December 4, 2012

A Little Ode to the Little Magazines and their Very Big Work

(*today’s post comes to us via the wonderful Latanya McQueen.) 

I remember how in college, before there were resources like Newpages or Duotrope, to find out about literary journals one had to either order them or go to the bookstore and look at them. Weekends during my senior year my best friend and I would frequent all the independent bookstores that we could find. One, in particular, was Harvard Bookstore, a small independent bookstore situated in the heart of Cambridge, and because of the location it can get crowded on the weekends. My friend and I would sit on the floor clustered together near the back, the journals in our laps. Browsers would have to shuffle over us as they made their way around the aisles or tried to look at the shelves nearby. We wanted to be writers and we wanted to publish, and in order to do any of that it was suggested by our professors that we look at the markets we hoped to be in. So we went into the bookstore hoping to look at a few journals and jot down the contact information and then be on our merry way, but what always inevitably happened was we’d instead sit there for hours looking at the pages. We’d come to a story we had to read and then we’d find another and another. We’d look for the author’s bios in the back of the journals, read to see if they had books, then find them and read those. I remember whole afternoons being spent like this, going through this cyclical process. After a while the goal of submitting stopped mattering. After a few addresses were written down our conversation changed. “Have you seen this journal?” my friend would say. “Here, read this story,” and I would.

I was twenty-one and had never even heard of Tin House before. Or Conjunctions. Or Glimmer Train. I was twenty-one and I didn’t know anything.

Wondering what to make of a Tin House Conjunction

I still have many of the issues from that time in my life despite my transient existence over the years, having kept them all for nostalgia’s sake. I discovered Stephen Elliot in the first Tin House issue I ever read, a memoir piece about growing up homeless. It’s an essay that avoids sentimentality. Maybe a lesser writer would have lingered on the relationship with the father and the emotional abuse that propelled him to run away, and start the chain of homelessness, but as he says, “this isn’t about hate or love or what went wrong between my father and I or the kind of resentments that never go away. This isn’t about splitting the blame between bad parents and bad children. It’s not about culpability. It’s about sleeping and the things that are important to that like shelter and rain.”

And yet, by the end of it, he says how his life got better “save some scars.”

In that same issue is a story by Justin Torres. The story is about one particular moment when the narrator and his two brothers want to recreate a scene they’d just watched on television, a scene in which a man cuts vegetables while people in the background get soaked from the mess. Like the people on the television the brothers want to have “the time of their lives,” and so they take tomatoes and crush them, wanting to “feel the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding.” When the tomatoes are gone they take lotion and mix them together, creating a mess that gets all over themselves, that gets everywhere.

The brothers revelry is interrupted when their mother, tired from always working graveyard shifts, comes into the kitchen. Instead of yelling at the brothers, she instead comments on how similar they looked when they were born. Then, unexpectedly, she asks them to do the same to her, to “make me born.” It is an arresting scene and like the Elliot piece, avoids sentimentality. It is a slice of life vignette about three brothers growing up in a turbulent home. After reading it there remains the feeling that everything will be okay.

I don’t know why I remember these two stories more than the others. Maybe because in both of them there’s an optimism, a sense of hope despite the circumstance. Maybe it’s because I see fragments of my own past in their stories. Whatever the reason, they both struck an emotional chord and I have remembered them.

Back then when I read the issue I didn’t know who either of the writers were but I would recognize the names years later when I came across them again—Stephen Elliot would eventually start The Rumpus, a cultural commentary blog that I now read regularly, and Justin Torres would use that story to eventually write We the Animals.

I can’t make the argument that I wouldn’t have discovered these writers had it not been for the journals in which their work appeared, but I can say that once I saw their books as I browsed the bookstore’s aisles, it felt like visiting an old friend. These writers I’ve never met in person yet I feel I know intimately enough because I’ve read their stories of heartache and loss and regret. I’ve read essays that have made me laugh, made me think about the world differently. I have read things that have changed my life.

And I suspect if you’re reading this, you have too. 

Too many writers, too many magazines

There is a problem in publishing. Every few years variations of the same argument creep up again in various ways.

