Monday, May 24, 2004

The Responsible Reader, part 1

I'll admit, when I first conceived of a series of meditations on "The Responsible Reader"--motivated as much by the alliteration as by any cogent thesis, which may be a sign of trouble--the reader that I was considering was in fact the writer-reader. The point I had in mind to make was that anyone who takes it upon him/herself to write, and, just as importantly, expects anyone else to read that writing, has an obligation to be a reader him/herself.

Nowhere can the effects of the failure to live up to this obligation be seen better than in contemporary poetry. While there are a number of outstanding poets working today (Charles Simic jumps immediately to mind), for the most part, the poetry section in my bookstore is unbrowsed. Poetry, the grand old dame of the small poetry magazines, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2002 with a $100 million endowment, and thus a relatively secure future, but it seems nearly certain that the volume of submissions to the magazine will far outstrip its circulation for a long time to come.

What does this mean? Am I alone in considering this a grand imbalance? What happens when there are more writers than readers?

While the case of the small magazine seems relatively straightforward, it prompts a larger question. I feel quite confident in asserting that every writer who would seek publication has an obligation to financially support the means by which that goal can be achieved. If one is going to send work to small literary magazines, then I believe that one has an absolute obligation to subscribe to at least one small literary magazine, and to read others. One must be a reader before one can be a writer, but does it follow that any other reader has any sort of obligation to anyone at all?

I’m going to posit the answer to that question as a tentative yes, and support that with two clear specific examples before jumping off the deep end and trying to extend that position to more general cases. (It's a pretty broad question, so I do have some wiggle room.)

But until then, here are a few fine small literary magazines for those of you not yet meeting your obligations. :-)

The Paris Review (hell, if you have to subscribe to one, it may as well be the best)
Zoetrope (almost a mass-market magazine, but not quite)
Tin House (New, hip, sometimes very good, sometimes very dull)
Granta (British. Damn good. Occasionally dry.)
The Kenyon Review
Michigan Quarterly Review
The Chicago Review (often good on avant-garde content)
The Missouri Review
The Iowa Review (home of the best writing program in the U.S., although it doesn’t always show in the magazine quite as much as one might expect)
Red Cedar Review (hey, I have to plug the local guys)
The Offbeat (see above)

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Where are all the good stories?

As the former editor of a small literary journal, I've read a lot of lousy short stories. Far too often, the stuff I come across in the bookstore isn't much better. It would be easy to wash my hands of the whole thing, declare that there just aren't and good short stories anymore, and go bury my head in The First Forty-nine.

But a recent trip through the blogosphere turned up's list of this year's National Magazine Award finalists (complete with links to all available online content!), and I had myself a bit of an epiphany.

I've read about half of the stories cited in the nominations, and they were good. Damn good.

The material from Zoetrope and The Paris Review really stood out in my mind, but even that old stalwart, The New Yorker, deserved its nod. Sure, The New Yorker may seem a bit too much a part of the establishment to deserve accolades as the guardian of new and innovative short fiction, and they may publish T. C. Boyle just a little too often for my taste, but what other magazine publishes so much new fiction on so frequent a basis? I wouldn't be able to justify a subscription to Esquire or The Atlantic Monthly just for the fiction--and I'll admit that I'm not always interested in much else--but The New Yorker prints 50-60 new stories a year. Even The Paris Review, for all its stature and quality, is doing well if it reaches 20.

So, interestingly enough, I'm optimistic. Adam Haslett's You Are Not a Stranger Here and Julie Orringer's How To Breathe Underwater have earned places of honor on my bookshelf, and I'm looking forward to starting Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger.

And I may just have to get a couple of subscriptions in the mail.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Who doesn't love mix tapes?

Check out this quote from Luc Sante's article "Disco Dreams" in the May 13 New York Review of Books:

"Any canon of popular music will apply strictly to the person who drew it up, on the day that it was drawn. There is simply too much music in the world, whizzing along at every angle, for anyone to be content with anything less than constant replenishment. A canon, therefore, can be no more than a snapshot of a single moment within the flux--it is a mix tape."

This Sante's summation after discussing books on music by Nick Hornby and Geoffrey O'Brien, the former of which can be summed up as the playlist for something of a mix CD--in fact, the original version of Hornby's book, from McSweeney's, did include a CD with most of the songs he discusses--and the latter of which appears to be much more of a boxed set.

I'll be honest and admit that I was pleased to read that Sante was less than impressed with Hornby's selections. While I've read worse novels than High Fidelity, it has always seemed to me that someone should have asked Hornby for better credentials before declaring him the common man's expert on pop music. (In fact, Hornby has served, until recently, as popular music writer for The New Yorker, and five of the essays in Songbook first appeared in that magazine.)

Juding another man's mix tape is always a dangerous task, but, perhaps, in preparing Songbook, Hornby forgot his own best advice; by the end of High Fidelity, Rob has learned that a mix tape should be made first for its intended audience, not to prove the coolness of the person making it.

I always liked albums better anyway.

How this will work

I'm new to this vast world of blogging, and while I think of myself as a quick learner, I'm also poor and a new father with a full-time job who attempts to freelance every now and then. Time and resources, thus, are a bit limited.

That being said, it would probably be best to think of this blog as the headlines, with constant linking to deeper content at my storage site,

For now, head over that direction for baby pictures. Archived book reviews soon to come.