This post continues the series on litmags—but first a word about the litmag “culture.” Literary magazines are largely organs established by colleges and universities—creative writing programs or literature departments, largely—as an outlet for MFA students or graduates, but also open to the public. These publications are supported for the most part by the colleges, or by grants to the colleges. Circulation varies, but these mags rarely pay their own way, despite constant pressure to do so. Hence, they cater to “big names” in the literary field, which will guarantee a particular issue carrying the “big name” will sell admirably. As a result, unknown writers, despite abilities, will likely be rejected in favor of the “big name,” or those with a demonstrable readership.
Litmags, despite an often-broad circulation aren’t generally read by the public at large-although the should be. This is certainly not to slam their quality or readability (read: accessibility)—the simple fact is most people don’t read short articles or fiction; instead they opt for books prominently displayed at the local or big box book sellers.
This week we cover Crazyhorse., a litmag published by the College of Charleston, in Charleston, South Carolina, this issue being Number 72, Fall 2007. The mag is published by the Department of English in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Crazyhorse seems to draw from writers of established talent. Their prose, in this issue at least, demonstrates the editorial staff’s interest in multicultural writing, the “vogue” thing now, as literary interest and theory moves from Modernism through Postmodernism (multiculturalism a predominant trait) to whatever comes next. The mag is colorful and in an odd shape (about eight inches square), with no art, other than the cover. Layout is excellent, in what appears to be a Times font with easy leading, making for an attractive page and ease of reading. The writing is of a high quality, but with no daring styles or form in evidence.
This issue’s six stories vary in length, in a lyrical prose with an emphasis on narrative to develop characterizations. Subject matter varies from Americana personal and local to culturally offbeat and global, drawn from (apparently) the authors’ own experiences in their native cultures to those exposing their fictional characters to cultures or personalities outside that home culture. The one to beat here is Luke Blanchard—with no proclaimed writing creds (a rarity).
Three non-fiction essays take the reader within the modern American experience, the writing in a conventional style and language, although the prose tends toward poetic description in its narrative passages. Try to beat: Lia Purpora and her lilting street scene imagery.
This issue presents 41 poems by 21 poets, three poems as translations. While their language is lyrical, musical at times, the poems themselves tend toward story. Some are prose-like, varying from conventional free verse to prose poems. Your challenge here is to beat established poets Gary Soto and Adrienne Su.
I’ve been receiving copies of litmags lately and, rather than keep them in a heap—unread—until I decide to research them in order to evaluate for appropriateness of my own manuscripts, I thought readers of the blog might be interested in knowing a little something about them before sinking $6-12 into buying one. And for writers, it provides a mini-service in letting you know a little something about the much-mentioned litmag market.
So for the next few weeks, I’ll blog litmags for you. I won’t critique the writing, except in very broad terms to allow you a sense of the general writing quality. Where it matters, I’ll give you my arguable award of the “writer to beat” in case you want to best the best with your own.
Batter up this week is the River Oak Review. Vol.2, Issue 4 – Summer 2007.
River Oak comes to me from Elmhurst College in Elmhurst Illinois. For those interested in submitting, they accept submissions year-round, but (as with all litmages) check the website for submittal details. The mag seems primarily focused on poetry – in fact, this issue is dedicated to a recently departed professor emeritus and poet. Credits for pieces published are prominently displayed following each piece. There’s little artwork here, but that’s okay. The layout is in a fat font with ample leading (blank space between the lines) that makes for an attractive page and easy reading.
This issue presents six fiction pieces, the writing competent, journeyman prose, from long to very short pieces. Each seems to favor depending on dialogue to push the story along, rather than narrative and character extension. Subject matter seems to hover about traditional American middle class life, but flirting with underclass sensibilities. The stories’ characters are drawn in opposition to one another, as if to debate aspects of the life in which they find themselves. I saw no attempts at symbolism or broader context to the writing, and no describable styles of writing. The writer to beat here: Meg Moceri.
The three pieces presented are less predictable in subject matter than the fiction: one examines the work of a contemporary poet, another is an essay on mythology, the last a personal essay. Here, too the writing is of a decent, journeyman quality.
