Friday, February 04, 2011

Riding the Monkeybicycle: The Art of Literary Miscellany

Just a year ago, Ted Genoways, the once revered editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote one of those incendiary, eschatological articles, The Death of Fiction?, aimed to get every fiction writer’s and editor’s feathers ruffled.

He begins the essay by saying that when he tells people at dinner parties that he edits a literary journal, “the idea of editing a literary magazine seems, to them, only slightly more utilitarian than making buggy whips or telegraph relays. It's the sort of arcane craft they assumed was kept alive only by a lost order of nuns in a remote mountain convent or by the Amish in some print shop in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.”

It’s an insightful article, but as I read it, I shook my head in disappointment and depression. At that point, I was beholden to lit mags like The Paris Review or the Georgia Review, not to mention the Allegheny Review and the Iowa Review (many Reviews!)—my daddy’s, if not my grandaddy’s lit mags, you might say.

Strangely enough, I hadn’t experienced the trail blazing, wild west of online lit mags. Neither had Ted Genoways, evidently.

Fiction is anything but dying online—more people are getting published in more different journals—and more people are reading their stories because of the broad access of the Web and the fact that Twitter and Facebook can instantaneously reach thousands of readers (more, say, than that dusty back shelf in your favorite bookstore).

So, this is all a long lead-in for a new series I’m doing to raise awareness of the many great online lit mags, starting with Monkeybicycle, one of my favorites. Here's what Steven Seighman, the founder and editor of Monkeybicycle, has to say about biking in the online lit space.

What was the genesis of Monkeybicycle?

Monkeybicycle is something that started in 2002 in Seattle when I was doing a bit of my own writing, but thought it would be more fun to provide some sort of vehicle for other, real writers. There were only a handful of small journals out then—McSweeney's, Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, 3 A.M. Magazine, Little Engines, and probably a couple more—so it wasn't yet the crowded field that it's become over the past nine years.

We ran a local monthly reading series, put out an early print issue, and just tried to keep it going as best we could. Seeing those other places do it was really inspiring.

Why did you name it Monkeybicycle?

The name just kind of came out of thin air. I think it was inspired by an exterminator in the movie Schitzopolis, who just spouted off random words as his own language.

What separates Monkeybicycle from the other lit mags out there?

At this point, it's tough to separate from the masses since there are so many journals out there. Maybe the fact that we've been around for so long is what separates us. Many of those journals who inspired us in the beginning have closed their doors. I guess we're sort of like elder statesmen in the online lit journal world.

Is Monkeybicycle more for established writers, or are you interested in finding new talent?

We look for all kinds of writing. If it's good, we'll consider it. One of the things that we try not to do is paint ourselves into a corner by focusing on one specific type of work. We go through phases where we'll publish a lot of humor, and then we'll be relatively serious for a while. The print issues have at least ten poems in them each time, and we have a running series of one-sentence stories on the site. So, we're kind of all over the place because we like a lot of different things.

And as to new writers vs. more established ones: we've always tried to have close to an equal amount of both. Bigger names are going to sell books (or get web hits), but our hopes are that by putting newer voices alongside those folks, readers will stick around and discover some great new names that we think deserve just as much of an audience.

What literary magazines does Monkeybicycle admire the most and why?

Gosh, that's a tough one. Early on we were heavily influenced by Pindeldyboz and McSweeney's, but over the years so many great ones have shown up that it's nearly impossible to narrow down. Personally, I like journals that provide a lot of variety. The Collagist is a good example of that. So is Guernica. Those are the first two that come to mind, but there are dozens more.

If you could choose five contemporary writers to publish in your next issue, who would they be?

Again, a tough one. There are so many great writers doing amazing work out there right now. My quick answer (though my co-editors would surely have different folks in mind) would be: Jim Shepard, Matt Bell, Laura van den Berg, Stephen Elliott, and Benjamin Percy.

In an ideal world, what place will Monkeybicycle occupy in 5 years?

It's always been a goal of ours to make Monkeybicycle accessible to as many people as possible. That's part of why we try to diversify our content. We believe the more people we can get our books into the hands of (or the more visitors we can get to our site), the better off our contributors will be. Essentially, for us, it's all about the contributors. If we can turn new people onto their work and get them some fans, then our job is done. And if we can entertain as many people as possible, that's awesome too.

What do you think the future of the literary magazine is ?

