Kinds of Literary Magazines


Cyril Connolly long ago distinguished "coterie" literary magazines from "eclectic." As he saw the difference, the former, founded by a closely entwined group of people, exist to publish their work primarily, if not exclusively. Coterie magazines are designed to serve writers who, for one reason or another, are reluctant to submit their work to editor-strangers they don't already know. Cot-mags typically discourage "unsolicited submissions," if not all the time, at least during part of the year, for lack of any concern with what others might be writing. In our time, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E and the mimeos associated with the St. Marks Poetry Project would be examples of coterie journals. "Eclectic" magazines publish work from a variety of sources, purportedly selecting the best from what appears in their mailboxes, regardless of the reputation, nationality, or professional affiliation of its authors. Poetry and Partisan Review would be examples of successful eclectic journals. One charm of Connolly's distinction was allowing to each side the possibilities of both editorial integrity, albeit of different kinds, and literary influence.

In the age of grants and institutional rewards, especially in America, a third kind of literary magazine has emerged that superficially appears to be a synthesis, publishing a limited group of lesser-knowns along with celebrities, generally regardless of the quality of the latter's work. Since the celebrities often come from different, if not contrary, directions, while the lesser-known writers strive for unexceptional acceptability, such magazines forbid themselves the kinds of literary influence typical of great magazines in the past. They too discourage unsolicited submissions, since the two circles of possibly acceptable contributors are circumscribed in advance.

What are they doing, you often wonder? My suspicion is that they are designed explicitly to please Very Important People, whether they be academic administrators, officials at funding agencies, or other dispensers of favor. The editors of this third kind of magazine fear integrity and thus outstanding contributors and contributions, especially from lesser-knowns, for the simple reason that such moves, however acceptable they might be to both eclectic and coterie magazines, might offend the VIPS. Indeed, their editors necessarily become solicitous of the celebrities' opinions of any newcomers, for fear of losing not any of the latter but one of the former from their pages.
Similarly, some literary magazines are designed to impress readers; others, to impress current and future contributors. Neither eclectic nor coterie, such latter journals would most appropriately be classified as "butt-kissy." I can think of one in America whose name begins with a C, another with a P, a third with an S, a fourth with an A; and though their editors might publicly object to such characterizations, you know as well as I that they would be personally pleased to know that their ultimate motives were not misunderstood. (The first time I put the previous sentence into print, someone responded with a completely different set of names from those I had in mind, indicating that my critical principle had broader applicability.) To measure how unique such magazines are to literature, consider that no publication primarily about art or politics, even radical politics, can be characterized in this way.

Butt-kissing is a cynical strategy, to be sure, assuming that even "distinguished intellectuals" can be more impressed with supplicants' flattery than their excellence or integrity. However, not unlike other cynical strategies, it has distinct practical limitations as the kissee invariably discovers the kisser to be less attractive and less friendly than he or she initially present themselves to be. Vulnerable to changes in power, butt-kissers frequently discover that the objects of their focused attentions have been replaced by someone else who, since ass-kissers instinctively treat those above them differently from those below, was incidentally slighted in the past. That accounts for why butt-kissing can work only so long, as practitioners past the age of fifty-five, roughly, inevitably discover that nearly all the recipients of their focused affection have been replaced or retired. (Does anyone still flatter John Leonard? Theodore Solotaroff? Daryl Hine?) Disillusioned idealists can be bitter, to be sure; but nothing can equal the anger and self-loathing of the disillusioned cynic. He or she can't "go public" with his story, because no one, absolutely no one, will respect his or her history or sympathize with his or her plight, while younger butt-kissers are already, you see, puckering their lips to plant kisses elsewhere.

Another crucial difference is between those who consciously try to publish ''what their readers want,'' or at least what they think their readers want. ''Fit'' is a key word in their editorial vocabulary. These magazines are usually content with whatever size audience they are currently reaching. A different class of magazines intend to challenge its readers, often encouraging them to write protesting letters, which are featured in its pages (and are customarily closely read). The latter are more predisposed as well to publish the sort of texts so unusual that subscribers recommend them to non-subscribers, increasing circulation in lieu of advertising elsewhere and other promotions. Self-satisfied editors necessarily refuse such opportunities.

     Richard Kostelanetz 2009