Toeing the Party Line with The Drift
The little magazine of the moment takes Manhattan, filling the ballroom of The Jane Hotel with Brooklyn literary types, bloggers, publicists, and sheepish tech workers excited to be out somewhere
One can plot the rise of The Drift, the little magazine founded in summer 2020 and now tremendously popular among New York’s literary media set, by the wait times to get into its parties. Last June, drinks to celebrate its first anniversary attracted a sizable but modest crowd to an East Village bar. At the party for the release of its fifth issue last October at Franklin Park in Crown Heights, a substantial queue of “thirsty media types,” as The New York Times put it in its recent profile, waited upwards of 15 minutes to get in. At Tuesday’s party celebrating the launch of the magazine’s sixth issue, where two lines (one for attendees with tickets or print subscriptions, one for those without) curved around The Jane Hotel, a swish, faux-Gilded Age venue in the West Village, the wait was more like 30 or 45 minutes. Magazine volunteers scuttled up and down the lines to distribute carnival-type tickets (to be redeemed for a free copy of the magazine) and check off names on lists. One would-be guest called another further up in the ticket-only queue to say they were leaving for a “better party.” “If you don’t have a ticket, this is the wrong line!” a volunteer-cum-bouncer yelled. “That’s a double negative!” a disgruntled attendee shouted back, with an appropriately editorial follow-up: “Just say, ‘this is the ticketed line’!” As James Yeh, reviews editor for The Believer and a Drift contributor, said, “I haven’t seen such a lengthy literary queue since the press tour for Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book Four” at The Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo in 2015.
Many waiting to get in (including this reporter) would miss readings by Yeh and other contributors to The Drift’s latest issue inside The Jane’s ballroom. “Wow, we should do a capacity check,” one member of the Drift team remarked, squeezing through a bottleneck, as scores of actually thirsty media types thronged at the dimly lit bar for $20 cocktails. But the polemical spirit of the pieces in the new issue—including analyses of the “girl boss” trope, the AI influencer Lil Miquela, and an anthology of essays—was kept alive in the conversation topics overheard among guests. What could a new little magazine offer to the culture? How might its writers cut through the banalities found in legacy publications? And also: Is it extremely hot in here?
The Drift, founded by editors Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka, has always been self-conscious of its position in New York’s literary ecosystem. To start up a left-leaning, low-budget magazine in response to a stultified media culture or to supplant other little magazines that have grown complacent is not exactly novel. “When one giant dies, another must take up the vacuum,” said attendee Billy Lennon, the founder of the midwest-focused online magazine The Cleveland Review of Books, declining to name any giant in particular. In their first editor’s letter in 2020, Barrow and Panovka were less shy, citing n+1, Jacobin, The Paris Review as “increasingly out of touch with the current intellectual and affective landscape.”
Tuesday’s party may not have been the only media party of the night, but it was the party of the night. If the events of forerunners like n+1 tended to attract readers that hewed narrowly to the same demographics as its founders and editors — Ph.D. students and Brooklynites, in the main — The Drift seems to have lassoed a broader swath of New York City’s twenty-to-thirtysomething demographic, including workers in journalism, publishing, academia, and even some unrelated fields. One guest who asked to remain anonymous sheepishly revealed that they worked in tech. Bloggers, critics, book publicists, social media editors, and an uncountable number of freelancers sprawled on velvet couches in the middle of the ballroom, designed in the style of a sunken living room with touches of mounted taxidermy, or peered over a balcony on the second level. Other patterns were readily apparent, of course. “There are a lot of white guys with glasses here,” said Max Tani, a White House reporter for Politico.
That the event was held in the most expensive neighborhood in Manhattan, as opposed to the more workaday Brooklyn bars favored by The Drift editorial staff, did not go unnoticed. Citing the long lines at prior events, one of the magazine’s editors, Lake Micah, wrote on Twitter about the venue decision: “Spacious, the Jane is our happy solution, chosen with perhaps some irony?” Partygoers who lived in New York during the 2010s recalled The Jane as an upscale spot for well-paid recent college graduates, replete with table service and velvet ropes. It’s a far cry from the plastic tabletops and cheap beers found at Sharlene’s in Prospect Heights, where an informal afterparty for The Drift’s October party was held. There were no bottles of champagne on platters on Tuesday night, but the atmosphere was undeniably more nightclub and less literary salon. A grander, more flamboyant genre of media party seemed to be in the offing, something like a literary frat house. “I think my big take is that The Jane Hotel is back,” said Rachel Rabbit White, a former sex worker who’s sometimes referred to as the “poet laureate of the dirtbag left,” before heading off to find writer Cat Marnell, who she said was lost in the crowd.
At times, The Drift party had the feel of a teeming singles’ mixer, with conversations veering away from literary and political pursuits and towards pure aesthetics. “Everyone here is really good-looking” was one frequent refrain. That sentiment may have been enhanced by the fact that many guests were meeting their online friends and connections in person for the first time. “Every Twitter mutual is here,” said Ludwig Hurtado, The Nation’s multimedia editor. “It’s funny, people saying, ‘Hey, we follow each other on Twitter, but we actually don’t know what each other looks like.’ It’s kind of nice to say hi to someone who’s rejected your pitch, or say hi to someone whose pitch you rejected.” With raucous, tightly packed parties still feeling exciting and unfamiliar, networking—though unavoidable—seemed to constitute less of a priority than idle gossip and general conversations about labor and precarity. “There’s a nice commiseration for folks who work in media. We’re all just sort of like, yeah, this kind of sucks,” Hurtado said. “But there we are, sipping on our brews in front of all our contemporaries.”
By the stroke of midnight, a sea change could be observed. It was, after all, a Tuesday night, and many guests had a trek back to Brooklyn in front of them. (No one The Fine Print spoke to said they lived within walking distance of The Jane.) The wait time at the bar dwindled to a few minutes. Abandoned copies of The Drift sat alongside half-finished drinks, and the decrepit, oversized disco ball on the ceiling of the ballroom caught the light and glittered. Beneath it, an assortment of lingerers with the requisite energy levels made plans for an afterparty — one aspect of media partygoing, at least, that is unlikely ever to change.