“[Little magazines] are snickered at and snubbed, sometimes deservedly, and no one would venture to say in a precise way just what effect they have—except that they keep the new talents warm until the commercial publisher with his customary air of noble resolution is ready to take his chance, except that they make the official representatives of literature a little uneasy, except that they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.” – Lionel Trilling
The little magazine is a relatively recent invention. Pierre Bayle’s publication of the Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres in the 1680s, essentially a book review, is typically seen as the first little magazine. Yet not until the late 19th and early 20th century did the world of the little magazine get crowded. Blast, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, and Times Literary Supplement all launched during this time. Then the field explodes in the mid-20th century, with the creation of magazines like Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House, and Granta. According to the most recent Community of Literary Magazines and Presses directory, there are now over 1,300 little magazines in the United States.
There are number of ways to tell the story of the non-commercial, small circulation magazine over the last century. Technologically—through the successive eras of the mimeograph machine, photocopier, and then the internet. Institutionally—little magazines have been connected with universities, small presses, or simply formed around specific groups of friends. Ideologically—political movements and aesthetic schools have often driven the work of different magazines.
Every thirty years or so there has been a comprehensive attempt to explain what the institution of the little magazine is—a communal reflection on its role and meaning. In 1946 The Little Magazine: A History and Bibliography was published. In 1978 there was the hefty volume, The Little Magazine in America, edited by Elliot Anderson and Mary Kinzie. Last year, a sequel to Anderson and Kinzie’s large volume was published, The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, edited by Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz. Volumes like this exist because editors and institutions need to remind themselves what they are doing. Why a piece deserves another reread, an author another email, another explanation of what semi-colons are really for. Little magazines and those who run them feel the need to justify themselves.
Like its predecessor, Diaz and Morris’ book invites a range of editors to reflect on the work of their magazines. The editors of n+1, Bitch, BOMB, Callaloo, Poetry, McSweeney’s, and many others contribute. These pieces take the form of interviews, share stories of each magazine’s birth and even a few deaths, and reflect on what running them has involved. And like its predecessor, this volume is a work of pointillism. Through each editor’s story and comments, a larger picture emerges. The recurring themes across their pieces—concerns regarding money, anxiety over the shift online, how they define success, and lists of authors published—reveals the state of the little magazine.
While little magazines don’t seek money, they do seek influence, often aiming to guide a conversation, maybe even form or even reform a community. Many of them emerge from a cloud of dissatisfaction, reacting to a perceived cultural deficiency or a failure of the larger artistic community. These commonalities between their genesis stories sets little magazines up to continually claim the avant-garde. As Diaz and Morris write, “a primary contention of this book is that the role of the little magazine is to promote the avant-garde—that is, little magazines function as a ‘front-guard’ that anticipates the newest movements in literature, politics, and art.”
Many of the editors in The Little Magazine in Contemporary America agree. Talking about McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers states: “Art is made by anarchists and sorted by bureaucrats.” Or Gerald Maa and Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, editors of The Asian American Literary Review, claim: “We could take an ironic or perhaps politicized joy in marginalization, in our role as marginalia-provider, as ostensible decenterer, or attempted decenter, anyway.” In a review of Diaz and Morris’ book in the New Yorker, Stephen Burt says of success for little magazines: “But all of these kinds of success come down to whether your journal brings something new to its scene.”
This avant-garde longing seems to be coded into the DNA of little magazines, and looking beyond Morris and Diaz’s work confirms this. Across the editorial mission statements of little American art magazines throughout the 20th century, words like experimental, new, new talent, critical, discover, and evolve fill the word cloud. This emphasis on being new, isn’t new. Little magazines have long been little anti-institutional institutions.
These avant-garde dreams are best embodied in a magazine that Diaz and Morris highlight, Edward Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Almost more a zine than a magazine, Fuck You ran from 1962-1965, was part of the mimeo revolution, made of construction paper, hand drawn, held together with staples, and published writers and artists such as W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, and Gary Snyder—the impressive list could go on. Alongside Fuck You, Sanders also ran Fuck You Press, publishing collected poems and short stories, mostly by Sanders himself.
The magazine was pure, uncut counter-culture, fully embodying an “outlaw aesthetic.” The copyright page in Fuck You’s books read, “Fuck You / press | ejaculation” and stated the publication was “printed, published, and zapped at a secret location in the lower east side, new york city [sp].” Typically, below this, there was a small picture of a penis ejaculating. A tagline printed across some of the magazine issues and Fuck You Press publications read: “TOTAL ASSAULT ON THE CULTURE!”
Like go-go boots and tie-dye shirts, Fuck You is firmly in step with its era. While not nearly as antagonistic, many little magazines are animated by similar desires, hoping to remove themselves from and critique stagnant cultural pools, striking out on a path to the artistic future. The evolution of art requires severing the umbilical cord connected to other ages; with such a break, art can advance.
This isn’t sheer delusion. Historically, little magazines helped anticipate what is to come, providing a space for new forms of an art, especially literature, to grow. James Joyce’s Ulysses first appeared serially in The Little Review. Later in its life, The Dial published T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the United States (The Criterion published it in England). After being censored by the University of Chicago, the first issue of The Big Table published William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. In India during the 1950s, a huge change in Marathi poetry—its shift into a more modernist form—was started and sustained by a proliferation of little magazines.