I think literary magazines are just getting started. I'm a graphic designer at Dzanc Books and each year I work on their Best of the Web anthology. In that book is always an index of online journals in the back, and with each book we've done over the past four years, that index has grown and grown.

The one change I do see happening now is that web publication is becoming as sought after as print used to be. When we started Monkeybicycle everyone wanted to see their work in print. But now, with so many online journals appearing, I think it's validated the medium. And also, as technology grows, I think there are a lot of clever editors out there that are going to take advantage of new ways to get their publications to people.

It's actually a very exciting time for literature in my mind. Of course, as a book designer, the idea of print going away is kind of scary though. Not that it ever will completely.

Do your editors still manage to write their own stuff?

Just about everyone writes except me. My co-editor, Shya Scanlon, just released his first novel, Forecast. Our web editor, Jessa Marsh, has been in school while working with us, but still manages to turn out great stories whenever she can. Our poetry editor, Jacob Smith, is in grad school studying acting, so that's more of what he's focusing on. I imagine he's writing as well though. And Laura Carney, our copyeditor, is a full-time journalist and also writes personal essays.

As for me, I just try to find as much graphic design work as I can and update my blog on occasion.

I bet you make a lot of money and throw extravagant parties, right?

You have no idea. Our last issue made so much money that we rented a penthouse in SoHo and bought two white tigers. Which reminds me, I need to update our mailing address inside the next issue.

For more articles on lit mags, see The Used Furniture Review, Literary Magazines on the Make?, and The death of more time.


Stephen Corey said...

Some folks say that any notice is better than no notice at all, so I suppose I should be pleased that THE GEORGIA REVIEW is on your brief sample list of your father's and grandfather's literary magazines. Trusting that a print journal can still be considered an aspect of the publishing scene--as, say, the first excellent restaurant in town doesn't have to stop serving up great food just because a second such opens--I'll invite your readers to check out our pages and decide for themselves which generation(s) our writers and artists may serve.

Stephen Corey

Grant Faulkner said...

Thanks for your comments, Stephen, and I'm sorry you were chagrined by my characterization of traditional print literary journals.

I didn't mean to say that a print journal couldn't be relevant, just that many aren't as relevant as they could or should be these days. I happen to prefer reading print in general, if only because I grew up with print. That said, so many print lit journals have become stiff, complacent, unadventurous, and, um, boring.

For years I've asked my writer friends if they read the journals they submit to, and almost across the board they don't. This is a broad group of MFA types who submit to journals like the Georgia Review because of its esteemed place in the literary hierarchy, but they don't read it, even though they're avid readers in general. That tells me that something is wrong with the traditional lit journals (I'll hope that the Georgia Review is an exception).

To use your analogy of restaurants, there's no reason for the first excellent restaurant in town to stop serving up great food just because a second one opens, but sometimes that first restaurant needs to update its menu and decor.

So many traditional lit journals have a closed, institutional feel. They offer the same genres of expression with the same precious literary packaging that they have for eons, whereas I see so many online lit journals embody a lively, risky, fun approach to writing. That's why we all got into it, right--for that ebullient spark of creativity?

It's nice that some of the traditional lit mags have creatively embraced online possibilities, such as the Missouri Review. It's nice to see that the Georgia Review has a Web component, even if you only offer excerpts of your pieces. But print journals like the Georgia Review need to go further than excerpts. How many people are buying your mag based on excerpts? Why can't you make pieces available in their entirety online? Why can't you have a Web component that goes beyond the print publication? Why can't you break out of some of the traditional genres that you publish? Look at online journals such as Monkeybicycle and many others, which venture into new spaces to spice up and expand the possibilities of expression.

I'm sorry, but your website smacks of an old world model. I'm happy to see that you're on Twitter and Facebook, etc., but your publishing and editorial model is limited in its exclusive approach. For example, the premise of your tagline is exclusive: "Bringing the finest writers to the best readers." Tell me, who are the best readers? Do you really want your journal to be so narrowly focused? Even the word "finest" speaks of an old world elitist approach. Give me interesting, bold, edgy writers--fine writers are usually too fine for me.

So I guess here's what I'd tell a lot of lit print journals. Tell your chef to loosen up a bit. Those other restaurants in town are having fun, even if some people have their elbows on the table or are wearing caps inside or don't pronounce croissant quite right. But it's not generational--it's about the joy of cooking and eating. People read like they eat. They like to do it in a lively atmosphere, with people they care about, and they like to taste new and different things to stimulate their palate.