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IN CIRCULATION : Rack 'Em Up

October 02, 1994|DAVID EHRENSTEIN

Many decades have passed since literary journals such as the Exile (Ezra Pound, ed.), Hound and Horn (Lincoln Kirsten, ed.) and View (Charles Henri Ford, ed.) set the pace for serious writing. It wasn't all that long ago when an interview with E. M. Forster, Dorothy Parker or Aldous Huxley would clear the shelves of the latest issue of the Paris Review, or a Susan Sontag essay in Partisan Review (remember "Notes on Camp"?) inspired the full force of the media to horn in on a topic "everyone" was talking about. Nowadays, literary periodicals seem to be the least welcome items on newsdealer's shelves--crammed into the lower corners of out-of-the-way magazine racks or placed so high above the piles of Time, Newsweek and People you practically need a cherry-picker to get at them.

Why have literary journals fallen out of favor? Most of them subsist on the good graces of universities, state cultural commissions and the increasingly beleaguered National Endowment of the Arts, so it's to be expected that they might play it safe editorially. One way of doing this is by casting the net wide: A few stories by big literary stars, a smattering of offers by newcomers and a wisp of a unifying theme for each issue. The "Novellas Issue" of Conjunctions, for example, sports sub-par works by John Barth (an orgy of funny names and strained colloquialisms) and John Hawkes (a gruesomely twee tale of toilet training), good stories from Lynne Tillman (about love and computers) and Allan Gurganus (AIDS and friendship), and a potpourri of fair to barely tolerable items by nearly a score of others. There's a brief opening note that makes mention of the novella form; an in-depth essay was called for.

Happily the latest issue of a new journal called Global City News (a New York journal funded by a network of grants) shows that the theme issue conceit can work (and often makes for a better, more focused journal) --if it's done properly. Issue No. 3, subtitled "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," takes its cue from the subtext of Robert Louis Stevenson's story: the way the upper classes (Jekyll) regard the lower classes (Hyde) as monstrous versions of their "secret" selves. There are several stories about psychologically split characters; the best being a variation on Superman by B. Brandon Baker, in which our hero becomes jealous of his own alter ego, Clark Kent. But the highlight of the issue are two essays: Marguerite Feitlowitz explains how the lower classes of the Paris suburbs have become a fetish object among modern litterateurs, and Marina Budhos looks at the way the so-called "mainstream" regards anything outside its white European purview as worthy of destruction.

A few more journals like Global City Review, and literary periodicals just might get a bit more news rack respect.

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