The never-ending search for the perfect literary journal…

The launch of The White Review, the redesign of The Drawbridge, Areté still going strong, not to mention Ambit. With the sense that Granta, although perhaps a stronger magazine than it was a few years ago, is becoming more international, less distinctly British, the gap is there in the market for a replacement. If I want a literary journal to subscribe to, there is no shortage of options, so which should it be?

It turns out that over the last couple of years I’ve been buying single issues of literary and cultural journals, or magazines, or reviews, or quarterlies, or whatever they happen to call themselves, as if, consciously or unconsciously, I’ve been auditioning them for that very role. It’s time to get off the pot and sign on the direct debit dotted line.

Thinking about the precise elements that I’m looking for leads me to think, too, about what role, more generally, journals play in a reading life. You could go back to Puffin Post, or the NME, or 2000AD, but I suppose the moment that a journal really spoke to me with a genuine intellectual thrill was when in my late teens my parents gave me a subscription to Sight & Sound.

Cinema and I have since had a parting of the ways (it is an estrangement too complicated and bitter to go into here – suffice it to say that I look at a magazine like Little White Lies and wish, wish, wish that cinema and I were still friends) but the memory persists. Today, what I want, what I really, really want is a literary/cultural journal that does what Sight & Sound did then; that makes me feel engaged and informed in a way less parti pris than the cultural sections of the newspapers, and less dissipated and frenzied than the internet-based information channels.

I currently subscribe to Granta and McSweeney’s, and they both still get read, if not cover to cover. They are, though, a resource. (The TLS and LRB get read, from time to time, but I can’t store them – I want a journal that can sit on the shelves, and deserves its space on them; that is a usable resource, in short.) And the McSweeney’s are, of course, fantastically designed – distractingly so, even (as I blogged here). But these are essentially journals pushing new fiction (and, to a lesser extent, reportage and memoir.) Both make a point of excluding critical work. Which is fine, that’s their decision, but for my journal – my dream journal, the journal I want to call home – it is a fault. It somehow loosens them from the thread of history. Granta’s themed issues are often impressively urgent, but issue by issue it doesn’t answer to what I would portentously call ‘the spirit of the age.’

That’s what I’m after: the portentously-called spirit of the age.

So here are the magazines/journals/reviews I’ve bought recently, that I felt might fit the bill: Ambit (#203), Drawbridge (#19), Teller (#1), The Moth (#3), Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives (#4) and now The White Review (#1), to which I’ll also add Areté, although I don’t have a recent issue.

Let’s rattle though them:

Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives – this is a poetry magazine, from Norwich, thus I know one or two of the poets. It is impressively though simply designed, with some intriguing black and white illustrations made in response to the poetry. What it does, it does very well, but poetry is not my core interest or concern. So I pass on.

Teller – I blogged about this previously. It is certainly excellent value, especially considering the wealth of colour images, but the balance of text and image isn’t what I want – there is a comparative lack of weight to the prose selections. Moreover, it doesn’t have a spine, so disappears on the shelf. My ideal journal will call out to me as I pass, demand a second glance. A resource must be accessible, retrievable.

The Moth – I had high hopes of this; again it was inexpensive, but again it was stapled, so hard to keep track of on the shelves – in fact I can’t find my copy to write about it now. From memory, though, the fiction, of which there was plenty, was interesting rather than mind-blowing, and the non-fiction was limited to one interview.

Ambit – Ambit comes with a significant pedigree (look at that issue number – it’s been going for over fifty years!) and still upholds its support for the new and untried by refusing to commission anything. Everything it prints is unsolicited. Ambit looks good and feels good in the hand, with some b&w illustration. #203 has one thrillingly good short story (‘The Way We Live Now’ by Paul Goddard) and some equally good poetry, but really it’s the poetry/prose balance that put its out of my sweet spot, plus the only critical pieces are short poetry reviews. A remarkable and admirable publication, to be applauded for so doggedly carrying the torch for experimentation, but it doesn’t tick enough of the boxes for me, right now.

