Wild with Discovery

Shannon Ravenel

For a long time now, I have been reading a lot of literary magazines on a very steady basis. Every single issue, every single year since 1978. I read them at my desk at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and at home at night. I never board a plane without a stash of two or three in my carry-on. Once, on a train from St. Louis to Chicago, a woman in the seat next to mine tapped the copy of TriQuarterly I was reading and said, “I know about these little magazines because my husband is a poet, but you’re the first person I’ve ever seen reading one.” (She turned out to be Floyd Skloot’s first wife.)

Reading the lit mags is part of my work, of course, but it has also gotten to be a life habit. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t inaugurate my anthology, New Stories from the South, so I’d have an excuse to keep on reading them.

I first encountered literary magazines in 1961, as a wildly ambitious secretary (known nowadays as an “editorial assistant”) in the trade editorial department of Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston. Fresh out of Hollins College and clutching an A.B. in English Literature, I wanted, with every fiber of my being, to be a fiction editor. But the closest I was getting was typing for my bosses—the fat, formidably outgoing Senior Editor, Dorothy de Santillana, and her exact opposite, excruciatingly thin, shy, and brilliant Anne Barrett (Tolkien’s U.S. editor). I loved typing their manuscript reports and their editorial letters, but doing so just made me wish all the harder that I could be typing my own. So I looked around the high-ceilinged old offices in the 19th-century brownstone on Boston Common and saw a pile of scholarly looking things lying on a shelf getting dusty. Back at Hollins, I had edited the college literary magazine but cannot remember being shown any real life models such as The Virginia Quarterly or The Sewanee Review. But Houghton Mifflin subscribed to a great many of what the staff called “the little magazines,” yet as far as I could tell, nobody ever read them.

Since I wasn’t allowed to read even from Houghton Mifflin’s slush pile of manuscripts, without asking anybody I set about reading those little magazines. I put piles of them on my desk as if I’d been asked to take a survey, but nobody ever asked me what I was doing with them. Given the dictation and typing, there wasn’t much time left for my “survey,” so I began hauling bags full of magazines home in the evenings and reading them late into the nights.

On one of those nights, I came across—in The Kenyon Review—an amazing story called “The Keyhole Eye,” by someone of whom I had certainly never heard. Nervy little thing that I was, I mentioned this story to Mrs. de Santillana who had, I’m pretty sure, hired me because my Charleston accent and my last name conjured up the magnolia images of Edna Ferber and Margaret Mitchell. Even so, Mrs. de Santillana actually took my advice and read the story. And the next thing I knew, Houghton Mifflin had given the house’s big, prestigious Literary Fellowship to its author, John Stewart Carter, and was publishing his first book, Full Fathom Five, in a very grand and major way. The novel was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection (a big deal in those days) and was received with rave reviews and matching sales. I got to read the proofs for Mr. Carter who was very ill and going blind as the book was nearing publication. It was a great experience for me and, of course, for John Stewart Carter, heretofore unnoticed except by The Kenyon Review. I wish I could tell you about his subsequent career as a novelist, but very sadly, he died not long after the book landed in the stores.

The discovery of John Stewart Carter in the pages of a little magazine is just one of many such tales of discovery. More recent ones include—to name just a few—the break-out stories of Tom Franklin (“Poachers” in Texas Review), Larry Brown (“Facing the Music” in Mississippi Review), Robert Olen Butler (“Relic” in The Gettysburg Review), James Lee Burke (“Convict” in The Kenyon Review), and Barbara Kingsolver (“Rose Johnny” in The Virginia Quarterly Review).
For a person looking for a way into the editorial inner sanctum, this discovery of the riches to be found in journals of which I had been completely unaware as an English major in college made a powerful impression. I kept reading them and suggesting other writers some of whom became HMCo authors and pretty soon I was on my way up the editorial ladder.

But, if I was clueless in college about the literary magazines, others were not. Not long ago The Georgia Review ran a beautiful piece by Raymond Carver about his debt to his first writing teacher, John Gardner. One reason for his indebtedness was this:

He introduced us to little magazines and literary periodicals by bringing a box of them to class one day and passing them around so that we could acquaint ourselves with their names, see what they looked like and what they felt like to hold in the hand. He told us that this was where most of the best fiction in the country and just about all the poetry was appearing. Fiction, poetry, literary essays, reviews of recent books, criticism of living authors by living authors. I felt wild with discovery in those days.

Those days of Raymond Carver’s were the late 1950s when Gardner was not only introducing his Chico State writing students to literary journals but was starting one himself—MSS. At the same time, Carver became one of the founding editors of a student magazine at Chico State called Selections.

All this was going on not so long before I stumbled into my own discovery of the little magazines and that they had great stuff in them and that all one had to do to discover gold was to read them. So I read them from then on. And, as I’ve said, I did discover some more writers for Houghton Mifflin to publish and I did finally get to be an editor there. When I left my job at Houghton Mifflin in 1971 to follow my scientist husband to England and later to St. Louis, I was fortunate enough to be remembered as someone who liked those funny little magazines and to be offered the job of Series Editor of The Best American Short Stories anthology in 1978. As BASS Series Editor, for fourteen years I read the little magazines in a even more concentrated way and, oddly enough, both John Gardner and Raymond Carver eventually ended up working with me as guest editors. (Ray Carver was a joy to work with, but Gardner initially rejected every one of the 120 stories I sent him as finalists and insisted that I ship the entire year’s worth of magazines to him!) And I have continued doing it only slightly differently now for nineteen more years as editor of New Stories from the South and as a founding member of Algonquin Books, a small literary publishing house in the southeast interested in bringing new authors to print.

