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The Asterix and Obelix of literary magazines

February 27, 2008 | 11:03 am


By which I don't mean one is smart and one is dumb, but rather one is little and the other is big. I'm talking about One Story and Ninth Letter, two topnotch literary journals that inhabit opposite ends of the form-and-function spectrum.

Let's start with One Story, the little one. Every issue is, quite simply, one story. At 5 by 7 inches, as many pages as it takes to finish the story, each issue fits in a jacket or jeans pocket, or even a little purse. They're terribly efficient: text only, stapled, the back page for an author bio and inside back cover for credits. One Story arrives about every three weeks, and features both debut authors and big cheeses; the current issue is by Ron Carlson, author of nine books of fiction and director of the grad fiction program at Irvine.

For me, One Story is brilliant for three reasons. The first, as the editors proclaim, is that "everyone has time to read one story." Maybe that time is while standing in line at the post office, or grabbing a quick lunch -- which leads me to the second reason -- it's so portable. Other magazines are portableish - they don't fit in pockets, they get crumpled in big bags, they have weird inserts that make them fold funny. One Story is grab-and-go. So you can bring it with you and, when caught waiting someplace, pull it out and use that time to read a story. The third thing about this little genius is that it's also -- and I feel bad saying this -- disposable. It's easy to leave. Read the story, hand it off. For the next person who grabs that seat at the lunch table, or to the friends whose couch you crashed on (yes, I do this regularly, in case you offer me a couch). When you're done, you're done -- which means that the writing actually has the potential to circulate more than if it were in a big shiny package.

Not that there's anything wrong with big shiny packages. Ninth Letter is very big and very shiny and very literary, too. Put out by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a joint project of the English department and School of Art and Design, Ninth Letter is different not just issue to issue, but page to page. It's 9x12 inches, full bleed, so the images on each page stretch to the edge of the paper, without margins, and this issue clocks in at more than 200 pages. I haven't seen anything this wildly, perfectly beautiful since the dear departed Nest (a home design magazine that went beyond shelter porn to the heart of mad inspired design). By "perfectly" I  don't mean it's without flaw so much, as the design perfectly fits/completments/informs its fiction/poetry/nonfiction content.

In the latest issue, a story by Dan Chaon features a 20-something narrator who's slowly coming apart instead of fixing up the house his parents owned; the pages' backgrounds are big blurry photos, tinged with institutional green, of broken lightplates and bathroom corners creeping with decay. There is a pull-out nonfiction piece by Matt Roberts called "Pre-Vasectomy Instruction No. 7," which, quite frankly, I'm afraid to detach and unfold, for fear of what I might find. And remarkably, a minimally-illustrated piece by William Gaddis -- yes, that William Gaddis -- written in 1947, never before published.

The differences between Ninth Letter and One Story are all the more interesting when you learn that both are less than five years old. Launched in the face of publishing industry pessimism, both magazines seem to have taken their own genius to an extreme that works. Ninth Letter comes twice a year, One Story, 14 times or more, and a subscription to either one runs about $20.   

Carolyn Kellogg