March 2004

Matthew Lesh

features

An Interview with Gina Frangello

Since its inception in 1984, Other Voices has built a reputation in Chicago and the literary community as a haven for quality short fiction. Other Voices resides at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has published writers such as Terry McMillan, Dan Chaon, Stuart Dybek, Stephen Dixon, Josip Novakovich, Melissa Bank, Antonya Nelson, Pam Houston, James McManus, Wanda Coleman, Aimee Bender and Jeffrey Renard Allen. Although there is not one particular aesthetic that defines an Other Voices story (unlike, say, The New Yorker), the journal has carved a niche for itself publishing diverse, risk-taking and occasionally experimental short fiction. Noted African-American writer Wanda Coleman recently named Other Voices as one of the leading forums for fiction by writers of color in The Nation.

Gina Frangello joined the literary magazine in 1995, became an assistant editor in 1997, and took over as Executive Editor last year. She has published more than a dozen stories in such literary venues as Prairie Schooner, The Chicago Reader, American Literary Review, two girls review, Fish Stories, Hawaii Review and 13th Moon. She was the recipient of a 2002 Individual Fellowship for Prose from the Illinois Arts Council, obtained her MA from the Program for Writers at the University of IL-Chicago, and is a freelance book reviewer for the Chicago Tribune and frequent contributor to The Chicago Reader. Her agent is currently shopping her first novel.

What separates Other Voices from other literary journals?

The prime thing that still sets Other Voices apart from most lit mags is its complete emphasis on fiction. There are more markets out there now that concentrate only on short stories than when OV was founded in 1984, but OV, publishing up to 20 stories per issue and coming out twice a year, is still publishing much more fiction than the vast bulk of the literary magazine community, which may also be concentrating on poetry, essays, art and photography or cartoons that often appear in mixed-media lit mags, or those journals that focus more on interviews and book reviews than we do. Weíve often been ranked one of the top forums for fiction by sources like Writerís Digest.

Itís sometimes difficult to describe to anyone who isnít an avid reader of lit mags what sets various publications apart from one another in terms of identity, because I think that everyone feels that we -- the journals that focus on literary short fiction -- are a sort of specialized community, like it or not. Some of the same authors appear on many of our pages -- I mean, every time I go to a conference or book fair, I meet other editors who have published Steve Almond or Stephen Dixon or Dan Chaon. So I think the differences are more subtle than, say, the difference between Stephen King and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you know? Most lit mags stay away from ďgenreĒ fiction, allow less emphasis on action and permit room for interior styles, favor character-driven stories (though a good plot is always a plus), prefer ambiguity to easy answers and didactic writing. I donít think the fact that these goals are often similar is a bad thing or means all lit mags are the same. To those who read the journals -- albeit this is a smaller pool than those reading Stephen King, obviously -- the differences are significant and readers clearly gravitate towards their favorites.

In that community, Other Voices has become known, from what I hear, as an ďedgyĒ journal that isnít afraid to take chances in style and content. I think as the editor, Iíd emphasize the content part of that equation -- while we do like ďexperimentalĒ stories, the truth is that the writing we publish is still usually stylistically within the realm of the traditional. But we do like gritty, dark, disturbing work -- the kinds of things that some editors may shy away from or call ďunsympathetic.Ē We also, actually, like humor a lot. There are too few genuinely funny stories and weíre always thrilled to find one. We donít have much of a penchant for sweetness and sentimentalism at OV, and occasionally we have to work to make our issues less ďdepressingĒ or some of our staff members and subscribers call and scold us!

To me, the thing that sets OV apart from a lot (though not all, thankfully) lit mags is a very clear commitment to diversity, reflected in our title. By this we donít just mean ethnic/racial diversity, but other things too, like publishing older writers or stories about the elderly and disabled, stories reflecting various sexualities, religions, gender, lifestyles, political orientation, socio-economic groups -- the whole spectrum. We publish a lot of travel stories set in other countries, not so much purposely but because weíre sent a lot of good ones and are drawn to the way people of different imposed ďgroupsĒ interact with one another and how home and identity are formed and negotiated. We just like to mix things up a lot -- we try to stay away from homogeneity.

Do you think itís important to represent diversity in some fashion, particularly in terms of the writing itself?

