Zyzzyva reaches No. 100

April 21, 2014
(Courtesy of Zyzzyva)
(Courtesy of Zyzzyva)

One of the country’s finest literary journals has reached an impressive milestone: The new issue of San Francisco-based Zyzzyva is No. 100, and it’s great. Vacationing in Silicon Valley last week, I had the pleasure of savoring the issue — and wondering again and again why I don’t read Zyzzyva more often. (You don’t have to live in San Francisco to subscribe!) The issue offers a short story by Ron Carlson, a selection from Glen David Gold’s upcoming memoir, and poetry by Kay Ryan and Robert Hass. Among my favorites are witty autobiographical pieces by Jim Gavin and David Ulin and a brilliant feminist essay by Rebecca Solnit that should quickly attain anthology immortality.

There’s nothing unusual about the diversity and quality of this “centennial” issue. Founded in 1985, the triennial journal’s contributors have included Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Adam Johnson, Aimee Bender, Sherman Alexie, Adrienne Rich and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Editor Laura Cogan and managing editor Oscar Villalon are the current curators of Zyzzyva, which publishes about 2,500 copies of each issue. (Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on what that number says about the health of American literary culture.)

Cogan and Villalon spoke with me via e-mail.

Publishing a literary journal seems even more quixotic now than it must have seemed in the 1980s. What’s the driving spirit of Zyzzyva today?

We’re driven by the thrill of publishing a well-wrought poem or a beautifully crafted essay or a story that reminds the reader that he or she is alive and that this means something beyond having to show up for work each day and make the rent at the end of the month. We’re driven by a spirit of discovery, and the pleasure of finding and standing behind talented and important new voices. Beyond those fundamentals, what drives us is the need to keep this unique San Francisco cultural institution alive.

When selecting pieces, what essential qualities do you look for? What distinguishes the editorial vision of Zyzzyva?

We’re looking for twists on the familiar, to be brought to new territory. This is informed by our personal tastes as editors, which, along with our focus on West Coast writers and artists, really distinguish us. We embrace the high and the low, the intellectual and the demotic, the personal and the epic. We’re about the West Coast, but also about the Americas (we did a special issue about the drug war in Mexico, for example) and even further abroad — and by that, we not only mean other parts of the world, but the East Coast, too. We see an American literature made up of all sorts of stories from every class and ethnicity and race, and we try to present that in each issue. If anything, being in San Francisco, being in California, is to know that there is no “one story” of the American experience — much less of the human experience — and that’s what we’re geared to. Further, we are dedicated to helping new and emerging writers find an audience, meaning that we love to pair their work with that of better-known authors.

Why persist in print instead of going all digital?

We get asked that a lot, especially given that we’re in San Francisco — right at the heart of so much technological innovation. We have nothing against digital. It’s not a moral question, one in which digital equals bad and print equals good. In fact, we run a blog on our Web site in which we regularly publish various reviews and essays and interviews, even excerpts from works published in past issues. We’re present on Facebook and Twitter. We’re not Luddites. It’s just that we love print: the feel, the smell, the beauty it offers in terms of covers and art. And for us, we find print to be the ideal way to honor the work published in each issue — and the ideal technology for reading literature, the one least susceptible to distraction, and most uniquely suited for a depth of concentration and engagement with text. We are about creating something special for the reader, presenting her with a volume of exceptional writing and art she can hold in her hand and feel the warmth of the paper and the finish of the cover and then shelve among her books or freely lend to a friend. To borrow a term from the food world, we are small-batch producers of excellent prose and verse.

What have you learned about publishing a literary journal?

Persistence, belief in what you’re doing, and a supportive community: You need to have all three in bunches to get to 100 issues. Come to think of it, you need to have all three just to get out of bed each day.

Any plans for the future you’d be willing to share?

Next year marks our 30th anniversary, so we’ll be planning some special events and maybe a special issue, too.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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