Interview with a Journal: The Point
Everything You Need to Know About the James Wood-Approved Magazine of Philosophical Writing
In this installment of Interview with a Journal, we sit down with Rachel Wiseman, managing editor at The Point.
The Point, a “magazine of the examined life,” is a print and digital publication that focuses on philosophical writing. The first issue was started by three University of Chicago graduate students, debuting in the fall of 2009. Today, the magazine is not only mailed to global subscribers three times a year but can be found in libraries and bookstores across the country and in select international venues.
Each issue contains essays, a symposium, and reviews. The magazine does not subscribe to a single political view or social agenda. Rather, readers are invited to “participate in a dialogue between diverse intellectual traditions, personalities and points of view.”
What makes your journal different from other literary journals/magazines?
Rachel Wiseman: One of the things recent readers tend to notice about The Point is that we don’t adhere to a political “line,” which means we publish writing from various—and sometimes deeply conflicting—ideological perspectives. But this is actually just a function of what we took to be the distinguishing goal of the magazine at the beginning, which is to create a public space for philosophical writing about everyday life and culture. By this we don’t mean writing that is abstruse or technical or even that [it] necessarily engages with known “philosophical” texts; we mean writing geared toward helping all of us live better, more thoughtful lives.
In many literary magazines, one can find original fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—usually memoir—and they often place a lot of emphasis on “craft.” Meanwhile, other intellectual magazines that The Point is sometimes compared to are guided by a specific political agenda, or a desire to convey certain kinds of information (e.g., about policy or organizing, science or art).
We appreciate the work all those magazines do, but our project has a different focus: The Point’s work has always been rooted in our commitment to the essay as a vehicle for self-understanding. Some of our most classic essays start from a place of confusion: the writer faces a problem in their lives (what to eat, who to love, where to work, how to grieve), and draws on the work of another thinker or artist to help them forge a way out. What’s crucial is that nothing the writer knows when the problem arises is enough to determine how they should go on; only through the combined process or reading, thinking, and acting—of which the essay itself becomes the map—can they find their way to new ground.
Another distinguishing feature of the magazine also follows from this mission: as a general rule, we try to understand a cultural object or practice—whether Instagram or online dating, effective altruism or therapy, social media or small talk—from the inside out. This might be contrasted against the tendency in many intellectual spaces to “demystify” such phenomena, or to treat them with suspicion. Even at the risk of coming off as naive or uncool (which we often do!), we prefer to treat what people find to be important with respect and generosity.
As we see it, one of the goals of the magazine is to help our readers remain open to the possibility that facets of everyday life and culture they might be inclined to trivialize or look down upon may have something to teach us. This doesn’t mean we don’t allow criticism, of course; criticism is part of taking something seriously.
But we do discourage our writers from writing in mocking or condescending ways; in the most interesting cultural commentary, we think, the commentator or critic owns up to their own investment or implication in the thing under discussion. This creates an earnestness of tone and a willingness to entertain sentiments like enthusiasm and reverence that one does not find as often in other intellectual magazines. It also allows space, we hope, for genuine dialogue to emerge between perspectives and points of view that might be used to encountering one another only in more hostile or closed-off spaces.
What is one of your favorite pieces that you’ve published? Why?
RW: An early example of an essay that demonstrates some of those features above is Timothy Aubry’s “Sizing Up Oprah,” which I read for the first time in 2012, when I was still in college and just a casual reader of the magazine. The piece, which came out shortly after Oprah’s long-running talk show ended, was unexpectedly revelatory for me. Before, I hadn’t thought much about Oprah, aside from the few times I watched her show while staying home from school.
Tim’s essay wasn’t just a celebrity profile or a pop culture report, it penetrated to the center of Oprah’s “therapeutic” worldview—and showed how that worldview has become deeply embedded in all of us. The piece wasn’t dismissive or superior, but it wasn’t fan service either; it simply described, carefully and well, the style of performance that Oprah mastered and popularized, her ability to translate private pain and struggle into public affirmation and redemption. I’d never read anything like it; the piece gave the kind of close, attentive reading to daytime TV that I’d often only seen applied to books or art films. It made me think about Oprah, and myself, in a different light, and I’m sure this essay is partly why I wanted to work for The Point.
A more recent essay we’ve published that I love is Moeko Fujii’s “Let Them Misunderstand,” which looks back at the work of Yukio Ninagawa—a theater director famed for his adaptations of Shakespeare for contemporary Japanese audiences. The piece captures the writer’s encounter with Ninagawa, as a “returnee,” continually translating between two cultures. The essay threads together theater criticism, profile, and memoir, each amplifying the other to convey what made Ninagawa’s work so powerful. While some critics faulted Ninagawa for his “simplicity” and “legibility” (the very qualities that made his performances so popular with non-Japanese viewers), Moeko helps us appreciate his art of translation: there’s nothing simple about it at all.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working at or running a magazine?