The Drawbridge – Although this is #19 in some ways it’s #1, as this intellectually out-looking journal has just relaunched in a new book-ish format. Previously, it came as a broadsheet newspaper and, I have to say, I preferred it that way. There was something exotic about reading short pieces of fiction and sometimes provocative non-fiction in this format: their length seemed to fit the constraints of the page layout. The new-look Drawbridge is, by contrast, an all-out luxury item – one issue of it costs as much as a year’s subscription to the old – and the artwork is now given proper space, not pressed into proximity with the text like photos and adverts in a newspaper, as previously.

What benefits the visual, however, harms the textual. The size of the page (19x26cm) simply doesn’t suit single column print – there’s too much white space; double column text might work better – and the exuberance of the colour images jumping out between each short stretch of prose seems to dominate proceedings, and suck energy from the words. The great benefit of the photo essay in Granta, by contrast, is that it keeps the visual element strictly constrained.

As for content, The Drawbridge is ambitiously international, with names like David Means, Mario Vargas Llosa, Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar on the cover of this issue (together with others that I felt I ought to know but didn’t), though two of those are dead, and the Vargas Llosa piece is a squib about fear of flying that would certainly never have got published without his name attached. Such cosmopolitanism does, however, mean that it doesn’t feel particularly British or English – which is not a criticism, just that I’m after something that feels like it’s looking at the world from a particular cultural-geographic standpoint.

The final comment on the journal is that, like Granta, it gives each issue a theme, which to my mind is a demerit. Granta, at least, refuses to limit its themes to a single category (the last four are ‘Aliens’, ‘Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists’, ‘Pakistan’, ‘Going Back’). The Drawbridge sticks to nouns, often abstract (‘Flight’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Action’, ‘Money’) which often seems like a way of hedging their bets – appearing to be adventurous in their editorial process while keeping things vague enough to let any old thing in.

Areté – Another serious contender for the ideal journal, which I occasionally buy and often consider subscribing to. It is intellectually rigorous, with a pleasing balance between fiction and criticism; definitely British in outlook, though hardly parochial; featuring an impressive list of contributors; and elegantly presented, with a defiant lack of qualms about having no visual element whatsoever. If something has stopped me signing on the direct debit dotted line, it is the occasional snarky tone, with its combative ‘Our Bold’ sections and willingness to enter into internecine literary warfare that, though admirable in some respects, can be tiresome for the general reader.

By now I think I’ve worked out the criteria for my perfect literary quarterly:

  • content should be largely divided between new fiction and new critical/non-fiction writing.
  • visual art and poetry are secondary, and neither is indispensable.
  • good design is more important than artwork.
  • finally, it should situate itself historically and geographically, should look forwards and backwards in equal measure, should consider the portentously-named spirit of the age, and should do all of this from somewhere that feels rooted in the British intellectual heritage.

 

All of which is a preamble to the announcement that I have found what I hope will be the journal of my dreams, although, as it’s only at the first issue, that declaration of love could turn out to be drastically premature.

The White Review is a new British-based journal that fulfils all of these personal requirements. The first issue (170pp, 17x24cm – just that crucial bit smaller than The Drawbridge) contains three interviews (Tom McCarthy, Paula Rego and publisher André Schiffrin – whose name they misspell at one critical point) plus an illuminating discussion about cut-up innovator Brion Gysin, two stories, a handful of poems and prose-poems, one photo section with accompanying essay, and five further essays ranging from the critical to the reportage. That balance feels almost perfect to me.

The artwork, of which there is not too much, is all black and white, which I think in the end is preferable to the distraction of colour. The design is superb, with a marbled bookmark carrying the table of contents and an ingenious cover that folds out to form a poster (though its very origami-like beauty means it’s sadly at risk of damage over time, as it gets put in and out of bags, pulled on and off the shelf). At £14 – roughly the same as The Drawbridge but significantly more than £8 Areté – it’s expensive, but feels worth the money.

