Little Literary: The Pen Is Mightier

Two written formats, both alike in dignity, in fair Bath where we lay our scene. This seemingly ancient grudge lies between the robust and well-loved book and the daintier literary journal. Simply put, they are both bound pages with words written on them, but our perception of them could not be greater and more unfair.

One difference is their habitat. When you think of shopping for a book, it may conjure mahogany shelves in a dimly lit library or a cosy bookshop, papery musk thick in the air, or even coffee. It’s a benign, relaxed, softly-lit space where you can while away the hours amongst like-minded folk. Now think of the literary journal. Where does it live? Perhaps there’s just a blank space. Perhaps it is just a timid and thin volume squashed to near nonexistence on a shelf.

Arguably, the humble literary journal is unfairly homeless. Shunned by bookshops in which its longer counterparts reside, it seeks shelter in stores like ours and, failing that, obscurer places such as coffee shops, clothing outlets and stationers. Their displacement I feel has something to do with tradition and history, and therefore snobbishness and hierarchy.

Over time the book has ascended some kind of ethereal pedestal, out of reach and entirely aspirational. Something to be desired. It is a symbol of education, intelligence and intrigue. The beefier the book, the smaller the type, the greater the praise. And even ignoring that, isn’t it romantic to have a battered paperback in your bag? As soon as you part its pages, you are swept into a fictional world, but you also become a part of book culture where learned folk nod gently at each other.

The literary journal comes in all shapes and sizes, from slim volumes such as The Moth, Popshotand Firewords to meaty wedges such as Gorse, Granta or Hotel. They’re not easily recognisable, so you’re immediately stepping into uncharted territory. Popshot and Firewords combine illustration, whilst Elbow Room is hand bound. Egress features long stories and stories so short they should be considered flash fiction, but the standard of which is closer to prose poetry. Their shortness is closer to the instantaneousness we are used to nowadays. Words are assembled with such luscious simplicity they can provoke strong emotion within two pages, rather than the slower slog of two hundred. The freedom of their form allows freedom of content, a saleable advantage, whereas a book is constricted to a very linear form. Tell the story, that’s all that is expected, and low betide if you even mention an illustrative etching to accompany it.

The literary journal allows you to witness growth and experimentation, and honour origin. Nick Cave was recently featured in Hotel and Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, was interviewed for the latest issue of Structo (he’s also resident on The Believer). Well-known names are put alongside up and coming writers, which has a beautiful unity because these publications can be the makings of writers.

The book hosts classic, gargantuan authors such as Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf and relishes in the company of more modern authors like Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith. But what we fail to remember is, before their novels, these writers published short stories. Dickens started out in newspapers and magazines, publishing Oliver Twist in instalments in Bentley’s Miscellany magazine. Virginia Woolf was published in The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement, and Kazuo Ishiguro has twice appeared in Granta with his short fiction.

But what draws these two together?

In response I’d like you to imagine a swimming pool with a diving board. The literary journal is the diving board, the book is the pool and words are the water. The pool is large and deep, and it fits hundreds of thousands of authors, proficiently producing prose. Some writers like to swim, some like to dive. The amount of time they spend in the water equals the amount of words they use. A diver will jump, make a splash and clamber back out to do it all over again. It’s an invigorating, split-second burst of energy and then it’s gone. A swimmer may spend hours formulaically paddling back and forth or just floating. They luxuriate in words, they drink them up, they bask in them. It’s very easy for a writer to use the springboard, casually float a while, then clamber back out. It’s very easy for a writer to just fall into the water and remain there.

Whatever the difference in length, they’re both using the same pool.

You may feel I am backhanding the book too much, but someone has to stand up for the literary journal and give it the praise it deserves. In the US the short story is treated with dedicated fondness, (just think of the prominence of The New Yorker) and so they should, the form having made the careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe and, more recently, George Saunders. They both have their benefits and their cons, but I will say a book, by nature, is exclusive and a literary journal is inclusive. Be prepared to read numerous tales from talented newcomers and seasoned experts alike. Be prepared to be overawed, taken aback and enamoured. You see, they conjure the same sensation, one that dwells in the flitting eye, which cannot be torn away until the last word is said.

Libby Borton