A Class Act

Happy Birthday, ‘Lingua Franca’

The consensus about Lingua Franca is that while comparatively few people read it, the ones who matter do. The self-billed "review of academic life," now celebrating its 10th anniversary, is respected by almost everyone who knows about it—an assessment borne out by the fact that so many LF alums have gone on to top jobs in journalism.

There's New York Times Magazine feature creature Margaret Talbot and Slate's New York editor, Judith Shulevitz, both of whom edited LF at one time. Peter Edidin, one of the magazine's founders and its original editor in chief, and former senior editors A.O. Scott, Daniel Zalewski, and Emily Eakin all now work at the Times. And that's just for starters.

LF's influence on '90s magazine culture has been so strong, it's sometimes hard to remember that it was unique in academia when it began. There was, of course, the newsweekly The Chronicle of Higher Ed, but that was a very different animal. Jeffrey Kittay, the man who conceived the idea for LF and raised most of the money for it, says of the Chronicle, "It was competent, but I thought a more lively journalistic take was really called for." Instead, his model for LF was Steven Brill's American Lawyer. "It made quite an impression," Kittay recalls. "Here was a magazine writing about the legal profession without all the stifling protocols of seriousness." Kittay wanted to do the same thing for academia.

And he did. So much so that most smart, intellectually informed people echo the sentiments of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Walter Olson: "Lingua Franca reminds me that academic pursuits are of rights supposed to be intellectually lively and stimulating, and leaves me feeling all the more cheated that in other hands they so often aren't."

LF's success is measurable in other ways too. Almost three years ago, Kittay started a spin-off publication called University Business, an administration-oriented version of LF. He also acquired a Web digest called Arts & Letters Daily. Together, the three publications compose a conglomerate called Academic Partners, LLC, in which Kittay retains a controlling interest.

More impressive still is LF's solvency. With a circulation of only 20,000, and a subscription base that's 75 percent academics, the magazine has stayed afloat. "What distinguishes LF," says Edidin, "is that it's not subsidized, whereas The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, Harper's, they're all kind of pro bono operations." And that's true of almost any other journal of ideas you could name. Not bad for a mag that was intended to be, as Edidin puts it, "the best bathroom reading that an academic could have."

Indeed, LF was frequently criticized for having too irreverently sensationalist a tone. Early on, LF was dubbed the People magazine of the academy, because of its purported tendency to focus on insider gossip and not enough on substantive debates. Since current editor in chief Alexander Star took over, however, most people agree that lengthy investigative reports—on everything from dissidents in Serbia to the fight over guns in America—have largely taken the place of lighter fare.

Another common criticism is that all of the magazine's pieces read as if they were written by the same person. Some see this cookie-cutter exactitude, which sacrifices the spice of an individual writer's voice, as a defect. LF is, and always has been, heavily edited and rewritten, which some say makes it more an editor's than a writer's magazine. Edidin defends this. "When you create a new magazine voice, you have to create a model, give people a sense of what kind of tone you're searching for." But, says A.O. Scott, "Sometimes there's a sameness to the stories. The thing that used to frustrate me was the way that every story about an intellectual development would have to break down into a controversy, a sort of culture-wars model. The academy as a whole has begun to move beyond that." Such mild criticisms come, however, on the heels of great praise. Scott calls much of the magazine's in-depth work "amazing," and adds that "LF set a cheeky, irreverent tone and it infiltrated every other magazine. You see its influence everywhere."

Edidin is right on when he says, "It's a good thing for the culture that this little thing is out there chugging along."

 
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