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Taste and tenacity

Are 'little magazines,' those tip sheets on the literary future, an endangered species--or on the verge of a renaissance?

WHEN GEORGE PLIMPTON died peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep last September, a perceptible shock moved through the literary world, affecting his readers and fellow writers, of course, but also the many thousands who revered him as the editor -- no, the heart and soul -- of the journal he had helped to found in 1953 and which he then presided over with stylish aplomb for the next 50 years.

"What will happen to The Paris Review?" We all asked the obvious, inevitable question, and as we did, many of us realized to what degree such an enterprise -- a little magazine -- is an irreproducible product of individual sensibility, taste, and tenacity. Issues under Plimpton's successor, Brigid Hughes, will necessarily be different -- there is no formula in the vaults.

The fate of The Paris Review is one concern raised by Plimpton's death, the fate of little magazines in general is another. For the loss of this ebullient crusader reminds us again -- especially those of us who traffic in literary matters -- what a quixotic, serendipitous, and fiscally foolhardy enterprise these journals are. Circulating only in the low thousands (most of them), subsisting more on donations and patronage than subscription income, kept viable largely through low-paid or even unremunerated labor by devoted staffers, these quarterly or biannual compendia of fiction, poetry, essays, and art are showcases of idealism begotten upon unlikelihood.

Yet for all this, in spite of the myriad ills that under-funded ventures are heir to, in spite of the fact that our info-environment is now so paced to the fleeting quick fix, the double-barreled snort of gloss, these journals do survive. Better, they persist. And for every lamented departure (like that of Partisan Review, which folded in 2003), a new one somehow manages to appear. A few years back we saw the arrival of Dave Eggers's lavishly bankrolled digests of high-end whimsy McSweeney's (automatic solvency is not your customary situation), and just last month, taking up some part of the mission of Partisan -- to combine the best of the creative and critical -- a journal called n+1 announced itself as the new thinking reader's synthesis of politics and culture.

Established players come from every geographic and aesthetic region -- some, like Fence or Conjunctions, readily seen as serving a more cutting-edge aesthetic, others, like Tin House, Witness, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, Post Road, The Gettysburg Review, The Antioch Review, and two dozen others I could name without much pause for thought, finding their freshness more in the progressive mainstream. Add to these the influential newsprint and periodical-format journals like The Threepenny Review, Speakeasy, The American Poetry Review, and Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story, and you get a sense of the volubility and vitality of the scene. But never forget that this is a counterintuitive, indie-spirited, flourishing-in-the-teeth-of-the-market-trend kind of business.

I should also mention Agni, the twice-yearly journal that I edit at Boston University. As an editor I not only have a vested interest in the subject (and in how little magazines are perceived by the reading community), but also quite a few opinions about the role these journals play in our cultural ecology, and why it is that we need them -- not less as time goes on, but more.

. . .

Existing somewhere between the ephemerality of the newspaper and magazine (and online zine -- another subject altogether) and the four-square permanence of the book, little magazines are well positioned to broker between topical and long-range perspectives. They are fluid and open in their relation to trends, even as the best of them can achieve a certain memorable -- perhaps even striking -- capture of energies. And because they are not essentially playing the for-profit game, they can hew just a bit closer to their own self-originated standards. They represent literature and opinion in repertory, talents en route, freeze-framed; they are a staking of bets on artists and artistic tendencies by editors who dream of eventual vindication.

And so it has been from the first. Think of the taste-making triumphs that were T.S. Eliot's Criterion, F.R. Leavis's Scrutiny, Cyril Connolly's Horizon, and Stephen Spender's Encounter. These were the heralds of Modernism, giving early notice of the names that are by now half-embalmed on high school and college syllabi -- names like W.H. Auden, George Orwell, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein. We forget the fugitive nature of so many first appearances -- "news that stays news" (in Ezra Pound's formulation) back when it really was news. But to hold any of these journals in hand -- taking in not just their tables of contents, but their visual appearance, the texture of the paper, the ads and announcements -- is to go crashing back into history.

I missed this original great wave of modern journals by decades. When I arrived at my first literary awareness, unfledged -- ignorance and naive ambition all tangled together -- it was the early days of the late `60s counterculture, and though the impending transformation of Western civilization went largely unremarked in the white-bread Detroit suburb where I grew up, I found my way to certain hip outlets downtown, near Wayne State University, where a few turns of the wire rack put me face to face with items like The Evergreen Review, the New Directions annual, and Partisan Review, then featuring essays by Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Susan Sontag, among others.

Young as I was, I somehow knew the difference: Books, no matter how current, how radical, were one thing; these journals were something else. They were the tip-sheets on the upcoming. They published stories, poems, and polemical rants just when the writers were breaking out -- so it felt -- while they still had their roots in the unauthorized or the forbidden, before most of them turned out the books that would get discussed with anthropological fascination in the review pages of Time and Newsweek.

It was from Evergreen Review and James Laughlin's New Directions annuals that I got the idea that little magazines were our authentic vessels of sensibility. Pugnacious, racy, often extreme in their advocacy of outlaw attitudes and behaviors, they were also packed with the most exciting work I'd yet seen: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, Denise Levertov, Paul Bowles, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). . . . They awakened my sensibility and instilled in me my carefully guarded faith in art as the one hex we have against the predigested pulp of public discourse.

. . .

If, 35 years later, the ideal of the journal has not changed for me, the world it would address and influence has changed tremendously. Evergreen Review and New Directions and Partisan Review of those days drew great energy from the belief that the old culture was coming apart at the seams. Experiment was mandatory, readers were hot for a new set of signals. We don't have that same context now -- or if we do it's buried under so many layers of chatter and merchandising it can no longer be found.

But the memory of that time has stayed alive for me; it flares up again and again as incentive. To edit a journal and to have it matter (and there's no point in doing it if it doesn't matter) is to keep asking, in a personal as well as public way: What is needed? What is missing? How can we supply it?

I confess that I still delight in piling the incoming submissions high on my office table and regarding the stack -- and then each envelope -- as holding the possibility of the new. Is this the voice, the sound, the unexpected spark-making combination that will start something going? Reading and sifting allows me to see myself as an agent in the literary culture -- which I have to believe impinges at least somewhat on our common lives. It helps me sustain some bit of that just-around-the-corner feeling that makes the historical moment feel like a work in progress.

My job, I sometimes think, is to live in the midst of the possible. I see by the stacks of journals piled on the desk in front of me -- a heartening number of them newly launched -- that I am not working alone.

Sven Birkerts edits the journal Agni at Boston University. The author of five books of essays and a memoir, he is a member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars. 

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