Behind the Curtain: A Magazine Roundtable

8 Mar

Everyone complains about the cost of living in New York City, but I’ve never lived in any other town or city that offered such amazing free events.  It was a Leap Day miracle when McNally Jackson’s Bookstore held a free literary event featuring the esteemed literary editors of top magazines.  Behind the Curtain: A Magazine Roundtable brought together Deborah Treisman of The New Yorker, James Marcus of Harper’s, and Ellah Allfrey of Granta for a conversation moderated by Granta editor John Freeman.

 

 

And like all worthwhile free events, this one was PACKED!  Even many who got there early had to stand in the aisles of bookshelves because there were so many attendees.  Those who got there late listened from the stairs.  It was worth it.

The editors discussed using interns—MFA candidates, mind you, not undergrad students—to read through the slush pile (unsolicited manuscripts).  The result was that some interns turned away some really great work before the editors had a chance to see it, while other interns erred on the side of caution, passing too many candidates along to the editors.  I’ve read through slush piles for my grad school’s lit mag and for the children’s book department at my office, and what struck me was how patient the panelists were.  Reading through slush piles is a lot like panning for gold: most of it is just dirt that should be tossed out.

 

 

The panelist of editors were genuinely excited about working with new authors—even to the point of overlooking cover letters with the nebulous “Dear Editor/Reader.”  At one point, Freeman asked Granta’s associate editor Patrick Ryan, who was in the audience, to come up and share heartfelt stories of giving first-time contributors their big break.  For those looking to break into lit mags, it’s reassuring to know that the editors really do want to find great, undiscovered writers and are even willing to go through several rounds—one editor mentioned an astounding twenty-one!—of revisions to get a solid piece of work from a writer just starting out in his or her career.

Treisman, Marcus, and Allfrey also talked about what sort of writing they’re looking for, and while responses and desires ranged it was clear that they’re looking not only for high-quality writing (in fact, they admitted to sometimes having to turn away well-written pieces simply because the timing wasn’t right) but for writing that is unique, that covers an area that is has been underserved.  This includes writers from areas of the world where literature isn’t being promoted in the United States or England.

 

 

The magazine editors addressed the VIDA controversy, admitting that magazines are failing when it comes to representing women writers.  Treisman said there is a generational divide.  Older women weren’t submitting work to The New Yorker at the same rate as their male counterparts.  Today’s younger generation of women writers, though, are more apt to submit their work to bigger magazines earlier on in their writing careers.  The practical application here is that women writers should be submitting their work to big-name publications.

The big take-away from the night was that the short-story form is not dead.  As someone with a book publishing background, I’ve been taught to be leery of short-story collections.  They just don’t sell.  I’ve repeated this to hopeful writer friends of mine, perhaps crushing their tender, creative spirits.  However, it was clear from the Behind the Curtain discussion that, though the amount of publications have diminished, there are still beloved magazines publishing works of short fiction.  A lot of these magazines also publish personal essays.

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2 Responses to “Behind the Curtain: A Magazine Roundtable”

  1. Ron Fischman March 12, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

    Interesting about the concept of the short story being dead. Of course, I am reminded about Monty Python’s Mary, Queen of Scots skit (“Not dead yet!!”). But shorter writing is often where the new artist (I did this as a musical composer first) hones his or her craft. My current project is a novel that is written so that each chapter, while contributing to the overall story, reads like a short story of 500-2,000 words!

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  1. Granta Publishes Travel Issue | Stephanie Nikolopoulos - July 2, 2013

    […] case you missed it, here’s my recap of hearing Freeman speak about […]

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