Awakening to the Pleasure of Literary Magazines
I’ve appreciated the opportunity to review literary journals for The Review Review largely because doing so has made me sit down and read them. In the early part of this decade I had some success placing short stories in print journals using what a friend of mine calls the carpet-bombing method. I sent one story to twenty journals at the same time and waited for an acceptance. Then I stopped submitting for three years while I wrote a novel. I never sold the novel, lost some of the publishing momentum I’d gained, and failed to notice an important turning point—what I believe was a sharp increase in the ratio of creative writers, particularly MFA graduates, to vehicles for publication. When I started submitting again, armed with an MFA myself, carpet bombing no longer worked.
Writer and editor Lynne Barrett recently wrote on this website that editors wade through oceans of material looking for “work that is developed, complete, thoroughly revised, and—of great importance—appropriate for the magazine.” In order to provide what is appropriate for publication, writers must “read the magazines.”
That is, even if you’re working through a pile of novels, memoirs, poetry, and journalism, even if you haven’t yet read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, if you want to publish in literary journals, you have to make time to read them.
Having done this myself, I can attest to another reason for reading them: pure pleasure. The spring issue of Colorado Review is a case in point.
Contributing editor Robert Boswell’s story, “Destroy This,” presents the penultimate act of an extended family’s disintegration. A mother and three daughters, their housekeeper, her son, a libidinous grandfather and an ex-con who does odd jobs, become point-of-view characters in turn. The one character whose thoughts remain a mystery is the head of household, a lawyer and “energy broker,” really a gangster, whose power to destroy, while aided and abetted by the others, is absolute. An unusual combination of episodic scenes—each character getting into her own kind of trouble—and strong narrative drive, this story is structurally interesting and stunningly sad.
Equally interesting is Shannon Cain’s “Juniper Beach,” about a young woman whose mission is to choose better routes and destinations for her AAA customers than the ones they asked for. Trying to recover from the death of her parents in an auto accident at the same time as she’s breaking up with her partner, she buys an RV and takes a trip alone. She scraps her plans, visits the site of her parents’ accident and other accidents she’s read about, and begins to make peace with the passing nature of things.
My favorite of the three stories in this issue is the most conventional, “Other Lives” by Leslie Johnson, in which a middle-aged man and woman who once shared a neighborhood and an awful fourth-grade teacher come together at a funeral home to view the teacher’s body. “Other Lives” is a great example of a story that catches its protagonists on the cusp of change and unfolds an outcome different than the one the reader expects. Its gorgeous final paragraph will stay with you.
The two essays in this issue, both about the loss of parents, differ dramatically. In “The Famous Recipe,” Floyd Skloot recalls a mother who did not cook, interviewing relatives to make sure he’s remembering this correctly. Finally he cooks a meal for friends using a recipe his kitchen-phobic mother once contributed to a community cookbook. In “On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living,” Craig Morgan Teicher approaches the death of his mother when he was fourteen by way of the work of W. G. Sebald. From Sebald he learns and puts into practice the idea that “the bereaved wish to observe loss happening to them. In life loss happens too fast to see it—it’s over before one can know it began; the bereaved want to watch loss defining them.”