In Search of ‘A Modern Sense of Place’

On April 1, the new, Amherst-based journal The Common will make its official debut. For its editor, the writer Jennifer Acker, the venture is no joke but a serious attempt to establish a print-centric literary magazine that will, as its tag line says, deliver “a modern sense of place.” The editor points out the magazine’s broad geographical range, saying that they’ve already taken work from writers “in or from” Israel, Russia, the Netherlands, Britain, the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, and the United States. “Our goal is to reach readers, writers, and artists from as far and wide as possible,” she says. In an e-mail Q&A with The Chronicle, Acker explained a little more about the guiding principles behind the journal, how she sees print and digital publishing co-existing, and why she thinks literary journals still matter.

Q. Why launch a literary journal now, given the enormous changes and challenges facing the publishing world? What makes you optimistic that it will succeed?

A. The only definitive lesson to be learned about the future of publishing, as I see it, is that any new venture must have a community behind it. The Common draws its energy and optimism from being a collaboration between many individuals and institutions. Editorially, we have one foot at Amherst College and one foot at the University of Massachusetts, involving both undergraduate and MFA students in magazine operations. Our advisory board includes people from national organizations like the National Book Foundation, Oxford University Press, and Vanity Fair as well as the local Emily Dickinson Museum. We’re developing important connections with teachers and writers at the other colleges in our area as well as regional bookstores and presses. Literary magazines have always had a history of supporting each other, and The Common has already connected with journals, festivals, and reading series not only in western Massachusetts but also Boston, New Haven, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.

The interest in the magazine that has already developed around our focus on place-centric literature and our commitment to print, before we have even published our first official issue, plus the wonderful support of our advisory and editorial boards—including fiction writers Jim Shepard and Claire Messud, essayists and critics James Wood and Ilan Stavans, and poets Richard Wilbur, Mary Jo Salter, and Dan Chiasson, among many other stunning writes—make me optimistic that we will have a wide readership and become an important new voice in contemporary literature.

Q. What will The Common do that others don’t? What makes it uncommon, in other words?

A. Our mission to publish work that explores themes of place is one crucial way The Common sets itself apart. The increasing use of digital technology does not mean place is no longer one of the most fundamental forces in our lives. It is. Where we are from and where we live and how we embed or distance our selves from our environments and their cultural influences are central to our relationships and perceptions, and therefore our art. Publishing in print reinforces the fact that we live and read and create in physical communities.

Q. What won’t you publish?

A. Given our mission of publishing work with a strong sense of place, The Common won’t publish work in which the setting–the surrounding environment of people, objects, geography, and history—is irrelevant. We are committed to literature and images in which the stories and characters and ideas are shaped by where they happen.

Q. Who’s providing financial support? Tell me about the editorial operations of the journal, too—who’s involved, how intensive the editing process is, etc.

A. The Common Foundation, an independent nonprofit, is the entity that publishes the magazine. The nonprofit is barely a year old, but already our financial support comes from several sources: subscriptions, donations from individuals, and both contributed and in-kind support from several departments and institutions at Amherst College, including Frost Library, the Dean of Faculty’s office, the Creative Writing Center, the Center for Russian Culture, and the Mead Art Museum, which, together, provide office space, funding for excellent student interns, and crucial start-up funds without which we couldn’t publish our first issue.

Amherst College student interns participate in reading the prose slush pile—fiction and nonfiction—and provide first-round comments, then several experienced adult readers plus The Common’s two other editors weigh in on the final round of selections. I read all prose submissions; nothing gets rejected without first passing my desk. Poetry Editor John Hennessy reads and edits all poetry submissions. We have an online-only section called Dispatches—news, notes, and impressions from around the world, both prose and verse—that is edited by Hannah Gersen.

Q. How much of an online presence will The Common have? Do you see the digital world as competition or complement to what you hope to do?

A. Print is our primary publishing platform for several reasons. First, a print publication insists on selectivity. We have limited pages, and therefore we include only the best work. A print publication is also its own independent object, meaning the work inside is not instantly linked to other texts or pictures or videos that would draw attention away from the crafted story or poem. By publishing in print we are saying: The work in front of you deserves your full attention. Because a print publication exists in the world it also implies lastingness, longevity. Finally, and certainly not lastly, a book is a physically beautiful object. We’re fortunate to work with such a talented and passionate designer (Gabriele Wilson Design, responsible for both the print magazine and the soon-to-be-unveiled redesigned Web site), someone who really understands books and the presentation of text. There are sensory pleasures involved in reading, visual and tactile, and Gabriele emphasizes this.

Having said all of that, The Common will be every bit as digital as an online-only journal. Digital publishing is a complement to our work. We want to be able to reach readers all over the world, including those whose only access to excellent new literature is an Internet connection. Starting with our first issue, we’re offering digital subscriptions in the form of a PDF delivered by email. The Common Online has selections from the print magazine as well as many online-only features, such as dispatches, reviews, interviews, podcasts, photographs, and videos. (Some of these features and technologies are under development; others are up and running.) The Web site will also archive all of our content, which will be available digitally, for free, after the original print publication.

Social media and the Web are excellent ways to stay connected with readers and begin and continue conversations, especially between people who might not have the chance to meet face to face. We are on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and the rest, keeping up with our audience as best we can. Our commitment to print, however, is unwavering. It is at the core of our publishing mission: to present a beautiful volume of place-centric work that astonishes and compels, pieces you’ll want to return to again and again.

Q. Do we still need literary journals? Do you think that literary journals play the role they once did in helping establish writers? I’m wondering if that’s not more easily done online now.

A. We absolutely still need literary journals. They are still the first publication venues for emerging writers and the places where established writers broaden their audience; being published in “little” magazines still builds careers. Writers who have won recognition and major prizes after getting their start at small and independent magazines and presses are the rule rather than the exception.

Literary magazines have another interesting and increasingly important function in the age of e-readers and troubled brick-and-mortar bookstores. Journals become a trusted brand; they introduce new and established writers to a reading public who will go out and buy their books by searching for them online. If people are browsing less in bookstores, they are having more magazines delivered to their doors and mobile devices, and in these magazines they read work that excites them whose authors they then search for on Amazon, iBooks, etc.

Q. How optimistic are the students you work with about their prospects as writers, editors, publishers?

A. I have no shortage of talented students applying for magazine internships, so I’d have to say they are very optimistic! The Common is of course very lucky to have its offices in Frost Library, [named] after Robert Frost, at Amherst College, a school with such an esteemed literary history that continues to place great importance on reading and writing about literature. (Making the rounds on Facebook recently is a scanned copy of an early story by Amherst alum David Foster Wallace published in The Amherst Review, a now-defunct, student-run journal.) Our connection with UMass brings us into contact with an excellent MFA program.—Jennifer Howard

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