Chicago Lit Mag Offers Home for New Writers
One night, sixteen years old in Chicago, a friend and I drank too much. The next day, I woke late for our tour at the Art Institute. Head pounding, mouth dry, I dressed and plodded toward one of the world’s finest collections of artwork. I don’t remember anything I saw.
“Chicago” is the title of Issue 25 of Literary Orphans, a digital literary magazine. An image of the city’s skyline at night sparkles on the cover. The core members of the editorial team live in Chicago. According to editor-in-chief Scott Waldyn, the magazine “values art just as much as literature."
There are striking images throughout “Chicago”—the work of So-Ghislaine and Helen Norcott. An impressive looking table of contents showcases a wide selection of non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Its pages host an admirable range of contributors: undergrads, MFAs, writing profs, international writers, retirees, and even teens. Pieces are annotated with reading times (an excellent detail), and the magazine comes recommended by BuzzFeed. At the time of this review, Literary Orphans is in its fifth year of creating community by publishing largely from the indie world. Submissions are accepted year round through Submittable, and pieces previously published on personal blogs or workshopping websites will be considered.
But before you make your way to their submissions page and click send, I would ask you to consider a few more aspects of the magazine. Despite the opening letter from the editor, no guiding selection process is clear to me. Even though the issue is called “Chicago,” none of the pieces are about or explicitly set in that city. Nor are the contributors necessarily from or living there. I don’t see anything that makes the collection of pieces in “Chicago” a coherent issue.
In their defense, the editors call their title a “dedication.” I imagine they may be excited to name an issue after their home city. And they have put a lot of work into the magazine, publishing six or seven times a year for almost half a decade. But perhaps Literary Orphans is at a crossroads of sorts. In the letter from the editor, I read sincerity and ambition, but also a lack of focus. There is talk of “the Chicago Way” and that specific metropolitan area, but also talk of a broader cultural melting pot and digital metropolis. There is talk of the indie lit community and its values, but also talk of the large annual conference put on by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Of course these different realities intersect, but it makes for a better reading experience when they do so in conscious ways. Is it possible that the editors need to slow down and decide what they’re really trying to share, and with whom?
In any case, the digital design of Literary Orphans, though striking at first, proves hard to read. The link structure for both the desktop and mobile versions feels clumsy to me, and one link is even broken. The text is small, inconsistently formatted, and multicolored at times. In one instance, the standard layout for a quote or pull quote is used for part of the body of the piece. None of these things means that you absolutely shouldn’t submit, but just that you should be aware of what’s beneath the surface.
According to the editors, “the writing on Literary Orphans is a mood more than a style.” The mood that I read into Issue 25 might be summed up as, “I want to be a writer.” Wayne Scheer’s poem “A Fantasy for an Idle Mind” is a good example. Here is the first stanza:
What if I wrote a poem so wonderful
an editor for the New Yorker,
who just happened to be perusing the Internet,
jumped out from under his toupee,
hopped around the room like a 5 year-old
on a sugar high,
called to his assistant
and shouted, “Get me in touch with Wayne Scheer!”
I know this feeling. It’s part of what drives what I’m doing right now: writing a literary review. I too want to be published. I too want recognition. Don’t we all? (“Writers want love,” says Betsy Lerner in The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, “and they hope that through their work, they will be recognized as gifted.”) And Scheer’s poem is a fine piece. Without Literary Orphans, it might not have been published. So I am happy to find a magazine that offers a voice to emerging writers and those still on the margins of literary culture.
There are other fine pieces that stand out for me in Issue 25. The poem “Monk’s Dream” by Lauren Hilger has language play that is both light and dense, skipping from a glass skull to a children’s library. The flash fiction piece “That Sweetness” by Alex Dannemiller captures a beautifully mature intimacy. And “Heat Shimmer” by Allison Smith (her first publication!) contains skillful description of a moment opened, then closed.
But many of the pieces in Issue 25 of Literary Orphans don’t seem to me to have a reader in mind. They seem more concerned with the writers’ need to express than with the audience’s experience.
I commend the editors for what they have accomplished to date and hope that they will consider focusing their editorial process moving forward. I hope they will think about how the mood they’re creating could include more readers along with the writers who submit. This might ultimately mean being more selective.
It can be tough to be selective, especially when you’re building community. But recall my friend and I at sixteen. Yes, drinking a lot was exciting—but I’d have probably gained more in the long run from a clear-headed tour of the Art Institute the next day. Pushing for too much, too soon can mean that you miss the chance to appreciate the great work that comes your way.