Essay: On Literary Magazines (AGNI, N+1, Tin House, and McSweeney's)
by Andrew Whitacre
Imagine, say, the R&D folks at an automaker tell their boss, “Market research shows our potential customers hate orange. We are therefore launching a new line of orange cars, and only orange cars, until our customers come around.” Insanity, yes? But this is an insanity shared by literary magazines: each lit mag is published precisely because no one wants to read it.
Sure, there’s also the ego of the founding editor, a moral sincerity, communal desperation, or sustained glee. But a motive all lit mags have in common is a belief that certain stories—and not others—should be pushed in front of the eyes of otherwise indifferent readers. It’s an industry dedicated to breaking entrepreneurship’s first rule: you can’t create your market. The market’s there, lit mag folks insist, people just don’t know it yet!
Year after year, though, magazines fail because they couldn’t convince people to care.
Yet, paradoxically, what an important part of the book-world literary magazines and journals have become.
What they lack in financial solvency (the majority of the reputable survive on university or individual philanthropy rather than subscriptions and advertising) literary magazines make up for in their power as gatekeeper. They weed out the untalented. Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI, told me last year that each time he enters the magazine’s office, there is a fresh foot-high stack of unsolicited submissions waiting for him. “In each stack, I’ll probably find just one or two pieces I want to come back to.”
The rest he politely rejects.
This vetting process has turned lit mag editors into unofficial developmental editors for the book publishing industry. Agents, like Boston’s Esmond Harmsworth, describe this as a welcome necessity. “We simply don’t have the time to read everything, or at least everything as thoroughly, as we’d like,” Harmsworth told a class of Emerson College writing students in 2002. “My knowing that an established editor is willing to publish your work, that you therefore might have some name-recognition, is persuasive. I use this—have to use this—when deciding where to concentrate our efforts.”
This arrangement is asymmetrical, though. Publishers save money by not having to waste time on reading through poor writing. But what do literary magazines get in return? Not much, really. There’s the chance a writer published in the Southern Review will get a popular book published, with the requisite front-matter page reading, “Parts of this book first appeared in the Southern Review.” But the effect of that sort of marketing isn’t measurable, and there’s nothing besides the author’s name to position the magazine as a certain kind of literary magazine, as one different or better than others.
In short, lit mags are the suckers of the literary world. They’re obstinate. They bleed funding. They ignore the market. They do others’ work. And, despite high purposes, they go unread, or, at the very least, are read by a tight circle of people with little hope of expanding.
However, a small number of literary magazines are succeeding, by small steps, in changing the game, positioning themselves as a pure end-product instead of book publishing’s helper monkey. And they’re doing so by trying, in contrast to the stolid publications of the past, to be . . . well . . . savvy.
The most traditional and personalized of these would be AGNI, housed at Boston University. As an editor, Sven Birkerts is the beneficiary of two legacies: that of founding editor Askold Melnyczuk, who was responsible for setting the high standards of writing and visual art that now attract the best work of the world’s best writers and artists to AGNI, but as well, bittersweetly, that of the now-dead Partisan Review, also long-housed at B.U. Birkerts wrote in Bookforum last year that “Partisan Review failed in part because it couldn’t acknowledge that our intellectual and artistic needs—our cultural situation—had changed.” Align that statement with AGNI’s modus vivendi—”We see literature and the arts as part of a broad, on-going cultural conversation that every society needs to remain vibrant and alive.”—and the intellectual standard-bearing is perhaps precipitously clear.
But what places AGNI on steadier footing is its embrace, if sometimes awkward, of professional partnerships and a strategic online presence. AGNI persons get out into the public to promote each issue, and pieces not in the print edition go up with regularity on the AGNI website, helping create a cohesive readership, one likely to buy individual issues or a subscription after becoming comfortable with how consistently good the writing is. AGNI, still traditional in its dependence on big names and philanthropy to survive, nevertheless shows that old dogs learn new tricks.
Contrast AGNI’s guarded idealism with the bald brand promoted by newcomer N+1.
“If N+1 works, it should leave you insulted, riled up, and no longer in despair,” co-editor Mark Greif told me by e-mail last week. “Our only goal is to push the culture forward.”
Funny how that mission sounds like AGNI’s and Partisan’s. But N+1, whose third issue comes out this September, is a different animal altogether. In that it publishes deeply thoughtful pieces collapsing the usually distinct forms of “essay,” “review,” and, sometimes, “tract,” N+1 resembles the Partisan Review or a seasonal, book-length New York Review of Books. (NYRB, it should be said, is America’s most successful literary publication precisely because it was founded to meet a measurable need: in 1963, the year NYRB was created, a printers’ strike had effectively suspended the publishing of newspaper book reviews.)
