Friday Findings: december magazine, American Short Fiction, Thrice Fiction
The gritty, the themed, the experimental
In which, today being Friday, I pull some lit mags off my shelf and talk about what is inside them.
If you’re tired of literature about the agony of planning dinner parties, the excruciating tedium of married life, or other discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, then please let me introduce you to december magazine. A long-standing magazine founded in 1958 and revived in 2013 after a 32-year hiatus, december publishes a variety of work that some might classify as “earthy” or “gritty,” but which I just like to think of as real life for most people.
In december’s winter issue, I fell in love at first sentence with Adam Fout’s story, “Cellophane Plains:” “They are men who live at the edges of cracked needles and cellophane, gravel men who carve allowances for decay and rust in their lives.”
Fout takes us into the lives of people on the brink, living “in a flyover state,” where “[e]ven the dregs of the middle class would rather take a plane than risk stopping inside.”
I was not surprised to learn, in his bio, that Fout “was an addict for nine years” and that he works as an “addiction/recovery/mental health blogger.” Fout’s depictions of addiction are some of the clearest and most resonant I’ve read in a long time:
A timeless drive from Lawrence in the snow, wind pushing the car from lane to lane. One long empty highway from A to B to C to A. Sky from clear to gray to black to clear. None of that matters. The world is a thing that happens at the edges of us.
december publishes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The prose is on the short side, which allows for a wealth of contributors. In this issue you will find “Dental Anthropology,” a charming poem by Mike Good about life lived with a cracked tooth. (Having recently cracked my own tooth, impossibly, on a cube of tofu, I very much related to “hard bacon, anything, it is not difficult to break in the absence of light/ we learn again and again…”.)
Other work takes us into the uncomfortable but necessary intimacy of gynecologist appointments (“Her Voice” by Gabriela Halas); a woman smoking her last menthol before setting ablaze the house she has shared with her abusive husband (“Smoke” by Mary Vensel White); a visit to a man on Death Row (“Death Watch” by Lisa Knopp); the experience of an ER nurse (“Let Loose” by Craig Reinbold); a daughter struggling with her mother’s nursing-home love life (“Besame Mucho” by Susan Heeger); a poem composed exclusively of poetry workshop comments (“Self-Portrait With Moths and Supreme Discomfort” by Lance Carpenter); and much, much more.
In keeping with the real-people feel of this magazine, it seems that contributors are encouraged to not only share the standard list of credentials in their bios, but also something personal about who they are. Thus we learn that Carpenter “enjoys hiking” and “sitting on his porch,” while other contributors “have a lifelong fascination with cults,” “is an avid fan of college football,” and “is a distance runner, which enables him to eat 2-3 pounds of chocolate a week.” Many of the contributors to this issue are being published for the first time.
Also very worthy of mention here are the visual artists. It’s always a treat when lit mags can showcase the work of visual artists, which is surely no low-cost thing to reproduce well. december has their own Art Editor, and in his Editor’s Note, Buzz Spector introduces the stunning work of the issue’s two artists, Brian Dettmer and Ebony Patterson, both of whom employ the theme of gardens to wild and magical effect.
American Short Fiction
Ebony Patterson’s artwork is also featured on the cover of the winter issue of American Short Fiction. This issue is dedicated to emerging Black writers.
I always get a bit nervous when I see single issues of literary magazines dedicated to the work of marginalized identity groups. Naturally, inclusion of a variety of voices should be a number one priority for all editors. But, I can’t help but wonder, to what degree are these issues attempts at brand management for the lit mags themselves? Will engagement with these concerns continue long after the spotlight is off this particular struggle?
Back in 2010, when VIDA first revealed the extent of the exclusion of women in the publishing world, responses from publishers were sure and quick. Whole issues were dedicated to women writers. Social media threads identified the journals that had women at the helm. Granta dedicated its 2011 issue to “the F word,” in which a wealth of women writers “explore[d] the ways in which feminism continues to inform, address and complicate that balance [of power].” Suddenly, Feminism was hot again.
