November 1st, 2010 / 3:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC}: Organizing New York Tyrant 3.2

I help to edit one magazine and I am the co-editor of another and I am not sure yet how one organizes such a thing, probably because I haven’t had to actually do it myself yet. The best analogue I know is mix CD’s, which I do make often, and about which I have many specific and strongly held opinions. What goes first in a mix CD? Well you want to put the strongest track first, but here “strongest” has a pretty specific meaning. It should probably be a pretty short song. It should be something with an impeccable sense of rhythm. It should be unbelievably entertaining, charismatic. It should leave the listener, though, with a certain yearning, a hunger for more. And it should also, at the same time, promise more. It should also perhaps be, as an opening gambit, unexpected, surprising. You don’t use the first track from someone else’s album, you probably don’t use the single. Some of these rules have easy analogues in literary magazines. Some do not.

This will attempt to be a fairly methodical exploration of the structure of a magazine, until, midway through the job, it gives up, and elicits your thoughtful constructive brilliant beautiful participation.

New York Tyrant 3.2 opens with an excerpt from A Room Forever, which is an account of the short life of Breece D’J Pancake. The excerpt contains some quotes from people who were shocked by what Breece did to himself. Then there’s a bit of a letter he wrote his mother about a dream of “the happy hunting ground.” This is a sketch, and in the manner of dreams it does not finish or especially begin. It is not overwhelming, it is not especially charismatic (more fragile), it has a sense of rhythm but the rhythm lilts rather than pound. It doesn’t quite follow any of the rules listed above, except for what is possibly the most important: the creation of yearning. We begin, in other words, with an unjust ending, with the trailing off of something that should have continued. The rest of the issue is positioned as that voice’s continuation. I won’t presume to judge whether that positioning is accurate or successful, but it’s a brave decision, and it’s exactly what editors have to do; they have to try to find a way to live in writing after the greats have died there. (We might also call this “planning the corpses.”)

The excerpt is followed by Luke Goebel’s “The Adventures of Eagle Feather.” This story is a natural follow-up, with similar-but-different dream logic, similar-but-different tone, and only a little more length. This was probably an easy decision. I like when a mix CD presents a series of songs such that each one is similar in some way to the last, but also different, such that the differences between the two and the similarities are revealing. Arrangement compares and contrasts. Ken Sparling’s “What Can The World Do For Elrond” continues this thread. The unlogic is stretched to a sort of limit, it is lengthened and made more concrete. I feel more menace in this story. Brandon Hobson’s “Downtown” concerns a son and a mother, much as the A Room Forever excerpt did, only now they are in the same room and the mother is tormenting the son. “It hurts,” she said. “It’s your fault.” It would be impolite to suggest this story is where it is in a sort of comment on or response to or echo of that first mother-son relationship.

There comes a point you figure out you’re not going to read a magazine straight through. Mine came when I had finished Elliott David’s “With Pieces,” which is perhaps the point at which the magazine becomes wholly dissociated from its beginning. While I can find connections of tone and style to the previous pieces in terms of the way the story makes me feel, it has a more concrete set of characters taking more concrete, specific actions, and a clear dramatic arc. It is longer, at thirteen pages, than most of what has come before it. (In a mix CD this is probably about the point where I feel I’ve earned a little patience from the listener: I gave them the easy fun, now I give them something a little more difficult and a little more lasting. The analogy breaks down in that this is a less difficult, more conventional story than many others in the magazine. There seems to be an amount of difficulty or challenge or whatever allowed any given piece in a literary magazine, and while the amount varies from magazine to magazine it does not vary much between stories in a given magazine, so that the shorter works in a collection will be extremely dense or challenging while the longer ones will be easier per page but as a whole when considered all at once about as difficult as the shorter thing that came before it, or maybe this is only something I feel.) Do magazine editors try to convince their readers from front to back? I feel as if Giancarlo DiTrapano is the sort of editor who does want us to read the work in the order presented. Consider, by way of evidence, the following:

Here are the page lengths of the stories in this magazine: 1, 3, 10, 3, 13, 16, 4, 2, 1, 2, 1, 6, 6, 12, 1, 3, 2, 3, 2, 13, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 16, 3, 7, 7, 2, 8, 1, 1. (The author photos lengthen the bio section probably by two or three pages, though I have seen much larger. What is the importance of the face coda? Is humanity restored at the end?)

This is, again, how you do a good mix CD. You start out with short stuff, but you don’t wait too long to put something longer in there. You tend to bunch things up according to length, a little — short tracks are followed by short tracks are followed by one or two longer tracks are followed by short tracks. When people start to feel they’re getting nowhere you give them something small and easily mastered. You let them have the triumph of finishing something. You do it again. In this way when something longer comes up you know you can beat it, you know there’s going to be an end. (Are editors worrying about attention spans? Is DiTrapano? Would it be wrong if they were? I suspect they have to. I also suspect that they have to deny it.)

