Neither/Nor: Writing That Defies Category
The difficulty in describing MAKE to an unfamiliar reader comes in that it isn’t just one thing—in fact, it is so many different styles and artistic approaches rolled into one magazine that, to the reader, it provides a pleasing sense of writing-whiplash. A veritable grab bag of a literary magazine, MAKE includes non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews, reviews, novel and memoir excerpts, and art portfolios. Published by MAKE Literary Productions, NFP and based out of Chicago, the contents of this issue are experimental and traditional, strange and familiar, complicated and straightforward.
The theme for Issue #11, “Neither/Nor,” emphasizes these dichotomies, as it asked writers and artists to submit work that “does not easily fit into a particular category” and was “neither here nor there.” As the Letter from the Editors explains, growing up in the Midwest, “we’ve come to understand the middle for what it actually is: a kind of no man’s land where anything is possible; a passageway not for destinations, but for the journey itself.” The pieces that follow this claim do exactly that—some as a bold and direct response and others less convincingly, with a more abstract interpretation.
Perhaps demonstrating the theme most directly, the paintings of Margot Bergman steal the focus of the first few pages in this issue. Bergman’s paintings are pitched as “collaborations” between existing works and the finished product becomes a neither/nor of a painting. The description on the first page of Bergman’s portfolio seems to also apply to much of the work in the magazine: “Two images exist simultaneously yet seem content to betray one another.”
Though this issue includes both conventional and experimental fiction, it was the pieces that took a risk that left the strongest impression. Timothy Schaffert’s “The Boy and the Girl in the Honeymoon Suite” allows the reader to participate as the disturbing, but oddly sweet story unfolds. After setting the scene of the boy and girl in a bathtub, the narrator of the story chastises the reader for assuming the children were naked, just because they are in a bathtub. The tone is humorous, but curious, and you can’t help but disobey when the narrator suggests you stop reading to avoid the terrible events that await the boy and girl, urging that, “if you have any sense at all, if you have an ounce of dignity or respect for yourself, you’ll stopper your ears while you still have a chance to be mistaken, while you still have a chance to hope for everything to turn out exactly like nothing ever really does in real life.”
This disobedience is immediately recognized as the narrator questions if the reader is still there, but affirms that of course we are because we’re “gluttons for punishment.” In breaking down this fourth wall between the reader and the story, Schaffert causes you to question whether you are a bystander or a participant in the story of the boy and the girl.
Other fiction, such as “Mollerman Swims” by Curtis Van Donkelaar is more traditional in form, but still embodies a sort of ethereal “Neither/Nor” that leaves you slightly unsure of the story you just read. Elizabeth Crane’s “Here Everything’s Better” tells a story in six vignettes, each numbered with three observations while shopping at an HEB grocery store. Despite the brevity, Crane manages to subtly tell the story of a marriage through the focus of how to choose sweet fruit and bagels that suck.
The poetry in this issue follows as broad a spectrum as the fiction, with the conventional free verse of “Bank Holiday” by Anthony McCann to the haunting “Five Poems” by Mathias Svalina, which takes major life events (“Baptism,” “First Kiss,” “Puberty”) and writes them as game instructions, even going so far as to include the suggested number of players for each “game.” (In case you were curious, “Puberty” is for seven or more players, while “First Kiss” can be for as few as one player.) Svalina’s collection of game poems is neither completely funny, nor completely heartbreaking, but exist in that no man’s land described by the editors, where anything, and particularly any interpretation, is possible.
In addition to fiction and poetry, this issue of MAKE places a heavy emphasis on non-fiction, even featuring several memoir excerpts. There is an interview with David Raskin, the chair of the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a brief, but charming, interview with comedian Kumail Nanjiani. The review section covers reviews of novels, poetry, essay and lecture collections, as well as literary and music criticism.
It seems as though MAKE is truly the literary magazine that has something for everyone. The cover features a quote from one of the included poems, “Speech Acts 11-13: I am a conjunction” by Janet Deesaulniers and classifies the contents as “No longer young, not feverish but perspirate with effort.” Yet, for a magazine that stabilizes around the theme of “Neither/Nor,” this issue of MAKE contains a little bit of everything and could appeal to a broad and diverse range of writers.
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