November 2003

Roohi Choudhry

features

The New Literature: One Story Magazine

One Story, a literary magazine that defies the ilk, is all about concentration. Each issue is distilled down to the purest form: a single short story.

The idea is not that our attention spans are so pitiful that we can only handle one small burst of good writin' at a time. Well, maybe. But the idea is also that good writin' packed tightly and cleanly will yield greater flavor, and ultimately, greater satisfaction.

So each story is given a window of its own, unadulterated with ads for MFA programs or mindless letters from editors that everyone skips anyway. The concept is working. Started in April 2002, One Story already has a 2,500-strong subscription list, which is amazing in the context of literary journals.

Every three weeks or so, these subscribers receive one story. It's very simple -- a little chapbook-booklet, almost xeroxed and stapled really -- a few words about the magazine at the back, a bio for the writer, that's it. It's easy to believe this might be a garage operation (and perhaps it is). But that doesn't matter once you start reading.

I don't know how they do it, but they manage to sign up one stellar writer after another. The three issues I read as samples were sublime -- short stories that truly deserved this kind of devotion. Hannah Tinti, One Story's editor, described the exhaustive process of culling for the particular story to represent the magazine:

"We receive anywhere from 50-100 stories each week, which is a lot of reading to do, especially considering that we are all volunteers... The stories we look for are strong, well-written and feel complete. We also go for stories that you won't find anywhere else. If a writer is trying something new, pushing boundaries, we're more likely to give them a chance. We're also making an effort to bring in international authors, who provide a whole new perspective on the world."

The three issues I had the pleasure to read were similar only in their excellence. Margo Rabb's "Ghost Story" ponders the questions of death and misfortune as perceived by 12-year old girls living in Queens. Karl Iagnemma's "Children of Hunger" logs the brutal experiments and eccentricities of a research doctor in 19th century Canada seen through the eyes of his lonely wife, Julia. Renee Biermann's "Mr Lobster" was an exercise in bewilderment. A compelling and inconclusive story, it left just enough questions unanswered to keep me thinking for a long time. In many ways, each one of these stories was like a meaty novel, with intensive plotlines and organic characters that stayed with me a long time after it was finished.

As a professed involved reader, I usually find myself a little lonely and a lot curious by the end of a really good read. I want to know more and I want the cord stretched just a little bit longer. If you're anything like me, you'll love this: when you get to the end of each issue, you're told that the writer's interview is up on www.one-story.com. It's simple stuff -- basic questions, some insight -- but it makes the whole read a really full experience. Apparently, I'm not alone in appreciating this aspect:

"Many subscribers have written to us to say that this [the author interview] is their favorite part of One Story," said Tinti. "I think our subscribers appreciate being given an inside look at the author and their work. Our goal is to create an ongoing relationship between readers and writers."

If you're lucky enough to live in New York, you can attend their monthly readings as well, further bridging the reader-writer divide. This kind of interaction seems particular to One Story. While Zoetrope and other big-name literary journals do attempt to involve readers with events and newsletters, it always feels somewhat forced, almost like an afterthought. Reading an unassuming, comfortably exquisite issue of One Story and then hopping on to the website for the interview felt like a fluid experience without pretension.

Unpretentious literature? A novel concept indeed.