Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Writers Taking Risks: A Review of Hobart No. 14

The literary ecosystem is seriously damaged.

Here's an illustrative data point: According to Duotrope, there are 248 publications, print and online, that accept short fiction and list "literary" as a style attribute, and that pay their contributors at least a token monetary sum. Even though I work at a reasonably well-endowed liberal arts college, only a small fraction of those 248 publications are subscribed to by our library. Even though I have a reasonably well-paying job, to subscribe to all 248 would likely require about 12% of my annual take-home pay. (That's a very rough estimate.)

And of those publications, only a small number have likely been heard of by anyone on the faculty other than the small number of folks in the English department who teach creative writing. That is leaving aside, for now, the "genre" ghetto. Here is another, more anecdotal piece of information: Last week I went out to dinner with two colleagues from the college, one an administrator and psychology faculty member, the other a curator from our museum. When I mentioned that I had had some recent success in getting a couple of my stories published, the only venue they could think to ask about was The New Yorker. (Full disclosure: I did submit a story to The New Yorker a couple months ago, and it hasn't been rejected yet. Hope springs eternal in a writer's breast.) These two highly educated, broadly cultured, well read individuals would not have had the slightest idea where else to look for short fiction. That's one publication, out of 248.

Another very different publication of the 248 is Hobart. I had not known of their existence until about three weeks ago, when I was reading the latest collection of Pushcart Prize winners. There I read Roxane Gay's prize-winning story, and noted that it was originally published in Hobart. (I'll note for the record that there was another Pushcart-winner from Hobart this year, but I don't remember it well enough to say anything positive or negative about it.) I'd certainly never seen it stocked at Longfellow Books, the Portland bookstore on which I rely for literary magazine purchases. So I did the only rational thing, started following them on Twitter, and when they offered PDF review copies of their latest issue, No. 14, I jumped.

For me, it was one of the most enjoyable literary magazines I have read in years. I felt the same excitement that I did years ago when picking up the earliest issues of Tin House or McSweeney's. Every story took risks. Not every story succeeded--or perhaps I should say, worked for me--but that is in the nature of writing that takes risks. Out of 13 pieces, there were three that I loved enough that I would urge anyone to buy a copy for the pleasure of reading these stories:

  1. Charles McLeod, "Steps for Home Tooth Extraction, Berkeley, 2006"
  2. Patrick Somerville, "The Legend of Troy Cartwright"
  3. Courtney Maum, "The Bashful Yeti Tree Sculpture, Guarder of the Pond"

I say this with no intention of slighting the other writers whose work appears in this issue. I strongly liked the majority of stories in the issue, and even of those that did not work for me, I respected the writers for what they were attempting and the editors for seeing something worthy in it. I wish I could say this more often.

Instead of impoverishing the world by adding to the all-too-rich stock of commentary, I'll tease you with sentences from each of those pieces:

  • McLeod: "Offer the nighttime your very best yawp and with one more tug, have your work be over, relief arriving as a rich mineral taste that leaks out of then drains down inside you."
  • Maum: "In Kanchenjunga, we have numbers: I was number seven."
  • Somerville: "If you loaned Troy a dollar, he’d ask you for seven, and if you gave him that, he’d start calling you up in the middle of the night, asking whether family meant anything anymore, and if it did, could you possibly wire six-thousand five hundred seventy six dollars to a specific Western Union in Salt Lake City."

So please buy it. Among other reasons, because on their submissions page they say "We are currently closed for print submissions, and will be closed for the forseeable future, likely until we get Hobart 14 ready for print, we get better caught up with other projects, and we figure out if we can actually afford to continue printing these things." And because, according to Duotrope, they don't pay for the pieces they publish online, so I would want to submit to the print edition, if I had anything to submit. Which I might, if I had some peculiar story that did not fit comfortably with preferences of any of the more cautious journals. Perhaps they would not publish it: I'd hope that they have enough time to write a short rejection note, but even a form rejection would do. And even if they did select it for publication, I'd be inordinately grateful, because it likely wouldn't be the best story in the issue, not based on what I've seen. More likely, it would have just squeaked through, because its idiosyncrasies vibrated in sympathy with those of one of the editors. I could live with that, really I could. But if you didn't buy Hobart and another good journal goes belly up, well, then we need to talk.

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