Yes, I do, personally. Though I donít think that if this isnít what floats a given editorís boat aesthetically that s/he should do it just to be ďcorrect.Ē There is probably nothing more boring to read than a politically preachy story that doesnít make the readerís heart race or fall in love with the characters or the art, but just hammers in some point of conscience or aims to ďeducate,Ē without actually seducing. Literature needs to be vibrant and compelling, not just politically relevant -- and of course, often it doesnít need to be explicitly political at all. My view is that most great stories tell us hard truths about life and injustice and oppression, but that the best way they do this is by never telling us what theyíre trying to tell us, and sometimes the politics are hidden or invisible because everything is so brilliantly personal that you never feel manipulated or lectured.

Likewise, I am a fan of innovative writing but I donít tend to like experimentalism for its own sake that doesnít tell as story or develop a character. There are magazines out there for that but we arenít one of them. I still believe in character and plot. So I donít publish something just because itís different or clever -- it has to impact me on a gut, emotional level, too, not just make me feel its writer is smart.

The most important thing in this community is to do what you are passionate about. Most of us are unpaid or underpaid, and we do this for love. I think at Other Voices we happen to love difference, and part of why I do this is to try to put that difference out there, in part because I donít feel itís reflected enough by what corporate publishing markets, and in part just for the thrill of it.

Is there any way for literary magazines to reach a broader audience, particularly without compromising any artistic standards?

The reason lit mags arenít in more hands isnít about compromising the standards of the writing, itís about money. Itís one of those huge corporate-perpetuated myths that the reading public isnít very bright and doesnít like good writing -- literary novels that are actually published by big houses with large marketing budgets prove this incorrect all the time. Oprahís Book Club, for all its flack, proved this assumption incorrect. But lit mags donít have money, so we canít promote ourselves the way the big houses do. Look, for example, there are journals devoted to fantasy writing, which is thought to be a more lucrative and accessible genre than ďliterary fiction,Ē but these mags arenít selling off the racks either, fundamentally because they have small budgets too and nobody knows they exist except a small community that cares and seeks this sort of thing out. Thereís just a huge economic gulf between corporate publishing and the independent publishing community, and it gets wider all the time.

Hereís another example. Other Voices published Melissa Bank -- one of the stories from The Girlsí Guide to Hunting and Fishing -- years ago, but that didnít mean the issue became a best-seller the way her book later did. Weíve published Terry McMillan too, actually -- itís not like lit mags donít publish any writers who have major commercial successes. But even when we do, we canít promote these issues and writers the way Doubleday or Knopf or HarperCollins can -- weíre working for free, we have almost no marketing budget, our magazines are relegated to a part of most bookstores that donít even get much traffic.

Saying all this, I acknowledge that literary fiction is viewed as ďelitistĒ even in the corporate book world and doesnít usually meet with the kind of commercial success that thrillers or mysteries or other genre titles do, much less that nonfiction books do. So in that sense, yes, lit mags have this reputation too, perhaps of being too cerebral, perceived by some as confusing or slow compared with a John Grisham novel. But the double-bind is that this is exactly why lit mags exist -- to offer more literary fiction to the audience that does love it, those who are upset about how many of these writers canít find publication in the corporate world.

I realize Iím using the term ďliterary fictionĒ an awful lot, and that this is a marketing genre of its own these days because publishers often view ďliteraryĒ as a liability, but I feel I should make clear that in truth, literary fiction is a genre only in economic terms. Itís an anti-genre in other terms. It encompasses any kind of writing that doesnít follow formulas and makes readers think and wonder more than answering questions -- it allows any subject or plot. Fantasy can be literary -- there are thousands of literary love stories that, if written differently, would be called ďromance.Ē Literary fiction can be about anything -- itís the writing that distinguishes it. I guess if thatís elitist, to prefer that type of nuanced writing, then many editors and lit mag readers may be elitist and are guilty as charged, ha. Though of course, many of us also like other kinds of writing too.

Does it bother you that some writers view literary journals as a stepping stone to book publishing? Is it difficult working in a genre that has more submitters than subscribers?

No, Iím annoyed, frankly, when some editors complain that the people who submit to their magazines donít necessarily subscribe, or when priority consideration is given to subscribers, which in my view is just subsidy publishing. I mean, what writer has time to read 15 different literary magazines -- even I donít do that and I edit one and get a lot of them for free! We all have jobs and families and lives and we read books too, not just magazines, and writers spend their time writing, not just reading. Of course I want more subscribers for the magazine! But I also donít expect writers to spend half their salaries, say as English TAís, subscribing to magazines in order to be entitled to submit to them. A writer is obligated to do some homework -- I mean, don't send Other Voices poetry or artwork and waste our time. But you don't have to subscribe for us to care about what you have to say.

