys even added a harper's index-like section to the april issue. nice touch.

  6. read the article, nimwit...

    By 'lewis lapham' do you mean, Roger Hodge?

    Seems like the B&W is taking this lying down...

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