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The Conversationalists

By Anjali R. Itzkowitz, Crimson Staff Writer

“How tall are you, Teddy?” asks Patrick R. Chesnut ’09. Chesnut, a former Crimson arts chair, and Edward “Teddy” Martin ’10 are co-editors of the same publication and both Harvard graduates, yet they have never met in person. This exchange is happening over a Google Hangout, a video chat, which also includes Sanders I. Bernstein’10, a former Crimson arts exec. The three alumni are co-founders of nascent literary magazine The Bad Version.

This brave endeavor has required them to devote almost all of their non-working hours to The Bad Version, a sacrifice they are happy to make because they firmly believe that the conversations they initiate in the magazine not only keep them going but are relevant for other people, too. The magazine is in some ways a liberation from the writers’ day jobs. In an early correspondence with Bernstein about first starting the magazine, Chesnut wrote, “I never write what I want to write, not entirely; I write what I think other people want me to write, or sometimes even what other people think other people will want me to write.”

Starting a publication of their own was a way for these writers to fight the absorption of their own voices into a world of professionalism. At Harvard, all three young men were deeply involved in literary pursuits, writing for The Advocate and The Crimson. After graduation, they found themselves craving a forum in which they could continue asking questions. They missed the electrifying atmosphere of college dorm room discussion, in which they constantly bounced ideas off one another. TBV is a way to keep this atmosphere alive and to extend the conversation to a broader literary community.

BLOWING SPEECH BUBBLES

The magazine’s mission, to the extent that it has one, is expressed by its title. Bernstein explains the meaning of the name: “In screenwriting ‘the bad version’ is a term that refers to the prototype of a scene, the first idea that gets the ball rolling in the script’s development.” This idea goes some way to explaining why every piece in the magazine, whether an essay, a poem, or a work of fiction, is accompanied by a response. The idea is to constantly reexamine and improve.

Trevor J. Martin ’10, the art director of TBV who designed the cover artwork for both issues, implemented this process of constant review in coming up with the second cover. He started with a drawing of a skeleton which several speech bubbles coming out of it. “But really I just liked the speech bubbles. They were really cute,” he says. He describes working through several iterations of the cover before reaching the final product, which he calls a “conceptual wrapper” for the content.

The aim in starting the magazine was to initiate a dialogue, both at the micro level within the magazine and in the literary community at large. According to the creators of TBV, the publication is the first step in building a forum for modern literary and cultural criticism.

GOOGLE GROUPING

“Teddy is actually only a floating head,“ quips Bernstein, with a grin thats not too subtle for the webcam to register.

“I may not have met you in person, but I have seen you shirtless in other Hangouts,” says Chesnut, before adding in jest, “That’s off the record.”

Martin says, “You can’t retroactively take that off the record.”

Despite the relaxed tone of the Google Hangout, TBV’s second issue launches on Feb. 22, and the three editors are occupied with preparations. Almost all the business of producing the magazine, from determining the contributors and content to organizing circulation, is coordinated via Google Hangout. The three alums chatting this evening live in different locations. Bernstein lives at home in New Jersey; Chesnut is in his hometown of Chicago; and Martin is in the magazine’s heartland, that cradle of literary entrepreneurship, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The interactions between writers are bantering and lighthearted, but there is no mistaking that everyone involved takes the work extremely seriously. Their efforts are reflected in the strides TBV has made since its first issue. As Bernstein says with a hint of pride that even his boundless modesty cannot conceal, “In one issue we have gone from being read to being read about.”

Though they have made progress, the editors are acutely aware of the work that lies ahead. Attracting contributors is a perpetual challenge. With the second issue barely on shelves, Bernstein is already keen to get started on the third, which is currently set to release around May 20.

BREAKING THE MOLD

After sitting in on this virtual meeting, I traveled to New York to meet Bernstein, Martin, and several other contributors to the magazine in Martin’s Williamsburg walk-up. In the the cozy apartment Martin shares with fellow TBV editor, Daniel B. Howell ’08, Neil Young plays softly but insistently on a real record player. A shopping cart full of books is parked in the living room. It was on the street with a sign saying “Take Me,” so Martin and Howell did just that. Its presence in the room affirms the omnipresence of literature in the lives of these individuals.