Yet dedicating this institutional space solely to the singular pursuit and support of the avant-garde seems off. Like a weightlifter who only works out one muscle, there is an oddity, a grotesque forgetfulness to being dedicated to sheer experimentation in art. Saying that the role of the little magazine is to promote experimentation is wrong, misguided.
This single-minded sort of goal for little magazines plays itself out differently in different contexts, but Jerry Saltz’s article on Zombie Formalism in painting is helpful:
“I like Dropcloth Abstraction, and especially the term coined by the artist-critic Walter Robinson: Zombie Formalism. Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just ‘new’ or ‘dangerous’-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what ‘new’ or ‘dangerous’ really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences. (It’s also a global presence: I saw scads of it in Berlin a few weeks back, and art fairs are inundated.) These artists are acting like industrious junior postmodernist worker bees, trying to crawl into the body of and imitate the good old days of abstraction…
Saltz, while talking about painting, is in a space where the experimentation becomes boring and cookie-cutter-esque, stale. While there are economic reasons for this, there are ideological and technological ones as well, and little magazines with their emphasis on the idea of being avant-garde are just as susceptible to their own form of Zombie Formalism.
In Morris and Diaz’s volume, many of the editors mistakenly equate being odd and small with being avant-garde. Just because a magazine is non-commercial with a smaller readership doesn’t make it avant-garde. Would their work still matter if it wasn’t part of the breaking wave of the new? What if a little magazine wasn’t fighting on the front lines, but keeping the cultural supply lines open, or watering the roots of a living tradition? What if a little magazine simply hoped to ensure a communal conversation continued, grew, was fed by different voices and healing resources? This singular quest for the avant-garde forgets the particular gifts that come with being small.
The structural habits present in the history of little magazines provide The Curator with something to embrace and something to resist. We want to resist how little magazines can treat their readers. Operating with such a restricted sense of what you are for, provocation and experimentation, can lead to work that seems like nothing but a middle finger to most of humanity.
While avoiding this myopic concentration on experimentation, The Curator hopes to embrace how little magazines tend to treat their writers. Little magazines aren’t just an experimental playground removed from the larger culture, but can operate as a writerly gym, a place to train a writer’s artistic and critical muscles. As Michael Anania, former editor of Audit/Poetry and director of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, has said:
“Little magazines have always functioned primarily for writers. Readers are desirable, sometimes even actively sought out, but the impulse behind most magazines is the writer-editor’s conviction that there are writers who are not being served by existing publications. At their best, little magazines draw together groups of writers and, however marginally, find them an audience.
Being small, The Curator can care about its writers, serve them, stretch them, train them, receive gifts from them—provide a community to work on how you work with words. Every little magazine hopes to publish the best of what it can, but small magazines like us have the capacity to say: Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, your zombie-ish words. Let’s work on them. Let’s see if they can be resurrected.
Big, commercial publishing lends itself to different priorities, successes, pressures, failures, and forms of risk. Due to its institutional structure, commercial writing, and the type of editing it encourages, is more beholden to advertisers and audience. The Curator is partially buffered (but not immune) from the perennial questions of monetization. The only people who are paid anything are our writers, and while this isn’t ideal, it is what currently makes The Curator possible. This isn’t to claim that our rags stand as an indication of our holiness, but that it allows us to concentrate on different things. There is no money here, but there are gifts.
This rejection of commercial pressures allows for a different relationship between time and editing. Big is increasingly synonymous with fast. Being large and commercial, especially within publishing, ends up involving you in the eternal now. This is where an economics of surplus becomes oddly interwoven with an economics of scarcity. The surplus of writing leads to a scarcity of time. The sheer crush of lukewarm and hot takes can lend writing, editing, and reading a necessary speed. Comparatively, the non-commercial pressures of little magazines can allow for a slower movement—a more gradual stewardship—with others’ words.
“So our task to be stewards of words begins and ends with love. Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal. And it means using words as instruments of love.
For words to become instruments of healing, beauty, precision, and love involves work and time. Becoming a faithful steward of words requires a long-arc, full of little deaths and resurrections. Readers matter, commercial success matters, but so does helping form those who are writing public words about art. To put it in theological terms, The Curator is a little magazine invested in the sanctification of words and the discipleship of writers—writer-care and word-care.
In his seminal work, The Gift, Lewis Hyde discusses how gifts have a momentum to them—gifts are meant to stay on the move. The Curator hopefully lives with the centrifugal energy of a gift economy. If we are helping writers to write more beautiful and true words—providing small editorial gifts—we don’t want them to stick around. Writers write for us for a time, and then move on. We have no delusions that we are changing the world or helping an art form evolve. Our editing and publishing is about the slow activity of stewardship, allowing for small salubrious shifts in how writers use words.
It’s an embarrassingly earnest mission. Yet there are gifts here, and gifts are meant to be given away.
The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, edited by Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz, is published by the University of Chicago Press.
 Lionel Trilling, “The Function of the Little Magazine,” in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, 97.
 Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz, “Preface,” The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, xv.
 There is an humorous wrinkle in this claim regarding the avant-garde role of little magazines. Through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a cultural advocacy organization active from the 1950s to early 1960s, the CIA provided support for a host of literary magazines—such as The Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, and the English magazine, Encounter.
 Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz, “Preface,” The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, xii.
 Michael Anania, “Of Living Belfry and Rampart: On American Literary Magazines Since 1950,” in The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, 10.
 Michael Anania, “Of Living Belfry and Rampart: On American Literary Magazines Since 1950,” in The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, 21.
 Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, 23.
 See also, Bruce Andrews, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” in The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, 115.