Friday, September 14, 2007

From the Newsstands: Essay on Literary Magazines from Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 1

The following is an essay on literary magazines by Thomas Washington from a recent issue of Antioch Review, vol. 65 no. 1 (Antioch has already released newer issues, vol. 65 nos. 2 and 3.) We are putting this piece up out of order--cutting in line before previously slated lit mag reviews and commentaries--because essays such as Mr. Washington's are scarce in the publishing landscape, so much that we leap at the opportunity to publish one (interested writers, please take note). Mr. Washington's opinions are, of course, his own, and not identical to ours. Yet we agree one hundred percent with him that literary magazines need to be discussed, as they are as much a form of literature as a book of Chekhov stories or Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil and therefore should be dealt with by reviewers and critics in an equal manner.

Antioch Review is published quarterly from Antioch College--and though the college is on a temporary hiatus, Antioch Review editor Robert S. Fogarty assures us that the review will continue printing as usual. They have been publishing literature for 65 years, and show no sign of tapering off. Issues are $9.50 and can be purchased online at the Antioch Review website or from your local bookseller.

A Quarterly Reader (And Writer)

By Thomas Washington

The first thing I look for when venturing into one of my quarterly subscriptions—I rotate a dozen or more journals annually and decide to retain or eliminate based on numerous factors, which I need not get into just yet—is the editor’s note. Most of the time I don’t find one. This is a sly move. Editors must think the art speaks for itself; they needn’t stand between the artist and the reader like some clingy real estate broker. Except when an editor kicks off a spring issue with an obscure poem or an essay on bee habits, I don’t know about other subscribers, but my seating is sometimes lost within the first few pages, and often I never really manage to get back in the saddle until I arrive in the book review section. I, for one, would like to have my hand held for a moment, at least at the outset, to see where the editor is leading me.

Perhaps this is one of those situations where if I don’t get it, then I don’t belong. I shouldn’t be subscribing. For example, before I knew anything about wine, I used to frequent a wine shop on Chicago’s North Shore. The owner probably didn’t realize it, but I had money to burn back in those days. I had a circle of associates whom I needed to impress and would have gladly walked out of the store with anything the merchant recommended, no matter the price. As things stood back then—I had a circle of associates whom I needed to impress and presenting fine wine at the business and dinner table seemed the best way to go about doing it—I needed guidance from the shop owner. He never bothered with me, however. He either assumed I knew my wines well enough and thought I was beyond the coddling stage, or he was sending me a subtle message to stay away from his shop and go for the grocery store selections instead.

So, if this is the sort of message editors are trying to send dim-witted readers by not including a note on the opening pages, I can understand their position. The quarterly is not about chumminess, after all. A certain standard of intellectual rigor is at stake with each issue. Maybe this seasonal greeting practice is better left to the monthlies or a corporate newsletter. Omitting the introduction note might also be a way of keeping the Yahoos out. Its absence maintains a high mystique. It creates a kind of Skull and Bones quality where those who should know do know.

But pretend for a moment that the literary quarterly reader represents a certain tourist class, not a member of the mindless hordes we see jumping off the coach and scampering up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, but someone with a more urbane air—museum, lecture, and concert goers, for instance, the sort whose minds are always hungry for another bite of haut culture. And imagine the editor here as a riverboat tour captain. His crew, a coterie of writers and readers, retirees, librarians, the merely curious, or the intellectual hangers on, has boarded ship. They mingle in the stern with a glass of chardonnay in one hand and a tiny plate of cheese squares in the other. (I’m picturing a sunny Thursday afternoon in May, somewhere in the Midwest, home of the eager and unassuming, on the Fox or the Mississippi.) The crew trusts that the captain will navigate the river’s bends, snags, and sandbars without ado and at the same time regale them with the storyteller’s knack for anecdotal river lore. It’s a voice of tender familiarity this tourist class secretly hopes for at launching point, a seafaring authority who can help turn the inevitable shifty current and rocky crag toward gentler shores, toward a place that feels like home.