Surrounding myself with America’s best literary magazines has been like watching a beloved neighborhood grow and change. There seem to be new magazines moving in every year. I’ve been watching Zoetrope, the swinging new guy on the block, trying to settle in. And I’m always happy when the old places get renovated: Sou’wester finally got a shiny cover and now both The Georgia Review and The Gettysburg Review have changed their nearly identical stately old cover designs to new and less matching ones. And how about the venerable Virginia Quarterly’s brand new look?! I’ve watched The Ontario Review move to New Jersey and Crazy Horse move from Little Rock to my hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. I’ve welcomed two great Atlanta magazines—Chattahoochee Review and Five Points—to the fold and bade a sad farewell to the second generation Story and to Grand Street, at least as we once knew and loved it. And I’ve mourned the loss of long time heroes Stan Lindberg and Staige Blackford, both of whom died with their boots on.

Those of us who are hooked on little magazines do tend to hang on. It’s a habit that is very hard to break. Earlier this summer, Askold Melnyczuk sent me the manuscript of an unpublished story about just such a habit. Based on the last days of the great story editor, Martha Foley, the co-founder of the original Story magazine who edited The Best American Short Stories for thirty-seven years, from 1941 to 1977, it’s called “The Stories.” I have permission from its author Frances Murphy to offer a short excerpt:

Before they discharged her, the hospital arranged for a visiting nurse to go to Martha’s apartment. Martha’s car had been totaled—a cracked engine block—and when her doctor made her last visit to the hospital bedside, she said maybe that was for the best. She recommended that because of health reasons, Martha not drive anymore. She also suggested that she might relinquish her stressful post as editor.

Martha sat on the edge of the bed and listened, scowling. “What would you recommend I do with my time?” she asked. Her voice had an edge. “Crochet toilet tissue covers?” . . .

The doctor, a handsome woman in her fifties, bowed her head and looked at the prescriptions she had written. “I admire your independence,” she said, “and I am a great fan of your collections. Every year my husband buys me
The Best American Short Stories for my birthday. And I always read your fine introductions . . . However, I will say . . . most people are retired at your age, and there is a reason for that, which reflects a certain wisdom, I suppose, but I am going to let you decide what your limitations are.” . . .

Martha took a cab home from the hospital. Walking up to the apartment door, she used the cumbersome metal four-pronged cane the physical therapist had given her. The cab driver carried the hospital shopping bag full of supplies and waited while she unlocked the door. Martha tipped him and entered the small dim first floor apartment whose cloudy windows looked out on the buildings of the Department of Public Works. The air smelled stale but she welcomed the familiarity. This was home: a kitchenette with a tiny formica table with two chairs, a living room with a worn brown plaid couch and the bedroom.

The kitchen table was covered with messy stacks of literary journals, strips of paper marking certain pages, easily a hundred of them, from all over the country, some well-known, some obscure: Ploughshares, Agni, Chicago Review, Kansas Quarterly, Colorado Quarterly, Fiddlehead, Southern Review, Eye of the Newt, Prism International.

Through the open door the small bedroom was visible. A portable oxygen tank with its plastic tubing stood in the corner. She shrugged off her coat, letting it slide to the floor, and collapsed into the couch, puffing slightly and gazing hungrily at the unread stacks of The Paris Review and The Virginia Quarterly under the coffee table.

I won’t give away the ending of this story, but suffice it to say that it illustrates my point that once the world of the small magazines is entered, disengagement is unlikely.

So—for a lot of years I’ve been watching literary magazines do their work and I’m here to tell you that they are succeeding better than they may know. That the best writing in our country shows up first in their pages is a given. But the new thing that’s happened, I believe, is that over the decades more and more of the movers and shakers in big publishing have gradually figured this out, figured out that whatever gold there is is still to be dug in those “little” magazines.

When I read Larry Brown’s second published story, “Facing the Music,” in Mississippi Review in 1986, I was the only publisher to contact him. Now I would find myself having to beat other editors and agents off with a stick. Look where he is now with nine published books. The competition has grown fierce for fiction writers who regularly publish in the literary magazines—writers like Ingrid Hill, Chris Offutt, Steve Almond, R.T. Smith, Michael Knight, Jane Shippen, Bret Anthony Johnston, Annette Sanford, George Singleton, K.A. Longstreet, Aaron Gwyn, Brad Vice, Tayari Jones, Brock Clark, Cate McGowan (and here I’m just naming some of those I’ve read in 2003 issues).

Despite what we hear about the demise of literary fiction in the big houses, I believe there continue to be new editors (and not so new ones) who want the thrill of discovering the kinds of writers who write books that will last. And these days, most of those editors know that most of those writers tend to show up first in our courageous and steadfast literary magazines.