The lit mag of the moment, founded by two women in their 20s, isn’t afraid to say what’s on its mind.
Kiara Barrow, left, and Rebecca Panovka, started their leftist journal of ideas in 2020.Credit…Lila Barth for The New York Times
On a mild October morning during last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, Rebecca Panovka and Kiara Barrow set up their display tent outside Borough Hall. They were there to promote The Drift, the journal of politics, culture and literature that they had started online in the early days of the pandemic.
With the help of their scrappy staff, they stacked copies of the Drift’s inaugural print issue and laid out tote bags and caps featuring the Drift logo. Then they waited anxiously, they recalled.
It was the Drift’s formal debut on the city’s literary scene, and Ms. Panovka and Ms. Barrow, who had become friends during their student days at Harvard, said they didn’t know what kind of reception they would get.
In founding a journal of ideas, they had joined a long tradition in which young, ambitious, argumentative writers decide that, in order to be heard, they must start a publication. The Drift’s predecessors include, among many others, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, Commentary and Dissent, whose co-founder Irving Howe once said, “When intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine.”
Once people started to arrive at the fair, Ms. Barrow, 29, and Ms. Panovka, 28, saw that their fears had been misplaced. They said they were surprised by the throng of visitors, many of them in Tevas and bike helmets, who came to their table to gush about Drift pieces they had read online, like the one examining Amazon’s role in the global supply chain and another critiquing the trend of children’s books by politicians.
People also snapped up Drift caps, signed up for Drift subscriptions and bought hundreds of copies of the print issue, which was filled with essays that challenged views generally accepted by liberals. In addition to “Doctor Do-Little: The Case Against Anthony Fauci” there was “Case Sensitive: Why We Shouldn’t Capitalize ‘Black.’”
Not far from the commotion were representatives of more established publications, among them The Paris Review, which was founded in 1953, and n+1, a publication that had burned bright upon its debut in 2004 and was hawking its 40th issue at the fair. Now it seemed to be the Drift’s moment in the sun.
By the end of the day, Ms. Barrow and Ms. Panovka were exhausted. But Driftmania had only just begun.
Days after the fair, The Drift hosted a party at Franklin Park, a beer garden in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. A throng of scruffy freelancers and thirsty media types spilled down the block.
Over the next few months, Drift caps became something of a fashion staple for Brooklyn’s bookish crowd. The first print issue sold out at McNally Jackson and Casa Magazines. Literary agents from the Wylie Agency courted Drift writers over drinks. On a visit to a graduate writing class at New York University, Christopher Beha, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, said he told the students: “The best place you can publish right now if you want to get noticed by me and Harper’s is The Drift.”
The magazine’s rise is notable partly because it has occurred in a chaotic media-sphere that favors the quick-hit pundits of social media and writers who crank out caffeinated musings for loyal subscribers on the digital newsletter platform Substack. And as a journal of ideas founded and run by women, The Drift stands apart from its predecessors.
Ms. Barrow and Ms. Panovka opened their debut online issue with a manifesto-like salvo in which they cited a socialist magazine founded in 1911, The Masses, as their guiding light: “There’s a certain nostalgic appeal to what those young men (together with a few underappreciated female luminaries) built in the forties and fifties,” they wrote. “We’d like to take a longer tiger’s leap, turning instead to the modernist monthly The Masses.”
Unlike the “midcentury magazines” that “dripped testosterone,” they continued, “The Masses was feminist, socialist, antiwar.”
They also called for a changing of the intellectual guard in their opening statement. “We’re committed to offering a forum for young people who haven’t yet been absorbed into the media hivemind, and don’t feel hemmed in by the boundaries of the existing discourse,” they wrote. “These are times in which the world needs fresh voices.”
With cover art that draws from the look of The Masses, and a penchant for publishing lengthy essays that go through many rounds of editing, The Drift is a throwback in many ways. But Ms. Barrow and Ms. Panovka said their publication bears the influence of recent media developments, citing the podcasts “Chapo Trap House” and “Red Scare,” where boisterous talk is the norm.
“It seemed like podcasts were having these wild conversations, and little magazines were afraid to say anything that could get canceled,” Ms. Panovka said in an interview at Ms. Barrow’s Crown Heights apartment. “We thought there might be a real hunger in our generation for something more rigorously argued and intellectually challenging than what was going on in podcasts.”
Ms. Barrow said that they see themselves “as part of the leftist resurgence of the past few years and figuring out what’s next, post-Bernie, to people now awakening to leftist radicalism.”
“We want to be part of the intellectual arm of what that is,” she said.
During the interview, Ms. Panovka, who works as a tutor and fact checker, and Ms. Barrow, who works as a copywriter, kept an eye on their phones, checking the social media reaction to the Drift’s winter 2022 issue.
“The TED Talk piece is blowing up,” Ms. Panovka said, referring to an essay taking aim at the conferences that were all the rage for the thought-leader crowd. “It’s a reconsideration of TED and when it peaked, but also looking at Ted as a referendum on the Obama years and the optimism of that time.”
Ms. Barrow said: “Everyone thought we’d solve everything then. Now, in retrospect, that seems absurd.”
Also creating some buzz was an essay on the HBO documentary series “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a re-evaluation of European colonialism. The author of the essay — the Native American writer Nick Martin — argued that the conversation generated by the show overlooked the modern day struggles of Indigenous communities.
