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The Literary Magazine in the Language Arts Curriculum

by Willard Cook

What Is An Independent Literary Magazine?
Why Use Literary Magazines in the Classroom?
Bridging the Gap: Pairing Selections
A New Perspective on a Textbook's Table of Contents
Literature in the Flesh: Editors and High School Students
Suggestions for Dealing with Potentially Sensitive Topics
Resources


WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENT LITERARY MAGAZINE?

As an essay on the Web site of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) explains, "Literary magazines publish fiction, poetry, book reviews, criticism, and essays. Some focus solely on one genre, others provide a mix, yet others emphasize poetry or fiction but also include reviews, criticism and essays. The majority of literary magazines publish quarterly, though frequency ranges from monthly to biannually. Their format can be perfect bound or tabloid, with anywhere from 14 to 400 pages." (See Resources for more information on the CLMP Web site.)

The tradition of such magazines in the United States is more than 100 years old, and many of the works that we now consider classic first appeared in such publications. Literary magazines play an important role in the publishing process. They offer new authors a chance to shine and established authors a chance to test new and adventurous work. These magazines and journals, no matter how ephemeral, are the laboratories in which writers are creating the literature of tomorrow.

WHY USE LITERARY MAGAZINES IN THE CLASSROOM?

By exposing students to literary magazines, you will waken them to the excitement of literature in the making and provide these benefits:

  • The Chance to Read Tomorrow's Classics Today As previously mentioned, many well-known works first appeared in small literary magazines. By telling this to students, you will add to the excitement of their reading experience, making them into talent scouts for the reading public of the future.
  • The Opportunity to See Their Own World in a Work of Literature Many of the classic works in textbooks give students access to a wide and complex range of emotions that can help them develop and mature. Nevertheless, the worlds contained in these works can seem dated. Poems and stories in contemporary magazines—works that contain familiar attitudes, issues, and furnishings—can help bridge the gap between students' experience and canonized selections.
  • A Better Understanding of How Literary Publishing Works Reading literary magazines will give students a better sense of the life history of a literary work—from author's inventive brain to literary magazine to trade book and, ultimately, to textbook. Many students might assume that works of literature are telepathically transmitted from an author's mind to the page of a textbook!
  • A Greater Appreciation for the Labors of Authors Reading magazines will also give students a greater interest in the lives of authors, those men and women who lick the envelopes, send the pages to a little-magazine editor, and receive either acceptances or rejections.

BRIDGING THE GAP: PAIRING SELECTIONS

Students sometimes find it difficult to relate to the topical content of a story or play because the action takes place before they were born. The Catcher in the Rye, for example, may explore timeless and universal themes, but it becomes harder to teach with the passing of each generation as the ever-young Holden paradoxically starts to show signs of age—or, rather, to show signs of the age in which he lived, an era of comparative innocence.

In contrast, a contemporary story's irreverence might be just the thing to stimulate teenage curiosity and encourage further reading, maybe even a reading of The Catcher in the Rye. A comparison of the two works may show that even irreverence, an attitude that seems to insist on the present moment, has a pedigree.

A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON A TEXTBOOK'S TABLE OF CONTENTS

You can give new life and interest to your textbook's table of contents by showing students how time-tested classics first appeared in little magazines. Even this brief lists suggests that many classic works were once "adolescents" themselves:

  • Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" first appeared in Crisis (June 1921).
  • T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land first appeared in the Dial (November 1922).
  • Amy Tan's essay "Mother Tongue" first appeared in The Threepenny Review (Fall 1990)

Your library may contain some of these historic little-magazine issues. If so, you might want to schedule a library visit so that students can view and respectfully handle them.

In addition, a fascinating research paper might involve tracing the "life histories" of famous works by identifying the journals in which they first appeared.

LITERATURE IN THE FLESH: EDITORS AND HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

Literary magazine editors are aware that high school students are potential readers and contributors. Some editors, like Paula Deitz and Roger Martin, participate in outreach programs that target a high school audience. Others, like Wendy Lesser, have thought about the importance of magazines for a young audience.

Paula Deitz, the editor of The Hudson Review, speaks highly of the magazine's program with The Young Women's Leadership School in Harlem. Every semester The Hudson Review selects a writer who has published in the magazine and provides copies for the students in a chosen English class. The students must read the work and prepare questions to ask the writer. The writer then visits the classroom and reads excerpts from the magazine and a discussion ensues. Deitz explains, "Students get three things from the program: a reading from an established professional writer, an autographed copy of The Hudson Review, and a thoughtful discussion with an living writer." The Hudson Review is in the business of discovering great writers and she likes to share that with a high school population. "The program has been a tremendous success," Deitz says.

Roger Martin, the editor of The Worcester Review, goes to a high school writers conference every year at St. John's Prep School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. "First, students are able to see an editor is a real person and that the writing is current and living and that is important," Martin says, "because so often we don't see what is behind the magazine that is being published." Martin also says that with such a wide variety of literary magazines, a teacher can really find whatever material they want. "We can experiment the way that bigger publishers cannot," Martin adds.

Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny Review, which has published since 1980, says, "Most living writers don't fit into the canon. I don't consider us an avant-garde publication. We are financially marginal but that makes us freer to publish what we want as well provide a high literary quality for our readership." Lesser feels that the literary magazine helps broaden students' understanding of American letters. "It gives them exposure to different kinds of writing."

The experiences and observations of these editors might prompt you to initiate your own outreach program in the classroom. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Scan literary magazine listings to find publications in your region. (See Resources for sources of such listings.) Then, review issues of some of these magazines to find an appropriate journal that would interest your students.
  • Or, as an alternative, contact the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (see Resources) for help in choosing a suitable magazine.
  • Contact the editor of the magazine you have selected and explore possibilities for
    —student subscriptions.
    —a visit by students to the magazine offices.
    —a visit by the editor, and possibly one or more contributors, to the classroom.
    —student internships at the magazine.
    —editorial advice for students starting their own literary magazine.
  • You may want to have students read a particular issue or issues of the magazine before an editor pays a classroom visit. This approach will help ensure that students have questions to ask.

SUGGESTIONS FOR DEALING WITH POTENTIALLY SENSITIVE TOPICS

Since literary magazines are often experimental and deal with contemporary topics, they may contain selections with controversial material. Here are a few suggestions for dealing with potentially sensitive topics:

  • Before allowing students to read issues of a magazine, screen these issues thoroughly to make sure that the selections are appropriate.
  • Discuss your plan with your department chairperson in order to gain his or her support.
  • Before asking students to subscribe to a magazine, be sure to get parental consent. To obtain this consent, send a letter to parents providing background on the journal and explaining the ways in which students will benefit from reading it.
  • Use the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) as a resource to help you select an appropriate journal.

RESOURCES

Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP)
This organization of literary publishers is probably the most helpful single resource you can consult. Especially useful is its Web site at, where you will find such features as:

  • a searchable database of CLMP's member magazines
  • Independent Literary Publishing, a brief, engaging history of literary magazines
  • a way to order CLMP's Directory of Literary Magazines
  • answers to frequently asked questions and helpful links for writers

Sample Magazine Web Sites
Note that many literary magazines now have Web sites, and a number of online publishers are becoming quality forums for literature. These Web sites provide a great way to use students' interest and facility in technology to introduce them to literature. This section includes just a small sample of these sites. For a more comprehensive listing of magazine Web sites, see the searchable database at the CLMP Web site (above) or any of the annotated print directories (below).

  • The Antioch Review
    This site contains a 50-year index of the magazine, the 50th anniversary issue, details on the upcoming issue, and other information.
  • The Hudson Review
    This site contains articles from the latest issue, audio samples of poets reading their work, and general information about the journal.
  • The Kenyon Review
    This site contains news items, literary links, excerpts from past issues, and a history of this famous magazine's contributions to literature.
  • Ploughshares
    This site features over 3,000 poems, stories, and articles from the current issue and archives that you may read for free.
  • Poetry Magazine
    This site offers information on one of the country's oldest and most respected poetry magazines.
  • The Threepenny Review
    This site contains information on current and past issues, a description of the journal, and a special message from the editor.

Annotated Directories of Little Magazines

  • CLMP Directory of Literary Magazines and Presses (New York, New York: CLMP)
    Published by CLMP and updated yearly, this guide contains listings for independent book publishers, literary magazines, and online literary journals that are members of CLMP. Each listing contains journal and press descriptions, submissions guidelines, and contact names and addresses.
  • The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, Len Fulton, editor (Paradise, California: Dustbooks)
    This directory, which is updated annually, has existed since 1964. With thousands of listings providing contact information and descriptions, it is probably the most comprehensive guide in the field.
  • Poets Market (Cincinnatti, OH: Writers Digest Books)
    Updated annually, this directory provides detailed information on magazines and presses that publish poetry. It has several indexes that classify magazines according to region, subject matter, and other categories.

Further Reading and Resources
Anderson, Elliott, and Mary Kinzie, eds. The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History. Yonkers, N.Y.: Pushcart Press, 1978.

Clay, Steven, and Rodney Phillips. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing. New York, N.Y.: The New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998. This fascinating catalog accompanies the New York Public Library exhibition and holdings of the Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Henderson, Bill, ed. The Art of Literary Publishing: Editors on Their Craft. Wainscott, N.Y.: Pushcart Press, 1980.

Small Press Distribution
This site is the place to find many literary magazines and small press books. It has an extensive online catalog.

Center for the Book in the Library of Congress
The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, created by an Act of Congress in 1977 (Public Law 95-129), was established to stimulate public interest in books, reading, and libraries and to encourage the study of books and print culture. It contains many useful links on book production and promotion, publishing, censorship, literacy, libraries, printing, writers, and writing. Since 1984, 40 states and the District of Columbia have established statewide book centers that are affiliated with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. These state centers use themes established by the Library of Congress Center and develop activities that promote their own states' book culture and literary heritage, sponsoring projects and hosting events that call attention to the importance of books, reading, literacy, and libraries.