The issue gives the reader 60 poems in free verse, some as odes, most favoring imagery over symbolism, concept, or idea. Pieces published are terse—short lines of economical verse. The quality here seems better than that of the fiction.
It’s always informative for writers, as well as readers, to have a book such as this one in hand to evaluate work by some of the world’s best known – and lesser known – writers. Coetzee is imminently qualified to comment on Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer, and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as Hugo Claus, Walter Benjamin, and W.G. Sebald. He obtained degrees in his home nation of South Africa in English and Math, followed by a doctorate at the University of Texas – Austin in English, Linguistics and German studies.
In the best academic tradition, Coetzee gives us in this volume a unique analysis of works by these writers, which has been reinforced by personal authorial histories, and placing both in the context of grander political and literary history. That he accomplishes this in an enjoyably readable form is an additional boon granted its readers.
The book’s introduction by Derek Attridge alerts us that Coetzee has assembled these essays in what seem to be three parts: writers from Italo Svevo to Sándor Márai, these born into the world prior to WWI, their writing and world view informed by that crisis and events leading to WWII. His second group includes Paul Celan Gunter Grass, W.G. Sebald, and Hugo Claus, these writing in the aftermath of WWII. Both groups are European, largely German, the final group emphasizing writers employing the English language and including Beckett, Bellow, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, and V.S. Naipaul.
Of the early writers, Coetzee seems preoccupied with the writers as spokespersons for submerged European minorities: Jews, Poles, Swiss, Austrians, Hungarians. These writers create their stories from the European, twentieth century malaise that spawned two world wars, their personal angst, and that of their cultural groups in coping with the ethnic hatred of their times. Being South African with an abiding interest in German literature and culture, Coetzee is capable of shoe-horning a near-century of turmoil (that turmoil with Germany at its epicenter) into pithy descriptions. In commenting on the work of Austrian-German Robert Musil, he comments on:
“the failure of Europe’s liberal elite since the 1870s to recognize that the social and political doctrines inherited from the Enlightenment were not adequate to the new mass growing up in the cities.”
Coetzee proves capable of summoning to the surface incisive commentary linking such European cultural, social, and political concerns. He allows Bruno Schultz to comment for him in this regard in the segment on Schultz’s work, the following a commentary on an increasing urge by writers to hold rational analysis of their work at arm’s length:
“In a work of art the umbilical cord linking it with the totality of our concerns has not yet been severed, the blood of the mystery still circulates: the ends of the blood vessels vanish into the surrounding night and return from it full of dark fluid.”
Certainly this is a lesson today’s aspiring writers should take to heart, that one might suspend work on their art at the point at which critical analysis bleeds the life from it.
Coetzee curtly (i.e., without the necessary philosophical underpinnings) allows Schultz to drive a wedge between science and art:
“The way of science is to seek patiently, methodically, and inductively to put…(cultural) fragments together again. Poetry seeks the same ends, but ‘intuitively, deductively, with large, daring short cuts and approximations.’”
Throughout these essays, Coetzee dwells on the damage done to writer sensitivities by this angst-laden transformation of European culture, several succumbing to alcoholism, others to mental illness.
In his commentaries on writing in English he is hardly less edgy, his credentials for these reinforced by having taught at Johns Hopkins, SUNY, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. His choice of Philip Roth’s work involves his “The Plot Against America,” in which Roth fantasizes about a fascistic underlayment to American culture. His commentary on Faulkner is less focused, nonetheless commenting on Faulkner’s superposition, both literary and societal, over another manner of cultural submergence, that of poor Southern blacks. His twist on this theme within Saul Bellow’s works involves Augie March coping within American Jewish culture by becoming a “philosophical idealist, even a radical idealist.”
In the end, Coetzee manages to sketch literary, social, and political impulses into an imaginative rendering of the twentieth century. All collections have their limitations, and Inner Workings has its own. Coetzee’s commentary is largely drawn from novel and short story prose, barely touching poetry and the relevance of essays such as his here. And one would love to tease from him some sense of where he sees twentieth century turmoil leading us. Well, maybe in his next collection.