Et tu, Bookstore? Then Fall, Lit Mag / by Amanda Silberling

by Amanda Silberling

The Strand Bookstore, New York City

The Strand Bookstore, New York City

If two Adroiters are in NYC at the same time and don't go to The Strand Bookstore together, were they actually in NYC at all? With the NYC Poetry Festival last weekend, Manhattan burst at the seams with Adroit friends from as far as Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, and in my case, Florida. 

When Editor-in-Chief Peter LaBerge and I inevitably hit The Strand, we expected the usual kid-in-a-candy store effect that this iconic bookstore has on us—but instead, we were confronted with the upsetting fatality of the literary magazine.

Picture this: An awkwardly lanky, six-foot-something editor and his frizzy-haired, blog-editing sidekick trek through stacks of books, searching for the elusive lit mag section. Though the extensive shelves of used poetry are a fun distraction, the two Adroiters cannot locate the heavenly array of Tin House and AGNI back issues, and must ask Strand employees for help. 

“Hi, where do you have literary magazines?” asks Peter.

“We don’t carry them,” says a bearded, millennial hipster. We ask another employee. 

“Excuse me,” says Peter. “Do you carry literary magazines? I bought some here in March, but I can’t find them now.”

“Magazines? You mean like Rolling Stone and Vogue? Second floor.”

Though fashion is incredibly poetic, Vogue isn’t exactly what we’re looking for. We head down to the Strand basement, where the subway rattles beside us (not to be mistaken for copies of Rattle). Just one large fan attempts to cool the entire floor. 

“Hey,” says Peter, dejected. “You have literary magazines, right? I’ve bought them here before, but now they’re not here. I know you guys sell them—I’m not crazy.” 

Editor-in-Chief Peter LaBerge loses all hope

Editor-in-Chief Peter LaBerge loses all hope

“I dunno, man,” says yet another bearded, millennial hipster. “I’m the guy who sorts through all the books we get, and I’ve never seen literary magazines… I’ve been working here for years.” 

After flagging down every employee we can find, Peter and I finally accept that The Strand—our own personal heaven, the supposed greatest place on earth, the possible location of our weddings—no longer carries literary magazines. We purchase some books of poetry (I buy “This Clumsy Living” by Bob Hicok; Peter buys “A Map of the Lost World” by Rick Hilles) and try to find the nearest place in Union Square that sells large iced teas. 

Although I’d like to think that my book-buying disappointments are blog-worthy on their own, the truth is that there’s more to this issue than the lack of lit mags on my bookshelf. 

We writers are an endangered bunch. And generally speaking, publishing in literary magazines is the pathway to credibility. Writing for intrinsic growth is a beautiful thing, but to make a career of writing, publication is a necessary evil. Though we may not like to admit it, whose novel manuscript do you think will get more attention: the person who writes on commercial breaks during The Bachelorette, or the person who recently appeared in The Kenyon Review and Ploughshares? But if one of the most famous bookstores in America doesn’t even sell literary magazines anymore, how do emerging writers find an audience?

Some of today’s most iconic works were originally published in literary magazines—nearly all of J.D. Salinger’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker, as did Edith Wharton’s in The Atlantic Monthly. These publications had a large enough readership to launch the careers of nearly every name we hear in our high school English classes—but what about now? 

Sometimes, I’ll hear writers joking around and qualifying their rejections by saying, “Whatever—no one reads literary magazines except for the people in them.” But I don’t think that’s a joke anymore. It’s a fact. To the average guy on the street, there is no difference between The Paris Review and The YOLO Pages.

So maybe our beloved Adroit isn’t the all-important literary landmine, explosive and groundbreaking, that we fantasize it is.  But we exist. We, along with innumerable other online journals, exist, and we exist loudly. We will not quiet down any time soon.

Change isn’t always awful. It seems that only the literary giants are left in print, but when we publish in reputable online magazines, our writing reaches thousands of people in an instant. At this point, when print magazines cost money and are a rarity even in the country’s most famous bookstores, many writers actually prefer publishing online.  

I’ll be the first to admit that reading is much more fulfilling when we flip pages, rather than click a “next” button. But when a seventy-page literary magazine can cost fifteen dollars plus shipping, it’s just not realistic to make that purchase, and there’s not enough demand for publishers to sell their literary magazines at affordable prices. 

So how do we get the literary magazine back on top? How do we get the general public interested in contemporary literature again?

We read. We share. We grow.