An interview with the editors of Egress, a new literary magazine devoted to innovative writing

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Biblioklept: What is Egress?

David Winters: Literally: the act or way of leaving a place; an emergence, opening or exit. Egress is also a biannual literary magazine devoted to showcasing the most innovative writers on both sides of the Atlantic today. Our first issue features, among others, Gordon Lish, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, Kathryn Scanlan, David Hayden and Kimberly King Parsons.

Biblioklept: How long has Egress been incubating? How did the magazine come about?

DW: Incubation began in May 2017, over a lunch of okonomiyaki in Bloomsbury, London. We met through Gordon Lish. Little Island had published Lish’s White Plains, as well as books by his students Russell Perrson and Jason Schwartz. I’d also alerted Andrew to the work of David Hayden, author of Darker with the Lights On, who has two new stories in Egress #1So, there was a sense of shared tastes. A sense, too, that UK literary magazines–despite the efforts of a few pioneers—lacked the avant-garde spirit of US publications like NOON and New York Tyrant. We both saw a space for something new. Okonomiyaki, for the benefit of your readers, are a type of savoury Japanese pancake.

Andrew Latimer: Through David and Gordon Lish, I’d discovered writers like Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte (both in Egress #1) and desperately wanted a vehicle for engaging this type of work here, in the UK. Egress – the name, the style, the design – all came about quite naturally from a desire to bring writing like this into one place.

Biblioklept: For readers unfamiliar, can you describe the Lishian aesthetic, at least as you see it?

DW: Well, in a sense, there’s no such thing. Journalists in the eighties harped on about ‘minimalism’—a stupid label, with little purchase on the writers in question. Sven Birkerts once claimed there was a ‘School of Gordon Lish’. But Lish’s influence can’t be reduced in that way. Over the decades, hundreds of very different writers have worked with him, learned from him, bounced off him, swerved away from him. What the best of them have in common is an acute sensitivity to the power of language, and a commitment to creating new and lasting art—art that stands apart from the marketplace. Those are also the qualities we prize at Egress. But they are hardly restricted to “Lishian” fiction.

Biblioklept: That “acute sensitivity to the power of language” is on display in the two fictions from Lish in Egress #1, “Jawbone” and “Court of the Kangaroo.” The first Lish story, “Jawbone,” is about this seemingly unimportant minuscule moment, but Lish turns the whole thing into a drama about language itself. There’s this line in “Jawbone” that I kept tripping over, rereading and rereading: “Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.” The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky—rapturous really.

AL: Rereading is the key here. We’re familiar with rereading whole stories that we like or ones with endings that puzzle us. But what Lish, and writers of this ilk, ask us to do is to reread sentences in the course of making our first reading. This assumes a reader, a listener even, with the patience to linger over the page, its construction. (Gary Lutz prefers a “page-hugging” to a page-turning reader.)

DW: “Gorgeous and ugly” — exactly, yes. Donald Barthelme once said, “every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful.” Lish, when he was teaching, called this “burnt tongue”: “God only listens to those whose tongues are burnt, twisted, crippled.” Writers of fiction can achieve extraordinary power by attending to everything wrong, skewed, erratic in their natural speech — and, rather than being afraid of that wrongness, amplifying it on the page. But power of this kind needn’t be purely spontaneous; it can also be elicited by editing. The sentence you mention went through multiple revisions; Lish reworks his stories obsessively, right up to the final proof stage. When I edit fiction, in my lesser way, I often look out for those off-kilter sentences, isolate them, tweak them, try to increase their tension and pressure.

Biblioklept: How much and what kind of editing did you guys do with Egress #1. I mean, were the authors submitting finished pieces, or were you working with them through the process?

DW: It varies. Some stories are, with the authors’ approval, heavily edited. Some authors come to us in such command of their material that no editing is necessary. Sometimes, editing is simply about discovery: finding the new. Sometimes it’s about reinvention: getting stuck in and making it new. Between these extremes, there’s a whole spectrum of interventions.

