Literary Magazines: A Roundtable, Part I

February 5, 2007 | 6 2 min read

Aside from the money, the fame, and the groupies, publishing a literary magazine these days can be a thankless task. There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of good writers out there, but there are almost as many publications, and few of them pay professional rates. Print is expensive, and it can be difficult to develop a following outside the circle of writers who want to be published in your pages. Money is tight and hours long, as submissions flow in like water. Developing a distinctive and relevant sensibility is crucial.

This week, The Millions interviews the editors of three quite unique new literary magazines: Canteen, [sic], and Tantalum. We also invite our readers to offer their comments on the state of the lit-mag union: How often do you read literary journals? What do you look for? What are the standout publications? What would it take to get you to subscribe?

First up is Sean Finney, editor of the full-color, bicoastal literary feast Canteen. The first issue, featuring work by Andrew Sean Greer, Julie Orringer, David Shulman, and (full disclosure) yours truly, debuts this spring.

The Millions: How do you distinguish yourself in a crowded marketplace?

Sean Finney: There are, despite what many say, no shortage of good stories, poems, and articles. Each year there are more and each year it becomes easier to access them. Supply outpaces demand; thus indifference. But demand is growing for [publications] who sell not the literary and artistic product, but artistic participation. Create an M.F.A.-conferring magazine and it would sell. Canteen can’t do that, so we try to lift the curtain on process in kinky ways that get [writers] excited. We also hope the vehicle itself is distinguished: a carefully designed print magazine with quality paper, binding, printing, and samples of artistic product too. Process has to get you somewhere, after all.

TM: What are your wildest dreams for your publication? What do you need to realize them?

SF: Raging parties with famous writers and libidinous sophisticates who buy tons of copies and make everyone at Canteen really popular. To achieve this we probably need a really hot band, preferably one you can talk over.

TM: How did your first issue come together?

SF: There’s a now very popular and well reviewed San Francisco restaurant called Canteen. My friend Dennis Leary is the chef and owner who knew he had the skills to create a foodie pilgrimage, but he didn’t dedicate the temple just to repast, so we created a high-powered literary salon over dinner and brief “intercourse” readings. The press liked it too. Stephen Pierson, our publisher, saw the germ of a magazine in the dinners. And here we are, named after a San Francisco restaurant and published in New York.

TM: How do you support the endeavor economically?

SF: We currently support the endeavor entirely through vice, the game of poker in particular. Our publisher is a fulltime online shark.

TM: What responsibilities, if any, do the writing community and the publishing industry have toward little magazines?

SF: The same responsibility that successful technologists and investors have towards high-tech incubators. That’s an argument. But are little magazines investments for anyone in the established industry, or just responsibilities? Aren’t they supposed to do the work of agents for free?

Parts 2 & 3

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.