Yet as soon as the deckhand uncoils the dock line and the paddlewheel churns downstream, the crew is greeted only by silence. The guests split and fend for themselves along starboard and stern. The trip progresses downriver smoothly enough without the captain’s observations. This is not the type of audience who demands a fussing over, after all. But still a fog settles in. Like arriving at a cocktail party without a proper greeting from the host and hostess, without one of them putting a martini in your hand and introducing you to Mr. and Mrs. Miller from across town, the absence of the editor’s note in winter, spring, summer, and fall leaves readers awash in a room of unfamiliar voices.

Whether as a loyal subscriber (The word “subscriber” assumes a charming twist here, the quarterly reader as a kind of invested deputy author, a sub writer.) or a newcomer to the journal, I want to know what the view is like from Florida or Missouri. How many manuscripts floated over the transom this past season? How are we all faring with the apparent imminent demise of readers? Any funny anecdotes from editorial headquarters? Any predictions on what we’re going to see around the next bend in the river? It is not necessarily words of wisdom I’m looking for here, although an aside about our political or spiritual state is always welcome, as it is something that reminds me why I subscribed to your journal and not the dozen or so others that clamor for my attention on the end pages of each issue.

Just about anything goes in the editor’s note, so long as the editor takes the time to welcome the reader into the fold. Consider the editor’s note as a kind of “What’s My Line?” game show where the reader has a boat load of questions for the mystery guest. (And wouldn’t we agree that in this trade, the editors and their team of readers really do work behind a baffling veil of secrecy…all those returned envelopes boomeranging back to the mailbox over and over without so much as a scribble in return, a kind of twisted pen pal correspondence where the writer might be better served penning notes to himself. . . the occasional three or four month lapse between subscribing and the subsequent phone calls that go unanswered until the first issue finally arrives. . . ) The more readers (very often the writer in sheep’s clothing) learn about the editorial mission season after season, the better clue and sense of belonging we have.

If this Love Boat motif outlined above appears silly, then consider one last point about the crucial opening note before I move on. Think of the your opening address as an analogy for leading a group of backpackers (your loyal readers) up the side of a mountain. On the way up, everyone is wheezing, huffing and puffing, wondering why the hell they chose you to lead them. When you arrive at the peak, however, their world transforms. An hour earlier the pack toiled and trekked with their eyes glued to their feet, and now you’re presenting them with a breathtaking panorama, literally a view of your own making and design. In other words, your opening address is where you get out from behind those five-foot stacks of slush piles and take credit where credit is due. This is where you show us, your readers, the artistry behind the issue, how you happened upon such and such a writer among all the other competitors. Just how does the eventual published poem or short story make its way to the top, anyway? Surely, the quarterly is ultimately about the writers’ work, but the reader’s failure to recognize the arrangement behind the final product is like seating oneself at the Thanksgiving dinner table without giving thanks to the powers of creation in the kitchen.

Another mystery in my seasonal reading is the question of why many quarterlies are in fact not quarterlies at all any longer. More and more, they fall under the unofficial name of annuals or bi-annuals. I admire the courageous publications who are staying with the original spirit of the seasonal calendar, even though a handful each year are undraping their spring 2005 issue in summer 2006. The reader can just imagine the chaos here. (Actually, the reader cannot imagine the chaos behind a publishing schedule. If many writers, hell bent on sending another manuscript, were readers, then they would ease up on their submissions.) Under this modern day, shrink-wrapped time schedule that traps everyone in a pinch, we can only conclude the quarterly’s headquarters must operate in perpetual disarray, the same as any other industry operating under a production timetable. Perhaps a team of readers called it quits under the onslaught of submissions. Maybe the guy who works the midnight shift at the printing press tips the bottle at night and confuses the orders. Financing, or the lack thereof, is also a likely culprit. These pitfalls are understandable. Yet editors should remember that what sets the quarterly apart from the commercial pack of weeklies and monthlies is its seasonal ties.


