“Don’t Wait for Permission”: Talking with Rachel Rosenfelt, Founder and Publisher of The New Inquiry

photo by Victor Jeffreys III
photo by Victor Jeffreys III

For our sister publication The L Magazine‘s Innovation Issuewe spoke with 11 women who are doing ground-breaking work in their respective fields. One of those women is Rachel Rosenfelt, the founder and publisher of The New Inquiry, an online-only magazine that, since its inception, has consistently published many of the most exciting and provocative writers/thinkers working today. Here, Rosenfelt talks about how she started TNI, what challenges she’s faced in her chosen field, and what member of the Wu Tang Clan she’s most like.

What was the genesis of The New Inquiry? 
I think The Bad News Bears and other formulaic kid-sports movies really sums it up. I am Walter Matthau in this scenario. Or, if I may, what RZA is to the Wu-Tang Clan. A bunch of misfits finding each other and making something happen. There was no sense of what failure or success would look like. It was simply the thrill of having a reason to connect to people we didn’t already know who were otherwise unrecognized or just emerging as writers, artists and thinkers, and throwing the ball and seeing if they’d catch. I also am a deep web 1.0 Internet girl and I think my obsession with tinkering around with coding and technology gave me the tools to imagine a different way of organizing.

What role did you see it filling in the world of cultural discourse? 
I didn’t think about us being players in “the world of cultural discourse” to start. At first, it was just that I felt as a young woman who wasn’t a homework-doer or note-taker, but still had drive and passion about politics and art and ideas, there was nowhere for me to go. What was I going to do? Apply for publishing jobs? Become a part-time freelancer/intern making photocopies under the unceasing, pointless lash of the so-called culture industry? I was interested in the whole problem of doing something hostile to capital like, for instance, publishing quasi-academic, longform essays with radical undertones and no start up funding. But the structures of culture in NYC required me to either be willing to “pay my dues” (to who?!), which felt silly considering we were all on a sinking ship anyway, have pre-existing connections to power, or pander to the egos of former nerd-dudes who get a kick out of the attention of young women who they can categorize as safely trivial in the scheme. In short, TNI was a hack for smart women who didn’t want to participate in that noise, much less “succeed” on those terms. Eventually, as our collective grew and the political moment shifted, I began to see the platform we had built as an opportunity to take risks on young writers, bold work, and radical thought. We have no agenda and no string-pulling funders, so we do what we want. I speak for only myself when I say I like to think The New Inquiry‘s role in discourse is to advance the radical imagination.

What made you decide to publish only a digital edition?
We were broke and made it work to our advantage.

How hard has it to make TNI profitable? Has that been a concern?
Very hard. Lord, yes. We’d be completely insane to do TNI to make a “profit,” but we want to pay for the labor it requires to put out. At first paying writers for their work was enough, but eventually our editors were tasked with so much work, paying them for their work became a priority too. And then there’s fixing the bugs on the site and so forth. It’s torture. But then again, it was never supposed to be easy to do something like this.

You’ve published and given a platform to many of the most exciting writers working today; how did you find them and is there anything you look for specifically in terms of voice?
TNI didn’t start as a friend group from the same place, with the same talents or interests. We were all once strangers to each other and we disagree on most things. That keeps us sharp. We also push against anyone bringing in a clique and I guess you could say we confer social capital on members who suggest someone new who no one has heard of and blows us all away. I like to think I’m great at reacting to what’s in front of me authentically and over time, my uncultivated taste has identified some exceptional individuals, but TNI isn’t about me. It’s the sum of its parts. The way we’re structured makes new talent fundamental to our survival as a project.

What are some of your favorite pieces that you’ve run?
I can’t pick favorites! Just take a look at the masthead. Everyone there wrote something that blew me away and I hunted them down.

What made you make the switch out of the EIC role, and what’s your position at TNI now?
People say that the lives of little magazines are only as long as the lives of their founders. That might be true for most, but only because founders tend to be men with gigantic egos. I have always given away power in areas when someone better at a given task has come along. I never strangled the project into my vision. It has changed with the ebb and flow of the people involved and as our profile rose and our place in, as you say, “the cultural conversation” solidified, it became clear that I was not the rightful guiding editorial mind behind the project. My role is “Publisher” but that’s just to make my continued involvement intelligible. I’m deeply involved in many things and not involved in others. It changes all the time. I don’t feel it’s necessary to provide a status report.

How has your experience been at Verso?
Wonderful. Verso is another expression of the project that drives me. Making something hostile to the status-quo exist and thrive. Advancing radical ideas, which are so necessary in times like these. Advocating for the work of challenging thinkers who raise the bar in contemporary critical discourse. Being political in the best way I know how. Verso has always straddled public and academic cultures, pushing the radical line by linking the world with ideas to the world of active left politics. History has caught up with Verso and young readers interested in the kind of thought we’ve always stood for are meeting us in that exciting—if precarious—space both within and outside of official institutions of culture and politics; pushing against its walls. Verso just had our best year ever. It’s an exciting time to be part of this project.

Have you ever felt like it’s been harder for you in this field as a woman?
Yes and no. Mostly yes in all the boring ways I don’t care to waste energy detailing, but no in that being a woman gives me fight, makes me resilient, and provides the strength it takes to force the official world to tolerate a project it isn’t built to accept.

What would you recommend for women who want to build careers in this line of work?
Don’t wait for permission. If you’re doing creative work for the right reasons, you don’t’ need the validation of others to put yourself out there. That’s what the internet makes possible. Lest we forget, TNI started as a Tumblr. And love other women. The world wants you to find extraordinary women threatening. Undo that training. When you feel threatened, it’s a great sign that you have just found an ally who will bring you new energy and insight and together you will rise. Never stop growing your crew. There is always room for another homie if you find someone special enough. Give them everything and they will give back in return. Have faith in the women in your life and you will be ok out there. Also, HR departments work for your company, not you. You can’t tell on patriarchy to dad. Brace yourself for things to be exactly as bad as they say it is, and go out in the world anyway. If your work is good, you will always land on your feet.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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