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Pop Lit: Literary Magazines in Film and Television

“Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound’s 1931 appreciation of literary magazines, contains a confident proclamation: “the history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Commercial publications “have been content and are still more than content to take derivative products ten or twenty years after the germ has appeared in the free magazines.” Pound bemoans that larger publications are unable to “deal in experiment.” Instead, these commercial magazines poach from “periodicals of small circulation,” those “cheaply produced” in the same way a “penniless inventor produces in his barn or his attic.” Thus was created a romantic refrain: modern American writing has its foundation in literary magazines.

Only one of Pound’s favorite magazines still publishes: Poetry. It might be difficult to call Harriet Monroe’s concern a “little magazine”: in 2002, philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry. That organization has since become the Poetry Foundation, and, according to The New York Times, Lilly’s gift is “now estimated to be worth $200 million.” The gift has lead to an excellent website, interdisciplinary events and readings, television and radio promotion of poetry, and educational outreach programs. But how many readers outside of the traditional organs of American literature — aspiring and published poets, students in secondary classrooms and college campuses, and critics — know of, or read, Poetry?

That might not be a fair question to ask. Literary magazines, by form and function, might require narrow focus. Narrow does not mean niche. Literary magazines have consistently enhanced and reflected larger literary trends without being as noticeable as those wider trends. Experimental publications helped spread Modernist writing and thought. As Travis Kurowski writes in the introduction to Paper Dreams, his comprehensive anthology of literary magazine history and culture, Modernist literary magazines “gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers.” Kurowski does not use “imagined” in the pejorative sense. Rather, he speculates that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production, create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Note Kurowski’s valorization of community over circulation. I might add further qualification. Literary magazines are uniquely important in observing the ripples, fragments, and failures within trends. They give readers and researchers the ability to see the flash beyond the snapshot, and in doing so, document moments in American literary history with more nuance than what is gained by only cataloging single-author books. Take Granta: 8, Summer 1983: the “Dirty Realism” issue. I once argued at Luna Park that it was the best single-issue ever of a literary magazine. The process was a thankless exercise, but I was attempting to make the point that even an individual issue of a literary magazine offers a complex cultural sample. Editor Bill Buford explains his collection of a strand of American writing marked by concise prose, destructive relationships, and a particular pessimism. The single issue contained writing by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forché, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Elizabeth Tallent. Not a bad snapshot and flash.

But I’m writing these words as a lover of literary magazines, an affection that was instilled in me at Susquehanna University. The Blough-Weis Library subscribed to Poetry and The Missouri Review, but also gems like Beloit Poetry Journal, where I finally read a poem — “Trout Are Moving” by Harry Humes — that connected me to the genre. If I held a collection by Humes, my 19 year-old mind might have lost interest after a few of his Pennsylvania-tinged, domestic elegies. Instead, I bounded to work by Ander Monson and Albert Goldbarth. Literary magazines made writing manageable and approachable. Our workshop professors used those publications as part of the curriculum, and not because they thought we could publish there. At least not yet. The point was that an awareness of contemporary publishing is necessary, particularly for undergraduates who think the only words that matter are the ones that come from their own pens.

Now when I receive a review copy of a short story collection or purchase a new book of poetry, I immediately turn to the acknowledgments page. And this might be a personal quirk, but I try to find the original issues in which the pieces appeared, and read the work there tucked between writers both established and obscure. I loved Jamie Quatro’s debut, I Want to Show You More, and it yet it felt more personal to read “Demolition” in The Kenyon Review. Literary magazines are the legend to the map of American letters. Yet I worry that this appreciation reveals me for who I am: a writer who submits to these magazines, who uses them in the classroom. This cycle does speak to the insular world of small magazine publishing.

Does anybody outside of our circle care? What is the wider cultural influence of literary magazines? To be certain, I am not sure there needs to be one. An insular economic system will likely fail, as evidenced by the graveyards of defunct magazines, but that does not mean an insular artistic system is inherently bad. Nor should we assume more literary magazines fail than niche publications or commercial releases. Here’s a better question: if for those of us in the circle — writers, readers, editors, teachers, and professors — literary magazines are a mark of credibility and authenticity, what are they to those on the outside? Do these publications carry any particular signification or importance within popular culture?