There are too many literary journals. Too many MFA programs. Too many writers. Too many, too much. We are being saturated with an oversupply when there is not enough demand. No one is reading. No one is buying. There are too many voices.

You can read versions of these arguments here  and here and here  and perhaps most famously here.

There are, in short, too many of us.

And the answer to all this in some ways is yes. Yes, it’s gotten easier to submit. Yes, there are more resources than there used to be. Yes, the proliferation of MFA programs has skyrocketed in recent years and because of this there are more literary journals being created and more students wanting to submit, and yes sometimes the pressure to publish is so great that we lose sight of what’s important. We forget why we want to be in these journals to begin with—because we want to be part of the conversation, because we want to feel connected, and more importantly, because we love them.

I’ll never believe that there are too many voices. Even when people argue that with too many of us came the ease of online publishing and how anyone with some time to spare can create a literary journal in minutes, that this somehow now has degraded the venue. I say let people try because with every effort there is the chance for something great, and because I don’t want to live in a world where someone feels their voice isn’t being heard.

I know that some literary journals have since stopped publishing. With each one I’ve wondered if maybe part of the cause for their end is because there’s too much noise for them to still carry the same attention. There is an ebb and flow it seems, and rather than fish for the meaning as to why one journal continues and another stops I am grateful for their existence in the first place. Online journals like elimae and kill author and Night Train and Pindeldyboz, and print journals like Quick Fiction and Open City.

While some journals have ceased publication others are thriving in unexpected ways. The same week I discovered that elimae was closing its doors I learned that another online journal, Interrupture, had exceeded its Kickstarter campaign to print its first anthology of poems. This past year, the online journal Wigleaf, created in 2008, won its first Pushcart.

I am grateful for people and venues like, for example, The Literary Magazine Club on HTMLGIANT where a literary journal is discussed each month in an online book club format, and also for websites like Newpages and The Review Review that review current issues of journals.

I am grateful for writers like Roxane Gay who I found out about from her work with Pank. Through her nonfiction I discovered a list she’s created of writers of color, many without books but they do have stories out there in the world in literary journals that believed in them. I’ve since been going through the list, re-discovering what someone else already has, and each time I’ve wondered—where would these voices have gone if the journals didn’t exist? How would I ever have found them otherwise?

 

When I did my MFA, I was too poor to do much of anything, so on weekends when I had spare time I’d carry on the tradition I’d taken up from undergrad, only instead of going to bookstores I went to my school’s library. I’d go through and take all the current issues and sit in the back and read them cover to cover. Sometimes I looked at the archives of just a particular issue.

I think part of why I did this was because at the time I also had a job as a bookseller. One thing that always struck me when I was there was how after a few weeks or months after the initial buzz of a book has gone, it was like the book itself disappeared. Instead of being displayed on one of the front tables it’d be shepherded to the back or even boxed up and returned. Authors came and then were gone, and I couldn’t help but think about all the work that was already out there, work that I had missed, and I had a yearning to know.

I discovered a lot of stories from that period in my life. I remember reading Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love Of My Life” that was published in The Sun andwhich if you’ve not read is available online. Here was someone who understood the harsh experience of dealing with the death of a parent. Who understood the self-destruction that can sometimes follow when your mind is clouded by grief. I was roughly the same age as Strayed was when my own mother died and I understood the experience of not knowing how to move on when everyone you’re surrounded by wanted you to. I saw myself in that essay in so many unbearable ways that I’ve never been able read it again, but I have a copy of it. I like knowing I can hold it in my hands and that there is someone out there who has felt what I felt, has gone through the same experience and then managed to bravely write about it. I like knowing that need be, I can go back to those pages and remember I am not alone.

Since I’ve been interning at TMR I’ve taken an interest in rereading a lot of the archives. Like you, I’d submitted to the journal in the past and have many of the issues. I knew of TMR’s reputation for publishing work of first-time authors. What I didn’t really know and what I’ve been learning from looking back at the archives is how eclectic the journal has been. They’ve published writers I never would have expected—stories by Aimee Bender and Ursula K. Le Guin. In fact, in the second issue of TMR is a story from David Ohle, whose dystopian novel Motorman has garnered cult-like status since its 1972 publication. I also learned that one of my favorite Amy Hempel stories ever, “Today Will Be A Quiet Day,” was first printed in the journal.

