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Book Review: Paper Dreams

By (December 21, 2013) No Comment

Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazinepaper dreams cover

compiled and edited by Travis Kurowski

Atticus Books, 2013


“Literary magazines,” Travis Kurowski writes at the outset of his compilation Paper Dreams, “though not as homogenized as large circulation newspapers, have this in common with them: each creates its own community of readers.” He might also have said they create their own community of writers as well, an old observation once made also by the great editor Henry Seidel Canby, whose 1945 essay “Adventures in Starting a Literary Magazine,” about his helming of the Literary Review supplement of the Saturday Evening Post (which became the Saturday Review of Literature and then simply the Saturday Review) doesn’t find its way into Paper Dreams (not even in the delightful section “A Quote History of Literary Magazines, where a whole saloon of other literary eminences stagger briefly into view), although its sentiments fit right in:

Perhaps it is only in a small periodical in its formative years that one gets the sense of a gathering of a family of minds, so that when the magazine comes to maturity it has a personality of its own.

No Canby, then, but that notorious quote from Vice magazine was bound to crop up and does:

There are too many literary magazines in the world. “Hey, we should start a lit mag?” is one of the most common things people say in the just-fucking-around phase of life, right up there with “Hey, we should start a band?” and “Hey why don’t we just start selling weed?”

And something of that cheerful scorn permeates virtually all the dozens of essays in this collection on the history, nature, and future of the American literary magazine, essays from figures as disparate as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ezra Pound and Laura van den Berg and Rick Moody, essays that mostly deal with print journals with small budgets and balky advertisers and elusive good writers. Too many of the writers of these essays affect the grumpy old curmudgeon tone Dave Eggers has said he was shooting for in his own literary magazine McSweeney’s; freelance writer and Tiny Hardcore Press founder Roxane Gay can stand in for all the rest in this:

It is very easy to start a literary magazine in this day and age. You don’t need money. You don’t need experience. All you need is Internet access and a few people who are willing to let you publish their work. A great many things have been democratized by the Internet and few more than publishing. But democracy is not always sustainable and this too had been proven by an explosion of literary magazines of varying degrees of quality, few of which are able to actually function as profitable endeavors.

When literary and editorial types who aren’t old enough to remember other days and ages use that little phrase “in this day and age”  it’s merely tedious; when editors as young as Gay (or Eggers) use it, they’re playing Literary Grandee because somebody like Kurowski has given them the chance. Fortunately, no such griping can dim the singular and peculiar optimism that comes bubbling up through the cracks of almost all these essays new and old, despite grumbling along the lines of that done by writer and editor Aaron Gilbreath:

Lit mags are so numerous, and many have such hideous covers and short, gnat-like lifespans that they can be difficult to distinguish and hard to take seriously. It’s easier to dismiss them all as amateurish. If the writers in them were any good, goes the logic, wouldn’t they be writing for something that didn’t have a grainy, pastel, country-kitchen type painting on the front of it? And quality varies. Some journals are great. Some are horrific. The bulk lies somewhere between powerful and unreadable.

Somewhere between powerful and unreadable, and yet literary magazines continue to appear, flicker for that gnat-like lifespan, and then disappear – or, sometimes, stick around. Along with the constant background worry about financing, that looming potential embarrassment of a faulty lifespan hovers over this whole subject as it’s presented here. These little like-minded communities that come together for the mad enterprise of making a literary magazine are necessarily concerned with not summarily folding.

There are other concerns as well, of course, also nicely represented here, including the never-ending search for good writing to publish. Paul Bixler, one of the founding editors of the Antioch Review, rightly pointed in his 1948 essay “Little Magazine, What Now?” that almost by definition most of the writing in little literary magazines takes the form of literary journalism – and that most of that writing is ghastly:

Nearly all the articles appearing in nearly all little magazines are concerned with literary criticism. By and large such criticism has become very cozy and intimate, a pursuing of the tortured word until yells for mercy and a squeezing out of meaning until it is too thin and isolated to be understood short of an occupational lifetime.

Paper Dreams seeks to present an in-the-round picture of this strange and striving little corner of the publishing world and mostly succeeds. True, it largely discounts the world of online literary magazines (in this day and age!), but maybe that’s a book for another time.