Well ultimately you have to acknowledge people will probably skip something. Let’s skip around. The first story written by a woman to appear in NYT 3.2 is Amber Sparks’ 1-page story “These are Broken, Funny Days.” It’s at page 65. Its first sentence is, “I have two knives.” Its second sentence is, ‘By that I mean I have one knife plus Dave who also has a knife.” I find that really funny. Does the magazine have a knife theme? Do today’s edgy magazines more generally have a knife theme? Discuss. I went looking for more women. The pictures at the back were helpful in this, for instance eliminating M.T. Fallon as a candidate. Elizabeth Koch’s “A Gift I Could Use” is at page 131. Noy Holland is the third woman in NYT 3.2 and her story starts like this: “Me and him, we’re lovers. Sure, I know he’s a crazy motherfucker. And I’m the Banana Queen of Opelousas.” This is page 163. Is the similar page number to that of Sparks’ story a coincidence? Yes. Is it a coincidence that they begin in a similar way? (Declaration of relationship to a man, material evidence of shared insanity.) Probably. I do find the parallels suggestive, though I couldn’t say what they suggest. Both stories are first-person, voice-focused nonlinear stories in which the protagonist’s sexual morality and difficult childhood serve as principle sources of tension. One says Daddy, the other says my father. I like both stories a lot, I will flatly and honestly say more than many of the others in the magazine, which would probably have benefited from more women. (I might as well make that explicit.)

The Atticus Lish drawings that begin at 173 are like the cocking of a gun in that they signal it’s about to be over. The Sam Lipstyle story “Chapter Seventeen” is the last long story. Long in the sense of eight pages. (In a mix CD you don’t usually put very long tracks toward the end either; four minutes feels like plenty.) It concerns a failed home invasion. It feels conclusive in that it has a fair amount of epilogue, I think. Then there are two one-page pieces by Sean Kilpatrick and Bjorn Verenson.

Sean Kilpatrick’s piece is the same thing, more or less, that I have seen elsewhere from Sean Kilpatrick: “Her bible-long fuck rolled on pelts unmade, skin of an Uzi, sockets like a queen, smell underground of men balled in fertilizer, husband to the till, snow bit land curling. She got fragged in her garbage.” And so on. Normally when I make a mix CD I use the same artists twice, even three times, to create a sense of structure — once in the beginning, sometimes once in the middle, then again at the end. How does Sean Kilpatrick’s piece respond to or create structure with Breece D’J Pancake’s? We begin dreaming of a happy hunting ground. That dream floats over the book, perhaps, as we read it. It is part of the the organizing tension I feel when I read the magazine, which is a tension about cynicism and beauty, a tension about the fear of our sometimes ugly venal awful cruel world and the fear also, perhaps more pervasive and more ultimately terrifying, of finding beauty therein. Is the woman in Kilpatrick’s piece positioned by DiTrapano as the happy hunting ground? Is it the happy hunting ground’s opposite? Bjorn Verenson’s closing piece features instructions on how to “crack open your own chest to let a black wind flood out, leaving you cold and empty and pure.” Is this destruction a mode of attaining the dream? Is this offered (it would be impolite to ask, or suggest) as an explanation for the suicide with whose rehearsal the book begins? Have we been offered a method by which to understand + evaluate the aesthetic stylistic structural etc. decisions made by the writers between these heels? Maybe. Do I personally buy such an argument, in those moments where I imagine it to be made? Not really; at times I suspect we are right now bumping up against the limits of destruction as a means of creation.

The argument, if it is an argument, is at least very interesting.

What did you see in structural terms in NYT 3.2? Does it have a centerpiece? Etc.

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  1. stephen

      i also think sort of like i would with a mix cd. i’m finishing up the order and layout right now for pop serial 2. it’s been hard to pick an order. i started with your story, mike, in issue 1 because it seemed thematically to suggest “a world expanding out from one solitary individual in nature,” or something. also because it seemed striking and like a “stout” story to throw at someone right off the bat.

      ps2 is going to start with a story by miles ross. i’m not sure why. i’m following my intuition.

      i also think about varying length, switching between prose and poetry, and also where to put images since mine has lots of visual art.

  2. Mike Meginnis

      It was fun to be the first story that time. Another way to think about structure of course is the way you think about it when you’re a writer in an issue. In one magazine I have a story sort of close to an incredible story by Brian Evenson. Maybe I ought to feel shabby or something because of the proximity and how my work must look by comparison but mainly I feel special and lucky.

      Always interesting to me when a magazine starts off with a long piece. It feels super-ballsy. The last issue of Puerto did that and I thought, “That’s cool.”

  3. DiTrapano

      You know my mag better than I do. Seriously. This blew me away. Good job.

  4. Mike Meginnis

      Thanks very much. It was fun to read and write about.

  5. will

      “There comes a point you figure out you’re not going to read a magazine straight through.”

      … oh yeah?

      “This is, again, how you do a good mix CD. You start out with short stuff, but you don’t wait too long to put something longer in there. You tend to bunch things up according to length, a little — short tracks are followed by short tracks are followed by one or two longer tracks are followed by short tracks. When people start to feel they’re getting nowhere you give them something small and easily mastered. You let them have the triumph of finishing something. You do it again.”