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Biblioklept: I’ll admit that I opened Egress with the idea that I’d probably go straight to Lish and then maybe read Christine Schutt or Evan Lavender-Smith—some of the writers I’d already read before—before reading ones that were new to me. However, the first story in Egress #1, which is by Kimberly King Parsonhad a title that grabbed my attention: “Mr. Corpulent Wants Polaroid Proof.” So I started there, and all the sentences made me want to keep reading, and then read into her second story. Then I read the next story, Grant Maierhofer’s “Everybody’s Darling.” (The opening line “I suppose I took to mother’s unders when the end became too sure” sort of insisted Keep going).  How important is sequencing the stories (and essays) of Egress and what was that process like? How much of your editorial mission involves opening up a place for newer voices?

DW: Openings are important. Andrew and I share the view that stories should command attention from their very first sentence–what some would call the ‘attack’. Again, though, an attack doesn’t have to be nailed down straight away; it can emerge in the process of revision. However they’re made, the best openings astonish, seduce, compel us, as you say, to ‘keep going’.

And if literary art is about attention, so too is the art of the literary magazine. Drawing attention to unknown writers has long been the mission of little magazines, ever since the heyday of modernism. Incidentally, this has also been my mission as a critic. When I started writing about Christine Schutt, Evan Lavender-Smith and others, they were largely overlooked and unpublished in the UK. Both in mainstream literary journalism and in the academy, critical attention often fixates on the famous and commercially successful. This is especially true of prose fiction, which inhabits a different institutional ecosystem to, say, poetry. With the current renaissance of small presses, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Even so, the writers who make the Booker Prize shortlist or get reviewed in The Guardian are not, by and large, the writers who’ll be remembered decades from now. The market exerts a powerful pull on our collective attention. Good publishing, like good criticism, resists that pull. The task is to look away from what everyone else is looking at–look at what they’re not looking at–and then make them see.

AL: Absolutely – and the sequencing of the stories and essays plays a huge part in showcasing those new voices. As a reader, there is always that pull to go to the names you know and love first. (It’s part of why you pick up a magazine.) But, as an editor, you can’t just rely on the big names; you’ve got to be in the business of making new ones. You have a responsibility to disrupt the reader’s expectations, to put things in their way. Beyond names and reputations, there’s also a careful and deliberate counterpointing of the work in Egress. David and I think about how one story or essay speaks to another, how it’s placement can enrich another’s meaning, its rhythms. This kind of editorial work, the imposition of an overarching rhythm to the issue, wills the reader to ‘keep going’. Catrin Morgan’s illustrations (of various egresses – trapdoors and staircases) are a neat visual cue to the reader to push on, to explore what’s round the corner.

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Illustration for Egress #1 by Catrin Morgan

Biblioklept: Some of this blog’s readers might know Catrin Morgan from her illustrated version of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. How did you get her involved with Egress? Do you plan for each issue to have a different artist?

AL: Originally we asked her for an image for the front cover, but she ended up drawing all these bizarre stairs and exits that were so compelling I just had to use them. I’d like to continue using her illustrations throughout the text for the future, but there will be a new artist featured in the colour plates each issue. The “artist” for this issue is Hob Broun.

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Biblioklept: I know David has been enthusiastic about Hob Broun’s writing for a few years. Broun is sort of a “writer’s writer’s writer,” if that makes sense. The first issue of Egress features a section titled “Remembering Hob Broun: 1950-1987”; in addition to remembrances from the novelist Sam Lipsyte and Kevin McMahon, who befriended Broun when they attended Reed College together in the late sixties, you include a full color selection from one of Broun’s journals. Can you describe some of the journal for readers, and talk a bit about how the Broun section came together? For readers unfamiliar with Broun, what’s the appeal?

DW: Broun is a ‘writer’s (writer’s) writer’ only in that he isn’t well-known–his work isn’t at all opaque or aloof. He published three books in his lifetime, the novels Odditorium (1983) and Inner Tube (1985), and the superb short story collection Cardinal Numbers (1988). While writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a spinal tumour. He was left paralysed from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished the novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. This aspect of Broun’s life lends itself to mythologization: what better image of writerly dedication? At the same time, it risks obscuring what really matters: the work itself. I was delighted, then, when Kevin McMahon got in touch. Kevin’s essay only glances at Broun’s illness, giving us, instead, a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth. Best of all, Kevin sent us Broun’s personal journal. It’s an extraordinary artefact–a scrapbook of doctored magazine clippings and miniature, fragmentary narratives–unmistakably Brounian in its pulpy, screwball surreality. Broun’s journal is continuous with his fiction (Cardinal Numbers contains the manifesto-like statement, ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage’), but, unlike his fiction, it wasn’t created for public consumption. Not unlike the art of, say, Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell, it gives us a glimpse of a private world, a game played for inscrutable reasons—what Don DeLillo calls “the pure game of making up”. Our celebration of Broun ends with a wonderful essay by Sam Lipsyte–a writer Andrew and I both revere–who captures his essence far better than either of us ever could.

