In late 1988, while I was finishing up my Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics at the University of Michigan, if you wanted to find me your best bet would have been the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. Of course, you’re probably thinking, “Statistics–there must be a ton of studying to keep up with that stuff.” I bet there was, but to find me your search would not have lead to the stat portion of the library but rather to where both archived and bound copies of hundreds of literary journals were to be found. What was I doing up there? Going through table of contents page after table of contents page, of course.
In my final semester I only needed six credits to graduate, and I could basically spend them however I wanted. My schedule consisted of two classes worth three credits each that met for one and a half hours apiece on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was a very lenient schedule. (Only one of the classes actually met in a classroom after the first week–the remainder of the semester we met at Dominick’s, a campus watering hole!)
These two classes were ‘Reading From A Writer’s Point of View’ and ‘Creative Writing,’ and it was in these two classes that I was first exposed to the short fiction of writers like Madison Smartt Bell, Susan Sontag, Ralph Lombreglia, Tim O’Brien, Mark Costello, and Robert Coover. With more than three days of absolute freedom each week, I discovered 4th floor of the library and all those journals. Leafing through journal after journal, scanning the tables of contents for more stories by these recently discovered authors, I eventually stumbled upon stories by authors like Peter LaSalle, Greg Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Jayne Anne Phillips, and not surprisingly, as I believe he’s had a story, poem, or essay published in nearly every fantastic journal out there, David Huddle.
Shortly after graduating I purchased subscriptions to some of my favorite journals: Georgia Review, Ontario Review and Indiana Review were three that my subscriptions for lasted into the mid-90′s, before marriage, children, and house payments forced me to cut back. These days, any time I go to a bookstore my first stop is in the literary journal section to check what’s new since my last visit. If there is a story, or at least two poems by any authors I know I like, the journal finds its way to the cash register with me because I’m sure I’ll like other work in it. If a contributor has published a story collection with a publisher I admire I’ll probably pick up the journal under the guise of a sneak peek to decide whether I should order the collection.
Not until recently however, had I even considered how these literary journals that I’ve read so long are put together. In the course of doing e-panels with editors of many of these journals over the past seven months, I’ve had a chance to get to know some of the editors pretty well and had a chance to ask two of them, Kyle Minor of Frostproof Review, and Dwayne D. Hayes of Absinthe: New European Literature, about the processes they go through to get their journals ready for purchase.
Not too surprisingly, considering this is the land of literary journals, both of these journals are true labors of love. Neither Dwayne nor Kyle has a university to underwrite them (although Dwayne has set up a non-profit organization, Absinthe Arts 21), and both pretty much do everything: pay for the issue, read all submissions, make selections, determine the length, and deal with the printers, distributors, and subscribers.
One of the important things noted by both Kyle and Dwayne is that being a lit journal editor is a non-stop process. “We’re always working on multiple issues of Absinthe,” Dwayne mentioned. “We don’t take any significant breaks. For example, now we’re working on promoting Issue #4, finalizing and copyediting the work to appear in Issue #5, and reading and selecting work for Issue #6.” Kyle agreed that “the work is nonstop–the reading, the thinking ahead–so it’s hard to draw a sharp line between one issue and the next.”
In terms of the overall size of the individual issues of their respective journals, Dwayne and Kyle have different ways of getting to their decisions. “We try to keep each issue around 100 pages,” Dwayne says. “We like that length because it’s not intimidating. You can pick it up with the reasonable expectation to read the entire issue.”
Frostproof Review has a different approach, based on what Kyle hopes the journal will eventually become, a home to the best novellas being written these days. He understands that his journal will be longer (Vol. 2, No. 1 is 192 pages) simply due to the work itself. “After our first issue, I visited the AWP convention in Chicago and let it be known that we were actively pursuing novellas,” Kyle said. “The theory was that the well-established magazines were snapping up the best stories before we could see them, but that hardly anyone was publishing the best novellas. It worked. The novellas poured in, so many that it was hard to keep up.”
Absinthe, which specializes in European works-in-translation, has a couple of unique concerns. Dwayne says that he has to pay attention to what languages are being translated, as well as letting the readers know something about the translators, in addition to the original authors.
According to Dwayne, “At this point we look to feature literature from diverse languages and regions in Europe. I track this information for each issue so I can look at our publishing patterns and seek out work from areas we haven’t yet represented. In the future I expect we’ll produce an occasional issue devoted to a specific language or country and we are planning a special section on poetry from Luxembourg.”
Only one of the pieces in the current issue number has any type of notes about the translator, which surprised me. “Usually the translators simply send along their translations,” Dwayne said. “However, on occasion a translator will send along a brief note about the translation process and when we feel that it will illuminate the work, we like to publish it. It’s something we’ve really enjoyed and would like to do more of in future issues.”
With Frostproof Review, a different idea was their solicitation of reading suggestion lists from many individuals. Those who responded and gave some suggestions include authors like Lee K. Abbott, Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Floyd Skloot, and many more. It also includes literary professionals like Shannon Ravenel and Robert Birnbaum.
Are most people eager to answer Kyle’s call for reading lists? According to Kyle, “Alan Dershowitz said no, and several United States Congressman never wrote me back, but the writers were overwhelmingly generous, as were the common readers I asked, including a Methodist youth minister, an NPR film critic, and a grumpy dowser (who explained to me that it is something akin to a racial slur to use the terminology ‘water witcher’).”
I prodded Kyle for some more specifics in regards to this particular issue of Frostproof Review and he allowed, “We read several hundred stories, and of those, we seriously considered probably 15 or 20. It’s hard to remember now, but I think we had taken the Kevin Wilson story first, right after the inaugural issue came out, and the Jennifer Spiegel novella not long after that. The rest we accepted closer to the publication date, knocking out some really good stories and essays we had short listed.”
In regards to the story and novellas that were eventually published in the issue, Kyle said, “All three jumped from the pile as if they were spring-loaded.”
Kyle says that he makes sure to read each cover letter because “bad cover letters have, without exception, yielded bad stories. The correlation between good cover letters and good stories is harder to establish.”
Both editors made it clear that reading and selecting material for the journal is hardly the last step. Dwayne noted he considered Issue #4 complete “when I picked up the finished journal from the printer! But in terms of content for the issue it’s usually finalized about three months before the issue is printed. Then we copyedit the text, send the corrections to the author for approval, and then typeset everything.”
Kyle noted that once they select the material, “Debbie Oesch, lays out the issue, using PageMaker and submitting PDFs to the printer. We get blueline proofs, which have been useful every time.”
Having read both of these issues from cover to cover twice, the time Kyle and Dwayne put into thinking about their goals and how to reach them come through loud and clear. It’s also understandable from their descriptions of the efforts required to get an issue out why so many literary journals pop onto the scene and then pop right back out of existence.
I guess when I was spending all of that time back in the stacks of the library, without really thinking about it, I must have assumed that there was a big machine behind each of the literary journals that I enjoyed so much. How else could they have been publishing such great material on a regular basis? After talking to Dwayne and Kyle, however, it’s clear that that the production of these journals is anything but automatic. And although some journals absolutely do have larger staffs than Absinthe and Frostproof Review, I’m sure they are working just as hard as Dwayne and Kyle obviously are. In my opinion, the biggest shame of it all is that there are still piles of both of these two issues lying around the homes of Dwayne and Kyle.
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