This editor’s note was included in our print issue, published in May 2019
This year, the editors of The Brooklyn Review attended the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Portland, Oregon, where we were surprised to have found ourselves, on multiple occasions, reflecting upon the meaning of happiness.
You see, Portland, that week, was an eerily utopic place: uncharacteristically free of rain; brimming with cherry blossoms, ice cream cones, and delightful knickknack boutiques. Strolling around, we had to wonder: why does anyone live in Brooklyn, again? Wouldn’t we be happier somewhere else? Somewhere cheaper, and with a denser population of flowering trees?
We searched the internet for a list of such places and eventually came across the annual U.N. World Happiness report, released a few days earlier, which ranks countries by happiness according to the perception of their citizens. Topping the list for the second year in a row? Finland: a place as sunless as Portland is, on most days, rainy.
But how can the happiest country in the world be home to such dismal weather? And what even is happiness, anyways, and how can it be reliably measured? By the width of a smile? The frequency of a frolic? The volume of a guffaw?
There are over three million saunas in Finland, enough to serve the entire population at once. Could this be the source of their happiness, the secret wellspring of everlasting nationwide bliss? Enough speculation! Let’s take it from the experts. In the U.N. report, happiness is linked to the following: progressive government policies, prosocial behavior, and access to digital technology. The most obvious reason for Finland’s happiness? Socialism (the other Nordic countries consistently rank in the report’s the top ten, which the United States, it must be noted, has yet to crack). But the most surprising?
Finland is a country of readers, its U.K. ambassador once declared. High literacy rates and frequent use of public libraries support this claim: fewer than six million people actually live in Finland, and yet they borrow nearly 68 million books per year. If widespread reading is a source (rather than a product) of a happy society, the kind of happiness it brings must be of a different order—more interior, more profound.
Which is to say that social and economic policies are undoubtedly important, but they cannot, in themselves, be enough. Policies do not give us purpose; do not sate that fundamental human need to find, make, build upon meaning. Literature, however, can. It can also promote a sense of solidarity: the recognition that our deepest experiences—our questions, delights, and fears—have never been ours alone.
Now let’s consider the situation in the United States. For the third year in a row, our happiness ranking has dropped, leaving us, in 2019, at a fitting 19th. And in terms of literacy, we sit shamefully low: 125th (per the 2018 World Atlas report). Then there’s the question of who among the literate population actually reads on a regular basis, and who among that smaller group actually reads literature? We are pennies; piss in the sea; a Trumpishly-small handful of dust in which there is, as well, a Wastelandian level of fear to be shown, as the broader culture seems to be trending away from literature.
Last year alone, two acclaimed American literary magazines announced they would be closing down, one citing the cost of production (read: a decrease in demand). These magazines were pillars in our community—outlets for writers at all stages, homes for polished and reliably poignant work—so it was doubly demoralizing to have lost them both. And I cannot help but think that, in a better country, one truly invested in the wellbeing of its citizens, magazines of such stature would never have closed—would never have been allowed to close—as a better country would fund its most valued publications, would expand their readerships through subsidized promotional campaigns and sponsored events, knowing the effect that literature has on happiness.
And now, a splash of hope: The Brooklyn Review. We are a smaller magazine, but one with a notable history. Founded in 1983 by John Ashbery and Jonathan Baumbach, we have published a number of important writers, including Allen Ginsberg, Eileen Myles, Paul Beatty, and Helen Phillips. Work appearing in our pages has been anthologized in the Best American Poetry series and, more recently, the PEN America Best Debut Short Stories series. And so it was a disappointment to many when, in 2014, the magazine went defunct due, in part, to lack of funds. But disappointment proved a powerful tool: only two years after shuttering, the magazine managed to raise enough funding for a full relaunch; it’s been thriving ever since.
Just look at the fine work we have rounded up for our 34th issue: stories that build upon a North American realist aesthetic, either by filtering it through the conventions of another genre, as Jane Pek does in “People Who Look Like People I Know,” or retrofitting it with a more cerebral engine, as Joseph Cardinale does in “Playing”; poems that incorporate the political and the personal, like Laura McCullough’s “Women & Other Hostages” (which does so through a moving exploration of the distance between—and tragic inextricability of—culturally-imposed desires and desires that emerge from within the self) and Tommy Pico’s “from Feed” (which includes both traditional and popular allusions, as well as both critical and lyrical modes, thereby brushing up against the boundaries of language and form, collective and self). Also featured in this issue are evocative pieces of visual art, an excerpt of a play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Madeleine George, and staff-conducted interviews with literary luminaries and rising stars, including Edwidge Danticat, Julie Orringer, and R.O. Kwon.
The acquisition of such wonderful, compelling work is, for us, an encouraging success—one of many in the magazine’s recent years, and one that, like the others, would not have been possible without support from the broader community: the previous editors, who reestablished the magazine and advocated for its return; our current volunteer staff, who read all submissions with diligence and care; our alumni (especially Elizabeth Sobel, Erika Dane Kielsgard, and Swati Prasad), who have stayed on board to assist and advise; those who have donated or provided grants (especially The Brooklyn College Financial Services Center and The Graduate Student Organization); and Christina Mia Vialva, Jessica Bradley, Gary Ortiz, and Keith Magnussen, whose financial and administrative backing has been invaluable.
And all of this cataloguing of community support brings us back to the matter at hand: happiness—what even is it, and how can it be ours? Generosity of the caliber that we’ve received this year from our Brooklyn community is encompassed, in the U.N. report, by the term “prosocial behavior,” which, if you recall, is one of the prime indicators of a nation’s happiness. It helps in boosting happiness, the evidence suggests, when a nation encourages a spirit of altruism. And to achieve happiness at large, we must, of course, start small.
Brooklyn, in this regard, gives me hope. Sure, this bustling borough of ours may not enjoy the paradisiacal landscapes of Portland; may not compete in terms of food carts, or beer gardens, or garden gardens, or quality of air. But it does have generous people. People willing to dedicate time and resources to the production of this magazine. People who are, consciously or not, using one source of happiness (altruism) to revive another (literature). Should the rest of the country invest half as much in the preservation of literature as did the many Brooklynites who facilitated the production of this year’s issue, we’d be well on our way to reaching that Finnish standard of happiness, even if we never quite figure out how to achieve their astounding sauna-to-citizen ratio.
And so, now that I’ve brought this rumination to a close, it is with great relief—and indeed, great happiness—that I finally shut the hell up and let you read on. There is beautiful work, enlivening these pages, work that has spurred, in our editors, a kind of happiness. We hope it’ll do the same for you.