Getting to Know the Local Literati: A Round-up of Five Lit Journals
The east coast/west coast literary divide may still exist but it isn't the deeply cut chasm it once was. The literary community has morphed into a tangled web of relationships as writers and editors move around the country. More literary journals are now based on the west coast and the San Francisco Bay Area is home to several. Following is a round-up of five Bay Area journals, providing writers with information to help with submissions.
Driftwood: a literary journal of voices from afar was first published in October, 2005 by founder and editor Michael Colonna. Its tag line succinctly explains the journal's premise. Colonna's passion for the written word and his inability to find pieces about the foreign experience in American journals prompted him to start Driftwood . “I wanted pieces written in English that talk about the U.S. in terms of immigration or alienation (as well as) experiences that take place abroad,” he said. Colonna brings to his work his own international perspective; he is a native of Italy who has lived in the U.S. for 23 years, the last three in San Francisco.
When asked about how the journal has changed since its inception, he noted that his affiliation with the Abroad Writers Conference has been fruitful. Winners of its annual writing competition get published in the journal along with the unsolicited submissions. Where does Colonna see Driftwood in five years? He sees the journal being a point of reference for the international perspective. “A platform for the next Salman Rushdie!”
Writers' Tip: From writers, Colonna looks for pieces that “possess originality in approach and compelling characters…touch on the human side of the story and the struggles of humanity.”
In 2003 author Dave Eggers expanded McSweeneys, his independent publishing house, with the literary magazine, The Believer . Managing editor Andrew Leland came on board with the second issue; he said Eggers designed the first issue, which is still used as the magazine's template. Leland said it began as a “forum for longer, stranger things that ought to have been published but would be truncated or cramped in another venue.” The intention was to create a place that would support literary endeavors and creativity. Since its inception, it has expanded on a number of fronts: more art coverage, book reviews, and “theme” issues, which entail producing CD's and DVD's. A book imprint has now emerged from this multi-faceted venture.
Where does Leland see The Believer in five years? “We'll be publishing more journalism and we'll have more of a budget to send journalists on assignment...more theme issues and more interactive madness on our website.”
Writers' Tip: Leland said, “We're looking for energy, originality and intelligence in the submissions. The best pieces are marked by a seriousness without fussiness, and humor.”
Wendy Lesser started The Threepenny Review in 1980 because she saw a public need. “There were many writers and readers with no publications at their level on the west coast; they were all on the east coast,” she said. Lesser created the journal to serve the west coast audience. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of nonfiction and poetry writers she publishes still come from the west coast; the fiction writers come from across the country. Lesser laments that she receives far fewer nonfiction submissions, especially shorter essays for the journal's diverse “Table Talk” section.
Lesser realizes she has found a formula that works; the journal's content and overall format has changed very little over the 27 years. These days she is increasingly impressed with translation pieces and acknowledged that her new advisory relationship with Hunter College may spark a new source of submissions. Where does Lesser see The Threepenny Review in five years? “Where it is now…hope to stay the same.” In five years, it will be in its fourth decade of publication.
Writers' Tip: “For fiction, I look for a sense of voice that is coherent and is really speaking to me. There's no attempt to be objective in the selection process,” Lesser said. For non-fiction, Lesser looks for interesting pieces that also have a personal voice.
Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola moved his literary journal, Zoetrope: All-Story, from New York to San Francisco in 2002, five years after its inception and following recognition by the east coast literary community. It is a financially self-sustaining journal currently breaking-even, which is made possible by the many volunteers working with the small paid staff. The current editor, Michael Ray, joined Zoetrope: All-Story in 2001. He says that Coppola has a fundamental interest in storytelling and created the journal to support new fiction writers. It started out as a newsprint broadsheet similar to a small newspaper. It was hard to distribute and display so they switched to its current bound journal format in 2003.
Though unsolicited submissions are the primary source, some published pieces come from Zoetrope's Virtual Studio. This is a collaborative online tool allowing writers to receive feedback from others in the studio. Stories receiving very high ratings from this workshop process get noticed by Ray. Where does Ray see Zoetrope: All-Story in five years? “It will be doing great story-telling in a way that I can not anticipate. Maybe a new form of publication, a different manifestation but same high quality.”
Writers' Tip: Ray does not look for stories with broad appeal but rather searches for interesting, compelling ideas. “Ideally, half the readers (of any piece) would love it and half would hate it. This is better than everyone being ambivalent.”
ZYZZYVA may be considered the embodiment of the west coast mindset, if defined in purely geographical terms. Writers published in the journal must reside in one of the five states bordering, or actually in—as in Hawaii's case—the Pacific Ocean. Howard Junker, founding editor, started the journal in 1985 because “the west coast did not have a great literary magazine, except for Wendy's ( The Threepenny Review ) and that was more scholarly. West coast writers were under-represented.” He added that on a personal level, he needed something to do since he was not working at the time. Previously, he worked in communications for a large local company and starting a literary journal seemed like a good next step.
When asked how the journal has changed since its inception, Junker said in the early days he wanted famous writers. Now, he does not solicit writers and depends entirely on the slush pile for the pieces published. Where does Junker see ZYZZYVA in five years? “I'll be gone!” He says that he and ZYZZYVA 's board are not sure of its fate at this point. “It's remarkable that it has been able to continue for so long…so many people want to get published.”
Writers' Tip: Junker says that he does not look for anything specific when selecting pieces to be published. “I just want to see what the writer is saying.”
Driftwood: a literary journal of voices from afar