Monday, August 07, 2006

A line on a few Boston-area sources of new literary fiction

So how do you get your foot -- or toe, finger or fingernail -- in the door of the publishing world?

The short, sure-to-demonstrate-my-annoyance-with-the-whole-racket answer: God only knows, because I sure don't.

The longer, maybe true answer: So-called "little magazines" are the way in, according to those writers who've made the trek from obscurity to Somewheresville in the land of literary fiction.

Here's a piece from the Boston Phoenix about a gaggle of 'lil mags in the Boston area. As Spinal Tap once observed about Boston, "it's not much of a college town." So, you know, beware, etc.

Small packages
Boston is brimming with so-called little magazines, which pack big literary ambitions

The printed word has reached its twilight. Or so it’s said by literary Luddites and speculative technophiles. Get ready, some dystopians warn. Words on paper will be a casualty of the throttle of technology. A day will come when you won’t look at your fingertips — as you could right now, holding this very page — and see the gray smudge of newsprint. (And for those reading this online, well, there’s part proof the end is nigh.) People talk of the Death of the Printed Word with the same foreboding with which they argue that biotechnology and genetic engineering will irrevocably alter what it means to be human. And while the scale is not comparable (we have to agree that human nature is a bigger deal than whether we hold a book in our hands or see it on a screen), the factors contributing to both changes are the same.

There’s the technology and the science behind what’s changing — the thread-thin wires and tiny chips, the test tubes and Bunsen burners. The same big money’s also behind it — the corporate conglomerates, the publishing houses and behemoth bookstores, the biotech and pharmaceutical companies. And just as the possibility of picking traits for an unborn baby may result in a staggering lack of variety, so, too, the focus on the bottom line, on the salability of a piece of writing over its artistic and literary merit, can result in the homogenization of what we read. While we aren’t yet seeing armies of blond-haired, blue-eyed brainiacs who excel at soccer, swimming, and playing the viola, our stories are starting to sound the same. Our bestseller lists are increasingly numbered by the predictable and formulaic as opposed to the challenging and creative.

Just as genetic engineering could determine the end of one type of human (this type, our type) and the beginning of another, so, too, the more digitized we get, the less we’re going to see the gray smudge of newsprint on our thumbs, smell musty pages when we crack open an old book, or read without plugging in or turning on a machine. Technology and money threaten to make writing uniform, and literary pessimists look to a future where the printed word is a thing of the past.

Enter literary magazines, those venerable workhorses of the writing world. These magazines, which can look like books, thick and perfectly bound, or like glossy mags, hold some combination of fiction, essays, poetry, criticism, and art. The role of these varied journals is currently twofold: they keep the printed word alive (those in print, of course, as opposed to just online) and they keep the written word non-homogenized, motley, novel, new. Literary magazines were created as alternatives to big publishing houses, as outlets for writers to publish what was too edgy, avant-garde, deviant, or experimental for the mainstream. That spirit remains the driving idea of many journals. They’re where aspiring writers turn to first get published, established writers return, and readers, precious readers, stay abreast — nay, ahead — of the collective literary consciousness.

It’s laudable in theory, but desktop publishing has made producing such publications as easy as making microwave popcorn, and the result has been a spate of lit mags of varying missions and quality, most of which possess the lifespan of fruit flies. Even the most successful, the ones that survive and thrive, can have an air of exclusivity. Love or hate McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’s arch-droll effort, its ├╝ber irony and po-mo posturing can be thrilling at best, irritating at worst. Some magazines edge toward the overly specialized, publishing the work of, say, Native American lesbian cat lovers. Check out Other Voices ( for a successful mix of the marginalized and the mainstream. And the exclusively online Word Riot ( publishes some of the most original work around. London’s Granta is royalty in the field, alongside the Paris Review and the North American Review. With more than 500 literary magazines published in the United States alone, how can readers and writers find the magazines best suited to their tastes?

Let’s narrow it down a bit by focusing on Boston. The pool of literary talent and energy in this city is wildly out of proportion to its size. As a result, a number of literary magazines make their home here. Boston has some of the oldest, most prestigious journals in the country, and with that prestige comes the ability to attract the biggest names. But catering to the already successful doesn’t always result in the most dynamic experience. It’s a delicate balance to publish the freshest, most obscure writing while remaining a bastion of the most well-known. Indeed, there’s a certain pleasure in finding a short story by your favorite author in a little magazine, but perhaps a greater pleasure, a sweeter delight, comes from discovering a new voice in that same place.

