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Friday, November 16

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In 2003 Jeff McMahon collaborated with other University of Chicago alumni (some Vermont College MFA alumni would join in the project early on) to build Chicago-based Contrary Magazine as an alternative literary institution. McMahon explains: "Part of our goal is to always remain attentive to new voices. We also want to stretch the ideas of genre that the literary establishment uses to appraise literature. We want to make a home for those stories in which nothing happens but the plucking of your heartstrings. And for commentaries that use techniques from fiction instead of just exposition and argument. In their soft defiance of tradition these kinds of writings strike me as 'contrary.' And as for poetry — good poetry is always contrary, always defiant and novel."

A decade ago McMahon was a columnist at New Times, an alternative weekly in California. His articles and commentaries have been honored as the best in the nation by several journalism associations, including the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Once it became clear to him that he had experimented with his nontraditional style of reportage as far as he could, McMahon decided to return to the city of his origins to study at the University of Chicago. He completed the Master of the Arts Program in Humanities in 2002, and today serves as the MAPH's writing advisor.

With its ability to now pay writers for publication, Contrary Magazine is beginning to garner serious attention within the literary world. To view the recently released Winter 2007 issue, visit contrarymagazine.com.

Q: When starting up a literary magazine, obviously an editor must contemplate which path he or she will take to arrive at the prize that is the magazine's statement of intent. I'm wondering: Does the editor approach the magazine's intent with a reverence for the possibilities of literature? Or does the editor approach the magazine's intent with a focused, critical eye — with an idea of what literature should be? Is there any intersection of these two courses?

McMahon: I'm not sure what other editors do, but we definitely fall on the side of reverence for possibility. If we have a notion of what literature should be, it's that literature should be inclusive, and open, and contrary. But that doesn't mean we'll print anything. I think literature remains constrained by intelligibility: people ought to be able to read it. And it remains constrained by quality: a writer ought to show mastery over the writing. Our notion at Contrary is not to abandon traditional forms, since readers and writers depend on them in much the same way that we all depend on the grammar of our language. Our notion is to push against the walls of traditional forms and maybe poke a hole here or there. We try to push against two walls in particular: the one that confines literature to traditional notions of story, poem and essay, and the one that confines publication to a relatively intimate salon of writers. We do that by trying to publish the strange beside the familiar and the fine new writer beside the established old one.

Q: In regards to the tremendous amount of hours you put into reading submissions to the magazine, have you found that your personal reading is affected by your work with Contrary? Have you found yourself reading "Contrarily," so to speak, in your time away from the magazine?

McMahon: Oh, yes, but Contrary has most affected the way I read other magazines. I pick up magazines with a new appreciation for what goes into making them. I know firsthand how inundated with material editors are, and how much easier it is for editors to rely on established writers than to do the work required to consider new ones — which results in much of the exclusivity of the published world. I've also learned that editors are looking for something quite specific, work that reflects the way they think of their baby. Mission statements and submission guidelines often fail to convey that specificity to writers, leaving writers to interpret rejections as flat statements about quality — which results in a lot of unnecessary hurt at the edges of the published world.

Q: How difficult is it to practice discipline of taste when working with a literary magazine? I imagine you come across plenty of submissions that you really enjoy, yet they do not fit in Contrary. Is it a hard discipline to maintain? Have you ever faltered?

McMahon: I think we probably falter often, and I hope that makes our magazine more interesting. Every issue represents a completely different ecosystem, with different work competing for final selection, so each issue emerges with its distinct character, including its own wobbles. Yet some consistency emerges across all the issues, and that's what gives Contrary its enduring character. Also, neither our fit nor our taste are fixed: each of our editors has a different notion of literature, so there's a fair amount of negotiation and occasional fisticuffs. I like stories that leave the reader with a real sense of the profundity of life. We regularly publish an Irish writer named Edward Mc Whinney who sends us poetic slices of life in which nothing out of the ordinary happens, but your heart aches nonetheless for the ordinary human. To me, that's a sublime achievement, when a writer can reach inside you and pluck a chord without effecting any overt drama. I personally value that kind of story more than one that masters the trajectory of the traditional short story. But we get traditional stories that are really good too. Our fiction editor, Frances Badgett, is good at spotting those and advocating for them, and they often become our most popular stories, the ones most commented upon elsewhere. Finally, when we read something we really enjoy, but it just won't fit, we encourage the writer to submit again. A subsequent story might fit better, or it just might survive better in a different ecosystem.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to tqf@gapersblock.com.

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