What is a Literary Magazine? A Panel Discussion – Part I

In the past 40 years that Columbia Journal has been a publication, there have been several changes within the literary magazine landscape, and these shifts bring up questions around what literary magazines are and what they can be. The student publishers of Columbia Journal, began asking some seemingly basic questions when we were tasked with creating a literary journal of our own: What is a literary magazine? Do they create culture, or reflect it? Can lit mags be revolutionary? To answer these questions, we gathered together four of the editors and publishers whose projects most inspire us: Molly Kleiman of Triple Canopy, Rebecca Wolff of Fence, Alexandra Watson of Apogee, and Mark Krotov of n+1. Here is Part One of an edited version the conversation that took place on Columbia’s campus on December 12, 2017.

Columbia Journal: Can you each please tell us: what is your literary magazine? How did it come to be? What’s your role within it, and what’s its particular voice in the literary landscape?

Mark Krotov:  

I’m the publisher of n+1, which was founded as a print magazine in 2004 by a group of young editors and writers who felt that there was a real absence of the kind of magazines from the recent and slightly less recent past that they admire. There was a kind of Partisan Review shaped hole on the literary scene or maybe holes of a few different kinds of shapes. It was 2004 and so a year into the Iraq War, almost into George W. Bush’s second term, so the political context really helped drive the magazine’s creation.

The goal, as the editor saw it, was to create a literary magazine that would take itself equally seriously as a political journal and to create a political journal that also had the very literary sensibility but also attention to literary matters. What that meant in practice was publishing a magazine that would have fiction but it would also have political essays that would also have literary criticism and that would kind of range stylistically and politically across various territories that other magazines at the time weren’t quite doing. There’s a real mission, as they said, to publish the unpublishable which I’d like to think is still something that we try to uphold. Essays that are too long or too weird, fiction that’s kind of too funny or funnier than most of the fiction that gets published in other magazines, or fiction that’s kind of too political to quite belong elsewhere.

We’ve published some really extraordinary writers who got their start with n+1 and who then went on to create success. Elif Batuman whose first novel was published this year, was in issue two of the magazine and that was her first published piece. I’ve been thinking about Elif a lot just because her first piece for the magazine was I think it was almost 20,000 words, and it was about an Isaac Babel literary conference at Stanford. It was just this huge ungainly weird funny thing. But it fit perfectly.

The magazine came out somewhat infrequently at the beginning because it was a small volunteer staff kind of just group-building the project around the spare time that they had. But now it comes out regularly. It comes out three times a year in print.

It’s now a real office and a real nonprofit organization. There’s four, five people in the office, and bookshelves and everything. We’ve published a number of books over the years and that’s a growing part of the operation. We used to have the ugliest website on the internet when we first started. In fact, the magazine was sort of positioned against the internet in ways that I think were quite prophetic. But now, but we publish a lot of new writing online. We sort of aim for two or three new pieces every weekend. Really, some of the best stuff that’s come out of n+1 this year, I think, was been web only stuff or things that published online first then made it into magazine. We host a number of events to try to as well to kind of spin out the concerns of the magazine into discussions and readings and of course parties which have always been very important to the n+1 program.

I came from a book publishing background, so I was brought as publisher on to be the first person in the office to be there to handle the book program rather than doing an ad hoc thing. But like everyone at this small organization, I do a little bit of everything, and we all do a little bit of everything. That everything means editing for print and for web. It means doing marketing. It means, in December, sending out those annoying emails that some of you probably get, encouraging you to buy things from us, which are very important (but I’m sorry). It means fundraising and making sure that as a nonprofit, we remain sustainable and are meeting our own expectations, and also trying to remain ambitious. I think it’s a time of real political horror, but that sometimes means that people will get especially creative. I think the issues of n+1 out that this year has hopefully been some kind of tribute to that.

Alexandra Watson:   

Apogee, in some ways, we can relate to n+1 in that we originated to fill a gap. In other ways, we can’t, as in we don’t have an office space. We actually started out of the MFA program here at Columbia. I was a student. I came in 2011 as a fiction concentration. All of the original members of Apogee were also members of the Our Word student group. The Our Word student group, as many of you know, is dedicated to writers on campus who feel marginalized in some way. Apogee kind of spun out of the concerns that we had as a group in our work, so we started to realize that our mission to elevate marginalized voices was really something that wasn’t just missing for us on Columbia’s campus or in our MFA program but also in the wider literary community. We recognized the need for a particular place for discussions of identity and a place for particularly people from across identities to express their work and their art.