There are five men in the room, three of whom are wearing plaid. Luke Fentress, a contributor who wrote an essay on the myth of Actaeon and Diana in the latest issue, sips Red Stripe in Martin’s apartment. His eyes move restlessly around the room, alighting on people for little more than an instant before zooming onto their next perch. He is excitable and clearly delights in being provocative.

“You develop a rapport with your editor. You can be really rude to your editor. I was really rude to Teddy,” says Fentress. Martin dismisses this comment with a smirk and a sip of PBR. “But then you find yourself in contact with ‘the board,’ and all of a sudden you are answerable to people you can’t be rude to.”

Fentress’ take on their review process, which involves two rounds of editing, differs somewhat from Bernstein’s. Bernstein says that the magazine does not enforce a uniformity of style on its contributors and celebrates their individuality. “We are much more relaxed about [style]. Instead we look for inquisitiveness grounded in the eye of the person,” he says.

The editors have made the unusual decision to allow writers to choose their own subject matter rather than dictate content. They prefer to edit contributions rigorously and collaboratively, working closely with the writer. This way of working is integral to TBV’s philosophy. According to the magazine’s creators, this relaxed attitude to editorial protocol gets the most out of writers, encouraging them to run with their ideas rather then curbing them to fit a mold. But it also creates some ambiguity about the roles of those who edit. Chesnut is reluctant to give people formal titles and impose an editorial hierarchy. “I like that we are free-form and flexible,” he says. “Contributing editor sounds like a rung lower than just ‘editor.’”

There is talk of extending the Google hangouts to other members of the magazine staff. All three acknowledge the need to further distribute editorial responsibility among the magazine’s contributors. The current structure leaves most of the administrative work to Bernstein, Chesnut, and Martin. “These people are definitely part of it. They’ve been here as long as we have,” says Bernstein of the other staff writers. His statement exemplifies The Bad Version’s modest, all-inclusive attitude. The magazine is about collaboration, not top-down management.

PRINTCEST

The editors try to steer clear of catering too specifically to a New York readership. However, most of the contributing writers and editorial staff are based in the New York area. The Bad Version is on sale in 15 bookstores and the vast majority are in or around New York City. There are plans to expand into Austin, Texas. “It would be nice to get out of the Northeast,” Bernstein says, somewhat wistfully, but he points out that independent booksellers who might be interested in TBV are more focused on local publications. “One of the ways [independent] bookstores survive is to be part of the local community. [Non-New York] bookstores don’t want to carry Brooklyn lit mags.”

Chesnut, who is from Chicago, is less forgiving on this score. “We want to avoid being an incest[uous,] myopic lit mag,” he says, “but its really hard to get in places that are not where you live.” He has strong views about New Yorkers’ self-proclaimed cultural superiority. In an email to Bernstein when the magazine was in its formative stages, Chesnut wrote, “I really hate writing that acts like New York is the center of the universe…. New York is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the world, but its people can be just as provincial as those anywhere else, and sometimes more so.”

Judging by the makeup of TBV affiliates gathered at Martin’s apartment on Friday, New York centrism is not such a problem among contributors. Trevor Martin is from Texas; Howell is from Florida; and Cora K. Currier ’10, a former Crimson news editor, is from Arkansas. But despite hailing from far and wide, all are working in New York, in typical New York occupations. Trevor Martin does graphic design for the theater company, HERE; Howell is a graduate student in comparative literature at New York University; Currier is a former fact checker at The New Yorker and now works for ProPublica, an online news publication. You get the idea. A pattern begins to emerge.

Perhaps the more immediate danger is Harvard centrism. Everyone in the room except Fentress is a Harvard graduate. This was not immediately obvious to me, but it was hard to overlook once the discovery that Bernstein, Howell, and I were all in Pennypacker sparked chants of “Pack Attack!” from the two of them. The Bad Version is self-conscious about the preponderance of Harvard grads among its contributors. When Martin mentions that one of the poetry contributors in the current issue is an undergrad at Yale, Howell says sarcastically, “Yeah, we’re really branching out.”