Agni ($9.95/single issue; $17/yearly subscription of two issues) attempts to achieve the balance between big names and newcomers. Founded in 1972 by Askold Melnyczuk as a channel for alternative arts and letters, it’s now based at Boston University and edited by Sven Birkerts. The original aim, according to its Web site, was to publish a new generation of writers and visual artists. With a table of contents like the one in issue 57 from the spring of 2003, which included David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Margot Livesey, and Seamus Heaney, it’s difficult to discern how this represents a new generation of writers. These guys aren’t new, nor were they a year and a half ago. It should be said, though, that this was Birkerts’s first issue at the helm, and perhaps he wanted to come in with star power on his side. The issues since have been less studded with literary luminaries. The quality, however, remains.

Another long-standing best of Boston, and a major literary force nationally, is Ploughshares ($10.95/single issue; $24/yearly subscription of three issues), based at Emerson College. Founded in Cambridge’s Plough & Stars watering hole, in 1971, by DeWitt Henry and Peter O’Malley, and run out of Henry’s spare bedroom for the first few years, the journal aspires to offer varying opinions on what’s valid and important in contemporary literature, according to its Web site, as well as to discover and advance literary talent. Each issue is guest-edited by a well-known author, thereby allowing it to reflect that particular author’s tastes, interests, and obsessions. The list of guest-editors includes Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Derek Walcott, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Richard Ford, among others. The magazine is known for its discoveries, as well as for having more stories selected for the Best American Short Stories anthologies than any other journal.

While both Agni and Ploughshares undeniably serve up some of the best writing around, several of the newer, smaller journals have an added edge and energy. Post Road ($8.99–$14/single issue; $16/yearly subscription of two issues), for example, based in Cambridge and New York, and founded in 2000 by Jaime Clarke and David Ryan, exudes experimental vigor without succumbing to the temptation of being edgy for the sake of edginess. The latest issue features work by Greater Boston resident Tom Perrotta of Election and Little Children fame, the unassuming Arlington author Christopher Castellani, and Emerson College writer-in-residence Maria Flook; Newtonville Books owner Tim Huggins is a section editor. There’s also Rick Moody again, Neal Pollack, and Thisbe Nissen. With pieces like Taro Nettleton’s essay on skateboarding, Brian Lennon’s impressive short story about an old man, and Tom Murphy’s index of The Great Gatsby, and Post Road makes for a varied, thought-provoking, and exciting experience.

The three-year-old Quick Fiction ($9/two issues; $17/four issues; $75/lifetime), based in Jamaica Plain and edited by Jennifer Cande and Adam Pieroni, features only flash fiction, also known as short-short stories, postcard fiction, or micro-fiction. Each piece must be no shorter than 25 words and no longer than 500. The magazine is little bigger than a CD booklet, but although it feels insubstantial — so small, so short — it holds treasures. It’s remarkable the punch 500 words or less can pack, and Quick Fiction is worth looking at for that reason alone.

Somerville-based Night Train ($9.95/single copy; $17.95/yearly subscription of two issues), co-founded by Rod Siino and Rusty Barnes, leans toward stories with an edge, "fiction that leaves us gasping for breath." The most recent issue, the magazine’s third, is filled with trauma, torture, disaster, and disease. Susann Cokal’s "How We Got Silvia," for example, is told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy who impregnates a woman his mother kidnaps, chains to a bed, and keeps as a maid. While images from these stories etch themselves into your mind, some selections lack conviction, as though the goal was shock before quality.

The New Renaissance ($11.50/single issue; $30/three issues), based in Arlington, is "an international magazine of ideas and opinion, emphasizing literature and the arts," as its tagline goes, and it’s worth flipping through. So is the slim, consistent, and handsome Brookline-based Salamander ($22/four issues over two years). With great passion and ability, these literary magazines maintain literary traditions and push literary boundaries, in Boston and beyond. It’s a crucial role. Especially now.

How to get ’em
• Agni, 236 Bay State Road, Boston

• New Renaissance, 26 Heath Road, Arlington

• Night Train, P.O. Box 6250, Boston

• Ploughshares, Emerson College, 120 Boylston Street, Boston, (617) 824-8753

• Post Road, P.O. Box 400951, Cambridge

• Quick Fiction, JP Press, 50 Evergreen Street, Jamaica Plain

• Salamander, 48 Ackers Avenue, Brookline

— NM


RC said...

i don't know that i've ever heard of these little magazines in boston before.

--RC of

Philip Booth said...

Ploughshares is quite well known, and has a good reputation for publishing quality fiction.

I've only recently heard of Post Road, and I'm not at all familiar with the other magazines mentioned in the story.