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Biblioklept: Which of Broun’s three books do you think is the best starting place for folks interested in his work after reading about him in Egress?

DWCardinal Numbers, without a doubtOpen Road recently reissued all three titles as e-books, but I’d recommend picking up the old Knopf hardbacks, which can be had for as little as a dollar. Another Broun novel–a previously unpublished manuscript–might be out in a year or two.

Biblioklept: Maybe Egress could get a hold of a few pages.

DW:  We’ve been looking at some of his unpublished work, yes.

Biblioklept: Why is it necessary to publish Egress in a physical, print form?

AL: Why is Egress in print? There are so many reasons, but I’ll focus on one. The role of curation has never been more important as it is now. We are distracted: information, entertainment, stuff causes our attention to bleed from one thing to the next. Egress, like all the best journals and mags, is a highly curated affair. David and I wanted there to be a palpable sensation derived from receiving and reading each issue of the magazine. The style of writing, the artwork, the design. Much of that effect relies on all the pieces being enclosed between covers – simultaneously held together and also cut off, if only briefly, from everything else that’s going on. It’s hard, likely impossible, to get that same sense of quietude, to enforce focus, when reading on a screen as infinite worlds suggest themselves merely clicks away. As well as this, there’s an indispensable sense of occasion one gets from a print magazine: ‘when is it out?’ The magazine, as a format, craves temporality.

Biblioklept: Do you envision future issues of Egress publishing some of the authors featured in the first issue?

AL: Yes, definitely.

Biblioklept: There’s an obvious aesthetic value to a literary journal or magazine publishing the same authors frequently, but are there any risks?

DW: There are risks and rewards. Magazines like Egress serve two roles in the culture. Our primary role is to discover and promote new writers. Often unpublished, unagented, and lacking industry connections, these writers reside at the margins. But we believe in them, fervently, and we believe they deserve to be heard. This gives rise to a second role. You might even call it a moral responsibility. Newness needs to be nurtured, protected, given a space in which it can grow. One contributor to Egress #1 only began writing fiction six months ago. She’d published nothing before she came to us. But what she’s doing is truly unique. Will we publish her again? You bet. We’ll do everything in our power to support her work. The same goes for any writer we believe in. If you do that and keep doing it–if you keep bringing new writers together–you become something more than a magazine. You become a community. Look at the best literary magazines of recent decades–from The Quarterly through to elimaeNOONTyrant and Unsaid–and that’s what you’ll see: artistic communities. Temporary autonomous zones; bubbles in which innovation can flourish. The risk, of course–and here I could name several lesser litmags–is that such communities can solidify into coteries, stables, ‘closed shops’. We’ll champion writers as long as they need us, but we’ll never close ourselves off in that way. After all, the real thrill is when someone comes to you from out of nowhere–no publications, no social media accounts, no ‘platform’, fuck, even no cover letter–just power on the page.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

DW: Sure, when they’re overpriced or out of print. Worse, I’ve had others steal them for me. Years ago, a friend went to great lengths to liberate Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ Order Out of Chaos from a university library for me. And a contributor to Egress #2 once smuggled an exorbitantly priced theology monograph out of a bookshop on my behalf. (Sorry Julie—see you in prison!)

AL: I’m bad for stealing books from places I’m staying at — friends’, hostels, BnBs — especially if I think I’d appreciate the book more myself. My favourite steal so far has been Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis, which I’ve read the covers off so can’t return that now (not that I would).

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Illustration for Egress #1 by Catrin Morgan

 

The first issue of Egress is out now in the UK. It will be available in the US on 21 June 2018.

David Winters is a literary critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookforumThe Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. He currently holds a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where he is writing a book about Gordon Lish. He co-edits both Egress and 3:AM Magazine, and can be found online at www.davidwinters.uk.

