Friday, April 07, 2006

Comment: The Luxury of Literary Magazines

My new coworkers rock. They're the kind of folks who, in between ordering, shelving, and returning, helping customers in need and making the store run effectively, will have a conversation with you about literary journals.

The magazine guy at our store does a tremendous job of stocking art and style mags, fashion rags and tabloids, and hefty quarterlies and literary journals. I ran into him in the back room the other day sorting returns and asked if there were any leftover copies of the old Paris Review (shh, it's one of the perks of being a bookseller.) He handed over a stripped cover copy of the previous edition and told me he was glad to find someone who was interested in reading the literary magazines, since he'd almost given up on it himself.

The phraseology we agreed on was that we couldn't often afford to spend the limited currency of our reading time on the luxury of literary magazines, when there's so much, well, literature out there demanding our attention. Reading interviews, reviews, excerpts, new short stories and miscellany – it's sometimes hard to find, or justify, the hours demanded. One almost needs to lead a literary life of leisure (or LEH-zhoor, as the ALP pronounces it) to be a regular reader of the wealth of writing coming out on a monthly or quarterly basis between these well-edited pages.

But when I've got a few minutes burning a hole in my metaphorical pocket, there are a couple of litmags that I'm happy to spend it on. Here's my rundown of my three favorite journals, and my journal reading this month.

The Paris Review (quarterly, $12.) The grand old dame of literary magazines, headed for fifty years by the illustrious late George Plimpton. All the big guys were/are published here, and the ongoing Art of Fiction series, in which acclaimed writers talk about their craft and method, is always fascinating. (I learned here that Richard Powers likes to type his novels on a remote keyboard, so he can't see the words he's writing on the computer screen until afterward.) I spent an amazing morning in a café reading the Winter 2005 issue, which contains a great interview with Orhan Pamuk and some perfect poetry by Jack Gilbert.

The Believer (monthly, $8.00) As the review/interview offshoot of McSweeney's Quarterly, this one tends to be more to my taste than its (always inventive but often too avant-cutesy) parent. There's a great self-deprecating regular column by my favorite British wit Nick Hornby called "Stuff I've Been Reading," as well as awesome interviews and reviews of books probably a little more pop culture-ish than those found in The Paris Review. I just got to the March issue, which has a piece by Richard Powers (again, yay!) on genetic screening, and a wonderful interview with Alice Quinn about, surprise, EDGAR ALLEN POE & THE JUKE-BOX. (The insightful and right-thinking interviewer Meghan O'Rourke opines "One thing that seems to me a justification for the existence of this book is that it doesn't simply collect unfinished or second-rate poems to fill a demand for new work. Instead, it offers insight into the stages of Bishop's process, and how her mind worked over a problem for years and years." I promise I hadn't read this when I wrote my last post, but it's nice to know someone else agrees.)

A Public Space (quarterly, $12.) This is a brand-new kid on the litmag block, headed by Paris Review alum Brigid Hughes (and assistant editored by another of my brilliant coworkers). I picked up the first issue because the cover is an awesome photo of some Brooklyn kids practicing the sport of "mattress flipping", and I was blown away by its quality. There's fiction by my favorite fantasy surrealist Aimee Bender, a stirringly difficult essay by the brilliant Calvinist Marilynne Robinson (GILEAD), short essays by Rick Moody and lesser-known but equally compelling chroniclers, and interviews with Haruki Murakami and other Japanese writers and translators about Japanese and American fiction. It's a great mix of big names, passionate beginners, and experts in their field, with a wonderfully inclusive but high quality sensibility, and definitely one to watch.

That same morning in the café I pored over A PUBLIC SPACE and THE PARIS REVIEW and was struck by the similarity of some of the language of Turkish Pamuk and Japanese Murakami: the competing forces of individuality and community on a novelist, especially in countries where belonging to the group is all-important. This serendipitous resonance could only have become clear on a morning of when I had a little extra leisure to spend on the rich "extras" of the literary world, and I'm grateful for it.

What about you, dear readers? You find time to read blogs (as I do) – are you willing and able to read literary magazines or journals? Which ones make your list?