Then, what happened? Greater parity has been achieved in many lit mags. (And our notions of representation have evolved along with our notions of gender.) Yet in society at large, women are still bearing the brunt of the social inequities that prohibit access to the time needed to create art in the first place—overwork, underpay, outsize student debt, disproportionate burdens of care work, etc.
Which begs the questions: Is representation enough to effect necessary social changes? Or are there additional ways to level the playing field? Can we strive for both? Are we? Can we in the literary world commit to doing that necessary deep (and often thankless and invisible) work that will benefit not just a select lucky few but the many, not just now but always? Where might such work even begin?
Well, to that last question, I have some ideas.
But I digress.
Here, with us now, we have the winter issue of American Short Fiction, which is uniformly excellent.
Danielle Evans serves as Guest Editor, and she has curated an outstanding collection, arranged in such a way that the pieces speak powerfully to one another, reflecting one another’s experiences of ghostly hauntings, uncertainty, alienation, longing, work, and questions about the degree of control a person has over their own fate. There is also humor. Wonderful, cringy, tender, laugh-out-loud humor.
I’m in awe of any story that can balance all these things at once, and Jonathan Escoffery’s “If He Suspected He’d Get Someone Killed This Morning, Delano Would Never Leave His Couch,” does so masterfully. I found myself laughing out loud throughout one particularly memorable scene involving a green apple and a conversation inside a garage.
But it is Escoffery’s insights into how economic crises impact individual lives that most captured my attention and admiration:
Delano once considered himself an optimist, someone who controlled his fate. Before 2008’s recession, life had mostly gone his way. He’d dodged the horrors of deskwork, student loans…the groveling for jobs and promotions, the humbling himself to those arbitrarily ranked as his superiors, all of the things that soured life, that turned life into drudgery.
And, later, in reflecting on a hurricane headed to their area:
A storm is coming, and Delano finds an odd sense of euphoria in accepting this fact. He’s never seen men so content as when they have to abandon the menial tasks put on them by their nine-to-fives to come home and board up their houses; to leave what does not matter to protect what does. The farce of daily life is put on pause…He’s seen the relief of abandoned ambitions too; dreams left half-chased in the face of survival. Imminent disaster brings simplicity…
Somehow, the story manages to end on a note of hope, even as Delano comes to some devastating conclusions about himself, and raises deep questions about how much control we have over our own destinies, or how some might have more control than others. Through it all, we love this character for not giving up, even as dangerous and awkward confrontations might compel him to do so.
A wonderful awkwardness also appears in Maya Perez’s “Pioneers,” in which a young waitress confronts her old high school crush after a chance encounter. The story is both poignant and hilarious. Here, like in “If He’d Suspected…”, Violet attempts to conceal her own feelings while wrestling with an uncomfortably large piece of food in her mouth, leading to a moment of cringe-inducing hilarity.
Of course, the story is about so much more—class and power, sex and desire, immigration and assimilation, racism, and oh the sweet terrors of being in your 20s, living a life filled with random meetings, economic precarity and plants you have no idea how to take care of.
This issue of American Short Fiction contains nine stories, all of which are exceptional and unique. Space prohibits me from going into greater depth, but in short: I loved “Spare the Rod,” Rickey Fayne’s incredible first publication, for the complex portrait of father-son relations over generations and its grappling with the ghosts that populate our lives, dead that “come with warnings, wants, and every manner of grudge.”
