Thursday, December 07, 2006
Ordinarily, we here at stevereads regard with sad-eyed pity those wretched creatures who take it into their heads to create that most despised of our brethren, the literary journal.
We think always of the impossibly long odds, the frightful financial outlay, the obstinately recalcitrant contributors, the staggering unreliability of the talent (or lack thereof) pool. We shudder at pitiless odds of success.
Truly blessed are those literary journals that start off life with a dedicated cadre of talented content-providers. Of course the go-to fantasy template here is the New York Review of Books, or more recently the Believer.
Alternately, a good launch-sequence is a fiercely strong editorial vision, one that can potentially override any of the obstacles that hobble or eliminate lesser endeavors.
A loyal reader has brought before our attention here at Stevereads one such of the latter kind, an enterprising young literary journal called New Genre (oh very well! The reader was my young friend Sebastian, who flung the latest New Genre on his gold-inlaid teak coffee table and plaintively cried out 'Should I CARE about this? Because I have to tell you, between the new Clinique line and this Darfur business, I've only a certain amount of CARE left to go around!" Whereupon he flopped down on his Italian leather half-sofa and was served an early martini by the long-suffering Fulke).
Through a little industry on the part of our unpaid, unappreciated intern staff, we now have the first four issues of New Genre before us.
The first thing that should be pointed out is that the journal's title is a misnomer. Actual honest-to-gosh new genres are as rare as hen's teeth, and they arise from totally unforseen circumstances (science fiction from the rise of science, for instance, and chick lit from the faux-empowerment of the late 90s that allowed women to be as stupid and lazy as men). This is a science-fiction/horror journal. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Nothing wrong, and nothing small-time: New Genre is a very attractive proposition, square-bound, clean-paged, with none of the idiotic, needy graphics that usually bedevil such organs. For your $8, you get a professionally put-together product without the smallest wiff of amateurism.
But surely that's not enough, you object? Like Sebastian (well, perhaps not EXACTLY like ... he weathers his frustrations at the family's private estate at the Isla de Malpelo, with its panoramic ocean views, whereas some of the rest of us have to muddle through on Main Street like plain folks), you must be wondering - what separates this from all the other like journals out there? The Alaska Quarterly (don't laugh - they pull their weight more often than not), Kenyon, Ohio, Story TriQuarterly, and (of course, given the givens) the Iowa Review ... they all offer relatively the same merits - professional packaging, modest pricetag (considering the, shall we say, elastic nature of their publishing scedules), clean, well-lit pages.
The selling-point as it were, lies at least partly in the intangibles. In editiorial vision, in aesthetic discrimination ... in short, in the editors' ability to PICK GOOD STORIES.
That's really it, isn't it? That's really it with ANY of these square-bound aspirants for our dollar and attention: do they provide the goods? Do they pick good stories?
Rest assured: the good folks at New Genre pick good stories. For the most part. And considering that one must GET good stories in order to pick them. Can't make bricks without straw, and all that.
The journal is edited jointly by Adam Golaski and Jeff Paris - the former holding sway over horror submissions and the latter over science fiction. They seem to enter very little on each other's domain - the science fiction stories all read very much of a piece, slangy and often stand-outishly good (whether this is a reflection of submission-quality or editorial sleight-of-hand is question only Mama Paris' little boy could answer accurately). The horror stories are very different - far more atmospheric, far heavier and more prolix (a distressing number of them seem to feel that dialogue is a frilly little option when it comes to writing real, he-manly prose).
The result is weird - and, it should immediately be added, extremely pleasing - dissonance in every issue. This is perhaps not what our editors would wish - at least judging from the title they chose for their enterprise, they might ideally hope to be closer to the same page, content-wise. But it benefits the reader, so our editors will just have to suffer in silence on the point.
Every issue has highlights, of course, and this four-issue run has standout items that will stick with the reader long after the more makeweight stories have filtered back into the background noise. This is the way with all literary journals, alas. The key, as far as the potential consumer is concerned, is a matter of ratio: is there enough good stuff to justify plunking for the cover price (in this case, New Genre starts at a reasonable $5 and then promptly jumps to a more daunting $8)(a note to our editors: ANY purchase that gives the buyer chump-change from a $10 bill is going to be considered major ... this reviewer, all innocent of overhead realities, but noticing that the journal offers only a handful of stories per issue, humbly suggests returning to the $5 level)?
The answer, at least when it comes to New Genre, is yes.
The standard of quality is refreshingly high across the board, and even what editorial lapses there are seldom detract from the reader's enjoyment. In some of the horror stories, mood is allowed to flourish at the expense of plot-sense, and in a few of the science fiction stories, gimmicky orthography is allowed to stand in place of narrative. In neither case are these lapses fatal: horror readers tend to LIKE mood, after all, and gimmicky orthography is the closest many science fiction readers will come to sex.
And in the meantime, every issue features not only a few pieces of good prose but at least one piece of really great prose. The first issue's highlight is Charlee Jacob's sweet, elegaic "The Pentacles of Their Hands." Issue #3's "Inside Everything is an Engine" by Thomas Dunford is strong and almost visionary in its clarity. In issue #4, Paul Glister's "Three Views from Deir el-Medina" is precisely one of those aforementioned stories that will stick with the reader long after the issue is read.
Issue #2 hits the high point of the run to date, with an absolutely fantastic story called "Wonderfreaks" by New Genre's most reliable star, Jan Wildt.
"Wonderfreaks" is the best thing so far found by New Genre, just as Wildt is the most promising writer in their stable. In fact, finding a writer as smart and talented as Wildt BEFORE the mainstream world does is one of the signal little joys of literary journals.
There are many such little joys - and a few big ones - in every issue of New Genre. Adam Golaski and Jeff Paris have concocted a (fairly) regularly realized literary journal of considerable worth to the general reader.
There's a caveat, one small one. Anyone familiar with literary journals will be able to guess what it is: yep, the proprietors. It's their party, and they almost always feel behooved to weigh in, to hold court for their readers before ushering them into the presence of their authors. It's an age-old rule: you have to tip a glass with the founders of the feast before you're allowed to talk with anybody interesting.
Editor essays are always quease-making little models of pompous sophisitry. It's distressing, but alas, it's the lay of the land. Somebody has to pay for the party, after all.
The amazing - and, oddly, pleasing - thing about New Genre's editor-prefaces is that just as the editors split the genre requirements right down the line, they also split the opening-comments requirements 50-50. Paris handles the sophistry, and Golaski handles the pomposity. And boy! Both are good at their roles! Paris aimlessly woolgathers during his essays, and Golaski's are so turgidly Olympian they could only have been written by a very young man (we've set an intern to Google Golaski's age, but the intern in question has a notorious drinking problem and has yet to supply the requested number).
But these introductions can be skipped - or else winkingly enjoyed! The real pleasures of New Genre lie well past the anteroom antics of its editors - the real pleasures of this neat little periodical arise from the fact that Paris and Golaski pretty consistently pick good stories. Even in our burgeoning literary scene, that's no inconsiderable thing.
So the answer to Sebastian's bleated plaint is yes. Yes, even in this crowded, shouting world, we should all care about New Genre. It and its sister publications are all that stand between us and a great deafening wave of corporate-sponsored least-common-denominator prose.
So hie thee hence to your local Barnes & Noble and ask them in a civil manner to take in New Genre! They ought to, and you ought to too.