I’m telling you these stories as I’ve told you of all the others because we are I believe, having the wrong conversation. Rather than lament about the state of journals or even publishing, or rant about the mistakes submitters make, or complain about how no one reads or no one buys, I want to instead talk about stories and poems and essays and art. It’s true that we all could stand to read a little more and talk about the places that have published work we loved. I think sometimes we forget what journals have done and what they can do. A great journal fosters work they believe in out into the world, it finds voices we might not have discovered otherwise, it creates a space where a reader can find writers all doing different and interesting things.

I want to tell you about some of them—there’s HOOT, a literary magazine that publishes work on postcards that are mailed to you. There’s Locus Novus, a journal that combines experimental writing and motion in innovative ways.

I want you to tell me of others. Tell me a journal that you love. Tell me a journal you feel is underserved, or even one that you’ve been reading, or one you’ve reread.

Tell me the stories you’ve found within them that have changed your life, the poems that made you feel, and the essays that made you realize that you are not alone.

Go back to the archives and discover something new and come back and tell it to me. I have told you a few of mine and now I want to know yours. I want to read them and I want others to know. Don’t tell just me, tell each other. Continue the conversation.

Then maybe together we can help save what’s been lost.

 

7 Responses to A Little Ode to the Little Magazines and their Very Big Work

  1. I’m selfish at times, I’ll admit. I peruse back issues of magazines in the context of my own search for viable places to submit my stories.

    Will my work fit? Do I have a shot? How does my work compare with other writers that have found their way into this publication?

    What the hell am I doing?

    Yet even though my motivation for reading back issues sometimes comes from self-interest, I always seem to end up wrapped inside a story, connected to its characters and far away from the woes of publication.

    One of these stories sticks out in my mind, so I decided to share it. It’s by Anne Valente and it appears in Memorious, Issue 18:

    Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart

    Thank you for your thoughtful words, Latanya McQueen. Let’s trade names for a day.

    –AM

    • LaTanya McQueen says:

      AM–
      I think we all sometimes can be selfish. I know certainly I’ve been in the past.
      Thank you for posting this story. I’m familiar with Memorious but I haven’t read this before. I did read it just now and you’re right, it’s wonderful, especially this–”Octopuses were the perfect animal candidate for love. In the neurons, the synapses, the brain activity blinking blue, he would find that love was nothing more than a firing of electrical impulses, a Petri dish of tangible chemistry.”
      I will remember this story and I hope others will read it as well.

  2. Donna Steiner says:

    This is lovely. Thank you.

  3. F*cking great post.

    I appreciate it so much at a time when I’m finding myself wrapped up in the pessimism (poetry’s dying!), and also at a time when I’m so dedicated to not only write, as I always have, but to write better, to read more writing, to read about writing, and then write something memorable.

    I will not rush to publish. I will read more (thanks for the titles), and I will improve.

    We are not in peril as long as there are people like you, like me, and like the other commenters.

  4. Shelley says:

    Just write because we have to.

  5. Thanks for the link! I should clarify though that I didn’t intend that tiny HTMLGIANT post to endorse either argument listed there. Rather, my interest lies in the cognitive lurking between two commonly-heard lit-scene arguments: that there are too many MFA programs and poets, and that the only market for poetry today is other poets.

    The first argument suggests that poetry should be more a meritocracy, I think—that, no matter how many poets there are out there, only a few are really any good, and will endure (i.e., the Helen Vendler argument: “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?”). But the second argument suggests that the market for poetry is distressingly small, even insular—that poets comprise an insignificant portion of the population (and book-buying market) at large.

    So how does one reconcile those ideas? Is the ideal situation only a handful of poets—the inferior ones just give up, I guess?—while the population at large starts buying poetry (but not writing it)? Or should poets stop buying the work of inferior poets, so that only the great ones sell books? Or what? (Note that I don’t think there really is a solution, as I believe the assumptions underlying both arguments flawed.)

    Cheers, Adam