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Small Journals Starting to Hit the Big Time

November 01, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

Amid the mass culture of 1987--in which MTV is king, and most books are slickly aimed at the bottom line--there's an incongruent bit of news:

America's literary magazines are flourishing.

That's the word from many of the poets, writers and literary editors who will gather in New York next Friday to celebrate the persistance--many say resurgence--of the 1,000 or so journals of fiction and poetry that still nourish the nation's literary life to an degree that would surprise many readers who have never picked up any of the 1,000 small magazines now publishing.

The Nov. 6 event at Manhattan's Westside Young Mens Hebrew Assn., long an unassuming haven for the written word, marks the 20th anniversary of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM), whose members range from smaller, more raffish reviews to models of prestigious longevity like The Paris Review.

A Time of Opportunity

"This is a time when one would expect a gloomy picture for the small, entrepreneurial literary magazine," said Alice Quinn, fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine and chairwoman of CCLM. "There is competition from television, big, glossy magazines, fancy paperback books, a rumored decline in literacy and "The Closing of the American Mind" is on the best-seller list.

"But," Quinn continued, "many of the magazines are doing very well. I think of it as a time of opportunity and consolidation."

Indeed, Quinn and many of them say CCLM--a trade organization enlivened over the years by eloquent battles among many of America's leading literary figures--is celebrating its first two decades at a time when editors of these journals are forming ties to commercial publishing houses, using bold graphics to broaden their appeal and managing them more effectively than 20 years


"We were once part of a literary underground," said Harry Smith, editor of a tiny New York magazine called Pulpsmith. "Now we've gone above ground. We're becoming respectable."

Laboratories for the national literature, these are the journals that published Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound at the start of this century and, say fans, are nurturing writers who will fathom its end.

And, since commercial magazines--even those that care about literary readers--devote scant space to fiction and poetry, that specialized readership is increasingly turning to the 1,000 or so journals, quarterlies and biannuals whose circulations rarely overshoot 10,000. And, their editors say, they are reaching for a larger audience.

Although some are published by universities, most proclaim their publishers' singular individuality with names like The Spirit That Moves Us, Salt Lick and Yet Another Small Magazine.

Collectively, they also serve as a record of the passionate enthusiasms and values of a somewhat hidden, intellectual society within the nation's general culture.

When the Berkeley-based Threepenny Review recently published author Elizabeth Hardwick's analytical essay about Gertrude Stein, composer Virgil Thompson wrote her: "Stein piece was a beaut!"

"It's the most important thing that I do," declared writer George Plimpton about The Paris Review he founded in 1953 with financial backing from Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. The Khan is out of the picture now, but Plimpton is more involved than ever.

"I spend more time on it than on my more public activities," said Plimpton, who now runs The Review. "We published Samuel Becket's first translation into English. I believe we published Phillip Roth's first short story."

In 1986, the mailman brought an unsolicited manuscript titled "Where the Sea Used to Be" to the Review's office in Plimpton's Manhattan town house. Plimpton published 29-year-old Rick Bass' short story, and now three separate publishers are bringing out books of Bass' short stories and nonfiction. CCLM will soon announce that the piece has won a 1987 General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers, a prestigious prize administered by the council.

"It was staggering to me they said they'd publish my story," said Bass, who is also a petroleum geologist. "I'd been banging my head against a wall trying to get fiction published."

Bass' New York agent, Timothy Schaffner, who reads several of the literary reviews, believes Bass is benefiting from a "search for new literary talent that is a sub-trend in publishing right now."

Although such trends come and go, media watchers point to the fact that three commercial publishing houses have begun publishing and/or distributing such magazines since 1980--and a fifth is said to be close to working out a national distribution deal. Similar deals have occurred before, but no one can seem to recall quite so many corporate sponsors eager to finance the traditionally anti-establishment magazines.

W.W. Norton distributes a New York review called Antaeus; Random House publishes The Quarterly; David Godine publishes Conjunctions, and Penguin Books publishes Granta, a British quarterly edited by Los Angeles native Bill Buford.

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