We’re a now independent biannual print publication and will actually be transitioning to all digital in 2018. Our impetus for that is to make the work more accessible to more people, and our is mission to elevate these voices. We really want to make sure that our readership is as wide as it can be, which can sometimes be tricky with print distribution. We also want to make the work accessible to those who may not be able to buy a print issue, to those who also may not have traditional sort of access to even the print form. Our 10th print issue came out in January and after that release, we’re moving towards all digital, and we will sort of work on being based series. Usually, the series we publish online respond to some kind of political moment. We did a No DAPL series in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline in which we published mostly indigenous writers. We actually did a series on sexual violence in literary communities which was relevant now even though we published it a couple years ago, so we’re kind of starting to move towards that model where we have our issues responding to certain moments and conversations. We really believe in the value of getting writers of color, women writers, LGBTQ writers into those conversations, and as much as we can, supporting our contributors throughout their careers as artists and writers as well.

I’m the executive editor of Apogee which kind of means I just oversee all of the things that are happening, from funding to the content to proofreading. I kind of dabble in everything across the journal. I just wanted to highlight one cover to give you a sense of how urgently we take our mission. In winter of last year, our cover said: “Sandra Bland is not alive and someone is responsible.” It’s art from our contributor E. Jane. We just really believe in kind of tackling issues head on and making sure that these voices are heard.

Rebecca Wolff:           

Fence is the journal that I started in 1998. We’ve been publishing 20 years in January. Fence started before the internet, kind of. I mean, it feels like that’s true even though the internet existed but was really not a medium that people used. It’s funny asking this question, “What is a literary journal?” tonight because actually, looking at Fence, I feel quite clear that what Fence is sort of a relic to an extent of a particular history and tradition that totally does still have purchase in the literary community and in the worlds in which we try to publish literary writing but which also… is a very kind of … I don’t know. I want to say questionable. I mean, it’s just questionable. What is it doing?

To go back in time, in 1998, literary journals in my experience as a poet going through an MFA program (which also at the time was not at all what that means now): there were essentially university journals which were generally did not have a vision. They had a university that published them and they had rotating student editorial boards. Then you have this kind of obscure world of journals that were coming out of what I will call ideological communities that were extremely inaccessible to somebody who didn’t have a ticket. Because the internet wasn’t around, there really wasn’t a conversation, like a national conversation, around different areas in which people are exploring within their particular ideological literary community. Anyway, my goal with Fence was to raise up the work that I saw around me as an MFA student, so really coming out of a similar impulse that I felt was not being noticed with that dichotomy with your sort of essentially pretty bland university journals on the one hand and your very, very not bland but impenetrable, closed sort of communities on the other.

So I established some principles for Fence. I gathered a bunch of editors who agreed that this all sounded good. The principles include, and they pretty much stand to this day: Number one, publishing outside of systems as much a possible like publishing work because we, as a group, identify it as seeming to need to exist. That’s a way of saying we feel that we can tell when some work is really speaking to the moment or to something that feels really like it needs to be said in the form that it’s being said in. The goal is to be open to a variety of different kinds of writing and kinds of writers, like people who are coming to writing with really different impulses basically. That is our goal still is to represent a kind of a non-closed system of reasons that people feel they have to write something. Another principle would be we don’t republish people until at least four issues or two years have gone by. It’s interesting to be talking about these things: how potentially irrelevant these things might seem in the current moment of essentially digital culture because all of the questions about how do people think of themselves when they’re writing and what is writing for and how do we care about how our writing is sort of drawn up into the culture, seem vastly changed. Our really important principle is that we don’t really solicit work much for Fence. We really just read the work that is submitted in the slush pile.

The initial group of editors dissolved after the first three or four years. I’ve been the consistent linchpin, as it were, of the whole organization. After about 10 years of publishing, we affiliated with the university, the University of Albany, which is a super loose partnership that could be dissolved at any moment. But we do have an office, and we do have interns through this partnership. Some of the other … I feel like I’m jumping right over the principles which is typical.

One of the funny things about Fence, I mean, my original concept, aside from the general aesthetic multi-variousness of it, had to do with making it really accessible which almost seems like a joke at this point because of the internet. So my version of accessibility had to do with making it really widely available in bookstores. Actually, I really love the way that’s come back around as a kind of a thing. Because for a while there in between the beginning and now, it started to also look totally irrelevant, but I’m pretty convinced that people care about print objects, but that still leaves us with the question of accessibility. My goal was to really encourage young writers to basically not feel that they have to write any specific way. We’re now at 20 looking into making digital editions that you can subscribe to digitally, if that’s how you read.