RW: The biggest and most daunting challenge has been cultivating an audience—reaching enough people to make an impact on the cultural conversation. In theory, we’ve always felt strongly that The Point could be for everybody; the barrier to being able to connect to our subject matter is actually quite low; you do not have to be part of any demographic, political, or literary niche to be interested in our articles. But when I started working for The Point, it was a tiny publication known, for the most part, only among a small group of people in Chicago (mostly around the University of Chicago). A lot of magazines like ours are based in New York, where there’s a large existing literary scene. That scene is smaller here and more focused on poetry than nonfiction. We also didn’t have that many connections within the publishing industry or in national media, which meant we had to work a little harder to make people aware of the magazine.
People read and subscribe to things that they feel a strong personal identification with, often politically. Because The Point doesn’t have a unified political agenda, it made marketing the magazine even more difficult. At the beginning, some readers expressed confusion about what our deal was, since we publish a lot of eclectic voices—Marxists and conservatives, secular writers and religious ones, academics and nonacademics—and it wasn’t always evident to them what The Point was trying to achieve.
We had to figure out how to communicate the editorial vision of the magazine and what set us apart from other literary and intellectual magazines—it took a few years to get our footing. This required first working out the magazine’s identity ourselves, and then reinforcing that identity through the content of the magazine, our messaging on social media, our communications with our readers, and so forth.
Over the past five years, we’ve made a lot of headway in clarifying that vision, and I think that’s reflected in the greater visibility of The Point and how our subscriber base has grown. After more than a decade in print, our readership is getting closer to matching the ideological and geographic diversity we’ve tried to represent in the pages of the magazine.
How did being on the staff of a literary journal/magazine change the way you read?
RW: In some ways, it’s made me a more generous reader—in other ways, a little more impatient. I find myself having lower tolerance for snark or uncharitable readings, even when they’re funny or I basically agree with the author. I also read more fiction now in my spare time, since I read a lot of nonfiction essays for “work.”
What do you look for in new authors you publish? What should stand out in terms of their work and style?
RW: We look for writers with a distinctive voice and point of view. I want to be surprised and to learn something new from an essay. Does this intervene in an ongoing conversation in a helpful way? Does it clarify a confusion I’ve had? Point essays tend to run long, and that means we’re trying to make sure that there’s enough of a payoff for the reader. The stakes of an essay should always be clear: Why does this matter, to the writer or anyone else?
We publish a lot of academics, and a mistake that is common with them is trying to make their narrow academic interest “accessible” by trying to find some kind of relevant cultural peg for it. This rarely works—the interest should emerge from an experience or question they are having, rather than being applied from the top down.
On the other side of the stylistic spectrum, some of our more literary writers will place too much emphasis on the content of their experience, and have a hard time stepping back and showing why it should matter to our readership. We look for pieces that can do both movements simultaneously, that are intellectually ambitious but not condescending, showing respect for the reader’s curiosity and intelligence.
Stylistically, I am drawn to writers who are honest and have a sense of humor, and who aren’t afraid to show their personality in their writing (even if it isn’t totally flattering). In literary and art criticism, I want a piece to open up the work for me and help me understand what is good about it. I’m attracted to art/film/literary criticism that errs on the side of love (fandom, even)—where you can really sense that the writer understands and cares about whatever it is they’re writing about. That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy a good takedown or caustic review from time to time, but it has to have a very worthy target. It’s important that a piece, even when critical, is fair-minded and doesn’t take cheap shots. The essays I like best—the ones worth returning to—are the ones that have changed my mind.
Tell us about your submission process.
RW: We accept submissions through our Submittable on a rolling basis. We don’t charge submission fees and try to read and respond to writers in a timely manner. Once we take on an article, a writer can be sure that they will have the attention of at least two and sometimes as many as five editors as we attempt to move the piece from conception to execution.
For submissions that are accepted for publication in the print issue, our pay scale runs from $400-1200, depending on the length and type of piece (reported pieces that require more resources, for instance, are compensated at a higher rate; reviews and symposium pieces, which are shorter, are on the lower end of the scale).
We pay in the ballpark of $100-250 for web pieces.
Our next symposium topic is on the question “What is college for?” That issue will be published this summer.
Questions about pitches or our editorial process can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Rachel Wiseman, Managing Editor