How to Pick ‘Em

The title of this short essay is disingenuous. I’m not really going to tell you how to select literature for a literary magazine. Or how to reverse engineer my comments to get accepted by one. I’m trying to describe how I do it. Because the editor is the magazine (but not the content), loosely speaking. Chekhov, in one of his letters, (which are a wonderful reading experience) opines that a literary magazine should have only one editor. I suppose he was saying that the magazine needed to have a unified critical vision. Of necessity, Litbreak has a staff of one with technical support from Jason Chambers. Someday, JC (my beloved friend) will succeed me as editor. After all, he gave the magazine to me in the first place. At that time, Litbreak will transmute, and it will be about time. It’s been my experience that a voluntary staff would tend to leave, and a paid staff would bankrupt the magazine. So Litbreak survives by staying small. And by getting the work done with requisite swiftness. Smallness should mean swiftness. While largeness signifies power, but with a slower pace. Each strategy can be designed for survival. But they are different.

I always thought I was a Parnassian, loving only the most elite, most disciplined art. Certainly my reading and musical tastes indicate that. If I could live at Lincoln Center, I would move into it. I’d move into the new Geffen Hall, since it seems to be such a glittering, bling-like space.

But I found that’s not what Litbreak Magazine wants me to do. Yes, Litbreak Magazine is [like] a person and it’s telling me what to do. I believe it’s spiritually occupied by something, like a ghost or a daemon.

I’m interested in the promise of a writer. Perhaps that means that I’m more interested in the artist than their work. But I don’t think that’s true. The work is the only aesthetically valid way to access the artist. (Never believe the artist. Believe the art.)

I’d publish a writer whose work, I can see, is not perfect. My anti-Parnassian side, I guess. But whose work shows that they have creative room to grow into something stronger. As for writing talent, it shows in every line. You can sometimes tell from one line, like the ancient Romans could prophesize from bird flights, or the entrails of something, that there is gold in the riverbed. Use a misapplied adjective, or write a mistimed sentence, and the effect is glaring. Go do your writing homework and come back. Get off the dance floor if you can’t dance.

One of the worst insults I ever got about my writing was that it was therapeutic for me. God help the arts. Good luck with your therapy. I want art on the magazine. I’m not the kind of editor who wants your personhood directly on the page. In that sense, I am Parnassian. Your identity is reflected in your writing. But it’s not in my face. The risk would be that the display of your personality would supplant aesthetic standards. As an editor, I’ve fought back tears at some of the things I’ve heard. But that still, in itself, is not art. Some people assume that art must be inspiring and noble. Maybe. But it can also sock you in the face, or startle or confuse you.

If you write but don’t read, I’ll know it. It is obvious on the page. If you don’t read poetry your sentences may lack a gifted sense of tempo. The best writers I have personally known can also write a good poem, even if it isn’t their primary writing activity. Poetry is treated with respect on Litbreak. It’s not an occasional treat. It’s just as likely to be the main course. And poetry routinely eclipses prose in popularity on our site. Being well-rounded is a classical Greek ideal, and at the magazine, I’m reminded sometimes that I am Greek.

One of my iconic books (Chose your own icons. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.) is Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. One of the salient lessons I learned from that book is that great art doesn’t arise in a social vacuum. Interest in books, in culture and history, was widespread among the influencers of that legendary community. People wrote poems and essays. They exchanged them and it was considered an honor to have your work evaluated by your friends. As the background to a Leonardo, there were ten thousand lovers of art trying their hand at it or writing or conversing about it. Knowing no Italian, we can underestimate the depth and richness of the literature and social practice at that place and time. That’s where the elite and the populace come together. Litbreak is a diverse community or it fails.