I haven’t read all of it yet, but everything that I have read was stimulating and felt like it belonged together with the other pieces. The interview with Tom McCarthy, especially, was a pleasant surprise; he came across as less arch than he has in other contexts, and set me happily scribbling notes and graphs into response to his comments about character and narrative. It’s neat, too, that one of the magazine’s two stories, ‘Beyond The Horizon’ by Patrick Langley, gives a nice echo of ‘C’, with its anonymous short-wave radio transmissions pulsing out through a fractured contemporary world.

The editors of The White Review set out their stall by referring to La Revue Blanche, a Parisian review of a century ago that rode the rising wave of Modernism, which epoque they honour with translations of two poems by Rimbaud contemporary Charles Cros (the translations presented, as they should be, alongside the originals). The names popping up in the other essays – George Steiner, Milan Kundera, Primo Levi – and the views taken on post-War German architecture and contemporary uprisings in India, show a cosmopolitan view, though certainly nothing to frighten the horses. Areté perhaps gives a stronger sense of its own, as opposed to a borrowed, or received identity.

Enough. I want to get back to reading, and to writing, which is the point after all. The upshot of my search? Reader, I subscribed to The White Review – though with a definite intention to do the same to Areté when funds become available.

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3 comments

  1. Lee Monks

    Great stuff – The White Review looks rather good indeed, but I have to make a tame confession, one that will out me as a bit of a wimp, I’m afraid – the £14 touted, whilst under other circumstances would not be an issue, put up against, say, the posthumous Foster Wallace at £13, would always lose out. How I wish I had the resources to back such an admirable enterprise. If it was even half that it may be a different story.

    Can you provide a brief glimpse, even a haiku, on why you and the cinema parted ways?

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Fair point on the pricing, Lee – I suppose I’d made the decision to throw my money somewhere, in the hope that finding a journal that meets my demands would make me a better person. Let’s wait and see.

    As for cinema, *sigh*, I may write something properly about this, but in a nutshell, it’s partly about the move from cinema to sofa, and from film to DVD, and partly something to do with the fact that, for a decade or so of my life, film was my ideal artistic medium, intellectually and socially, in that you could see a film with your mates, it’s over in 90 minutes, and then you can go to the bar and discuss it for the rest of the night. Social life changes, my intellectual interests shift. When I was a teenager, watching a film on telly I watched it *as if I was at the cinema*; now, when I watch a film in the cinema, I feel as if I’m at home watching a DVD. I did go to a film evening last year in south London in an art deco pub where we saw a silent film (‘Piccadilly’ starring Anna May Wong) accompanied by accordionist Igor Outkine, and that was a great evening. People there to engage with the film, not just be entertained (distracted).

    Or maybe if Hal Hartley had kept making good films then cinema and I would still be good friends.

    • Lee Monks

      Interesting: having recently watched someone phone someone else who was SAT TOWARDS THE BACK ROW OF THE SAME SCREENING and having become more and more tetchy at the surely burgeoning (or is it me? Is it all me? Am I ever more an intolerant curmudgeon? I’m not entirely sure) hyper-infantesque eating habits at screenings, during which attempts at inconspicuous grabbing at popcorn and Haribo and Doritos couldn’t possibly sound more conspicuous (a slow, ‘delicate’ delve into a paper bag full of tuck just lasts longer and is no less loud!), etc, I sympathise with anyone throwing in the towel there.

      Most people, even those in ‘arthouse’ cinema audiences, are probably on a high-percentage ‘distract’ ratio. And encroaching mainstream programming, in mine anyway, mean that opportunities for collectively unfettered pilgrimages, as it were, are diminishing. I’m pretty sure there used to be more retrospectives that were actually interesting, as opposed to tenuous recycling. Anyway…

      Hal Hartley: indeed. The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, to name two, don’t really have any contemporary comparisons, unless I’ve missed them. I don’t know. I might’ve hoped to have a better repsonse there. Though I did watch a film last night, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, that might well invigorate even the weariest of cinematic enthusiasms.

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