Defining Literature, Defining Lit Mags: a Print Mag in Context
The answer to that last question is, “You have picked up too many magazines: go directly to your hotel room, do not pass Tin House, do not collect any chapbooks.” But the other questions are more difficult. Reading the spring 2013 issue of Fifth Wednesday, a twice-annual independent print journal from Illinois, I was particularly reminded of the question about how to tell magazines apart. After spending two hundred pages’ worth of time with this magazine, I know what’s in this particular issue, but the identity of the magazine as a whole, the unifying Fifth-Wednesdayness of it all, is elusive.
The cover does not provide much information. “What is that impressively black book?” my friend asked when I brought Fifth Wednesday along to lunch. The cover photograph shows a window allowing a little bit of light into what seems to be a basement vault, with the motto, “Defining literature. In real context.”
Perhaps context (real or unreal) is what I am lacking here. The front matter provides a thorough list of editors, contributing editors, volunteers, and upcoming guest editors, but very little comment about the magazine itself or the work included.
The issue leads off with an interview with Laurence Lieberman, an accomplished poet and poetry editor. Lieberman’s poetry is informed less by the aural qualities of meter or consonance than by the visual shaping of words on a page. “When my forms are really working,” he says, “they enter into the subject matter and help to create the sense of inevitability about the linkage between the way the form is moving and the physicality of the subject.” This discussion provides good context for the five Lieberman poems that follow, all of which are shaped on the page in a way that creates both visual space on the page and a resonant imaginative space. The other interview in this issue, with fiction writer Stuart Dybek, is also well conducted and edited. It focuses, however, on specific qualities of Dybek’s fiction, and since none of his work is included here the discussion feels rather abstract.
Although there is no stated theme, there are connections between a number of the pieces. Many of the works in this issue involve matters of gender. Said Shirazi’s “Women at Work” is a first-person narrative with a nearly featureless narrator. It took me three-quarters of the story to make up my mind that the narrator was male, meaning that this was not a story about relationships among women coworkers but a story about a man looking at the women in his office, who ultimately get stuck in the role of hypothetical sexual partners. Cindy, the protagonist of Rob McClure’s “Anything Small Could Be Big,” rattles from man to man, scraping together a living doing odd jobs for a retired professor and participating in university psychology studies. Cindy is aware of the world she lives in—“I don’t think you like women as much as you say you do,” she tells the professor—and she takes steps to break out of the patterns she’s been participating in, though the patterns themselves are barely stirred by the breeze she creates on her way out.
A little less than a third of the contributors to this issue are women, and some of the gender-concerned pieces do have women authors. Marge Piercy’s “Ring Around the Kleinbottle” depicts an apartment full of female flatmates all dallying with the same man, all knowing that they’re doing it, and each one convincing herself that she understands him more deeply than the others.
Janet Shell Anderson’s “Cee: A Flash Novel” chronicles the life of a woman named Cee, who surfs and paints and has things happen to her and answers every question with “Sure.” “Her eyes,” the narrator tells us, “are as flat and empty as a shark’s but not because she is a predator. She has no attack in her . . . She does not bite into the world. She swims, skims, sails.” She also has an affair with an older, married man whose wife considers Cee “a pair of tanned legs with an opening between that Frank may or may not use.” Anderson is going after an interesting project here, using language to describe a visual artist who has no interest in verbal expression. But along with the other women in the issue, Cee is reluctant to express herself, weighed down by circumstances inflicted upon her, defined by her flat eyes. What is lost, in the compression of a lifetime to an eleven-page “flash novel,” is the interior space afforded by a full book, the luxury of spending time with a character as well as watching time pass for her.
Janet McNally’s poem “Archaeology: A Question” turns a mournful eye to all of this, imagining a Snow White who never woke up: “It’s up to us to excavate her, another girl who couldn’t / say no.” It’s good to see someone interrogating all of these acquiescing women, but a shame that we don’t get more counterexamples.
These gender themes might or might not have been on the editors’ minds when compiling the issue; it’s difficult to tell. I find myself trying to guess whether the magazine’s achievements line up with its ambitions. And there are achievements here. I was captivated and baffled by the narrative voice of Cecilia Pinto’s essay “On the Occasion of My Niece’s Bat Mitzvah in New Jersey,” which managed to be both frank and mysterious, and moved by Robert J. Levy’s plaintive poems “Skin” and “Sorry.” Dustin M. Hoffman’s “Home Through a Rat Hole” takes some interesting risks; it’s a fragmented short story, reminiscent of Janet Frame, that plays with reality and has three different layers of narration. Breja Gunnison’s short story “Time Machine” uses a speculative-fiction twist to render its depiction of grief both hopeful and, by its contrast with reality, heartbreaking.
Established writers rub elbows agreeably with young writers who have never published before; a photography portfolio explores facets of the human face and people at work. Juxtaposition, experimentation, exploration of the emotional territory art can inhabit: surely these things are what literary magazines are meant to do. I hope Fifth Wednesday is moving toward a more specific understanding of what expertise and ambitions it has to contribute to that purpose.