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‘The Baffler’ Will Reappear via MIT Press

The Baffler, the feisty journal whose devoted readers were often disappointed that their periodical appeared only periodically, is now set for a more dependable publishing schedule.

John Summers, a critic, editor, and historian who purchased the publication in May, today signed a deal with the MIT Press that guarantees publication of three issues a year for the next five years. The first issue is scheduled for March 2012.

“We’re back in a big way,” Summers said. “And we’re going to stay in business for at least 15 issues.” Those will augment the 18 Bafflers that have been published since 1988. Its trademark coverage of political, social, and cultural affairs in long-form essays, columns, fiction, art, and poetry will remain, he said. The publication calls itself “the journal that blunts the cutting edge,” and will retain that deck, “which is only to say that the journal’s mission—to criticize the dogmatic conception of progress on offer in American national life—remains in place.”

The deal provides The Baffler at least $500,000 over five years—Summers said one result would be an undertaking for writers that is rare in small-journal publishing: “Everyone gets paid.”

For MIT Press, said Ellen Faran, its director, the arrangement is in keeping with the press’s editorial mission and history of publishing books and some journals in the arena of cultural criticism. “We think we’re a great publishing partner for The Baffler,” she said. “The timing for the reappearance could not be better—it’s so badly needed in the coming year; they have a pretty unique voices and critical commentary that is especially important.”

Summers bought the publication from founder Thomas Frank, and moved it from Chicago to Cambridge, Mass. Frank, now a columnist with Harper’s Magazine, told Bookforum.com at that time that he chose to sell to Summers due to his “Baffleresque attitude” in writing of “an impressive ferocity about the cultural issues that have always interested us.” Summers, a former adjunct professor at Harvard University who has also taught at Columbia University and Boston College, is the author of a well-reviewed essay collection, Every Fury on Earth (The Davies Group Publishers, 2008) and the editor of an anthology of writing by social commentator Dwight Macdonald, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (New York Review Books Classics, 2011). He has been working on a biography of the combative sociologist and critic of American class and power C. Wright Mills, who died in 1962.

He bought a Baffler whose publication history had been as fraught as its fan base was solid. “In the past,” he said, “they were always publishing each issue and getting it out of the door before the bills came. The joke was that it was a quarterly that came out once a year.” So, the MIT Press deal is “an entirely new day for the journal.” Summers reached the agreement with MIT Press as the head of the just-formed nonprofit Baffler Foundation. He will be the chief editor of the journal. The Baffler has three other editors—Frank, as founding editor; longtime Baffler editor Chris Lehmann, whose roles include managing editor of Yahoo! News’s blogs and co-editor of Bookforum, is senior editor; and Eugenia Williamson, an arts reporter at The Boston Phoenix, is managing editor.

Contributing editors include Aaron Swartz; New York Review of Books classics editor Edwin Frank as poetry editor; and literary scholar and translator Anna Summers, John Summers’s wife, as fiction editor.

Being able to pay writers is a direct result of the deal with MIT Press, Summers said. “They’re paying us to do it, essentially; they’re our investment partner. And they are also covering every other cost: manufacturing, distribution, web hosting of our archives,” which haven’t been online in the past.

Thanks to MIT Press’s collaboration, he said, “we’re going to be maybe the best-financed radical journal in the country, with the exception of Mother Jones and a couple of others like that. Not only are we in business, we’re in quite good business.”

The first year of the returning Baffler will consist of an election-year trilogy. The first issue that will appear in March 2012 is nearly complete, Summers said. Its contents will include essays by Rick Perlstein, Thomas Frank, and Barbara Ehrenreich, and a short story by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. Three sections new to The Baffler will appear, too: “Lives of the Pundits,” a series of mock profiles; “Ancestors,” reprints with commentaries of authors such as Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, and Paul Lafargue; and the self-explanatory “Robber Barons.”

The journal has had up to 12,000 subscribers, at times. Under the MIT Press agreement, current subscribers will receive issues that the former Baffler could not provide, said Summers. A 2001 fire in the publication’s offices further disrupted an already erratic output. In 2009, after a three-year hiatus, the publication reappeared, but for only one issue. It drew three Pushcart nominations, and two book contracts from pieces in it, but no more volumes followed.

The journal will have a website with an archive of previous issues, but will at least initially be “a journal that is online rather than an online journal,” said Summers. Issues will also appear as e-books. “We’ll be available, I hope, wherever those pesky little devices are,” he said.

Summers and the MIT Press began negotiations in November, last year. “I did have another offer, from a trade press in New York, which turned out to be a disaster,” Summers said. “Actually there were two offers, but that one was for a year and $140,000. And MIT came back with an overall better offer.”

Summers said: “I applaud them. They’re doing what very few universities are doing these days which is, they’re taking initiative and risk.”

Going into business with MIT Press, he said, represented “an uptick in every respect towards professionalization of the operation. We’ll hope, of course, to keep the very much anti-professional, anti-establishment tone editorially and keep the same formula. So hopefully it’ll be a perfect kind of mix.”

He announced no plans for continuing one Baffler practice: “They used to have a negative subscriber list. They will deny it, but I’ve seen it. It had people they didn’t like so they wouldn’t let them subscribe. You don’t do that if you want to keep your journal in print, so all of that will change.”

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