It would be incorrect to simplify popular culture to film and television, but it is a useful place to begin this consideration. I recently wondered if and when literary magazines have been referenced or included in these visual mediums. I began with two examples that stuck in my mind. In the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office, Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor chooses a “book of short stories” during Michael Scott’s ill-advised game of Yankee Swap. At least to my eyes, that book is an issue of The Paris Review. A more direct literary magazine reference is in the 2007 film Juno, when the titular character says jocks really want girls who “play the cello and read McSweeney’s and want to be childrens’ librarians when they grow up.” The reference was probably lost on many, but on a small but aware crowd, it did its job. Even if that job was simplification.

I couldn’t think of any more examples, so I went to that pop culture land of crowdsourcing, Facebook, for help. My literary friends delivered. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting occurrences, with original contributor citation in parentheses, plus my own investigations.

1. In Cheers, Diane receives a form rejection from West Coast magazine ZYZZYVA. Sam writes a poem that is later published in the magazine (Martin Ott). This appears in the “Everyone Imitates Art” episode, which originally aired on December 4, 1986, during the show’s fifth season. Diane enters the bar, overly excited about a letter from ZYZZYVA. Sam asks: “Who’s ZYZZYVA?” Diane responds: it’s “not a who. It’s a new literary review. Dedicated to publishing the prose and the poetry that’s right on the cutting edge.” The magazine was founded in 1985 by Howard Junker. Diane has submitted a poem, and received an extremely swift two-week response. Frasier Crane takes a skeptical look at the letter, and concludes that it is a form rejection. Diane disagrees, saying that it is a “soon and inevitably to be accepted later,” reading that “your work is not entirely without promise.” She proudly says they are “almost begging for another submission.” Sam agrees that the response is a form letter, and boasts that he could submit a poem that would receive the same type of response. The episode breaks, and when it returns, Diane asks about Sam’s poem. He points to a magazine on the bar, and tells her to open to page 37 and read “Nocturne”: by Sam Malone. She drops the issue and screeches. Diane thinks Sam has plagiarized the poem. She vaguely recognizes the overwritten lines. Somehow, in the span of three weeks, ZYZZYVA has received Sam’s submission, responded, and published it in an issue. Writers everywhere roll their eyes. Frasier tries to console Diane: “this literary magazine’s circulation must be 600.” Diane delivers the ultimate literary magazine rejection rant: “The original 600 readers drop their copies in buses and taxicabs and doctor’s offices and another 600 people pick them up and take them to the airport where they go all over the country. Then they get taken on international flights: Tierra del Fuego, Sierra Leone. All the remotest parts of the world. Soon, I defy you to find a house, a hut, an igloo, or a wickiup that doesn’t have a copy on the coffee table. Then, then, everyone in the world, every living thing will be laughing at me because he got published and I did not!” More sting arrives later, when Woody sends in a poem of his own and receives the same form rejection as Diane. Dejected, Diane vents to Sam, who has created this mess. Sam finally admits that he copied the poem from Diane’s own love letters to him. She considers herself published and validated. In the words of Howard Junker himself, Onward!

2. The Paris Review is mentioned in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys (Neil Serven). Grady, a struggling novelist, talks about one of his students: “Hannah’s had two stories published in The Paris Review. You’d best dust off the ‘A’ material for her.” With no further explanation, the reference is an accepted barometer of literary quality. Yet for a magazine quite aware of its social status, the review’s cultural capital seems localized to the literary community. We might be stretching the parameters a bit too thin here, but co-founder George Plimpton appeared in the “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” episode of The Simpsons (Aaron Gilbreath).

