The Modern Review is back, rejoining a gang of literary and political magazines with small circulations and high ambitions. Robert Hanks looks for the meat
For a little while there, it blazed across the heavens like some new comet, its light drowning out the stars around it, before it vanished into the void. But whoa! don't forget - comets always come back. And here it is again: the Modern Review, once more adding to our unexamined lives a faint, far-off glow.

Very far-off for most people. The Modern Review in its first incarnation (September 1991-July 1995) had few readers, which is one of the main reasons it died - the other being that its editor, Toby Young, fell out with his main sponsor, Julie Burchill, and her then-lover, Charlotte Raven. There's no reason to think that it will sell significantly better this time around. (For one thing, it seems to be extraordinarily difficult to get hold of - the result, according to one newsagent, of poor distribution rather than hot-cake sales.) But while improved circulation might have kept the Modern Review Mk I alive, that was never its point; it was competing, as its successor means to, in that specialised market where numbers count less than influence. The goal is to set an agenda, to exert some leverage on what thinking people think about

In that respect, MR Mk I was a success. Its agenda, boldly stated on its masthead, was "Low culture for highbrows" - a slogan epitomised by the punning juxtaposition of Bart Simpson and Roland Barthes. It would take the critical sophistication traditionally expended on classical music, opera, theatre and "serious" cinema, and apply it to the culture that we all consume - pop music, soap opera, football and cartoons, the stuff of tabloid celebrity and dinner-party chat. It would be, the keyword, "ironic".

The approach was taken up elsewhere. Andrew Neil replaced the Sunday Times' arts pages with the Culture, which he reportedly described as an attempt to reproduce the Modern Review for a mass audience, and a quick perusal of the arts pages of any of the broadsheets today will show how far the engagement with popular culture has progressed - see how much space has been taken away from theatre and classical concerts and turned over to cinema and gigs. More to the point, see how many column-inches have been devoted to the Teletubbies.

Whether the Modern Review influenced this populist trend or merely anticipated it is unknowable; either way, by the time Mk I ended it was, by its editor's admission, no longer offering anything distinctive. It seems unlikely that Mk II can repeat the trick - so far as surfing the Zeitgeist goes, Big Wednesday has been and gone. To begin with, this Modern Review seems to offer little that's distinctive. Among the opinions expressed in the first issue you will find: Oasis are overrated; the Beatles were good when they were writing catchy pop tunes, but less good when they tried to be deep and meaningful; Posh Spice isn't actually very posh; Ulrika Jonsson's comedy special wasn't very funny; the advertising campaign for the women's magazine, Frank, with its references to lipstick and mini- skirts, was a step backwards in the march towards sexual equality; and the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition is old hat.

Nothing mould-breaking here - you've probably expressed a few of these thoughts yourself, though, perhaps, less wittily. Even Julie Burchill's rant in favour of abortion is fairly mild stuff (men shouldn't have the right to dictate what women do; having a child is a very traumatic experience) if you ignore her delivery. And the opening editorial, which insists on the need to invent a new modernity without specifying any of its characteristics (except that it has something to do with the death of Diana), doesn't inspire confidence. Without the sense of timing and direction that informed its previous incarnation, who will want to read the Modern Review?

Up to a point, this is, of course, irrelevant since it is in that specialised market where numbers count less than influence. In America, glossy, intellectually ambitious magazines enjoy readerships in the hundreds of thousands, and the market is consequently well served: Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker itself, and - possibly the MR's closest relative, in its marriage of politics and style - John F Kennedy Jr's George, a slick amalgam of political gossip and designer advertising nicely summed up in the current issue's "If I Were President" feature, devoted to Kate Moss.

Over here, though, we do things on a much more modest scale. We don't like monthly magazines much, and those organs designed to tickle the cultural and intellectual palate mostly rely on the generosity of a proprietor - the New Statesman has Geoffrey Robinson MP, the Spectator has Conrad Black, the Oldie and the Literary Review (both, perhaps, less intellectual than anti-intellectual) have Naim Attallah. This has an effect on the sort of journalism that gets published.

The London Review of Books, for instance, may be modelled on the New York Review of Books (and sometimes seems to have a love of Americana that complements the NYRB's flatteringly obsessive Anglophilia): both are left-leaning, both use book reviews as the basis for lengthy commentaries on wider subjects, as well as publishing free-standing comment pieces. But the NYRB has a comparatively handsome income from its circulation and its small ads - it has the most intellectually exclusive lonely hearts column in the world, full of tenured DWFs and DNRJMs (my best guess is "divorced non-religious Jewish male"), and lines like "Bassanio seeks Portia, or Papagena". The LRB relies, in part, on an Arts Council grant - the largest single tranche of money given to any literary endeavour, but pretty measly in magazine budget terms - and rather more on an anonymous benefactor.

The style and scale of the writing reflect this. The NYRB publishes sprawling, forensically precise essays on contemporary politics by the historian Garry Wills - his discussion of the Whitewater affair last year, for instance, was a masterly dissection of innuendo, and possibly the only intelligible account of all the ramifications published anywhere; by contrast, the LRB's political essays, by such academics-cum-journalists as R W Johnson, are much shorter and punchier, far lighter on fact and heavier on polemic - they take much less time to write, in fact.

The penchant for the short and punchy isn't wholly to do with money, of course - the Times Literary Supplement, which has Rupert Murdoch's deep pockets behind it, also prefers the shorter piece. It also seems that, contrary to all our caricatures of American culture as flashy and short-winded, Americans are far readier to sit down and read long essays. Certainly that's the impression gained by David Goodhart, the former Financial Times journalist who, two years ago, established the much-admired but little-read Prospect. Prospect is not reliant on a sugar-daddy: instead, it has a number of shareholders and the long-term aim of breaking even. This would require a circulation of roughly 20,000 an issue; at the moment, it stands at around two-thirds of that.

Goodhart's intention in setting up the magazine was explicitly to establish "something more American than British" - a monthly based on reflective, long articles, with no direct political allegiances (though Prospect is certainly liberal wait a small "l" ) and a broad agenda which would appeal to the intelligent generalist. The latest issue of Prospect, designed to hang around your living room for weeks if not months, includes an interview with Isaiah Berlin, where Modern Review would probably settle for a throwaway line about his having written "White Christmas", George Walden on France's rejection of economic neo-liberalism, Samuel Brittan on the BBC, and notes on Diana's death by Michael Ignatieff and Don Cupitt, among others.

The problem Prospect is up against, though, is a reading public educated by weeklies and newspaper supplements, and used to discarding a magazine after three days; there is a get-up-and-go, a hustle and bustle about the way we treat reading matter, compared with the more moneyed and leisured American intelligentsia. Hence, perhaps, the tiny circulation of the Idler, a brilliantly designed, unevenly written and irregularly published organ for the slacker generation. In its praise of over-consumption and its contempt for work and politics, it may well have caught the spirit of the age just as effectively as the Modern Review once did; it's just that a vast potential readership cannot be bothered to pick it up.

Into this pool of indifference the new Modern Review has now been dropped. Maybe it will sink, maybe it will swim; maybe Burchill and Raven don't really care. The point, surely, is to make a splash