On Literary Journals

I’ve been traveling lately without a permanent address and so I’ve not been receiving any mail. All that ended a few days ago when a big packet of literature was delivered overnight from home base. Many thanks to the gang at home. It was like Christmas

Inside the packet I found the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Paris Review, American Scholar and Lapham’s Quarterly. I haven’t received a gift like this since the time I found an electric train under the Christmas tree.

It isn’t necessary to talk about politics, the recession, environmental disasters or the latest war, although trustworthy commentary on these topics is not precluded, and you don’t have to have a Style Issue, a Food Issue, a Media Issue or a Shopping Issue to attract readers of poetry, fiction, interviews, and essays as the Paris Review has time and time again done since its founding fifty-seven years ago.

The latest issue is an example: there’s a superb short story, Virgin, by April Ayers Lawson—“Do you really think people change, or just seem to change?” two contemporary author interviews, Norman Rush—“It’s a rare reader who doesn’t go to the novel looking for a kind of encouragement to live….As I write a novel, I’m aware that I’m struggling against the “obligation” to solace.” and Michel Houellebecq—“I wake up during the night around one A.M. I write half-awake in a semi-conscious state. Progressively, as I drink coffee, I become more conscious. And I write until I’m sick of it.”

The same quality holds for the consistently outstanding New York Review of Books with its usual range of critical reviews and analyses of the arts and sciences broadly speaking. The latest issue has an unsettling essay by Michael Tomasky on the cloture rule and filibustering in the Senate. He writes:

“…obstructionism is empirically worse today than ever, or at least since 1917, when the current “cloture” system was first adopted.” “But typically filibusters have put off for decades actions the nation should have taken years before—civil rights, notably, including anti-lynching laws.” “The truth is that no institution of American government is more responsible for our inability to address pressing national problems than the Senate, and no institution is in greater need of reform.”

Tomasky concludes his review with several current reform proposals. They include Rewriting the cloture rule, Rule 22, itself. In addition the Senate, unlike the House, does not declare itself a new body upon reconvening every odd-year in January; if it adopted the House procedure, it would be able to change its rules by a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote.

The current issue also includes another unsettling review by Arnold Relman concerning the recently passed Health Care Legislation. According to his analysis the complex bill will not control the costs of medical care in this country, rather it will only increase, not lessen federal budget problems.

He says the reason for this is the legislation’s “failure to change our current dependence on private, for-profit insurance plans…By mandating and subsidizing the purchase of private insurance for almost all those not eligible for …Medicare or Medicaid the legislation has created a virtual monopoly for the private insurance industry.”

There is much more--(Krugman & Wells on the economic slump, a review of Franzen’s Freedom, the Warburg Library, etc.) I’ve not said a word about the very fine issue of The American Scholar, with an amusing short story, By Appointment Only, by Louis Begley or the Fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly devoted to The City, both of which were also in my packet of mail.

My point has been to give a few examples of the riches to be found in the so-called “little magazines” and periodicals that are published in this country. In a letter to readers of the latest issue of the Paris Review its new editor, Lorin Stein, wonders if a printed literary journal can still survive in the age of the Internet. The quality of those I recently received makes it clear to me that their future is guaranteed. There will always be individuals who will want to read good, intelligent writing. Perhaps not many, but there were never very many anyway. Yet, they have made all the difference.