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"There's no reason why a literary magazine can't have more influence and sway than a fashion magazine. People are beginning to get bored of fashion magazines. I think they've run out of shock tactics. People are beginning to pay attention to quality of time and what they do with their time."

Dan Crowe, the editor of Zembla talks to Richard Marshall about the present and future of literary magazines.


DC: Zembla Magazine is a literary magazine that is there to demystify 'literary magazines', and make them more accessible. It's meant to be fun: its strapline is "Fun with words". We have fiction and non-fiction, interviews and book reviews, as well as profiles. We have authors reviewing their own books, we have living writers like Rick Moody interviewing the likes of Jimi Hendrix. We mess about a bit and have more fun.

I'm sure other literary magazines have fun, it's just that they don't look like it. I love literary magazines and I read them all the time, and there are some exceptions out there, most obviously McSweeney's, which has garnered a new design ethos -- what they call in the States a 'complicated simplicity'. The design of McSweeney's is something new and refreshing, and I approached the art director Vince Frost, who is typographically very flamboyant, to make Zembla interesting to look at.

People are scared of literary magazines, so I didn't want this to be a niche magazine. I wanted it to bought by the same number of people who buy Esquire or GQ. I think people don't buy literary magazines because they are dull and boring, but because they look dull and boring. That's a very big marketing problem. So we have Rachel Weiss and Tilda Swinton or Jimmy Hendrix on our covers. We were hoping to have Johnny Depp on this cover but that didn't work out.

I approached Simon Finch last year and said, "Do you want to do this?" And he said yes! He's the best person to do this with as he has access to these amazing rare books and has fantastic contacts. He also has a gallery where the Zembla office is now situated. So we just started it…

3AM: How old is he?

DC: He's in his early forties. I'm early thirties. I worked on another magazine launch prior to this called Another Magazine -- I was the literary editor. I was called in to do that because of my work, 3 years earlier, on a very small literary magazine entitled Butterfly which was doing well but had no backing. One of the other things about Zembla that's new is that we have advertising -- really good advertising like Christian Dior and Paul Smith and Mark Jacobs. I think this is the first time advertisers like VW and the like have backed a literary magazine. It's tough to pitch it to these people.

Some people get it and some people don't. Christian Dior like it because their head of menswear, Hedi Slimane, loves literature. Most people in fashion say they do, but he really does! Certain fashion designers get involved because it looks great, great design, great iconic imagery.

3AM: What would you say to someone who stated that glamorising literature like this might change it into something else?

DC: Yes, I see that. It might do if it was all about the ads and not the writing. Some of the people advertise in it because of the way it looks. It's won awards for how it looks, and yet there are thousands of people who buy it from WH Smiths and so on who e-mail me and say that it's one of very few magazines that publishes excellent short fiction. That's why they buy it, and they're probably a bit bemused by seeing all the Gucci adverts but not offended by it. The quality of fiction is very high. A lot of the authors who interview dead people -- like Rick Moody, Geoff Dyer, Cynthia Ozick -- are really high-quality authors at the top of their game. The Sunday Times did something about "Glam Lit" and Zembla, but I'm not sure what that is. I know there are writers out there like Hari Kunzru and Zadie Smith who are glamorous, but I don't know if it's Glam Lit simply because they do stuff for Zembla! Literature is glamorous, Vogue says so every single year. Every year they have that story, every year, no exception, usually round this time of year. But it's been glamorous for millennia if you take into account how people get obsessed by certain stories and writers. Good storytellers have always been famous.

3AM: So what kind of writing do you like? Does Zembla reflect your own taste?

DC: I'm learning. I do run things occasionally that I don't like, which I feel other people might like, but most of the time I run things that I do. I think that's the only way you can rationally decide what goes in. Some of the fiction that gets sent is very poor, and that obviously doesn't get in. There's a short story in one of the issues called "Plum" which probably takes a couple of minutes to read -- it's very short -- but it's one of the strongest things I've ever read. Unpublished writer. We also always have an extract in each issue: Dorothy Parker, Vladimir Nabokov, Georges Perec, all literary heroes of mine.

