The Role of the Lit Mag

Artsy Fartsy | Jozie Konczal | March 31, 2016

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We’re all familiar with the writers: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot. We know them to be the voices of the twentieth century, we read them in our high school English classes, we stayed up late writing papers on the words they penned. What’s harder to point to is where these writers came from, not geographically speaking, but in terms of how their voices developed. How did these writers of the twentieth century, and how did the best literary voices of our own time such as Terrance Hayes, Matthew Dickman and Jess Walter first expose themselves to their now avid readers? Whether this question is unconsidered or simply unanswerable to much of today’s public, the answer remains the same: lit mags.

Poetry magazine is widely recognized as the match that ignited the literary community’s interest in literary magazines. In 1912, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry in Chicago, and in its first issue, the magazine premiered poems by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and William Butler Yeats, and so established itself as a publication worth paying attention to. The magazine continued to published now famous poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and other classics. Even today, Poetry is considered one of the most influential of literary magazines, especially in the poetic genre.

Lit mags are not what most people think of upon hearing the term “magazine.” Most people think of magazine like Vanity Fair, US Weekly or maybe even The New Yorker. Such publications are commonly referred to as “slicks” amongst the literary community. The difference lies in what these magazines typically aim to accomplish. Slicks aim to inform, while literary magazines set out to inspire. This is not to suggest that those who work on and write for slicks are not good writers, but unlike the writers represented in lit mags, the majority of their attention is not devoted to craft.

Literary magazines are the primary mode of publication for emerging artists and established artists alike. They serve as a method of exposure for artists and writers to readers and subscribers. The editors of lit mags read submissions hoping to discover the next best fiction writer or poet without forgetting to give nod to previously published writers. According to Crazyhorse editor Jonathan Heinen, “Crazyhorse aims to discover work that will stick with the reader long after the act of reading.” Literary Magazines appeared with the objective of printing artistic work that would otherwise only gain limited exposure. The path to notoriety is paved by acceptance to magazines such as The Paris Review, The Southern Review, Tin House, Ploughshares and the like. These are the big names, but by no means the only names. Hundreds of online and print magazines live and die every year. Most aren’t expected to live long, as they are financially difficult to maintain. Lit mags like Story went under after many years of success as a result of complications between the editors, but more likely than not, a lit mag will crash due to lack of funds. However, as Heinen pointed out, editorial dedication can also make a magazine, as is the case with the magazine Pank, where the editors kept the magazine going along with their “commitment to providing a venue for work they found valuable, regardless of the obstacles encountered.”

Though editorial devotion can take a magazine a long way, publications count on readership in order to prosper and succeed, and today we seem to live in a world of limited readers and unlimited writers. Little difficulty lies in recruiting submission (though there is difficulty in recruiting good submissions), and more so in finding enough people to read the compiled magazines.

Successful literary publications are often backed by educational institutions. This is the case with Crazyhorse, which is based out of College of Charleston, and edited by College of Charleston professors Jonathan Heinen, Anthony Varallo, Emily Rosko and Bret Lott. Crazyhorse was founded in Los Angeles in 1960, and was housed by University of Arkansas from 1981 until 2001, when it was taken over by the College. Crazyhorse has published work by Raymond Carver, John Updike, Robert Bly, Carolyn Forche and more, as well as work by recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Guggenheim fellowship.

Crazyhorse is one of the big names, and acts as a parent publication for College of Charleston’s Miscellany, a student run annual literary magazine that publishes undergraduate writing. Both of these are open to national submissions, but both publications also represent Charleston’s literary community. Crazyhorse’s notoriety insures good Creative Writing professor’s at the College, and Miscellany give College of Charleston students the opportunity for publication, or the opportunity to work on a lit mag early on. When asked what he thought distinguished Crazyhorse from other (and often lesser) lit mags, Heinen replied that “we [at Crazyhorse] try to cover a lot of ground in each issue and offer our readers a change [in order] to experience many different aesthetics.”

The Crazyhorse reading series also beckons other writers into the city. Heinen called the reading series Crazyhorse’s “biggest contribution to the community.” In the past two years alone, College of Charleston students have had the opportunity to attend readings by writers and poets such as Julie Orringer, Rebecca Lee and Beth Bachman. Four writers visit annually, and the events are free and open to the public, thereby making the work of strong writers more accessible to the public.

Though they are a risky business endeavor, literary magazines continue to emerge and prosper. They expose good work to the public and sometimes (in the case of Hemingway and Eliot, at least) lead to a writer’s further recognition. The literary world would not be as it is today without literary magazines. They maintain the spice of the literature, allowing for new theories and practices to be showcased, and for expression to remain fresh. They also have a localized function, and allow for aspiring writers and writers, as well as those who appreciate art and writing, to become more activated in their communities.