Banks Knows His Books
A quiet revolution has taken place in the offices of Bookforum, the quarterly review that was launched as a companion to Artforum in 1996. Last winter, shortly after former editor Andrew Hultkrans quit to pursue his own writing, the publishers hired 37-year-old Eric Banks and gave him control over a complete redesign.
No longer a glossy square, the summer issue, just out, is a matte tabloid, roughly the size of The New York Review of Books. No one could miss the pink-and-chocolate head shots of Italo Calvino on the cover, and readers will note that the alchemy extends to the text, as well.
"Eric was the first and only candidate," says executive publisher Danielle McConnell. "He is an extremely smart and informed editor who we thought would re-emphasize Bookforum's coverage of scholarly and art books." While Hultkrans's approach was looser and more bohemian, Banks is constructing a showcase for the kind of rigorous and elegant writing produced and consumed mostly by academics. He aims to cover writing about the visual arts, nonfiction and scholarly titles with an emphasis on philosophy and criticism, and literary fiction.
"Editing Bookforum is something I've always wanted to do," says Banks, who switched early on from graduate studies in anthropology and linguistics to freelance editing for university presses and magazines like Men's Journal and Rolling Stone. Aside from a brief stint at Vogue, he has worked since 1995 at Artforum, where he honed his skills as a book review editor. He buys ties from Paul Smith and Bergdorf Men's, and is fond of pastels.
"Eric is a very erudite guy," says Artforum contributing editor Arthur Danto. "He reads widely and deeply. When he asks you to review a book, he will have not only read it, but read all the books around it."
Chris Calhoun, a top agent at Sterling Lord and friend of Banks, calls the new editor "a great reader with a keen mind for" art, music, and philosophy, and predicts he will bring the magazine "more intellectual heft and clout." Under Hultkrans, Calhoun explains, Bookforum had "more of a pop sensibility and an unnecessary preoccupation with first-time fiction, which was not appropriate for a magazine of this stature."
Hefty is an apt word for the lead essay in the summer issue, in which historian Richard Wolin reviews a biography of the late German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Though fascinated by Gadamer, Wolin raps his biographer, Jean Grondin, for writing hagiography. In short, Wolin argues, Gadamer's reverence for conformity and tradition led him into an "ethical complacency" that allowed him to become an intellectual apologist for Hitler.
Calhoun calls Wolin's essay emblematic of "what we can expect from Eric Banks's Bookforum." Danto also sees a signal in the Wolin piece, which he calls "a somewhat hostile but pretty serious review. . . . The fact that Eric thinks people want to read about Gadamer is a reflection [of the fact that] artists read a lot and they're more scholarly than one would have supposed. The academy is now the primary locus for artistic thought and production in the U.S., and I think Eric wanted Bookforum to reflect that."
Bookforum is one of those high-minded enterprises whose bills are paid by a wealthy benefactorin this case, the profitable Artforum. Total circulation for Bookforum is about 40,000, with about 10,000 copies sold on the newsstand and about 30,000 subscriptions. (Bookforum is sent free to all Artforum subscribers.) Most Bookforum ads come from art publishers and university presses. As Danto points out, the ongoing demand for art books is borne out by the fact that university presses continue to publish those titles at a time when they are cutting back on other lists, such as philosophy.
Banks hopes to tap a demographic that is "like The New York Review's but much younger. I think there is an audience of intellectual readers between 25 and 40 out therethe kind of person who buys The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Review, but doesn't have an allegiance to a particular publication."
The long-term goal, Banks says, is to publish Bookforum six times a year, or even monthly, which would increase the publication's visibility. Though the publishers postponed a plan to go bimonthly this year, they are confident the redesign will result in better placement in bookstores and on newsstands. "With the old format," says Banks, "The stores didn't know what to do with it and it ended up somewhere between Book magazine and Poets & Writers. We want to be seen next to the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and The New York Review of Books." In addition to launching more direct mail campaigns, he says, "We're trying to get contacts with managers at every college bookstore, to plead with them to sell Bookforum."
For Banks, reviewing art books means covering not just art criticism, but also monographs and art history, and providing a sense of "how artists write about their own work." The writers he considers "most qualified to lead the discussion are those currently working in the academy." Along with Wolin, the new issue includes pieces by Mark Wigley, an architectural theorist at Columbia University, and Robert Rosenblum, a professor of fine art at New York University. Fiction and literary criticism will be handled by fiction editor (and longtime VLS contributor) Albert Mobilio, whose assignments for the new issue include Minna Proctor's review of Italo Calvino's autobiographical writings, and Steve Erickson's appreciation of the works of California noirist James M. Cain.
One of Banks's goals is to notice books that have been "overlooked by other reviews." For example, the summer issue covers a series of Michel Foucault lectures from the '70s, which Banks calls "not well-known in the states, not thought of as important," an ethnographer's account of the "manners and customs of the modern Egyptians," an assessment of the late critic Leslie Fiedler, and a look back at the late Alison and Peter Smithson, an "incredibly neglected" pair of British architects who ran what Banks calls "perhaps the most underrated practice in the late 20th century."
Banks says the new Bookforum will regularly feature letters to the editor (the summer issue features a bristling dispatch from Richard Howard, who confirms he is gay, but not, as Alain Robbe-Grillet called him in a previous issue, the kind of homosexual who finds "nothing more disgusting than women"). He also plans to include a regular letter from a "far-flung correspondent" that will use a local phenomenon as a prism through which to view culture, and a column called "Luxury and Degradation" in which rotating authors reveal what they read for guilty pleasure. (The column title echoes a Jeff Koons series from the mid 1980s.)
"Getting the balance right between the titles we cover is tricky," says Banks, "especially in a quarterly, where every call can seem overdetermined. And our editorial mission might at first be a bit confusing. But I think with coming issues it will be clear to readers what to expect." The next issue arrives on the newsstands in late September.
Cynthia Cotts is on vacation through the month of July. Press Clips will return in August.
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