Selena Anderson’s “A Shameful Citizen” offers bristling humor while rendering a woman both incredibly gifted and movingly alone; Desiree C. Bailey delights with “Sea Song,” in which a character contends with the story’s writer, as the piece is being written; Gothataone Moeng delivers “A Good Girl” with powerful, steady grace; Elinam Agbo’s “Capture” takes us into the painful process of immigration by way of metaphor (“We were processes as palm-sized figurines, bird-house decor shipped in crates…My mother and I took the shape of blue macaws.”); Dennis Norris II’s “Audition” presents a captivating portrait of a father coming to terms with his son’s sexuality, a story rich with layers and depth even as its central narrative takes place in just under an hour; and Dantiel W. Moniz captures the experience of working out one’s inner demons while bartending with such exacting perfection I felt I could see every customer, taste every drink, and hear the clamor of all that she describes.
American Short Fiction is one of our nation’s premier lit mags, and any student of the short story would do well to get their hands on this issue.
Finally, my reading this week included Thrice Fiction. Full disclosure: Editor RW Spryszak is a pal of mine. I have, on many occasions, found him to be extremely cool. He has, one time, told me something similar. Also, he has a granddaughter with the same name as my daughter, which means I automatically will love his magazine forever.
But, biases aside, Thrice Fiction is a captivating magazine, especially worth exploring if your writing tastes lean toward experimental, or if you’d like to learn more about what that means.
You might also be interested in this particular issue because of RW’s Editor’s Note. Here he describes a recent call for submissions on the subject of cultural appropriation and the social-media backlash to this call. (A wonderful, thoughtful essay on the subject by Franny Forsman, “Who Do You Think You Are Anyway?” can be found at the end of this issue.) He also describes the process of putting this issue together, the costs involved, and how cost influenced the editors’ recent choice to publish fewer writers. It’s a good behind-the-scenes look at a lit mag that is not funded from a university or institution, and is truly a labor of love.
The featured writer in this issue is Ann Bogle. Many of her stories appear, both flash fiction and longer works, as well as an interview. I’d never heard of Bogle, and was delighted to be introduced to her in these pages. Bogle’s stories take unexpected twists, end on sharp notes, and contain language that often stopped me in my tracks.
“Hors d’oeuvre” begins, “The summer is not a child’s summer, not fast and grimy and bored. It is a married woman’s summer.” The face of a man is “tanned and splintered near the eyes, as if he were smiling.” A woman in the story, Karen, is someone who “put herself through college and graduate school and never made the mistake of marrying someone to keep track of herself.”
Amantine Brodeur’s “In the Scattering of Tongues,” a story of “Beckettian Women, in Four Acts” likewise contains knockout lines and delightful wordplay: “there’s a color of dusk that falls at the curfew of love,” and
[I]t reminds him again of Her; insentient, Self through the dark, reaching, withstanding rays dulled, not exactly casting doubt on feeling, but feelingless-ness of the Moon, so in and out, not of herself, sitting moonfed, or herself subversive, or immersively knelt beside, dying clouds.
My personal favorite in this issue is the story “The Babble-Ons” by Eckhard Gerdes. Gerdes is the editor and publisher of The Journal of Experimental Fiction and its imprint JEF Books. In this story, which feels as though the author had great fun while writing it, we learn of the Babel-Ons, “a secret experimental fiction society whose calling it was to subvert language in order to achieve social change.”
The story itself makes its own attempts to subvert language:
Clam trams scam the plan developed by the man who makes everyone’s life more miserable. The factoid sheet that was indiscreet was enveloped in conditional dirigibles that floated along the Chicago River back when it was not so good to be a liver and the dying was only done with the approved color swatches in their pockets when the notches they’d been counting on went missing for the life of watches.
By the end, we will learn whether or not language has been successfully subverted and whether society has changed at all.
Like december, Thrice Fiction has an Art Director, David Simmer II. Though in this case, Simmer is also the Lead Artist for the issue. Simmer’s visual work wonderfully reflects the overall timbre of the magazine. Which is to say, it’s partly bizarre, partly playful, partly humorous, and overall entirely delightful.
And that, friends, has been my week of lit-mag reading. What about you? Discover any exciting new magazines? Reading anything new? Tell us all about it!