Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fergus Barrowman, Publisher at Victoria University Press makes his debut on Beatties Book Blog.

For review: four latest issues of leading US literary magazines, chosen by Graham in a recent New York shopping spree. Thanks for the loan, Graham.

The humble NZ litmag editor is immediately struck by the sumptuous production values, especially of McSweeney’s 23, a medium-format hardback, with colour illustrations bracketing each of ten stories, and a dustjacket that opens out into a 70cm square poster featuring dozens of very short stories by Dave Eggers, arranged like an astrological chart (in type that’s almost too small to read).

But that’s almost modest compared to the splendour of earlier issues, some of which are described in the Sydney Morning Herald article posted recently. With McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers and his gang set out to change the rules of literary publishing. The production of completely different issue was to make absolutely no concessions to the efficiencies and uniformities insisted upon by conventional publishing. And the contents were to be completely free of literary airs and graces. The aim was to bust open the predictable codes and cliques of literary publishing by making each new issue an unignorable one-off.

It’s possibly too soon to judge the success of this enterprise. There have been some brilliant issues, and I’m a bit sorry not to have collected them all, rather than just the one in three or four that contained something that particularly interested me. And McSweeney’s has a very high profile amongst hip American readers and writers. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have caused other publishers to significantly alter the ways they do things. And some unscientific enquiries amongst bookish New Zealanders, even the sort who might subscribe to the New Yorker (same price as the Listener, today), indicates limited recognition in the wider world. And I’m tempted to wonder whether the motto pressed discreetly into the case, ‘McSweeney’s 23 / STILL GOING STRONG / LIKE CASTRO’, is a wry acknowledgement that the crew are tiring a little? Certainly these ten stories, although all good, and adding up to a satisfying evening’s reading, don’t offer anything as extraordinary as the packaging. The best is ‘Girls in Bad Weather’, by the veteran Ann Beattie.

The Paris Review is one of the world’s venerable litmags, and on the evidence of this issue (181, Summer 2007) is going strong, sticking to the format developed by founder George Plimpton, editor until his death in 2003. The centrepiece, as always, is a long interview, this time with Norman Mailer, whom I have to confess I’d never expect to find interesting any more, but this is a great performance, which will certainly ring bells for writers and those who live with them:

Might it be said, in any event, that writing is a sort of self-annihilation?

It uses you profoundly. There’s simply less of you after you finish a book, which is why writers can be so absolutely enraged at cruel criticisms that they feel are unfair. We feel we have killed ourselves once writing the book, and now they are seeking to kill us again for too little. Gary Gilmore once remarked, ‘Padre, there’s nothing fair.’ And I’ve used that over and over again. Yet if you’re writing a good novel then you’re being an explorer – you’re getting into something where you don’t know the end, where the end is not given. There’s a mixture of dread and excitement that keeps you going. To my mind, it’s not worth writing a novel unless you’re tackling something where your chances of success are open. You can fail. You’re gambling with your psychic reserves. It’s as if you were the general of an army of one, and this general can really drive that army into a cul-de-sac.

The Paris Review gains a lot of character from limiting the number of contributors, this time to eight in 180 pages. As if inspired by Mailer’s presence, there are two good long blokey stories, by Andre Aciman (homosociality in the city) and Uzodinma Iweala (homosexuality in the army), and a 40-page colour photo essay, ‘Cities’ by Raymond Depardon.

There was a power struggle after Plimpton’s death (I’m sure the details are out there on the Net somewhere) and his appointed successor Brigid Hughes was ousted and replaced by New Yorker veteran Philip Gourevitch.

Hughes went on to found A Public Space, a much busier and more consciously contemporary magazine. Issue 4 contains 35 contributions, including a dozen poems, of which Sean Hopkinson’s ‘Why Do the Outmoded Maintain Themselves So Resolutely?’ is perhaps most telling.

There is a New Zealand connection in ‘Focus Antarctica’, some of which is reprinted from Bill Manhire’s anthology The Wide White Page, though there is also an interview with Bill, and a story by Valery Bryusov. Bryusov’s story of the dreadful catastrophe wrought by the disease of contradiction in the Republic of the Southern Cross is a great piece of early 20th century story speculative fiction and political satire. There’s also a typically outrageous story by William T, Vollmann, and an excellent orthodox coming-of-age story by Jim Shepard. The literary styles displayed in A Public Space are noticeably wider than those in The Paris Review and even McSweeney’s 23, both of which stick much closer to conventional naturalism.

The best mag of the four, the closest thing to a full balanced diet, is Tin House (vol 8, no. 4), edited by Rob Spillman. It has the flavour of an edgier New Yorker, which is to say, it’s not all that far out, and I enjoyed everything in it. There are five excellent and substantial stories, ranging from very dirty realism to a Jim Crace-like fable by Rick Bass; five good poets, none of whom I’d heard of before; and interviews with Irishman John Banville, Somalian Nuruddin Farah, and Nicaraguan Claribel Alegria. The essays are especially good: Helen Schulman’s frank and moving account of her father’s descent into arteriosclerotic dementia; linguist Arika Okrent’s sincere and hilarious account of learning Klingon; and two sharply opposed opinions of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the immensely influential Polish writer who died in January this year. Helpfully, both writers cite some of the same passages as evidence, notably the famous ‘Dog Urine Wiper (Satin Cloth) of the Peed-Upon Shoes of Dignitaries of the Palace of His Venerable Highness, the King of Kings, and of Ethiopia’, from The Emperor. The American Steve Almond celebrates ‘the Kapuscinski method: he eschews the accretion of bloodless fact, presenting instead tableaux that read like dark parables.’ The Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina, however, wonders at publishers and readers who accept fabrications and errors a school pupil could pick up in a minute on Google, and concludes mildly:

‘There are many small magical moments in The Emperor, but they are drowned by Kapuscinski’s general loss of perspective, his now-arrogant speculations, his confusing and difficult-to-justify desire to fictionalise fact. His over-atmospherics excite, but do not provide much in the way of meaningful insight.’

A literary debate of much wider significance, there in a nutshell.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Fergus, almost as good as reading the mags myself.
Great idea Bookman to get such an experienced lit mag publisher to review these for you.
Excellent stuff, great blog.Keep it up.