“The Mix Tapes of Literature” – Why You Need to Be Reading Literary Magazines

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This month, the Sewanee Review — the historic literary journal published just down the road from Nashville at the University of the South — celebrates its 500th issue. Are literary magazines having a moment? To watch them flying off our periodicals shelf, you might think so. We asked Adam Ross, the Review‘s editor, to contemplate just what it is that literary journals add to a book-lover’s reading life. He writes:


Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 4.52.34 PMLiterary magazines are — to date myself — the mix tapes of literature or, to update myself, the Pandora or Spotify of the literary world, but without the algorithms. That’s to say, without the bots. They’re personalized offerings from very conscientious readers and publishers made just for you, the curious reader who wants to know what’s out there or what’s coming down the pike.

You might’ve dipped into our summer issue, for instance, and read Richard Russo’s remarkable essay “Getting Good,” about how he became a novelist, seen through the lens of his relationship with his father, a union man, and his grandfather, a glove maker. It was a piece you wouldn’t have stumbled upon anywhere else because of its length: it ran nearly 20,000 words. And that piece was placed alongside stories from Ben Loory’s new collection, Tales of Falling and Flying, which has received all sorts of great press, and debut fiction by Vanderbilt MFA grad Lee Conell, and other writers new to our pages, like Ben Eisman or Charlotte Pence.

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The 500th issue will arrive on newsstands soon, and in Sewanee later this month with a big launch party. If you’re up for the drive, it’s open to the public on October 26 at 7 p.m., featuring special guests Ben Fountain, Sidik Fofana, Justin Taylor, Hannah Pittard and more.

The same is true for our fall issue — our 500th — in our 125th year of publication. We are, it always bears repeating, the oldest continuously published quarterly in America, but in the last year we’ve enjoyed a revamp, which the The New York Times covered so beautifully, and in this issue’s pages you can read a similarly long story by National Book Critics Circle Award winner Ben Fountain, an essay on craft by (again) Pulitzer-prize winner Richard Russo. These run alongside debut fiction by Elizabeth Weld and another story from a writer whose work we were the first to publish this past winter, Sidik Fofana, along with fiction by the remarkable Danielle Evans, whose first collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, won the 2011 PEN/Robert Bingham Prize and whose work has appeared in the 2008, 2010, and 2016 Best American Short Stories. And then there’s nonfiction by the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten (writing about youth hockey) and Louisa Thomas (writing about Ralph Waldo Emerson) along with the great Francine Prose, who recalls the memorial speech she gave for Stanley Elkin. This with images from our archive of writers who’ve written for the Review, such as Eudora Welty, Howard Nemerov, Ezra Pound, and Flannery O’Connor.

Which brings me to the most important point: American literature is healthy when the nation’s literary magazines are thriving, because it’s the job of their editors to be those aforementioned alogorithmatists, to identify new talent and publish those up-and-comers while also giving more established writers the platform to tackle subjects they might not elsewhere or otherwise. To lovers of good writing, then, I implore you to subscribe — to the Review, of course, at TheSewaneeReview.com — but also to visit your local bookstore’s periodicals section and check out what’s out there. Lit mags make for the greatest nightstand reading or after-dinner sampling. Maybe they’re a cheese plate. If that’s the trope I’m ending on, then please, give one a try.

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A not-even-remotely exhaustive list of great literary magazines you might want to check out: Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Granta, Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), Poetry, PEN America, The Georgia Review, Tin House, A Public SpaceEcotone, Zoetrope: All-Story . . . (Really, this list could go on forever. Come browse!)