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What Nikil Saval Misses After Trading in Editing for Politics

After being sworn in last year as a Pennsylvania state senator, the former co-editor of n+1 has had to adjust to life as a public official

Since Nikil Saval, the former co-editor of the literary magazine n+1, won election last year to be the Pennsylvania state senator in the 1st district in Philadelphia, he’s managed to publish just one piece in a national publication: an argument for considering Occupy a socialist movement in The Nation in September. “I just have dramatically less time to do it. It’s not my full-time job anymore,” he told Off the Record, “so I had immense trouble securing time for myself to write that piece for The Nation. But I would like to find more time as I kind of settle into the rhythms of the job.” A lack of spare time is not the only thing that can get in the way of writing. (Since taking office, he’s also published an article on public housing for Temple University’s The Lab Report, an op-ed in The Pennsylvania Capital-Star co-written with a fellow Democratic Socialist state legislator, and participated in a roundtable on postwar architecture for T Magazine.) “I do feel less free to write about anything at all because everything is kind of public in this way that it was not before, so it becomes part of my record. You have to take a different kind of care with it than I did as a writer.” He added, “Now, about ten or so months into it, I’ve only just started to feel or understand that there is a loss from moving from my previous profession to this one.”

For the most part, Saval has been happy with his life as a politician. “It’s a great job,” he said. “I love the work. I find it extremely rewarding. It’s intellectually very satisfying.” But in a different way than his work as an editor of literary essays at n+1 and a writer on topics like urban policy, technology, economic disruption, and the NBA for publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times. “All the intellectual work is in some way instrumental. It’s all geared towards legislation, some kind of district-level work. None of it is purposeless. It’s deeply purposeful.”

 

 

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“The other thing is,” he said, “people do express more — I don’t know if it’s more interest — it’s certainly a different kind of interest in what I’m doing. So people are like, ‘Can you write about the Democratic Party?’ ‘Can you write about politics?’ ‘Can you write about…’ you know, things that I also cared about before, but now it’s presumed, understandably, that I have more knowledge or a different kind of understanding of it.” He has so far been careful about taking on writing assignments. “Some institutions that had never approached me to write for them before are now interested, and so that’s curious.” Saval declined to name those publications because his work for them isn’t far enough along. “I have to write the thing,” he said, “if I failed to actually do it, then it would be really embarrassing.”

Saval came to n+1 as a volunteer fresh out of Columbia in the fall of 2005, a year after it launched. By the time he was appointed editor of the magazine in 2012, to be joined by co-editor Dayna Tortorici in 2014, he’d moved to Philadelphia. He’d take the Amtrak up to New York for n+1 events whenever he could and sometimes would end up sleeping on co-founder Keith Gessen’s couch. His shift to politics can be traced back to 2016 and his involvement in the Bernie Sanders campaign. When Saval entered the state senate race, a previous holder of the seat replied to one of his posts on Facebook, “Why don’t you go back to your Socialist Party and to NY, where you came from?”

In some ways, Saval’s first taste of political life came from the n+1 editorial meetings. “That first generation of n+1 found a virtue in argument for its own sake and in principled disagreement, often at the risk of real interpersonal damage, because people would just fight over very small things, and, of course, very big things as well,” he said. “There was a sense that the stakes were very, very strong.” But amidst all that acrimony came a kind of freedom. “n+1, more than any place that I’ve ever been, gave me license to do what I wanted as a writer and as an editor. It was free in this way because I was among people I trusted,” he said. “n+1 is just the place where you’re most at home and freest. It will enable your intellectual growth and foster it in a way that I don’t think any other institution that I had the privilege of writing for does. I have had great editors and worked with great people at The New Yorker and The New York Times, but there’s just no parallel.”

But he said he’s experienced something similar as a member of the wave of Sanders supporters who have since entered politics to run against Democratic incumbents. “Social movements obviously hold you accountable as an elected official, but mostly what they give you is freedom,” he said. “You can act boldly, you can go against the current or against the grain, and if that is dangerous, if that is perceived to be unpopular in your district, the movement will protect you, the movement will fight for you.”

One of the other things Saval said he’s lost since jumping into politics was the relative anonymity of editing. “Nobody knows who the hell you are as an editor, certainly not in Philadelphia,” he said. He misses the editor’s pleasure of basking in the reflected glow of someone else’s byline. “There’s no narcissism mixed up in it. It’s just like, ‘Oh, I’m just part of this thing, but nobody sees it.’ That feels much better, honestly, than even publishing something that people like because you can’t fully separate yourself. It’s nice to be separated from it.”

“Although I will say there were a number of doors that I knocked on when I was still knocking on doors, where people were like, ‘oh yeah, you’re the n+1 editor.’ I did not expect that. That was totally weird.” Now he’s recognized all the time. “People just know you,” he said, “so you’re constantly being stopped and talking to people just on a routine errand. I don’t do this, but I should budget more time for the things that I plan to do. If I have to go to the grocery store or go pick up my kids, inevitably, that trip that used to take 10 minutes will take 20 or 30 because you run into people.”

It’s not an entirely new experience, of course. As an editor, Saval was prone to being pitched by aspiring writers at parties and schmoozing with potential donors. “I was always a very poor fundraiser for n+1,” he said. “The way that I did fundraising at n+1 was I would make pitches at fundraisers. I would invite people to our fundraiser, I would have conversations, and those conversations were meant to deepen their sense of what the magazine was doing.” He had honed his own pitch for the greater good that donations to n+1 would bring. “People who invested in n+1 were people in and around media,” he said. “They could have been publishers, they could have been in podcasts or whatever, people for whom it is important to have an institution like n+1 in the world, because it ends up supplying editors for The New Yorker, right? Most of those writers are actually cultivated and found at n+1 and then poached by a larger institution, which has no capacity to cultivate those writers on its own.”

The one thing that definitely hasn’t changed since Saval became a politician is his writing habits. “Even though it took me some time to write for The Nation, like to file my piece and stuff, in a way I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just as late as I would always be. I’m just as slow in responding to things. I’m just as bad at responding to email.’” he said. “I maybe have a more visibly good excuse for it than I used to.”