The Millions Interview

Literary Magazines: A Roundtable, Part I

By posted at 5:52 pm on February 5, 2007 6

Aside from the money, the fame, and the groupies, publishing a literary magazine these days can be a thankless task. There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of good writers out there, but there are almost as many publications, and few of them pay professional rates. Print is expensive, and it can be difficult to develop a following outside the circle of writers who want to be published in your pages. Money is tight and hours long, as submissions flow in like water. Developing a distinctive and relevant sensibility is crucial.

This week, The Millions interviews the editors of three quite unique new literary magazines: Canteen, [sic], and Tantalum. We also invite our readers to offer their comments on the state of the lit-mag union: How often do you read literary journals? What do you look for? What are the standout publications? What would it take to get you to subscribe?

First up is Sean Finney, editor of the full-color, bicoastal literary feast Canteen. The first issue, featuring work by Andrew Sean Greer, Julie Orringer, David Shulman, and (full disclosure) yours truly, debuts this spring.

The Millions: How do you distinguish yourself in a crowded marketplace?

Sean Finney: There are, despite what many say, no shortage of good stories, poems, and articles. Each year there are more and each year it becomes easier to access them. Supply outpaces demand; thus indifference. But demand is growing for [publications] who sell not the literary and artistic product, but artistic participation. Create an M.F.A.-conferring magazine and it would sell. Canteen can’t do that, so we try to lift the curtain on process in kinky ways that get [writers] excited. We also hope the vehicle itself is distinguished: a carefully designed print magazine with quality paper, binding, printing, and samples of artistic product too. Process has to get you somewhere, after all.

TM: What are your wildest dreams for your publication? What do you need to realize them?

SF: Raging parties with famous writers and libidinous sophisticates who buy tons of copies and make everyone at Canteen really popular. To achieve this we probably need a really hot band, preferably one you can talk over.

TM: How did your first issue come together?

SF: There’s a now very popular and well reviewed San Francisco restaurant called Canteen. My friend Dennis Leary is the chef and owner who knew he had the skills to create a foodie pilgrimage, but he didn’t dedicate the temple just to repast, so we created a high-powered literary salon over dinner and brief “intercourse” readings. The press liked it too. Stephen Pierson, our publisher, saw the germ of a magazine in the dinners. And here we are, named after a San Francisco restaurant and published in New York.

TM: How do you support the endeavor economically?

SF: We currently support the endeavor entirely through vice, the game of poker in particular. Our publisher is a fulltime online shark.

TM: What responsibilities, if any, do the writing community and the publishing industry have toward little magazines?

SF: The same responsibility that successful technologists and investors have towards high-tech incubators. That’s an argument. But are little magazines investments for anyone in the established industry, or just responsibilities? Aren’t they supposed to do the work of agents for free?

Parts 2 & 3





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6 Responses to “Literary Magazines: A Roundtable, Part I”

  1. Max
    at 6:00 pm on February 5, 2007

    I love the idea as literary magazines as talent incubators for the publishing industry. In fact, it makes so much sense that I'm surprised that it doesn't already work this way. Literary magazines do so much work finding and grooming new literary talent, it seems like there should be more dialog between lit mags and publishers.

  2. Sean Ferrell
    at 9:41 am on February 6, 2007

    I'm excited by the different take on writing that Canteen has and look forward to seeing the first issue. I assume (and hope) that they'll be selling from their site?

  3. Patrick Brown
    at 6:02 pm on February 6, 2007

    I agree with your idea that Lit Mags should be incubators of talent, Max, but I think it doesn't work this way because the big magazines — McSweeney's, A Public Space, The Paris Review, etc. — tend to publish the same authors over and over. Some of this is useful for developing a brand, but after awhile, I think it leads to stagnation. Maybe I should start looking off the beaten path for my new writers…I am quite lazy.

  4. Garth
    at 3:18 pm on February 7, 2007

    Not only those you mentioned, Patrick, but also Virginia Quarterly Review and some other well-regarded but smaller circulation journals.

    I actually think A Public Space has done a pretty good job, so far, publishing at least one underexposed or "emerging" fiction writer in each issue. McSweeney's has been intermittently good in this regard. My question is, what "off the beaten path" publication do you respect enough to buy regardless of the names of the contributors?

  5. Patrick Brown
    at 4:55 pm on February 7, 2007

    That's a good point. It's not so much that I think McSweeney's and the like don't do a good job of finding emerging writers, it's that once they find them, they tend to publish multiple stories of theirs instead of exposing more emerging writers. I suppose if I didn't recognize any of the authors in the publication, I would have to be compelled by something else to buy it, something like incredible graphic design, great artwork, a mention on a blog like this one, etc. As someone who published a lit journal for a New York minute (and a journal with no "name" contributors at all), I can say that the majority of the people who bought the journal did so because it looked good. Hopefully they took it home and enjoyed the writing, but who knows? My hope was always that if we could get enough issues together to build a following, it wouldn't matter who was writing for the journal, people would expect it to be good. I think it's hard for literary journals to do this because they often have funding for only a few issues.

  6. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 9:37 pm on February 7, 2007

    Patrick-Maybe there should be a journal called "One and Out," where a writer could publish one piece, but then had to move on to other pastures. I have indeed noticed a lot of Kevin Moffett in McSweeney's recently (is he like the Alice Munro/William Trevor/Primo Levi of McSweeney's?) Fortunately, I like Kevin Moffett. But…does anyone out there want to fund issue 1 of "One and Out?"

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