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Go to the back of St. Mark's Bookshop on East 9th Street, where you will see an information desk. The front of that desk has six shelves filled with literary magazines, at knee level. Find the one whose cover is the color of cedar and has the words "Tin House" inscribed on it. Hold it carefully and take a deep breath: this little book may very well represent the future of literary magazines.
Says who? Well, the discriminating customers at St. Mark's, for one. In three weeks, the store has sold 58 copies of the premiere issue of Tin House, an average of two or three a day. According to St. Mark's magazine buyer Susan Willmarth, that's "as good as a best-selling book." And why are they buying a magazine they've never read?
First, there's the design, which uses beige and black subheads and pull-quotes to dress up a simple layout. "It's handsome and exciting and stands out in a marketplace in which most of those journals look the same," says Ira Silverberg, a literary agent at Donadio & Olson. Harper's senior editor Ben Metcalf compares Tin House to The Baffler and McSweeney's, two other lit mags recently arrived on the scene. At a time when desktop publishing has come of age, he says, "They have all been really playful with the design, without going crazy."
The premiere issue of Tin House is also selling well because of the tasteful mix, which includes pieces by the likes of Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, and a band of unknowns, as well as a "Lost and Found" section where writers can hold forth on their favorite out-of-print books. Judging by the contents, Willmarth says, "You can tell they've done their homework."
Silverberg elaborates, "Whereas most literary magazines in America are trapped in a mainstream aesthetic, these guys are willing to take risks. The juxtaposition of experienced and less experienced writers, new forms and old forms is going to be exciting to readers."
The force behind the Tin buzz is editors Rob Spillman and Elissa Schappell, a married couple who have contributed their skills to many, many magazines, including The Paris Review. "They have deep roots in the Paris Review tradition," says Metcalf, "and now they're doing it on their own." Says Silverberg, "They're both fantastic writers and editors. I have more faith in them than I have in most people who start literary magazines."
They couldn't have done it without publisher and editor in chief Win McCormack, a Portland, Oregonbased investor who has long dreamed of starting his own for-profit lit mag. The two concepts McCormack insisted on were commercial-design techniques and accessibility. According to Spillman, "Our target audience is not just people we like, but the smart, well-read person on the street."
So far, so good for Tin House, which has just signed a deal with Ingraham Periodicals to place 5000 copies in major bookstores. But the funky start-up is just the tip of what is being hailed as a renaissance for literary magazines in New York. According to Robert Polito, director of the M.F.A. program at the New School, "There was a period in the 1970s and '80s when literary magazines fell off the map, and for a while the energy and excitement in the literary community was in the performance and reading series. Now that energy has expanded into magazines."
Along with Tin House, some of the new lit mags in town include Fence, Open City, and Lit, which the New School launched at a party last week. The first issue of Lit shows what Polito calls an "experimental bias"; its clean white pages are adorned with old and new voices, prose poems and a twitchy story by Stacey Richter about prom night on drugs.
Never one to miss a trend, Starbucks has just launched Joe, its own literary magazine, in partnership with Time Inc. Custom Publishing. Packed with brand-name writers (think Douglas Coupland), corporate ads, and full-color art, Joe lacks the alternative appeal of Tin House or Lit, but it stems from the same market analysis. "You hear all this stuff about people not reading," says Joe managing editor Scott Mowbray, "but I don't see any drop-off in interest in books or in writing. We wanted this to be a writers' and readers' magazine and we wanted to stake out our territory."
For Ben Metcalf of Harper's, there can never be enough competition. "Each one of those small magazines that lasts is another room for new voices," he says. "There's a lot more great writing out there than we can ever publish."
In decades past, The Village Voice was a place of internecine warfare, its staff a noisy, angry cast of characters who were forever plotting to overthrow one another. But once every three years, the union contract came up for renewal, and that's when the white boys and the cool cats linked arms to fight against a common enemy, affectionately known as "management swine." Nothing brought the staff closer together than the threat of an imminent strike especially when the face of evil was Rupert Murdoch, who owned the Voice until 1985.