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)

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