December 27, 2004
A Little Journal for Nearly Every Literary Voice
hen The Threepenny Review celebrated its 100th issue and 25th year recently, the literary quarterly received headlines for that milestone and gave itself a big party. After all, 25 years is old for a literary magazine with 9,000 subscribers, a $200,000 annual budget and no big-money patrons or university support.
But here's the surprise: while Threepenny represents the triumph of the bookish little guy in the age of publishing giants and gossip magazines, it is a behemoth in a landscape crowded with 1,000 literary magazines. That is more than at any time in history. Most of the magazines are geared toward specific audiences, with average readerships of 2,000 and annual budgets under$10,000.
Examples of the small and the struggling include Quick Fiction, which publishes stories under 500 words and was founded in 2001 by two recent college graduates in the Boston area. It has a print run of 900, an annual budget of less than $6,000 and an unpaid staff of student interns.
Or Blue Collar Review: Journal of Progressive Working Class Literature, a quarterly of mostly poetry from Norfolk, Va. (founded by a poet who works as a hospital coordinator), that aspires to give to voice to working-class values, all on an annual budget of about $5,500 and a print run of 600.
"There are more literary magazines out there than ever, and it's an important part of the literary world's unsung heroes," said Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, founded to help literary magazines compete in the marketplace. "If you're interested in experimental poetry there's a journal for you. If you're interested in Southern culture, there's a magazine for you."
The council's Web site (www.clmp.org) lists more than 400 literary-magazine titles, with categories including everything from "African-American" to "Youth." They have tantalizing names like Alligator Juniper (from Prescott College in Arizona) and Blithe House Quarterly (an Internet site based in Chicago for fiction by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender authors).
The magazines come from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but are clustered on the East and West Coasts or in Chicago. Most are supported by a university; many get by with private donations, subscriptions and grants. Many publish an issue or two and then die, but about 500 magazines have longer track records, Mr. Lependorf said. They range from tabloids to glossy books.
Ask the editors who their readers are and the answers include professionals, academics, aspiring writers, retirees, prisoners. Some magazines pay a modest amount for pieces, but many do not. For almost everyone, it is a labor of love.
"We needed something to make our lives worthwhile; we needed a creative outlet," said Adam Pieroni, 25, who puts out Quick Fiction with his fianc»e, Jennifer Cande, 26. He works as a copy editor at a legal publisher and she is a publications coordinator at a health-care advocacy group. Both are writers.
Their magazine, Mr. Pieroni said, is a way to have "a conversation going on about what is prose, what is fiction, what is prose-poetry." Mostly through their Web site (quickfiction.org), direct mailings (printed from home) and word of mouth, submissions pour in from academics, prisoners, grandmothers, high school students and people in creative writing programs, he said. Contributors are paid with free magazines. To commemorate their April marriage, Mr. Pieroni said, they are compiling a wedding-stories edition.
Magazines like Quick Fiction are multiplying because desktop-publishing technology has made printing cheaper and easier than ever, the Internet helps get the word out (some magazines are online only), and the spread of university writing programs in the last 20 years has created a flock of university-sponsored literary magazines. The little guys serve as farm teams for big publishers.
"Many of us read a range of literary publications, from the elite to the obscure, in hope of finding the next great quirky American voice," said Jonathan Karp, senior vice president and editor in chief of Random House. "I think the proliferation of literary magazines parallels the fragmentation of culture at large.
"There are more independent films, TV networks, radio stations, and even book publishers than ever before, thanks to technological advances in production and distribution."
Some in publishing said that the magazine scene had exploded simply because the marketplace is tighter.
"I think it's hard for young writers to get heard and the Internet demands that everyone wants to be heard in a personal way," said Robert Weil, the executive editor of W. W. Norton. "Fiction is in tough shape in America right now. There's a huge chasm between commercial fiction and serious literature. We'll depend on these magazines to grow the talented young writers."
Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review, said: "We benefit in some ways from the crassness of the culture. The Tina Brown years at The New Yorker were golden years for us. She commissioned all these pieces and she'd get them and they were too literary for The New Yorker."
Much new poetry and many new essays and short stories would not see the light of day without the magazines, many in publishing say. That is true even though history shows that literary magazines like Poetry (founded in 1912 and still in existence) have been the first avenues for most of major writers of the last century, from T. S. Eliot to William Faulkner to Erica Jong.
"It's real rewarding; it's built this community of poets around the country," said Al Markowitz, 49, who founded Blue Collar Review in 1997. Mr. Markowitz said that he started the magazine to counter what he saw as the elitism of most literary magazines and to serve as a progressive political voice.
The nonprofit magazine is circulated widely enough to have attracted $200 from Michael Moore, he said, as well as poems from Marge Piercy and Amiri Baraka. Contributors, though, are more likely to be house painters who write poetry, and they are paid with copies of the magazine. One poem in the Summer 2004 issue is titled "How to Lose a Democracy." "This is not necessarily about work, but life from the perspective of people who work for a living, people who have bosses and bills," said Mr. Markowitz, who puts the magazine together with printing equipment in his basement and says he desperately needs money to keep going.
In New York Charles Flowers, 39, began Bloom in February (with a third issue scheduled for February 2005) to challenge the stereotype that gay and lesbian publishing is mostly erotic. The contributors to its fiction, art and poetry are gay, he explained, but its editorial policy states that subject matter need not be explicitly homosexual.
That tri-quarterly bound book has about 275 subscribers, Mr. Flowers said, and an e-mail list of about 300 people. It costs him about $7,000 to print each issue, and he said he raised all the money himself for the first issue, which included two poems by Adrienne Rich. (He pays $25 a poem and $50 to $100 for a story.)
"I figured if people can make independent films on a credit card, I can charge a literary magazine on a credit card," said Mr. Flowers, who has worked as an editorial assistant at Scribner and at Anchor/Doubleday. Now an associate editor at the Academy of American Poets, he noted that at least two of his colleagues there have also started literary magazines.
"I know the N.E.A. came out with the 'reading at risk' report," he said, referring to the National Education Association, "but there's a huge audience for readers, from the book clubs to Oprah. It's more diverse, too: you have Asian writers, you have gay writers, you have experimental writers. It's a very vibrant scene."