Monday, February 7, 2011

Artifice 3

I have Artifice #1 and I like it. I did not, for no particular reason, buy Artifice #2. I did buy, while I was at AWP, Artifice #3, and then I read it on the plane home from cover to cover. (I also read the second half of Matt Bell's book and parts of several other things: the trip back was pretty long.) I can't remember ever reading a magazine from beginning to end. It's not what I do.

I would be lying to say that I loved every piece equally, or that I even liked all of them: that's not what I do either. But Artifice now has the distinction of being one of maybe four magazines I know of in which every single piece engages my attention more or less absolutely. Since I want to make good books, as a reader, editor, and designer, the only reasonable course of action is to examine why. Some of these ingredients are unique to Artifice, some are not.

There are of course the editorial tastes and processes of the staff. No idea, beyond what the magazine makes apparent, what those are or how they work! There's a pretty good mix in the magazine of people whose work I know and people whose work I don't, which speaks well, and generally speaking I'd say they're achieving a good, solid "mix." (Quantifying what I mean by this would be awful and boring; check out the table of contents and speculate.) Anyway, they gots good taste.

There is also the cleanness of the presentation. The magazine is, for all its focus on formal experimentation, itself a very simple object: a pleasantly tactile monochrome cover, a manageable number of light-weight pages, white instead of the standard creme, with small dimensions. This seems intuitively like a strange decision, but I've come to like it a lot. The magazine serves as the constraints of its own production. Submitting to Artifice is a really interesting process, because it's forced me to think about my work in different ways: not simply how might this text fit into a magazine, but how might this text fit into this magazine? 

But first and foremost, and reflected in both of these other aspects, there is the magazine's name, concept, and mission statement, which are all one word. I wrote here before about my tendency to read On Earth as it Is whenever I am reminded to do so, and sometimes when I'm not: I think it comes down to the central idea of a publication focusing on prayer-narratives. The concept itself is sort of interesting to me, but the fact of a constraint and a focus on the  pieces they publish is extremely attractive. Whatever they publish, I have one clear criterion beyond my own personal tastes by which to consider it. I don't really love everything they put out either, but the focus helps me get past that and think about the work productively anyway. It gives me a reason to engage where I might otherwise step away.

Not everything in Artifice is formally wild, but it is all very interesting, partly because even if you don't engage immediately with the text, there are questions of design to consider. Why are these paragraphs separated by a full blank line, and why are these merely indented? Why does this story continue after white space on the same page when there is a "scene break" or other transitional point, and why does this one begin a new page each time, leaving so much of every page blank? What are the blank pages for? Are they time to breathe? And what do you make of the text that seems to scroll, ticker-like, across the bottom of the book? (The bio section explains its means of generation.) 

Not everyone can have a focus on artifice in writing, of course, but the underlying lesson here is something any magazine can apply: the more choices you make, the more it brings to life everything you publish. I find the majority of publications today, both serial and otherwise, utterly boring, but a more useful way of putting this is that I feel they make too few choices. Most publishers focus on magazines and books (but especially magazines) that are apparently interchangeable, and the especially daft among them mistake this for building a "brand." I don't want to pick on anybody but it's fairly easy to call to mind publications where everything looks more or less the same. The work dies as a result of its homogeneity: in a very real way, I fail to perceive it, often going whole pages without actually seeing a single word, even as I am ostensibly "reading." (This may sound like an extreme way of putting it, but I'm willing to bet you've experienced the same thing, perhaps often.

Which brings me to what every writer and editor can learn from Artifice: even if you're largely interested in what might be called, at various times, traditional, mainstream, realist, narrative, or literary writing, you owe it to those writers to publish interesting, challenging work that makes you and your readers reconsider what your publication is capable of. It's not just that I like that stuff better, it's that placing writing generated and presented by different means brings all of that writing to life: Davis Schneiderman's "The Vertebrate Mitochondrial Code" isn't exactly a thrill ride (it is, instead, exactly what it sounds like) but it does bring a thrill. This is a magazine where unexpected things can and will happen. The fact of this decision makes the inclusion of more conventional work of easily recognizable form a more interesting decision. It helps me to perceive more traditional work as existing as a result of a series of choices.

Which it does -- all writing is a result of choices. There are no defaults. We often forget that.

Particular highlights in the magazine include Dustin M. Hoffman's story "Seven-Eighths," the story of Darrell, who may either go to the punk rock show tonight, or watch his friend take too many pills and die, as well as Addam Jest's "The Beautiful Necessity," of which this is the opening paragraph:
Women are very rarely matters of cold scientific observation, but are colored both by their own sexual emotions and by their own moral attitude toward the sexual impulse. The ascetic who has subdued his own carnal impulses may see no elements of sex in women at all. No two trees put forth their branches in just the same manner, and no two leaves from the same tree exactly correspond; no two persons look alike, though they have similar members and features; even the markings on the skin of the thumb are different in every human hand. Every principle of natural beauty is but the presentment of some occult law, some theosophical truth; and the Law of Women is the presentment of the truth that identity does not exclude difference.
Also much more, and many others.

1 comment:

  1. I think the difficulty is also with perceived "safety" of the choices small presses have to make. You'd think that in the realm of more-carefully-selected, smaller-print-run, small press, that more interesting choices would be made... more risk is actually safer, helps create stand-out issues, etc. And I can think of a few presses that do this, but a great many of them seem less inclined to do so.
    How does a mag grab attention by looking the same as everything else? I don't know. Running a small press is risky on its own, but not standing out seems an even greater risk to survival...