Despite their best efforts to broaden their readership and contributor pool, TBV comprises a select lot. Since the magazine’s mission is to extend the conversation as much as possible, its Harvard umbilical cord must eventually be severed, its editors say.

A LABOR OF LOVE

Given the current abundance of online publications, the decision to print The Bad Version may seem impractical. Its expensive, and theres the tedious business of getting people to sell it for you. Moreover, all the content will eventually be uploaded to the magazine’s website. Despite logistical and financial burdens, the editors of The Bad Version believe very strongly in the importance of printing the magazine. In the minutes from the first editorial meeting, Bernstein writes, “There was the sense that a print magazine is necessary even if not that many people read it because it signals the seriousness of our intent. There is so much on the internet that is just put up there hastily. Having a physical magazine not only suggests that we have limited space and thus must contemplate what we choose to publish, but also that there is some sort of editorial apparatus at work.” Bernstein eloquently expresses a sentiment that everyone involved with the magazine shares. As I sit on Martin’s futon and handle the publication, touching its subtly embossed, bright pink, Arial font cover, flipping through its pages, I cannot help agreeing. Not only is it a statement of seriousness but also a product of much thought and review.

To what extent is printing The Bad Version an exercise in self-indulgence? The magazine itself, though it aims to be for everyone, caters to a narrow sliver of the literary world. The Bad Version sells for nine dollars an issue, which seems a lot for a small paperback publication. But after probing into the founders’ motives for starting the magazine, it is clear that publishing TBV is not self-indulgent, but a labor of love that requires considerable sacrifice. Each major contributor is doing something else to make money. Bernstein prepares students for the SATs and the LSATs. Chesnut works for a non for profit, Campell & Company, writing fundraising and marketing materials. When I suggest that The Bad Version hire summer interns to help with the ever-increasing load of administrative work, Bernstein bursts out laughing, saying, “But an intern is someone you don’t pay. No one gets paid here. If we hire them to do any work, then they may as well be editors, not interns.”

PBR SALON

It was only a matter of time before a conversation among people who live and breathe literature turned to a discussion of former English teachers. Bernstein described one of his disliked high school teachers as a somewhat oxymoronic “Buddhist sadist.” Our discussion is greatly enhanced by the presence of a real life English teacher in our midst.

Joseph F. Quinn ’08 teaches English at his former high school, Regis, an all boys Jesuit school on the Upper East Side. He is greatly enjoying the perks his position entails. He describes rereading “The Scarlet Letter”: “It’s like listening to a pop song again when you’re not a virgin and being like, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s about.’”

Despite Quinn’s jests, the writers of TBV are serious about devising an educational initiative, which could possibly go some way toward making the magazine self-sustainable. Still in the brainstorming stage, the idea would be to supply high school classrooms with stimulus material and questions to engender in-class literary debate. As a high school English teacher, Quinn is the natural person to pilot the educational scheme. He is optimistic about the plan, saying materials that supplement the prescribed curriculum often foster the best conversations. “The other day we were doing “[The Adventures of] Huckleberry Finn,” and someone sent me a letter of a former slave to his master. We started talked about it, and the conversation was fucking awesome. Everyone was so much more responsive.” He is eager to try out whatever The Bad Version devises in his classroom.

In an ideal world, Bernstein would like to make the material available in the public school system. “That would be the dream, to bring The Bad Version to public high schools,” he says. But bureaucracy and red tape make that more of a fantasy than a realistic goal, he says; private schools are a more likely audience.

The Bad Version, with noble but unrealized ambitions, is still in its infancy. While it aspires to great things, its readership is still relatively humble. The conversation at Martin’s apartment is peppered with discussion of a recent Harvard graduate whose rise has been rapid: Jeremy Lin ’10.

“It feels like he’s having success in this very public way, like Jeremy Lin is some sort of avatar,” says Bernstein. If Jeremy Lin is indeed an avatar for young Harvard grads forging a path in the real world doing what they love, then there are great things in store for The Bad Version.

—Staff writer Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at aitzkow@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 22

An earlier version of this article stated that the literary magazine The Bad Version does not pay its contributors. In fact, it pays writers who are not on its staff $50 per article.

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