The name Zembla comes from a novel by Nabokov, a writer with whom I was mildly obsessed. In a way, everything I put in is personal. I think that that will hopefully come to an end at some point -- you run out of heroes in a way. For example, John Baldassari is someone I greatly admire so he's in an issue. I've always admired him, so it's a kind of privilege to have been able to work with him like this. I've always loved Brian Eno, so it's been a delight to get to know him whilst working on the project.

3AM: Are the publishing houses pleased to have Zembla on the block?

DC: No, not really. Well, I don't know. They are very quiet and don't really say anything. To try and get advertising from them is much more difficult than getting it from a mobile phone company or a fashion house or something. The one exception is Jamie Byng at Canongate: he books an ad each issue. I think he gets it. Many of them don't. As I say, it's pretty confusing. I'm sure they're glad of it in some way, because in the end it's about books and creating readers.

3AM: What about other magazines?

DC: Because it's a literary magazine, and not fashion, some really embrace it. Vogue did a big article about us, the New York Times did a really cool article in their style magazine, which is just about as good as it gets, people from the New Yorker have written about it and said they like it. There was one style magazine, which I won't name, who were writing about Zembla and it was going to be a decent whole-page article. They interviewed me and saw the contributors' list -- Tilda Swinton, Brian Eno, Rachel Weisz, Hedi Slimane, you know, people who were not usually associated with literature -- and they cut the story because it conflicted with I don't know what. But it went. Jealousy or something. I don't know.

3AM: Putting writing with dance and film and drama and art has always been done, if not in magazines! There's nothing artificial about that.

DC: No, there isn't. That's why it's so astonishing that something like this didn't happen years ago. The Paris Review was always the strongest independent literary magazine, but it was fiercely literary and this maintained its huge respect and integrity. But it's also surprising that they were never approached by Louis Vuitton, or someone, in the Fifties. I think these days, fashion always references literature or art because fashion ultimately feeds off the history of literature and the history of art. They need to associate with those values. It's one of the reasons that Zembla will be able to keep going and finance itself because it's an intelligent outlet for their advertising campaigns. There aren't that many magazines out there any more that are fashion-free. And there is so much that can be done, that can be articulated by literature, and not just fiction.

I'm just beginning to learn that now, and I'm annoyed with myself and depressed whenever a new edition comes out for not having done more. In the future, it's going to branch out more into the rest of the world. Borges said that the world is a library, that this world is words. We engage with this table because of words, the definition we have of it that we've learned from books. A pretty pretentious answer I know, but there's no reason why a literary magazine can't have more influence and sway than a fashion magazine. People are beginning to get bored of fashion magazines. I think they've run out of shock tactics. People are beginning to pay attention to quality of time and what they do with their time. I think I'm going to try and make the front section more accessible: I just want it to reflect more what's going on in film, music, events globally. We've got really nice but small opinion pieces by great writers, but I need it to be more time specific so it links in more with the publication date of each issue just so that it announces more news. It's great that it offers fiction, non-fiction, interviews with the living and the dead, a review section, art projects but it also needs to offer more news.

3AM: That would bring in politics.

DC: I'm slowly going that way in the front version. James Flint has written about nuclear issues. I don't want to enter into the political arena without being mindful of the dangers of a fun literary magazine collapsing into a political farce. But we do have politics: Brian Eno is writing something on the collapse of democracy under the Blairite government, and there are more things like that coming on.

3AM: Nicholas Blincoe was saying to me last night that maybe we're moving towards a more engaged kind of writing situation.

DC: It's finally dawning on people that there's something to fight against. The last ten years have been tricky. But now, regardless of whether Blair meant to fuck it up or not, he really has done. People are finally shocked that this has happened. I think people wish he'd just go, but that's not going to happen, at least not right now. So it's a really interesting time for writers. Writers who aren't necessarily political in the books they've written are getting more so now and it's always healthy when this happens.