But in its energy, N+1 stands apart. On the page and in person—as I learned at an N+1 party (in a New York Jewish Community Center gymnasium) this past spring—N+1 personalities resemble presidents of, say, college environmental clubs: N+1 may only have a handful of subscribers and teeny budget, but damnit if they aren’t convinced they change the world.
Except that N+1 actually has a realistic angle.
“We’re sick of book reviews,” Greif told me. “We founded it so that fiction couldn’t pretend to be a hermetic discipline sealed off from politics.” By gluing together the best bits of different forms without then sanding the edges, N+1 has survived its first year and in so doing won praise from the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and Houghton Mifflin, which, helper-monkeyily, will be publishing a N+1 piece in its next Best American Essays collection.
Although N+1 officially abandoned its own web-presence, it has enough professional creativity (including its clever and appropriate P.R. of treating lifetime subscribers like gods among mortals) to survive long-term as a book-sized product with a loyal audience.
A similar publication, though even savvier and with a longer track record, is Tin House, a Portland, Oregon, publisher of (usually) themed stories, poetry, and essays, always in an awfully hip package. Tin House has chosen a low-key web presence, a site that’s clean and delivers teasers on the current issue’s contents and basic information on submissions, history, and archives. But as the Spring 2005 issue shows, the messaging of Tin House simply commands attention. The issue’s theme is obsession; the blurb “Featuring Wasps, Bees, Mosquitoes, Tongs, Peter Pan, Absinthe, and Jasmine” finds the right balance between intrigue and playfulness and calls out the feeling of obsession; and the cover photo of a shadowy face, the left eye looking at the viewer through a jeweler’s loupe, is on-message: just plain freaky.
The cover should be enough to get readers to pull Tin House off the shelf for a flip-test. And what they’ll find, first, is a user-friendlily designed magazine. The columns are narrower than in most mags. The leading isn’t cramped. Certain pieces have line art, photographs, or graphics to break up the text. And the visual art spreads aren’t just artsy—they’re actually entertaining, engaging. The editors of Tin House, with their design, seem to understand that a book a) is something you can carry around and be seen reading, b) is in competition with other media, and c) is the holder of great, grand, fantastic ideas and is thus really hard to get through. The Tin House design keeps you from wanting to put it away.
The next thing readers will find is how seamlessly Tin House reads. Traditional literary magazines have a selection ethos that goes, “We will publish the best twenty pieces we receive between September and December.” While this guarantees that the best writing will be published, publishing them together often makes the magazine as a whole unreadable. The jump in tone, style, genre, etc. is too big to process. Tin House, though, and the handful of other magazines that publish on themes, address (if not completely overcome) this limitation of serial anthologies. Andrew Hulktrans’ essay on the insidious manifestations of writer’s block transitions easily into Pickney Benedict’s reimagining of the Golem legend, itself setting a welcome tone for an essay on J. M. Barrie. Some stories in Tin House do fall short with regard to stand-alone quality, but as part of a thread like obsession, they become readable, from beginning to end, and make the magazine a must-read every time it comes out.
And then there’s McSweeney’s. Reading McSweeney’s is like watching your first Marx Brothers movie. It’s utter mayhem. And you either enjoy it, or, in the words of one reader, you “want to kick [founder] Dave Eggers repeatedly in the shins.”
A battle rages between fans and detractors of McSweeney’s, primarily over its deliberate obfuscation of itself. McSweeney’s has managed to be purposefully difficult, creating an inside-joke-as-marketing-plan. Its staff is hard to identify. Their quarterly journals are hard to come by without a subscription. Their website ignores every convention of layout and navigation. And yet, because of this, McSweeney’s maintains a freakishly rabid readership (particularly of the website) because once you’ve expended the effort of learning how to find/enjoy the usually stellar writing, you feel initiated, somehow different and better.
Given that, McSweeney’s has grown, opened writing centers fronted as superhero/pirate supply stores, and helped jump-start the careers of young writers, the last because McSweeney’s can stomach the jagged-narratived, irony-laden, pop-referential pieces popular (popular!) with young readers but not with traditional lit mags’ editors.
So whether one likes McSweeney’s or not, one can’t ignore the model. Creating the feeling of an exclusive community, publishing writing supported on all written-word fronts (magazine, book, and Internet), and softening the snobbiness with humble charity may point towards the activities of tomorrow’s successful literary magazines.
AGNI, N+1, Tin House, and McSweeney’s. Each represents different ways and different levels of making literary magazines independent and relevant. Indeed, each represents a new economic morality. No longer is ars gratia artis enough. The art must point beyond itself, must be an invitation to readers rather than a demand of them, and must acknowledge both the limitations of the medium and the medium’s opportunities for ingenuity. It’s no longer about dumping time and money into ugly orange cars. It’s about the goal of all good writing: meaning something to your reader.
Andrew Whitacre is managing editor of Fungible Convictions.