While some critics treat the quarterly as some sort of endangered species, perpetually on the verge of falling out of favor unless it learns to strike new ground, I would argue just the opposite. However staid, slack, or retro the quarterly may sometimes come across to others, however much it appears to suffer a decline against the mountains of hypermedia vying for a minute of our attention, the quarterly can hold its own as a model of eclecticism. It is a cultural bulwark in its own right.

The challenge here for the quarterly editor, it seems, has little to do with keeping ahead of the reader with new fangled design, e.g. an online edition, eye popping graphics, or inventing a new literary genre (quiction anyone?) It’s all about defining the tempo. Each season the quarterly reader hopes to find a literary work that illuminates the world’s changing landscape, some poem or short story that is finely attuned to the tempo of our varied experience. In this sense the quarterly editor is a pacesetter of sorts, not necessarily a maverick standing beyond a knoll waving us forth as the prophet leads his flock.

Think of harness racing. The thoroughbreds race under a specified gait, pulling those sulkies around the track. The driver / editor carries the whip and signals the horse (the writer?) by striking the sulky shaft to establish the two-beat gait. Defining the tempo and significance of these changing times (the race) is the editor’s great talent and privilege, not only as an allegiance to the reading community but also to the writers whom they publish.


The more I searched for state of the art models, essays on which I could base my own writing aspirations, the more I hoped to identify and feel with the writer in that church pew, the more I encountered sad, isolated voices traversing the fringe. Even when a writer does invite me to witness the exotic, say a trip to La Paz or the Silk Road, I’m unmoved. It sounds as though the writer picked up the psycho detritus from one end of the room—a drug habit, or suburban boredom exported to a street corner in Tijuana—and shoveled it to another. The writer never comes across as more interesting than the story itself.

I was bothered enough by my cold reactions to draft letters to various editors, asking why, as a loyal patron of the journal, I wasn’t coming across more reporting, more stories that kept the narrator out of the picture. I understand this is the beauty behind the craft, the narrator’s insistence on being in on the story’s action (if, in fact, we find a story), except I couldn’t help thinking the reader would be better served if the narrator stayed out of the picture altogether.

The only response I received came from an editor who scolded me with an email message: “Don’t read, don’t subscribe, and don’t bother submitting. This publication is not for everybody. And if I had any further doubts about the quality of the work,” the editor advised, “have a look at the Best Essays series, where you’ll find numerous entries from our publication.”


Clearly, quarterly membership is a lonely hobby. This is the idea, I suppose, to be alone with something one enjoys doing. But sooner or later it might be good to exchange stories. In trying to gather a feel for what works, for what editors are looking for among the mountains of incoming submissions, I feel left out, as though I missed out on the first day of creative writing class when the instructor handed out the course objectives and syllabi. Since the acceptance rates in these journals run between one and two percent, I presume the work that does succeed to publication represents a model of excellence. I’ve either got a tin ear for the extraordinary, e.g. realizing that a trip to La Paz or the Silk Road is the essence of exoticism, or these global avenues are so over traveled that the only place for the essayist to retreat is back to that kitchen table, for continued reflection on Cezanne’s table of fruit.


I am happy to stay on board with the quarterlies, indefinitely. Sometimes it feels masochistic, all this silence between submissions and between readings, no discernable quarterly club members in my neighborhood, the sometimes cheerless design format, the covers as unassuming as a high school theater program passed out by a student usher.

For all the quarterly’s supposed refinement, its place as a cultural cornerstone, it appears pleased enough to inhabit society’s fringe. Weeks ago, however, I noticed a recent issue of Ploughshares in my high school library. One of our library paraprofessionals assumed it was a circulating paperback instead of a periodical. (The English department normally claims these issues.) She catalogued the issue and slapped a barcode on it, just as we do our fiction and nonfiction shelf items. Then she wrapped it in a shiny book jacket and placed it on the new arrivals shelf, face out on a tiny book stand, alongside Capote’s In Cold Blood and Kunkel’s Indecision.

A student has yet to check out Ploughshares. Perhaps it’s just as well that it remains on display

[To read the rest of Mr. Washington's essay, pick up a copy of Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 1]

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