Dude, it is so on. Or at least that's what Sophie Beck, Steven Church, and Matt Roberts thought last October when they launched the Normal School, a biannual literary magazine at California State University, Fresno, with a feisty challenge to McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a journal that needs no introduction to the legions of fans publisher Dave Eggers has managed to inspire with his well-oiled, multivalve literary machine. Beck, Church, and Roberts threw down the gauntlet in a press release and back-page ad daring McSweeney's editors to take part in a bare-knuckle fistfight. "Said challenge, made entirely in the absence of provocation, constitutes an acknowledged and naked bid for publicity on our part, for which we make only feeble and insincere apologies," read the summons. "Should McSweeney's turn out to be yellow-bellied pacifists or otherwise ill-disposed toward fistfights, the Normal School will consider settling for a public literary duel." Six months after the publicity stunt was unfurled in the pages of the debut issue, which is fortified by the poetry of Dorianne Laux and Philip Levine, stories by Laura Pritchett and Ron Rash, and essays by Patrick Madden and Dinty W. Moore, Beck reports that McSweeney's is a no-show. "Failing a response," she wrote in an e-mail, "we are left with no choice but to mock them publicly and mercilessly, which they're probably about due for as the keepers of the cool for a good decade now. We'll take our cues from the hip-hop tradition of public feuds." Barring a drive-by, a confrontation would no doubt be an entertaining return to the days of literary smackdowns. Actually, the only true brawl that comes to mind is the one between the late Norman Mailer and Rip Torn that was captured in Mailer's 1970 indie film Maidstone. (Watch it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmxgeOKGrLA; the action starts about a minute and a half in.) Since the Normal School's little challenge, there have been considerable changes in the American collective consciousness—Bush is out, Obama is in—and a fistfight now seems so...2008. Perhaps McSweeney's editors really are in touch with the zeitgeist. Or maybe they're meek as lambs. Regardless, the good-natured sarcasm of Beck's recent e-mail quickly and wisely gave way to plans for the next issue, forthcoming in May. Instead of taunts, the Normal School will begin offering the White Glove Reader Service. To combat what they call a Perceived Density Exhaustion problem (so much text, so little time), the editors are adding a "guidance page" to their magazine as well as inviting readers to e-mail them with a list of favorite authors and reading habits; the editors will then respond with some suggestions about what to check out in the current issue. Think of it as the literary equivalent of iTunes's Genius application. "In addition to potentially breaking the surface tension of a dense magazine," Beck writes, "we hope it will be an opportunity to get a sense of our readers and chat with them."
It was only a matter of time before the wave hit literary magazines—and this is not a segue into a discussion of the still financial waters that surround the bobbing heads of journal editors everywhere. That's a conversation best reserved for conference rooms and bar stools across this great economically recessed country. Nope, the wave that has reached lit mags is the public interest in and subsequent conversion to e-book devices such as the Amazon Kindle. Narrative, the online journal that diligent perusers of Literary MagNet will remember expanded last year into print, recently announced that it has taken the "evolutionary step" of joining the more than two hundred thousand books, newspapers, and (until now nonliterary) magazines available on the Kindle. The monthly subscription fee of $3.49 ensures delivery of an issue of Narrative to the handheld device that, according to a recent report in the New York Times, could be to Amazon what the iPod is to Apple.
Kevin Larimer is the deputy editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.