Andrew Latimer is editorial director at Little Island Press.

This interview was conducted via email during the month of April, 2018.

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Riff #2 on Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters

I’ve been trying to think of a way to talk about Bernhard’s (or, really, the translator Ewald Osers’) style and affect relative to, say, American prose traditions. I turned to some scholarship on old Bernie, and most of the articles focused on how musical forms (the fugue, sonata, etc.) frame Bernhard’s sentences (and, in some cases, the entire narrative, like The Loser). These were very welcome insights. But before I touch on that, I read a quote by the ever-excellent Deb Olin Unferth this morning that helps start a conversation about Bernhard’s style relative to American prose traditions. Here it is:

Prose can be what keeps you wanting to read. Strong prose contains conflict, even at the level of the sentence. If a sentence is pushing against itself, or if each sentence is contradicting what just came before it and you’re wondering how you can hold all these contradictory statements in your mind at once, that’s interesting to me. What you’re getting then is a complex psychology or philosophy as a result of the very sentences that you’re reading. That’s a Lishian way of looking at prose. I subscribe to it. I admire work and I strive to in my own work have that kind of pressure on the individual sentence, so that each sentence is in conflict with what’s around it in some way.

I think you could pick things out of this quote and posture Bernhard into them. Contradiction–surely. Self-imposed pressure–definitely. I would also say these qualities aren’t specific to Lish, though. So-called Lishians often default into a kind of prosody that depends on physical characteristics of sound to help move meaning within a sentence. In other words, sound thematizes presence and produces the emotional effect; and sound thematization is the affect of Lishian prose. So, for example, a sentence that evokes a sharpness and harshness would have a lot of alliterative K-sounds, or something. Diane Williams’ sentences are very proud of this prose. Look at this, from “One of The Great Drawbacks” in Vicky Swanky is a Beauty:

If left to themselves, they fight like fiends or yell out the great news and one of these girls is entirely out of danger.

Notice the alliteration and assonance in the first part of sentence on the F-sounds, the short E’s, and long I’s. From a “craft perspective,” I guess, there’s a sense that making the sounds of the words symbiotic take precedence before plot and character. Composition first depends on making the sounds interesting, and lead the other components into the story. It’s a very different set of restrictions on the writer to depend on the physical properties of language than what Bernhard is doing.

But, I think, Bernhard is one of the most musical writers I’ve ever read. There’s a quote by him somewhere that details his focus on style, and he calls it a “theoretical music.” Where Lishians want the reader to “hear” the prose in the head, Bernhard wants her to feel the consciousness of the ostensible narrator as if she were listening to music; namely, the composition of Old Masters, or Frost, or The Loser. Bernhard’s favorite technique to achieve this effect is repetition with slight variation which, if I remember correctly, is the most infantile way to describe the classical sonata.

Incidentally, he was speaking English, which I found agreeable, but then suddenly also German, very broken German, that broken German which all Englishmen speak when they believe they know German, which, however, is never the case, Reger said, the Englishman probably wanted to speak German rather than English in order to improve his German, and after all why not, when abroad one prefers to speak the foreign language unless one is a blockhead, and so in his broken German he said that he had in fact come to Austria and to Vienna solely for the White-Bearded Man, he was not interested in the museum as a whole, not in the least, he was not one for museums, he hated museums and had always only visited them reluctantly, he had only come to the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum in order to study the White-Bearded Man because back home he had just such a White-Breaded Man hanging over his bed in his bedroom in Wales, in actual fact the same White-Bearded Man, the Englishman said, Reger said.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a sentence by a “Lishian” that was ever this long. Where the musicality of a Lishian sentence is in the very materiality of language, Bernhard performs his music in the construction of the melody (sentence) by arranging the phrases (clauses) in this sort of point-counterpoint call and response. English calls to German, and vice versa, and we get a sense of the character within the rant; all the phrases that repeat “German” respond to Reger finding the English “agreeable” perform his total ambivalence for the Englishman. It makes me think that “Lishian” sentences still aim for a kind of story in the traditional sense, and Bernhard’s aim to stage a mind at work, a mind paralyzed (This was touched on in the Frost post). Less a story than a confession, testimony, absurd anecdote.

(Read the first riff).