3. We could spend years arguing whether The New Yorker should be considered a literary magazine proper, but it does regularly publish fiction and poetry, so it merits mention. The magazine appears in the film 42nd Street (1933). Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels, holds an issue of the magazine with Eustace Tilley on the cover (Win Bassett). In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney’s character, Joan, is published in an unnamed literary magazine, and later appears in The New Yorker (Neil Serven). That more prestigious publication is revealed in a scene at a restaurant. Bernard, Joan’s estranged husband, is surprised to learn that an excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in the magazine. Another character, Sophie, says the story “was kind of sad, but really good.” Bernard changes the subject. Later, their son Frank’s inappropriate behavior at school prompts a meeting with the principal, who, at the end of the conversation, says that she read and enjoyed Joan’s story in The New Yorker: “it was quite moving.” The magazine also appears often in Adaptation (2002), with the identifying “sprawling, New Yorker shit” (Alex Pruteanu). An early scene occurs at The New Yorker magazine office, where writer Susan Orlean — author of The Orchard Thief, which main character Charlie Kaufman is attempting to make into a film — discusses going to Florida to write an essay for the magazine. Kaufman is having trouble due to the “sprawling” nature of the book, hence the magazine reference as literary code. Kaufman first uses the word “stuff”; later, The New Yorker style is “sprawling…shit.” The magazine, with work by Orlean within, appears open and at a restaurant table in the film. Later, Kaufman watches Orlean, seated alone, reading another magazine. In Kaufman’s voiceover: “Reads Vanity Fair. Funny detail: New Yorker writer reads Vanity Fair. Use!” And the magazine’s cartoons were lampooned in “The Cartoon” episode during the final season of Seinfeld (Tim Horvath). The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff had some fun analyzing the episode here and here.

4.  In Mad Men, the character Ken Cosgrove has a story published in The Atlantic Monthly (Brenda Shaughnessy). The publication occurs in episode “5G,” the fifth episode overall of the series. The story is titled “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” His contributor bio is as follows: “A graduate of Columbia University, Kenneth Cosgrove has lived in the New York area for most of his life. Working for the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper puts Mr. Cosgrove in a unique position to observe and study the trends that shape America today. This is his first story to appear in The Atlantic.” Pete Campbell, jealous, longs for his own fiction to appear in (you guessed it) The New Yorker, but is disappointed to learn that the piece only makes it into Boy’s Life Magazine (James Chesbro). The Missouri Review’s Managing Editor Michael Nye has a nice reflection on this episode, and the writer archetype in film, here.

Can you add to the list in the comments?

Image via Nigel Beale/Flickr

The Eye of the Beholder: A Review of Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children

According to John Updike’s “Rules for Reviewers,” critics review books, rather than reputations. Then again, most readers also expect reviewers to situate a book in its proper generic context, and here Charles Bock’s debut novel presents a sort of paradox. Beautiful Children’s burgeoning reputation – the unusual amount of attention it has garnered from media outlets including The New York Times and this blog – positions it as a literary novel for grownups, part of the great tradition that runs from Flaubert through Updike and down to Rick Moody (the writer to whom Bock is most often compared). In at least one respect, this claim may have merit. But at the level of several of the basic elements of fiction – plot, character, setting, prose style, themes – the book comes across as something quite different: less a novel about its titular children than a novel for them.The story centers on – or circles around – the disappearance of 13-year-old Newell Ewing one summer night in Las Vegas. At first, we surmise that Newell has been kidnapped; later it turns out that he has run away. Specifics notwithstanding, the novel insists on the magnitude of Newell’s fate by tracing its effect on other characters, much as Rutherford studied the nucleus by examining the way it scattered smaller particles. And so Beautiful Children takes on complexity, moving backward and forward through the lives of nearly a dozen characters, at times quite beautifully. The melodrama of Newell’s disappearance may enforce narrative momentum, but it’s the fractal structure of the novel that actually earns it. Like Donald Kaufman in the movie Adaptation, Charles Bock is “good with structure.”The problem is that he seems unsure how to fill a structure meaningfully. Inner life, in Beautiful Children, consists more of sordid backstory than of consciousness, or perhaps Bock sees the two as interchangeable terms. With the possible exception of Newell’s father, his characters never rise above the level of caricature. He seems unwilling to imagine a thinking, feeling human being sinking to the depths of the novel’s sleazier denizens. But our literature is full of characters who are unpalatable but alive, like Joseph Heller’s Slocum, or Henry James’ many schemers.Bock’s discomfort with interior life puts an added pressure on the surface details he uses to deliver characters, and here, too he falters. The strained banter of the younger characters consists largely of dated catch-phrases – for realz – and their attire, on which Bock lavishes detail, tells us little more. Beautiful Children is the sort of novel that refers to a major character only as The Girl With the Shaved Head, as though that, at this late date in history, still connotes anything.To the extent that plot arises from human choices, the novel’s characterological vacuum sucks steadily at the foundations of its story. Because Newell is so generically a pain in the ass, and because his sorrows exist mainly to serve Bock’s tee-shirty themes – Modern Life is Rubbish; Growing Up is Hard – his actual disappearance, when we witness it, seems wholly unmotivated. The many events that follow from it chronologically (though they precede it in the novel) become random, the products of a counterfactual.Bock seems to sense and to fear the moral unintelligibility his book builds toward, and attempts to salvage significance in fits of inflationary prose. As one suspicious reader’s letter to the Times pointed out, Bock’s grandiosity is often clumsy:Electricity lit up Ponyboy’s skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils.But I’m not convinced that Beautiful Children doesn’t sometimes stumble into a kind of Dreiserian grandeur. And, as I learned from Charles McGrath’s profile of the author, Bock came to writing rather late; his sentences may, with time, mellow into eloquence. Likewise, his gift for warping narrative time into audacious shapes seems to hint at better novels to come. On the strength of word-of-mouth, this one could have found a respectable natural audience: seventeen-year-olds eager to hear their melancholy reaffirmed, explicitly. But now, through the good offices of Random House et al, the woeful tale of Newell Ewing will have to contend with the expectations of a much larger group of readers…at least one of whom holds out hope that Bock’s bestseller status won’t blind him to the need to work harder to satisfy those expectations. That might be an actual tragedy.