3AM: The idea of the engaged writer may be making a comeback then…

DC: Yes. I really want to do some events. I don't know where or how for that matter. The first one will be in December (2004). A public speaking thing. I think this is what people want to do. Get a beer sponsoring it, a couple of speakers and you open it up to people.

3AM: Like The Idler and the 3:AM events. The Idler Magazine is constantly setting up interesting events that create a scene. It's an intelligent, mildly eccentric scene, but it's definitely there. It's smart.

DC: Yes. Smart people talking. Enthusiastic people talking.

3AM: I think we need smart. We've had enthusiasm without smart before. The last ten years have taught us we need smart and enthusiastic.

DC: Yes. That's one of the things perhaps you touched upon earlier when you asked whether Zembla was smart enough to be a literary magazine because of all the fashion and advertising in it. Does that degrade us? I think the answer is no: we're weird in that we're a smart magazine with smart advertising. I know that The Idler is against that in a way like The Believer in America which on its web site says "we say no to advertisers". But I don't think it's a dirty thing having advertisers in there. It would be if it were… Who would be a bad advertiser?... I can't think of one at the moment… A Murdoch product or something…but it's not bad in principle. Like everything, I think there is a way of doing it that is smart.

3AM: It's saying you don't have to wear a tank top to have a good idea.

DC: It's funny, but a lot of people are saying that. Manolo Blahnik, the fashion shoe guru, the guy behind Sex in the City and all that, he almost wept when he saw the first edition of Zembla. He thanked us because he said that he loved literature, but he was always embarrassed to get copies of the New Yorker for the fiction, and Zembla made it more accessible. That's one side. And on the other side, we get masses of e-mails each day from really weird places, Texas and the Middle East. I didn't even know we were on sale in Texas, it's great! Gilbert and George have the phrase 'Art For All': I wish I could steal that and have it for writing. Perhaps I can!

3AM: Writing for all.

DC: Yes. That's what it's supposed to be about. I just want to make it more accessible and better distributed and keep the level of fiction up. We're a small team but we're moving office to get more space. It'd be cool to be in Soho but I live in Shepherd's Bush so we're going to Portobello Road. Not the nice groovy end, but it's where I prefer to work.

3AM: Will you be doing anthologies?

DC: I was thinking of doing a book of the dead interviews. We have seven already, all by really great writers. We're going to have to wait on that for a while. The Paris Review have brought out their book of writing - it's just the best book of writing ever. Extraordinary. I'd love to be able to do something like that after a couple of years.

3AM: Are you a writer yourself?

DC: I don't have aspirations as a writer. I do have short stories, and I started my first magazine because I wanted them published which was a shameless Nabokovian exercise! I'm so glad I didn't manage to publish them. But as the magazine went on to do quite well I stopped the writing. I'm not gifted with the talent of narrative. I describe quite well. I wrote stories that didn't have a strong narrative to it. It's integral to have a really good idea of what the ending is, what happens in the middle and at the beginning. I really like Georges Perec, the games he played, Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet

3AM: Mike Bracewell's favourite Flaubert I think.

DC: Really? Yes, yes, I'm not surprised. A spectacular book. Nabakov is a great hero -- even his bad books are incredibly good. Amis when he was young influenced me.

3AM: So what do you feel about the cultural landscape at the moment?

DC: I think from the mid-Nineties to the beginning of the 21st century were extremely dull for writing. I think now we're in a very exciting time, especially in the cinema which is producing some humdingers. I think the UK is producing some exceptional writing, and I think that's down to the political climate really. I think without bad things happening good art just dies.

There was this time in the thirteenth century in the UK when there was really good weather for about 8 years, there was no war, the economy was reasonable, and there's nothing in the history books. It's just blank. Hardly any information. And then things occurred. Death occurred, and literature sprang up. I learned about that because I did an MA in narrative theory and I thought it's just fucking amazing. People have to be harassed to get their creative juices going. It's going to get worse politically especially in America, so we'll continue to get some good cinema and stronger writing.

* * *

This interview took place in the summer of 2004. In January 2005, Zembla suspended publication while it went looking for new to investors to secure its future…

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