“What’s Drift-y about this piece is that people on the left are like, ‘Oh, well, we’re on the right side of history, because we watched this HBO documentary,’” Ms. Panovka said. “The impulse behind this piece, and many Drift pieces, is: Examine your ideas a little more.”
“You already understand the world just because you’re woke?” she added. “We want to challenge that a little.”
Asked if The Drift had acquired any notable fans lately, Ms. Panovka named Sheila Heti as a new subscriber. “That was fun,” she said. “David Remnick also subscribed and donated.”
“He was generous too,” Ms. Barrow said. “It was like $250 or something.”
Reached by phone, Mr. Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker since 1998, confirmed that Driftmania had indeed reached him.
“I would be a fool not to read something like The Drift,” he said. “In the history and culture of this country, small magazines can go on to have large influence, so that’s part of my motivation as a reader, but I have a predatory motivation, too, which is that I’m always looking out for writers for The New Yorker.”
“You know what they used to say about the Partisan Review,” he continued. “For a long while in postwar middle century America, they used to say that maybe only 5,000 people read it, but that it was the right 5,000 people.”
Partisan Review’s contributors and editors also helped create the rowdy myth of literary New York — a gin-soaked milieu in which writers sparred nightly in a haze of cigarette smoke. They harbored long-running feuds with their ideological enemies, and they knew how to give a party.
There was a whiff of that bygone era, perhaps, at a Drift writer’s Park Slope apartment recently. The guests, several of whom described the gathering for this article, played tableau vivant, an old-timey version of charades, in which participants enact famous paintings. One round featured a re-creation of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” with one guest holding a liquor bottle to suggest a telescope. Then came a debate, complete with jurors, to determine the superior author: Edith Wharton or Henry James.
Team Wharton won by a hair.
Ms. Barrow and Ms. Panovka grew up in New York and attended private schools in Manhattan — Dwight for Ms. Barrow, Dalton for Ms. Panovka. At Harvard, Ms. Barrow studied English and ran The Harvard Advocate. Ms. Panovka, an English and philosophy major, edited another student publication, The Harvard Book Review. It wasn’t until they graduated in 2016 that they realized they had enough in common to stake a claim to the little lefty magazine throne.
“Every 10 years or so there should be a new little magazine,” Ms. Panovka said. “Because every decade has a new spirit, and the magazine comes along to be the emblem of that spirit.”
The Drift’s volunteer staff includes a Fulbright scholar, five recent Harvard alumni and a lone Yale graduate. Some have jobs in media; others are in graduate school. Like its predecessors, The Drift operates on a shoestring budget, paying contributors about $400 for essays that are sometimes more than 3,000 words.
“We’re doing our best to work toward a model where we can pay everyone who is involved,” Ms. Barrow said. “Becoming financially sustainable is an extremely high priority of ours.”
Like the journals that came before it, The Drift emerged from a moment of galvanizing urgency, one that arrived with the election of Donald Trump.
Amid the Trump era’s societal disruption, Ms. Barrow and Ms. Panovka began to notice that expressing certain opinions too loudly could cause a frosty mist of discomfort to form in the air. Not everyone, it turned out, wanted to hear their nuanced thoughts about topics like the #MeToo movement or Hillary Clinton. Among leftists, in their view, there seemed to be a party line, one you strayed from at your peril.
So they started hashing out their thoughts in the privacy of lengthy text chains. The conversations deepened when Ms. Panovka moved to London as a Marshall Scholar and Ms. Barrow crashed on her couch for a while.
“In the wake of the election, everything felt high stakes, and people were very careful about the positions they were taking,” Ms. Barrow said. “But we thought it was important to still be intellectually curious, and we felt that was missing in the media landscape.”
Back in New York, they toyed with the idea of starting a little magazine. By the time the pandemic took hold, they were finishing editing the first online issue via Zoom meetings.
Almost two years later, at a gathering of Drift-ies at Sharlene’s Bar, the staff’s usual watering hole in Prospect Heights, a writer was grousing about how the critic and novelist Lauren Oyler had called The Drift “young” in a Twitter spat. Another Drift contributor, James Yeh, remarked that the magazine had just published a short story he’d been working on for more than five years. And Lake Micah, a bespectacled 24-year-old, was holding forth on Susan Sontag.
“As you might remember, when Sontag came on the scene with ‘Notes on “Camp”,’ she was willing to take down the pieties of the old guard in service of a new movement,” Mr. Micah said. “We think there are no easy answers. The easy answers are suspect.”
In an aside, Mr. Micah, the only Black editor on the Drift staff, said that he has been quietly seeding “Black Marxism” into its pages.
Also present was Sophie Haigney, 26, the writer of the essay that scorned the trend of children’s books written by politicians.
“I don’t think it could have run anywhere else but The Drift,” Ms. Haigney said. “When it came out, everyone told me they were so glad I finally wrote it, because they’d all been thinking the exact same thing for so long.”
“And I told them,” she said, “‘Well, then why didn’t you say something?’”
The Drift Wants You to ‘Examine Your Ideas’ – The New York Times
The lit mag of the moment, founded by two women in their 20s, isn’t afraid to say what’s on its mind.