Three literary magazines flourish in tough times.
Thu Apr 16 2009
Photograph: Barbara Nitke
For anyone who hasn’t been keeping track of how the economic downturn is affecting the book world, consider this: On April 14, a group of writers, editors and agents participated in a roundtable titled “Is There a Future for the Literary Novel?” The question is rhetorical, but the fact that someone’s asking at all means that writers and readers are concerned. Still, there is one sector of publishing that’s putting out fiction and poetry as if it’s 2007: literary magazines (Open City and Fence are good places to start). This week, three journals are releasing brand-new issues full of vital, surprising work. Reading these pages should reassure you that literary fiction is doing just fine. Can it continue to make money? Maybe not, but the editors of these publications are too passionate (and too busy having fun) to stop and worry about it.
The New York Tyrant
Started in 2007, The New York Tyrant is the brainchild of GianCarlo DiTrapano, a former intern at FSG who decided to sell his house in New Orleans to start a literary mag, which he now produces in his studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. “I look for writing where it’s evident the authors have sweat over it,” he recently told TONY over drinks in midtown. “I respect writing where the authors expose the shit out of themselves and take risks.”
DiTrapano favors what he calls dark writing with hope, and has published Michael Kimball (author of the novel-length suicide note Dear Everybody), avant-horror writer Brian Evenson, poet Sarah Manguso and author-teacher Gordon Lish. “We will publish anything, no matter where we find it or who the hell wrote it, as long as the agency of speech has taken out an investment in the writer,” DiTrapano says. He runs fiction by well-known writers, never-heard-of boundary-pushers and dead geniuses, such as the late story writer Breece D’J Pancake. He will begin publishing books next year.
Though the magazine is literary, this voracious editor wants a broad audience. “If I catch someone’s attention and get a copy of the Tyrant into a hand that it wouldn’t normally wind up in, then I am happy—that’s why I throw fun parties.” When an issue came out featuring Project Runway star Chris March (DiTrapano’s boyfriend, it turns out) in a bear suit, he was pleased to learn that he obtained a few new readers. “Many sales of that issue came from the bear community. It’s a perfect example of getting it into the hands of someone who wouldn’t have normally purchased one of our issues.”
Agriculture Reader is so DIY that the first issue was entirely handmade. This is no small feat: According to Jeremy Schmall, who edits the publication with Justin Taylor, each cover had to be hand-painted and hand-cut. Now in its third installment, the zine-ish publication leans more toward poetry than the Tyrant does, but it shares a commitment to publishing bold voices and finding an audience. “Publishing is a conversation, and we don’t want to only be talking to our own little clique,” says Taylor. “I wouldn’t say that we have any particular aesthetic criteria, other than that the work has to thrill us in some way.”
The latest issue satisfies on that front, featuring Mark Edmund Doten’s motormouthed, sociopathic and funny monologue by our former VP (“Cheney”); Joshua Cohen’s strange love story about a Jewish man who falls for an Islamic terrorist who wanted to kill him; poetry by Christian Hawkey and Rebecca Wolf; and much more. In addition to the writing, what sets Agriculture Reader apart is its raw and witty artwork by Joey Parlett. “We’re trying to make this as good to look at as it is to read,” says Schmall. According to Taylor—who, a formidable fiction writer himself, recently signed a two-book deal with HarperPerennial—the journal’s visual flash has won them readers beyond the typical journal consumers. “People see the magazine and they don’t go, 'Oh, Christ, a poetry mag.’ They go, 'Hey, cool, what’s that blue thing with the hole in it?’”
Now in its tenth year, Noon is the most established journal of this trio. The latest issue contains work by two National Book Award finalists, Lydia Davis and Christine Schutt, both of whom have been long associated with the magazine. But even if it shares some authors with mainstream publishers, Noon still shimmers with courage, strangeness and unknown voices. The journal’s founder and editor, Diane Williams, says she’s thrilled when she receives a submission by an unknown. “I am indifferent to a writer’s pedigree,” she says. “I’m on the lookout for originality and discipline.”
A writer of clenched, vaguely gothic and sexually charged fiction herself, Williams has a penchant for devout stylists and squirm-inducing topics. The tenth-anniversary issue features Rebecca Curtis’s “On Rape,” a disturbing (and deeply ironic) story detailing how sexual assault might benefit women; Gary Lutz’s “I Have to Feel Halved,” a stunningly constructed story that somehow molds the experiences of its mediocre narrator into brilliant shapes; and a peek into the obsessive world of Clancy Martin (whose debut novel, How to Sell, appears in June).
When asked how she selects writers, Williams puts it simply: “Noon is a refuge for writers who are crucial to our culture.” These challenging writers might not be as marketable as they used to be (if they ever were). But as long as places like Noon are around, their work will have a future, and will be reminders of how original writing can be, even in a bad economic climate.
Rebecca Curtis, Clancy Martin and Christine Schutt will read at Noon’s party on Fri 17 at the Mercantile Library of New York. The New York Tyrant throws a party with live music on Apr 24 at Bar Nine.
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