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Pop Lit: Literary Magazines in Film and Television

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“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

Look. No, Don’t Look: My Book Cover, the Angel in the House, and Me

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A year ago, when my editor at Tin House Books first asked whether I had any suggestions for the cover of my second novel, The Virgins, I drew a blank. I couldn’t think of anything specific, but I knew what I didn’t want. I tend to dislike covers that are too literal, I told him, and I think that abstraction is often a wonderful choice for fiction. My novel focuses on three teenagers at an East Coast boarding school, two of them in a complex, sexually charged relationship, and a third who observes them obsessively from a distance and tells their story. I joked: “Just promise me that it won’t be of two young people lying together in soft focus in a field. That would really depress me.”

So I wasn’t sure what to think when I saw what Tin House Books was proposing for The Virgins. Admittedly, it wasn’t two young people lying together in a field. It wasn’t in soft focus. But there was a photograph of a young girl lying languidly on her side. In a field.

That wasn’t all. She had her hand on her crotch.

Let me back up a minute. I had plenty of positive reactions to the cover. Its composition was elegant and intriguing; I loved the softness of the girl and her floral dress against the bolder geometries of the cutout circle and the rectangle of the book itself. I loved the vintage-y, dusky green jacket color. I loved the retro feel.  

I didn’t like where the girl’s hand was lying. Specifically: I couldn’t get past the way my eye was drawn straight to the spot between her legs, smack in the middle of both the photo and the cover.

Why, though, I had to ask myself, did I have such a strong reaction? My novel is about many things, but one of those things is certainly sex. The Virgins contains numerous explicitly sexual scenes. Body parts are called by straightforward names. It wasn’t as if Tin House Books was trying to grab stray eyeballs at any cost, relevance be damned. And I did find something quite compelling in the image of the girl that couldn’t be reduced to titillation. So what exactly was my objection?

There were my kids, of course. I’d so been looking forward to walking into a bookstore with them and seeing copies of my novel on a table. My kids aren’t exactly kids anymore. They are 16 and 15 years old, just about the age of the protagonists in my novel, which is shot through with the acknowledgement that teenagers are deeply sexual creatures. But we all know that even grown men and women find it seriously icky to associate their parents with sexuality. How would my son and daughter feel about the fact that — in my gloomiest judgment — Mom’s new novel looked like soft porn? I had somehow believed that for my children to know what was in my book, they would have to open it. They would have to read it, page after page. This would necessitate an act of will, which they would probably commit only if they felt really ready. I hadn’t stopped to consider that a cover image could fly right under the radar of their will, entering them and exploding its meanings within them without their full assent.

After the kids, came the worries about in-laws. Neighbors. Former teachers. That’s when I began to see that my unease wasn’t really, or wasn’t only, about the cover. It was about the way the cover advertised what was in my book and gave a taste of its sometimes solipsistic and voyeuristic eroticism. The sexuality in The Virgins has many different meanings and implications, some of them contradictory. Sometimes it is an attempt to express or forge love and affection; sometimes it is exhibitionistic, a performance; sometimes it is desperate or aggressive or, as the proposed cover suggested, self-pleasuring. If anything, the cover perfectly captured the overdetermined, shifting nature of sex in the novel. And there lay the problem. It hit me that the cover I’d hoped for, though I’d never been able to create a distinct picture of it, was really a cover that would have covered up, like the brown-paper wrappings that mask the dirty books and magazines at newsstands. If the cover accurately expressed the feel and content of the novel, and the cover embarrassed me, what did that say about my relationship to my work? And had I really never pictured what it would be like to have people read The Virgins?

Apparently not. When I was typing alone in my room, it felt entirely natural to write about sex, which has always seemed to me a great and rich subject. None of the scenes I wrote troubled or embarrassed me at the time. But now, the whole endeavor felt horribly intimate. Aviva Rossner, my female protagonist, is not me, even if I gave her my hometown and my departure for boarding school at age 16, but the sex in The Virgins clearly comes from my own, personal brain — whose else’s could it have been? Would readers find that sex — and therefore me — laughable, sick, or otherwise distasteful? Years ago, I published a long, meditative essay in the Michigan Quarterly Review about breastfeeding in which I got pretty specific about body parts as well as the spiritual and physical yearnings that breastfeeding aroused in me. A neighborhood acquaintance who happened upon the piece online told me with a frown that she “couldn’t believe” I would “put that out there.” Was I ready to be revealed to her and others as the author of a novel sprinkled with the words “cock” and “cunt?” 

I was in college when I first came across Virginia Woolf’s famous dictum, in her essay “Professions for Women” from the collection Women and Writing, that writers must kill the Angel in the House. By the Angel, Woolf meant the female — more specifically, the mother and wife — whose role in life was to be the gracious hostess-cook-and-mender, smoother-over of family tensions, and graceful supporter of the endeavors of husband and (male) children. Woolf had to kill the Angel, she said, because its top priority is self-suppression and conciliation, while to write one has to display “what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.”