The problem is that more non-writers donít subscribe to lit mags, and that, as I said, has to do with economics and that many non-writers donít even know the literary magazine community exists, or if they do they think Paris Review is the only one out there because the rest of us donít have the money to adequately promote ourselves. And we donít have more money because there arenít more subscribers -- a catch-22, huh? But I donít believe in blaming writers for this. Submitting work IS a way of supporting lit mags. We wouldnít get far if no one wanted to be published in our pages. We should be honored.

Off the track, I could say how wrong I find it that some magazines refuse to consider simultaneous submissions, when the truth is it's common in this community to take over 6 months to respond to a particular submission. Sometimes if a magazine is fully booked or doing more soliciting than over-the-transom publishing, a story may not be read at all, and it may still take months for the writer to find out. OV not only reads all over-the-transom submissions, we welcome simultaneous subs -- theyíre the only way for a writer to survive in this business, and I really try never to lose sight of the fact that lit mags exist for writers and their readers. Truly, if new writers sent out to one magazine at a time, well, good luck getting a career. That said, a writer is still to blame if s/he never bothers to let editors know the work has been accepted elsewhere, and the high percentage of writers who are inconsiderate in this way is exactly why so many editors donít want simultaneous subs.

About the book publishing thing: if someone Iíve published gets a book deal because of OV, what is there not to love about that? Iím a writer too and my agent is trying to sell my novel right now -- Iíve published 15 stories in literary magazines, but is that supposed to mean I donít want to sell a book? Of course I do! Of course Iíd like to actually get paid for my writing -- thatís a no-brainer. Almost all lit mag editors agree on this point -- weíre thrilled by later success of our writers. Itís validating in terms of the larger community -- it can only help lit mags, not hurt us. And we all exist in a smallish community and are genuinely passionate about the people weíve published -- weíre usually very eager to support them in any way we can.

What are you most proud of in your tenure at Other Voices?

This is a really hard question to answer because Iíve been at OV for 9 years and really there are so many things Iíve loved being a part of. But I suppose an easy answer is when Pam Houstonís story, ďThe Best Girlfriend You Never Had,Ē was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. We love Pam -- sheís on our board now actually -- so it had been exciting enough just to publish the piece and have it chosen for BASS and Pushcart the year it came out. But then when Updike chose it for BASS of the Century, we were over the moon. Thatís a book that is sort of automatically canonical, that will be used as a teaching tool for as long as people study literature, and is also a historical document of vital importance not just from a literary perspective. That Other Voices gained this little sliver of ďimmortalityĒ so to speak was really unexpected -- we were in the volume alongside the most illustrious publications of the 20th Century, I mean, it seemed The New Yorker had originally published half the stories in the book! -- so this will continue to thrill us for a long time to come. The story was also the final one in the volume, which was sort of fun, like having the last word on the American Century. It doesnít get much better than that.

Are there any lesser-known writers out there right now that you feel particularly excited about?

Another hard one. There are so many. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer whose first novel Purple Hibiscus just came out, is one; another is Jodi Daynard, who I think helps edit The Boston Review -- she wrote a story we published a few issues back that just always pops into my head instantly as the story that impacted me like a fist in the stomach emotionally even though it was actually a very quiet, elliptical piece. Michael C. Sewardís story in our forthcoming 40th issue, ďAll Things Bleak and Sordid,Ē absolutely stunned and shocked me in all the best, beautiful, provocative and disturbing ways. Itís simply brilliant, and probably completely incompatible with what the corporate publishing world is looking for or receptive to at this particular moment in time. That makes me glad to be here doing this -- thatís why Other Voices is alive and thriving.

Tell me about your plans to expand into book publishing.

We're having a short story collection contest in the summer of 2004, the winner of which will launch our new book imprint. Pam Houston is judging the contest, and University of Illinois Press is assisting us with distribution and marketing -- there's a cash prize and travel stipend in addition to publication. Our hope is to eventually generate enough income through these books to not require a contest, which would enable us time-wise to put out a few titles per year--we also hope to include novels, not just collections, though collections are in particular need of alternative publishing venues since the commercial publishing world is almost phobic of them and believes they "don't sell" despite every book -- The Interpreter of Maladies or When The Messenger is Hot or My Life in Heavy Metal, just to name a few recent ones -- that disproves this. We're taking submissions in May and June. Writers who are interested can see our web site for complete guidelines.