About 10 years ago, I decided to really actively try to make our editorial board not all white because it pretty much was, and that seemed really not acceptable. Basically, our editorial board has really geographically, culturally, aesthetically… I’m going to just use the word diversified even though I feel like that’s another dinosaur-ish phrase, but that’s the truth. We meet online and we talk through the slush pile and that’s really how we put together our issues.

Molly Kleiman:

I’m editorial director of Triple Canopy. It’s very nice to be here with you guys. It’s interesting being here on this panel with this animated question of what is literary magazine. I think for us, we need to take even a further step back and ask what is a magazine. It’s generally a question that we ask ourselves with some frequency. In fact, this is a metaphor that we interrogate often and hold on to quite dearly and insist upon in terms of the way that we envision our own work and also the mode of collaboration being one that is editorial. Our work is highly collaborative, it’s hybrid, and it is interdisciplinary and exists in many forms. Also, it’s not precisely a literary journal as well. Each issue of the magazine includes digital works of art literature, public programs, exhibitions, and printed books.

In 2007, when we first came together, so that’s been about 10 years exactly, we were a collective of artists, writers, technologists, and designers. We were discussing why start a new magazine at all. One thing that we noted in our landscape, I think this not surprising that it’s a theme, that as we found a new magazine you think, “Okay. What gap are we filling?” We noticed that there seemed to be specific audiences for visual art, for literature, for performance, for political reporting. For us, our first proposition was that we were interested in making a more inclusive public. We also recognize that today public life has largely migrated online. Our encounters with art and literature, it often begins on the web. The web is a site of distribution, of circulation, and thus, that’s where work is often promoted and circulated and then also sometimes legitimized. This was a challenge upon which we were founded as a magazine that could span live print and online activity. The second proposition was how could we exploit the web as a material. Think about all of the material and political qualities that we web has and use it critically and still engage with the history of print publication in a considered and genuine way.

For some years, our mantra was to slow down the internet which was a response to this widespread fixation on speed and efficiency, especially as enabled by new technologies. It’s also a signal for our desire, for very careful reading and considered viewing, and for enriching and also meandering conversations. If you can imagine, 2007 was before the first e-reader. It was right before the iPhone came out and before the Kindle. We were experiencing works, as you probably remember that long ago, where web design was pretty awful, especially for independent nonprofit entities with collective models. You were constantly being distracted by hyperlinks, by pop-up windows, by blinkering ads. We wanted to create a model for publication that encompass a variety of activities and use the web not only as the site for a primary engagement with an activity but also thinking of it as the hub of our activities where all the other live and print engagements were also made legible and the connection between these activities was comprehensible to a viewer.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve published 23 issues of the magazine. We’ve organized over 200 public programs which include performances, debates, screenings. These take place at our venue and also in partnership with cultural institutions. We’ve also published eight printed books. To date, we’ve worked with over 850 contributors who come from a variety of disciplinary, cultural, and geographic locations. Each issue is developed through basically a collective research. I am the editorial director but from the beginning, we’ve kept a very collective way of working with one another. There are about 20 of us who work on the project in total. Each issue it thematically organized, but rather thank thinking of a key term as often is the case when you pick up a magazine, we think of a series of animated questions and seek to read and view weirdly and widely as much as possible together with each other and then also in collaboration with artists and writers and researchers whom we commission. Then the animating questions that we’ve developed, they also change and evolve over time.

So when we approach a potential contributor, the format of their contribution is also not yet predetermined. Sometimes writers who are interested in collaborating closely with visual artist, scholars who are excited to go into this sort of marginalia or the footnotes of a very long form essay or book that they’ve been developing and think about how we as Triple Canopy can help them build an essay around the various multimedia components that are driving a body of research.

This methodology, it’s highly collaborative and it takes a long time. This runs counter to way that content is normally produced online. It also means it’s looking good. It just got smaller. It can take anywhere from six months to two and a half years to develop a project. Our issues unfurl over time rather than having be launched all at once as you are forced to with a print publication that is bound. An issue will be live for usually about nine months to a year and a half. It also means that we can be working on issues concurrently. At the moment, we have three issues that are live on our site. It’s important to us politically, ethically, that these are all available and free to be shared.

Part II is now Available

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