The Blank Page On The Silver Screen

Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I’ve always been a sucker for films that offer glimpses, no matter how superficial, into the working life of a writer. When it’s a real literary figure, say Truman Capote as embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman, I marvel at how the actor, faced with the impossibly daunting task of portraying a known figure, pushes the role beyond imitation to suggest something deeper, all the while mindful of the expectations that a celebrity-savvy audience will have.When the protagonist is a fictional creation, the actor, I imagine, is freer to characterize from the get-go, without the anchor of audience expectation weighing him down.It’s an interesting genre of film – writer as film protagonist. In Barton Fink, John Turturro paid back the Coen brothers for their creative brilliance by handing them a singular performance, taking his character – a writer struggling for words – down a wonderfully, sometimes nightmarishly, surreal path.It’s a long list, and please feel free to offer your own examples, but off the top of my head there’s Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a professor tackling his own demons as he struggles to finish his novel in the film of Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys.Then there’s Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, in which Cage explores some sort of human duality as both the critically successful but blocked Charlie Kaufman, and his “brother,” the gregarious, open and popular Donald.And then there’s Woody Allen’s Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry. Harry tries to conquer his writer’s block, while we see excerpts from Harry’s earlier thinly veiled autobiographical stories depicted, back-to-back, with related moments from Harry’s personal life. So Woody, as Harry, fights with his ex, played by Judy Davis, and later we see a chapter from Harry’s last novel, with Richard Benjamin as Harry’s fictional alter ego, having the affair that would lead to the break-up.To this arbitrary list, I offer a new entrant: Leonard Schiller, the fictional author at the heart of the new film Starting Out In The Evening, based on the novel by Brian Morton.It’s a curious film. A seventy-ish New York author, who was part of that mid-century New York literary crowd, Leonard Schiller’s first two published novels, both somewhat youthful and confessional, had critical success, while his next two novels, which, for a number of reasons, looked out rather than in, were seen as disappointments by those who wanted him to effectively keep writing his early novels over and over again. All his novels are now out of print, his name barely registers in modern publishing circles, and he’s in failing health. Yet he is quietly determined to complete his decade-long work-in-progress. Dignified and disciplined, Leonard seals himself off and plugs away.His routine is interrupted by Heather Wolfe, played by Lauren Ambrose (Claire on “Six Feet Under”). A grad student doing her thesis on Leonard Schiller, she’s hell-bent on resurrecting his name and bringing his books back into print. Trouble is she suffers from the same myopia as his early fans. She only “gets” his first couple of novels, dismissing his subsequent work. Personal events may indeed have altered the tone of his later works, but her arrogant conclusions show a reader somewhat lacking in flexibility. She’s also, to be frank, a bit of a head-case – at times insufferably fawning, at other times shrill in her certainty. But she’s vibrant and articulate and forces Leonard into some psychological corners that he’s been avoiding for decades.A sub-plot involving Leonard’s daughter Ariel – approaching 40 and determined to have a baby – is interesting and strongly acted by Lili Taylor. (Bit of a Six Feet Under reunion here. I half-expected to see Nathaniel Sr. pop up in a dream). But as compelling as Taylor and Ambrose are, I must admit I often found myself simply wanting to see more of Leonard’s quiet work at his typewriter, and a little less of the surrounding melodrama. It might not have been conventionally cinematic, and certainly human interaction sparks his character, but a bit more character, and a bit less plot might have struck a better balance. After all, Leonard is a hell of a central character.In a season of big, flashy performances, Frank Langella’s Leonard Schiller is a quiet masterpiece. In a few, carefully chosen words, in his deportment and manner, Langella suggests doubt, uncertainty, longing and dogged determination. His Leonard is a human being with the whole mess of frailties that come with it.Who says there’s no drama in an empty page in a lonely typewriter? Or, I suppose, in a blinking cursor on a back-lit screen. Put an actor of Langella’s caliber in front of it, and you’ll have a film character for the ages.

