Starting Magazines

Some friends of mine are thinking of starting a magazine. Friends of mine are always thinking of starting a magazine. And if they’re not thinking about it, then usually I am.

I think the first magazine I started was for my homeschool writing club. We called ourselves The Littaerians, and I became intoxicated with the idea of putting my geek skills to use publishing our best stuff on the internet. I made a clunky geocities website out of pure html, made some eye-watering animations, and even composed some regrettable MIDI music to autoplay in the background.

I didn’t edit my second magazine, but I published it. One of my older sister’s college friends wanted to start a litmag called Root and Branch (despite the fact that a magazine already existed with that name…). All he lacked was the know-how to make a website for it. That’s where I came in. (It’s amazing to remember a time when a group of college students would have been stumped by the problem of putting together a website.) My recompense for all my work was that I was permitted to write, sometimes, in small ways, for the magazine. This would not be the last time I paid in time for the opportunity to get published.

(Now that writing is my job, I look, like most professional writers, askance at publications that ask for free writing of the highest quality; but I started lower than that. I started by working to earn the right to give my work away for free.)

I didn’t start any magazines for the remainder of my time in grade school. But then college happened and I was appalled to discover my institution had no student magazine. Crossings remedied that situation, editor-in-chief moi. This magazine existed in print. I had a graphic designer, a masthead, the whole thing. Themed issues. A mix of fiction, poetry, essay, book review. It was fun. I wonder if it’s still being published? Maybe so; I handed it off to a successor when I graduated.

I started a few other magazines in college, web-only things with groups of friends. They would flourish for a while, then die grateful deaths. I also worked, naturally, for the student newspaper, where I had an op-ed column. Yes, I’m afraid I was an op-ed columnist.

Graduate school. For several years I stayed out of the magazine game. Then I got invited to be part of the masthead of the wonderful Open Letters Monthly. It was fun to be part of a concern that had been going for a long time (in internet years), small-scale but high-quality. The other editors taught me how to write for the public, for readers, which was a lesson I needed, and I also got to edit a bunch of really good writers (many of whom you now regularly read elsewhere). I also fell into the role I can’t seem to avoid, tinkering with the website. Open Letters Monthly was a big step up in my résumé of magazines, and as I quietly beavered away in my role, watching how it was organized and the nature of its internal politics and public presence, I stored up ideas for how I would run things if I were in charge, ideas which continue to whisper in my ear in a quiet seductive voice.

I also experimented with Lingua Barbara, another online-only venture, this time a short-lived experiment in getting philosophy graduate students to write readable public philosophy. Our tagline: “philosophy for humans.” It fizzled pretty quickly.

I haven’t felt the bite of the magazine bug for a while. Something about writing for money for established magazines, about getting a dark peek at the inner workings of the publishing industry through anonymous reviewing, and about making a lot of writer friends has finally impressed me with the sense I always lacked that a really good, really successful magazine requires more than enthusiasm and effort… Notably, it requires expertise, time, and money.

But sometimes ideas still flash across my brain, obsess me for a day.

A weekly speculative fiction email-newsletter-style magazine that simply published one novelette at a time (that’s stories of 7000-17,500 words, per the official awards standards), sending it out in a beautifully designed email on the same day each week, with original illustrations, and then publishing all the novelettes at the end of the year in one thick book.

Or a weekly magazine with the sole purpose of reviewing one book a week, at great length—five to eight thousand words, let’s say—and the books would all be novels, of various kinds, published at some point in the last year. It would be called The Slow Review of Books.

Or, or, or…

Do you feel how, just talking about these things, a sort of energy percolates in the back of your throat, tightening your neck muscles like the onset of a pleasurable headache?

Maybe that’s just me.

8 thoughts on “Starting Magazines

    1. If The Slow Review ever happened, you would be on my list of people to beg for contributions!

    1. That magazine has a really interesting about page, a similar idea to the one I had, to buck the awful trend where books have to be reviewed moments after (or even before) they appear. I like the idea of a six-month lower limit before any book could be considered. For me, the idea of a “slow review” would also have to do with capaciousness, a big canvas for the writer — lots of space, lots of words, as many as they needed to approach the book they were considering, and all the time they needed to come up with those words.

      I guess if I ever start this, I’ll need a different name.

      (Also, Steve, even knowing you might be uninterested and fully satisfied with your own Space, were I to make a slow review of books, I would plead with you to consider writing something for it. I mean, you’d be a kind of patron saint of any magazine about books that I would ever found.)

      “Slowness is the only illumination I have ever known.” (Peter Handke)

  1. I’d subscribe to the Slow Review of Books, whatever it’s called. I’ve been reading Mary McCarthy’s _Occasional Prose_ these days, and I find myself almost luxuriating in the space for metaphor, question, and connection that she’s allowed in reviews such as the one for Didion’s _Democracy_.

    1. I’m amused how the comment section here is turning into a hype machine for a hypothetical magazine.

      I agree with you about McCarthy’s reviews. I quite enjoy that book. I bet part of it was getting to write for places like Partisan Review, which gave lots of space for the idiosyncrasies of essaying.

  2. Robert, apologies for being slow (!) to reply. I should have checked the ‘notify me’ box.

    It takes me so long to get to the point of writing something, and then to write it, that I appreciate the ‘six-month lower limit’ constraint, as the pressure to respond to a new book often leads to poor or glib reviews – my own of ‘The Cemetery in Barnes’ for example. Last year, I took four months to get to the point of writing about Dante’s Vita Nuova, but was glad I did. So I’ll say a nervous ‘yes’ to your plea, with the understanding that patience will be required! (‘The Patient Review’ sounds like a ward-round.)

    That’s a wonderful line from Handke, and it’s good to be reminded of it, as his recent work has been such a disappointment.

Leave a Reply