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Upon first encountering The Whitney Review of New Writing, readers would be forgiven for assuming that the literary broadsheet with a bold sans-serif design must be somehow affiliated with the Whitney Museum. In fact, the publication is named for its founder, the New York-based writer Whitney Mallett. An equal parts formal and freewheeling print-only biannual that mixes reviews of fiction, non-fiction, theory, film, and the occasional restaurant with interviews and essays, the buzz surrounding The Whitney Review embodies the post-pandemic era of chic yet accessible literary culture. So far Mallett has published three issues, with a fourth scheduled for November. The wide range of content — the spring/summer 2024 issue includes an interview with Mary Gaitskill; essays by Philippa Snow, Grace Byron, and Arjun Ram Srivatsa; and a review of the new Miranda July, to name a few – gives The Whitney Review an unpretentious, forum-like quality. In the spring, Esmé Hogeveen spoke with Mallett about her vision for the broadsheet’s future, the resurgent public interest in readings, and the stakes of “post-digital print.”

Interview by Esmé Hogeveen
Portrait by Carolyne Loreé Teston    

ESMÉ HOGEVEEN I appreciate how each issue of The Whitney Review features such a unique cluster of themes. How do you select them?  

WHITNEY MALLETT Rather than give a single top-down theme for contributors to respond to, I leave things open and then identify common themes while I’m editing a new issue. I’ve always been interested in the idea of zeitgeist and the confluence of ideas, so it’s fun to look for how different pieces and texts may unexpectedly connect. I remember learning the term zeitgeist as a child and feeling so compelled – it almost felt like someone acknowledging God or a force above rationality, a spirit. The themes I noticed while editing the spring/summer issue were: surface, cruelty, inheritance, and debts.

EH Sounds like an intense summer read.

WM Totally.

EH What is your process for selecting contributors?

WM There’s been a lot of a natural momentum around that, which is exciting. After the second issue launched [in December 2023], people started messaging me, asking, “Can I write about this book?” “Can I write about this movie?” It’s cool that as each issue goes into the world, it reaches such different people and, so far, more people have wanted to be involved. There are writers from issues one and two that I want to work with again, and I’ll think, “Oh this book could be a good fit for so-and-so,” but it’s also great having so many new faces, including contributors who I’ve never even met in person. I’m a bit more closely involved in commissioning and editing the features, and I generally want to work with writers who I’ve already worked with, but I really want the short reviews to feel like a forum.   

EH Do you notice any interesting trends in the kinds of pitches you receive?  

WM There are a few popular literary strains right now. Nicolette Polek’s 2024 novel, Bitter Water Opera, was pitched to me three times, and the cover has dusty lilac bows. There’s definitely a wide coquette-type engagement with writing right now. People see The Whitney Review as a space to engage with those kinds of books and topics, but we’re not exclusively that. We also cover texts that explore more gay, cunty vibes. My collaborator Michael Bullock and I share a writing teacher, Bruce Benderson, who was like, “I hope [The Whitney Review] doesn’t become too gay,” in response to the [exiled queer Russian writer and activist] Slava Mogutin piece in issue two. Bruce’s concern was a result of his own experience of getting stuck within a prescribed milieu, but I’m not concerned about The Whitney Review getting pigeonholed. I actually think Slava is a great example of the splinter celebrities we have these days, who are huge icons to 50,000 or 100,000 people but remain relatively unknown to other readers.    


Writing is an aesthetic pursuit


EH What appeals to you about commissioning for a super-short review format?

WM When I began pitching people to write, I wanted to present a non-overwhelming ask. I’m a writer and I receive so many books that seem cool, but the window to cover them in a conventional review goes by so quickly. It’s not just about giving books shine, though it’s sad to think of a book dropping into the ocean and getting no splash, but sometimes there’s something about a book that needs more time to percolate or requires a different conversational space to parse. I wanted to prioritise a format that felt accessible and which also factored in limits around payment, and I became interested in the idea of succinct reviews of texts that, for the most part, came out in the previous year. 

EH It’s easy to underestimate how hard it is to write a compelling short review.

WM It's a huge challenge to write well and succinctly. Some people say that The Whitney Review is post-digital print because it's for a short attention span, but I’d also argue that digital publishing made everything bloat to a 1000-to-1200-word default. When I began writing for print alt weeklies – or even the school newspaper back when I was in high school – assignments were often 400 or 500 words. Now, with digital publishing, so many pieces are 800 to 1200 words. Most digital content cycle editing is super bare bones and just about ensuring a piece makes sense, so if the writer submits late and rambles on, there’s usually not enough time for structural edits. Initially some of The Whitney Review pieces were only 100 or 200 words. I’ve let them grow a bit, but I don’t want them to get too long, because I think so much of the magic is having six reviews on one page.

EH Are there any specific publications or milieux that inspired you to create The Whitney Review?

WM I was inspired by the resurgence of readings that began right before the pandemic. Lily Lady runs a monthly reading series that I started to attend towards the end of Covid. Before the pandemic, there was a reading series at MX Gallery called Erotica Night. I read for it around Thanksgiving 2019 and I remember being shocked by how many people attended. If I zoom out, I think people have been more interested in artists’ personas or identities than their work for a long time. Then podcasting happened and it seemed like if someone was charismatic and interesting enough, they didn’t even need to make art — we could just listen to them speak. Live readings are even less mediated.      

EH There are a lot of writing and fashion collabs and overlaps happening right now. I know you’ve participated in several lit-meets-sartorial events, including a recent poetry reading at Comme des Garçons, and some major fashion brands advertise in The Whitney Review. I’m curious about your take on writing and fashion worlds coming together.

WM Writing is an aesthetic pursuit. I’m always surprised by how some people can have such an amazing sense of style when it comes to words, but then it stops there. Sometimes I think it’s a performance of seriousness.

EH Absolutely. But the opposite can be true as well – stylish with clothes but not with words.

WM Totally, and of course there are lots of stylish writers, but I think there’s a self-serious milieu that gets over-represented, you know, n+1, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review. There are exceptions, of course, and I'm not saying that they all can't dress, but there’s a uniform of how to be taken seriously that often includes women not wearing makeup and men wearing blazers. It’s like, oh yeah, you all went to prep school. Yet there’s this recent surge of lit magazines favouring different aesthetics which are shaking things up. There’s Heavy Traffic, which has a more aggressive downtown vibe – lots of airports and sex and violence. And there’s Forever Mag, which is doing its coquette thing. There are also new flavours of style in writing that I didn’t see ten years ago when I moved to New York. And I mean, there’s always been writers with great personal style, like Ariana Reines. Maybe poets pay more attention to detail and there’s less money, so you have to be creative. But there’s also this weird thing going on where books have become trendy and celebrities are giving them a certain attention – like Rachel Comey collaborating with The New York Review of Books and Ottessa Moshfegh writing flash fiction for Proenza Schouler. The truth is that people respect things that get co-signed from the fashion world, and I think we’re seeing that play out here. ◉