My reaction at the time was: Doesn’t apply to me. It was understandable that Woolf, born in 1882, had been intimidated by the Angel ideal, prominent in Victorian poetry and sentimental novels, but to me that ideal was absurd. I was 19; it was the early 1980s. The second wave of feminism had transformed the culture, and women and niceness no longer necessarily went together. There were women on campus with shaved heads or green, spiked hair; there were rugged women athletes and pro-porn activists; the era’s patron saint was Madonna. 

But time — 20, 30 years — went by, and I went from being a student to a single working woman to a married working woman to a stay-at-home mother in the suburbs. Those changes in status, I saw, had changed me. Motherhood in particular gave me an appreciation for the value of “nice” — patience, softness, nurture, and, yes, self-sacrifice. Living in a small, tight-knit community made me want to be seen as agreeable and a good neighbor. I liked to think I in fact was patient, nurturing, agreeable, and a good neighbor. I’d spent a couple of decades building up my kinder, gentler persona, while at the same time daily sitting down to my computer to write about sex and/or people who thought and did things that were sometimes very peculiar or ugly. I had managed for a long time to keep these two sides of my life from having much to do with each other. My first novel, about an antisocial man with severely obsessive-compulsive habits, must have tipped off my neighbors that I was thinking about more all day than feeding the kids and folding the laundry, or even the local school board elections. But in part because the novel was published by a very small press and sold in limited quantities, I was able to continue to be the woman in the red-and-white house who’d written, well, something or other.      

Woolf wrote that “when I came to write I encountered her [the Angel] with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page…” I suppose I should be grateful that my Angel cast her shadow not during composition, but during the strange limbo between completion and publication. Surely this is cultural progress. Yet I’m startled at how relevant Woolf’s words remain, despite the example of so many women writers who in past years have opened up the possibilities for writing about sex. After Woolf (who never did write much directly about women’s bodies), there were Mary McCarthy, Anaïs Nin, Edna O’Brien, and Erica Jong, among many others. In recent months, Jamie Quatro’s story collection, I Want to Show You More, and Alissa Nutting’s novel, Tampa, have made waves for their powerful depictions of women and desire. My reticence, my fear of departing from the Angel ideal, feels almost silly in light of such examples. But the Angel ideal must run very deep in many of us, not excluding those who in our youth were smugly convinced we were immune to it.       

I want to be clear that I am in no way mocking or belittling the Angel ideal. In fact I have a great respect for it. It’s now clear to me now that Woolf wasn’t mocking the Angel either. When I reread “Professions for Women” recently, I discovered that I had seriously misremembered it. I’d recalled that Woolf put her hands around the Angel’s neck and strangled her. In fact she simply says that she flung her inkpot at her. We don’t even hear the thud of impact. Yet Woolf otherwise uses the strongest possible language, saying that “the struggle was severe,” that “had I not killed her she would have killed me,” that, left to live, the Angel “would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” I suspect that Woolf couldn’t bring herself to be graphic about the imagined killing because the Angel is, in fact, an angel and not a devil. Even Virginia Woolf saw the beautiful side of the ideal; she lovingly embodied it in the vivid Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse. I can’t read that novel without wanting to be Mrs. Ramsay — calm and competent, beloved, the arranger of marriages, the felt center of the family — far more than I want to be Lily Briscoe, the novel’s solitary, fretful artist. There is a place and a role for the Angel in the House, even if her perfections are unattainable, and I feel unapologetic about spending good part of my adult life aiming to be more like her.

But, like Woolf, I also sit down each day and try to tell what I “think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.” Thanks to her and others, I can have it both ways, because, in the 21st century, the Angel need not be quite so ethereal and self-denying, and the public has a far greater tolerance — not to say appetite — for the sexually frank. There will always be neighbors ready to make thoughtless comments, or people who consider a frank book to be smut, but I don’t risk public ostracism of the sort Edna O’Brien details in her new memoir, Country Girl, or (as far as I know) divorce.

After admitting to some of the handwringing detailed above, I told my Tin House editor that I was fine with the proposed cover, but of course it wasn’t all Zen from there on. That became evident when the image was finalized and I made it my profile picture on Facebook. Not being all that Facebook savvy, I didn’t realize that this meant my new cover would pop up in the News Feeds of my however many Facebook Friends. All of a sudden people were “liking” the cover and commenting on it left and right — positive things, but I had peeled back another layer of protection and subterfuge. The same exposed feeling was roused again and again as more people saw the image or heard about the book, but I know now that this was merely the continuation of a kind of coming-out that had started well before, when my agent and I came up with the title The Virgins — no, earlier, when I’d sought out my agent in the first place. I wanted to be published again, after all; that is to say, from the beginning there was a desire to let others once more into my private imaginative world. Like the girl on my cover — like the girl in my story — I was presenting myself to be seen. Look, I said. And later: But don’t look. Look. Don’t look. Look…Does the toggling ever end?

I doubt it.

Surprise Me!