A Year in Reading: Ben Dooley

Come the new year, Ben will be joining us as a regular contributor. I’ll leave formal introductions until then, but in the meantime, he decided to get a jump on things by sharing the best books he read in 2006:Since reading The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll several years ago in a back alley, flea trap of a hotel in Nadi, Fiji, I’ve been lending myself to a series of flawed and inherently hopeless business schemes in the hope of not just getting rich quick, but adding to my life even one iota of the melancholic romance the book so neatly distilled. For better or worse, my ventures have amounted to nothing more than a series of lessons in humility, and, in the process, they consumed a large part of my free time. Which is a long way of saying that I didn’t have much time to read this year.Of the books I did read, I will unequivocally recommend three, none of which were written in 2006. (Life is short, books are many and often long, so I prefer to wait a few years until a book has received some kind of critical imprimatur before digging in.)My first recommendation is Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy. It’s a coming of age story that deals with a young boy’s relationship with a malevolent, gender ambiguous tooth fairy (the age old story), and the resulting consequences for his family and friends. The tooth fairy’s presence is (much to my pleasure) never really explained, but her (?) antics serve as a catalyst for a long and engaging series of seemingly unrelated incidents that come together in the last few chapters with an extremely satisfying snap. The writing and humor are sharp enough to make your eyes bleed, and the characters are so well developed that by the end you won’t know if you’re crying because of the resolution’s poignancy or just because it’s time to say goodbye.Book number two, The Orchid Thief, gained some notoriety when Charlie Kauffman “cinematized” it several years ago, ending up with a film not so much based on the book as about the book. His film, Adaptation (IMDb), which dwelled on the Sisyphean process of wringing a screenplay from a story that is, for all intents and purposes, unfilmable (at least by Hollywood standards), piqued my interest in the book, and when I found it on my grandmother’s coffee table, I immediately dove in. I am pleased to say that while the word “unfilmable” might be the stuff of screenwriter’s nightmares, it’s a compliment when used here. Susan Orlean’s tale of a man and his orchids spins off into a fascinating and sometimes surreal account of passion – what it is, what it isn’t, why some people have it, and why some people (namely Susan herself) don’t. On the way she introduces us to alligator wrestlers, Victorian explorers, and real estate scam artists, drawing from these disparate characters’ lives the threads of a tapestry that when woven together makes you realize why people still bother to write books in this age of moving pictures.Last but not least, book number three is one that I’ve read at least once a year every year since I first read it several years ago. Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes was a Christmas present that spent many lonely years on my bookshelf before I finally picked it up and realized what I’d been missing. If any book has so neatly captured the essence of the long malaise that we call life in these United States, I have yet to read it. Exley’s book is in turns appalling and laugh out loud funny, but it is always brutally, unflinchingly honest. Billed as fiction, the story follows Exley, as himself, as he wanders across the country, working odd jobs, getting married, going insane, reading Lolita, drinking himself to death, and pursuing an unhealthy obsession with the New York Giants. If suffering has ever created art, then this it. For my money, it’s as close as anyone has yet gotten to the “Great American Novel.”Thanks Ben!

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