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New anthologies from The Baffler, n+1 and The Believer

"Happiness: Ten Years of n+1" (Faber and Faber, September 2014) Credit: Faber and Faber

For all the concern that intellectual writing will be killed by the Internet's endless supply of 10 Things You Won't Believe Happened Next, these are good times for readers of literary and political journals. Arguably the standard-bearer for the latest generation of non-mainstream publications, the Baffler launched in 1988 out of exasperation with corporate meddling in alternative culture. The articles gathered from its issues in "No Future for You: Salvos From The Baffler" (MIT, $27.95) encompass a wide-ranging, urgent fury at post-Great Recession America. If the title and overall perspective are downers, the writers possess a contagious enthusiasm for showing how today's profiteers have caked so much lipstick on the pig that you can hardly see its face. Among their targets: the Lean-In movement (whose you-go-girl bromides stifle collective organizing for real female advancement); "Fifty Shades of Grey" (whose lust objects are more financial than physical); urban "innovation districts" (whose false promises of economic expansion push out the poor); and The Washington Post (whose post-bust economic coverage made it "the leading organ of meritocratic self-congratulation in a city filled with smug overachievers"). Founding editor Thomas Frank cultivates an institutional tone that balances righteous outrage with tweedy erudition, though he also finds room for blogger snark. "Political journalism in America operates as a kind of narrative cotton gin, cleanly stripping meaning from events," goes one slash of the dagger, in a takedown of recent books on the Obama administration.

The Baffler sat out most of the George W. Bush years, leaving an opening for magazines such as n+1, which launched in 2004 with a more personal-is-political sensibility. The selections in "Happiness: Ten Years of n+1" (Faber & Faber, $16 paper) tacitly argue that just about anything can bear the weight of literary analysis -- thus Elif Batuman's irreverent sketch of Isaac Babel scholars makes a certain sense adjacent to a sober opinion piece on climate change that's followed by a lengthy report on an extreme-porn production company. The strongest pieces offer highly personal counterintuitive arguments. In the brilliant "How to Quit," for example, Kristin Dombek uses her experience to highlight the hypocrisy at the intersection of art, addiction and New York gentrification. Wesley Yang's "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho" takes a similarly personal look at anti-Asian racism and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. However, to read the editors' woolly musings on, say, the alienating effect of Gchat on its users or the interconnection of hype and market forces is to experience a molehill stubbornly refusing to become a mountain. The editors may be "intellectual outlaws of the first order," as Mary Karr enthuses in the introduction, but the magazine thrives on its more intimate first-person pieces.

Since 2003, The Believer has deliberately avoided anything that smacks of self-importance; obscurity is its engine, quirk its kink. The Believer pieces collected in "Read Harder" (McSweeney's, $18 paper) at first seem to cover a comically unpromising grab bag: the life of a B-movie actress, "a history of literature created by erasure, collage, omission and Wite-Out," the brief history of LP turntables in cars. But in much the same way that John McPhee can imbue rock formations and freight transport with lyrical radiance, Believer contributors bring an enlightened curiosity to unlikely subjects. Sara Gran and Megan Abbott, for example, deliver a penetrating look at V.C. Andrews' novel "Flowers in the Attic" and why it became samizdat for a generation of tween girls. In Wisconsin, Kent Russell finds a man working hard to develop immunity to venomous snakebites. In Tennessee, Leslie Jamison reports with precision and acuity on a brutal endurance race inspired by a prison break made by Martin Luther King Jr.'s killer. If anything unites the pieces here aside from the smart prose, it's the urge to honor lives lived on the margins. "If you sincerely investigate it, every detail hides reason, and any environment is far more sophisticated than our senses can appreciate," former Washington Post reporter Monte Reel writes in a survey of Victorian explorer manuals. It's a very Believer sentiment, one Reel tests out to comic effect in a decrepit shopping mall -- a very Believer thing to do.

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