Big Voices, Little Funding, and a Search for Digital Footing at the GIANT Lit Mag Fair

By Ella Riley-Adams July 10th, 2014

Heading into the GIANT Lit Mag Fair 2014, presented by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), I imagined a few different scenarios. First, during the “Editor Advice Booth” session, I would sit in a booth—hopefully of the plush diner variety—and engage in a tête-a-tête with Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review. Bumbling and curious, I would unexpectedly charm Stein, and he would ask to see my work. Then, during the “Yes, All Women” discussion later in the afternoon, I would find inspiration and make new friends with like-minded female creatives. Eventually I would soar out of Housing Works Bookstore enthusiastic with ideas for future published works of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

The reality was a bit quieter. Speaking to the various literary magazine editors at the fair, the phrase I heard most often was “labor of love.” The CLMP provides support for independent publishers who undertake the noble task of vitalizing creative work even when it’s not commercially viable. The CLMP also believes independent publishers preserve literature for future generations by keeping books in print. And maybe they have a point: Our trusty digital cloud might one day fall from the sky. But based on my experience at the fair, these publishers aren’t bound to paper. All have an online presence, and some exist solely on the web. While the lit mag world stubbornly (and admirably) champions outlandish literature and little-known voices, it is, in some ways, open to evolution.

Krisma, editor of Diverse Voices Quarterly, runs a one-woman operation dedicated to underrepresented writers and “the darker aspects of relationships.” She started DVQ in 2009, Kickstarted it after a year, and raised $700, which has kept the publication alive for the last four years. She had attended the fair before and was pleased to make connections with new writers.

“CLMP adds to my reputation because I’m doing it by myself,” she told me. “I wanted to look bigger than I was.”

In the bookstore, Krisma sat behind her iPad at a small table. A few steps away, The Literary ReviewConfrontation, and Bookforum had spread out their printed materials. At the front of Housing Works, more magazines sold for two dollars each. Perusing the titles, I overheard a conversation between two attendees: “Oh, is she an Iowa person?” and got the sense I was outnumbered by MFAs.

Jen Warner, online editor and social media editor at The Literary Review, got her MFA at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. The university has published the quarterly magazine since 1957, while Warner has been involved for the past four years. The most recent TLR issue focuses on game theory, while the previous one is titled “The Tides.” An old man wearing flippers prepares to swim on the cover. I kept misreading the “TLR” as “TL;DR,” but, of course, no such thing exists in the lit mag world.

I kept misreading the “TLR” as “TL;DR,” but, of course, no such thing exists in the lit mag world.

Warner appreciates the visual appeal of printed magazines, but sees similar value in a tablet incarnation. “However cool [the page] looks, if you could slide your finger and then a painting pops up, I think that’s just as interesting,” she said. She mostly reads online, though at the event, she gestured to a pile of magazines she had collected.

Another woman with an iPad sat next to Warner. She represented Rattapallax—a 10-year-old magazine named after the sound of thunder from a Wallace Stevens poem. Her name is Catherine Fletcher, and she’s an editor who focuses on languages like Armenian and Berber that aren’t translated as much as the romantics. “I’m just trying to offer American readers a part of the world that often doesn’t get exposure,” she said.

Rather than huddling in a university den or downtown studio, the editors of Rattapallax conduct most business over email. Since Fletcher started working for Rattapallax, she’d only met her fellow editors in person once or twice. She lives in New York, while the others are scattered from Portland to St. Petersburg to Princeton.

Of all the magazines at CLMP’s fair, Rattapallax was the most interested in adaptation. Though it began as a print journal, Rattapallax always included a “multimedia component.” Back in the day, that was a CD with recorded poetry. Then the magazine transitioned to a website. Today, it’s an iPad app. Fletcher explained that the digital transition just made sense for an editorial team that stretches around the globe. Working online makes revisions easier to complete. But mainly, the app format enables Rattapallax to publish varied content, whether it’s video, music, or augmented reality.

“The transition from online to app [was mostly because of] curiosity, wanting to experiment, wanting to see what happens,” Fletcher said. I hoped Fletcher and Warner would bond later during the event—I imagined a TLR Tides app with Pacific Ocean sounds and videos of lobsters.

When I lapped around to the front of Housing Works, I stopped at the Bookforum table. Each issue is the size of a large clipboard, which makes me think readers either receive it in a nice roll or completely creased and crumpled. It might fit inside a broadsheet newspaper, but who gets those anymore? In the current issue, Doug Henwood dissects global plutocracy and Jerry Stahl plumbs the working life and its discontents. This magazine is too big be read on the subway, is published five times per year, and combines long-form reviews and cultural criticism.

Zoe Tipler, marketing associate at Bookforum, was immediately passionate when I asked why they produce magazines. “Because this is good,” she said, waving a hand towards the giant copies. “And it’s under-acknowledged.”

Belinda Kremer, poetry editor at Confrontation, had a different answer. As a poet, she appreciates the full-circle nature of writing and editing. “I had my first book published through a peer-review process, and in that moment, I remember my manuscript was out there, plus I’m reading all the things that people bring in, and doing the poetry contest,” she said. “I think on the question of, ‘Why any of it?’ I very much feel committed to that full circle of reader-author-reader-author-reader-author.”

It’s important that these editors publicize pieces that won’t get clicks or help a website meet traffic goals. Ideally, the pages of these literary magazines hold a special place in intellectual media, and events like CLMP’s fair help keep them afloat. Still, when I arrived home and spread the beautiful books on my floor, I wondered how many labors of love I’d actually open.

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