Journal Has Heart, but Not Without Faults

Review of december, Spring/Summer 2018 by Craig Ledoux


For many Americans, November 8th, 2016 represented a fundamental shift in the way we saw ourselves as a nation. The call to resist came immediately, rallying the creative forces in our communities to protest injustice and to promote the multicultural society we knew to be our ultimate strength. Since the election, literary journals, editors, writers, and artists have approached resistance in various ways, from critical editors’ notes to unflattering public statues. Early on, some of the critics seemed to overplay their respective hands, immediately conjuring images of Nazis and nuclear annihilation. Nearly two years later, child separation, white supremacist rallies, and North Korean posturing lend even the most overblown comments of the resistance a frightening credibility.

It is this sense of unease, this creeping evil, that december brings front and center to the Spring/Summer issue of 2018. The cover image, stitched woolwork by Lisa Ann Auerbach, depicts a cobwebbed bookcase, half full of books on wealth and deal making, written by and for the current president. On the bottom shelf, a revolver is wedged between Think Big and Kick Ass and The America We Deserve. Above, two books by Adolf Hitler—which the president reportedly owns—are bookended by a handgun. In her artist’s statement, Auerbach says she made the piece “before the election, back when everyone thought it would never happen.”

In his introductory note, art editor Buzz Spector views the piece with humor rather than dread. “Cobwebs,” he writes, “are also an accouterment of haunting. Appropriate as well to an author whose every book is ghostwritten.” The artwork inside the issue, consisting mainly of throwaway grayscale-printed photographs, isn’t nearly so fraught, though the featured artist, C.K. Wilde, who uses cut up global currencies as his medium, does address historical injustice in several of his collages.

Despite the provocative nature of the cover, it is the written work of the issue that carries the most weight. In “Eddie Guerrero Enters a Ring Holding the World Championship,” a poem about a famous brown body becoming an avatar, Reyes Ramirez excuses the antics of Guerrero, a professional wrestler whose catchphrase was, “I Lie! I Cheat! I Steal!” He writes:

brown bodies know that violence is the marriage

between their hot ambition and the rule of law.

what respect can we have for the word ‘legal’ since

‘illegal’ can describe our skin, our joy, our life?

“Kingdom, Phylum, Family,” a story by Scott Gloden, initially threatens to be one of those over-researched pieces more interested in the attributes of the Amazon gladiator frog than the human interaction wedged between each factoid. However, a compelling story soon emerges, powered by a father whose wife has left him and whose plan to win her back involves a fiscally irresponsible, zany, possibly illegal, longshot attempt to impress their son.

The travails of parenting are expressed once more in “Autistry: Autism and the Practice of Self,” an essay by Carol Roh Spaulding about raising a son on the autism spectrum. The piece transitions stylistically between memoir, research, and humor, which sometimes makes it feel scattered, though mainly it is Spaulding’s earnestness, curiosity, and love for her son that shine through. Describing the moment a parent realizes something has changed, Spaulding writes, “Because we cannot typically see autism at first, an autistic person’s being hovers in the slightly elongated moment before we recognize that something about the autistic person is off, odd, different.” Though some key, big picture elements are glossed over—for example, the fraudulent research that birthed the still-thriving anti-vaxxer movement—the essay is a welcome invitation to understand the diagnosis from a personal, rather than journalistic, perspective.

While there is plenty of other good work in the issue, particularly nonfiction, what stood out in the latter half was, unfortunately, missed edits and typos. In Spaulding’s piece, there are two errors on the same page; later in the issue, in another essay, “gage” is used incorrectly. On the following page, a word that should have been deleted lingers, jamming up the sentence. Alone, these would be forgivable errors, little editorial slipups that hardly affect the reader’s experience. Together, though, they swarm like blackflies, frustrating, picking away, distracting. Editorial sloppiness is a disservice to reader and writer alike, a diminishment of otherwise good work. Without question, the editorial process needs to improve.

december is published in Missouri, and though most of its contributors are American, they mainly live in other states. Several have MFAs and PhDs, though many have careers entirely unconnected to writing. For those interested in submitting, december has a quick response time—generally less than six weeks—but charges non-subscribers. The magazine offers pretty generous compensation to those fortunate enough to be accepted—between $40 and $200—as well as two contributor copies. This is more, much more, than many other journals offer.

In her editor’s note, Gianna Jacobson writes, “We look for characters who make us laugh and who make us weep, because it is through their sorrows that we know we are not alone and through their triumphs that we gain a measure of hope.” Volume 29.1 is not flawless, but its heart is in the right place, and its editors are seeking the right stories. It’s true that we learn from sorrow and triumph alike. Here’s to the latter. Lord knows we need it.