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Narrative magazine keeps evolving

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Narrative has been a dogged survivor, evolving with each new technological shift. It was one of the first magazines available on the Kindle and one of the first to offer an app. And this month, Narrative launches a classy redesign that demonstrates it can play in the social media world without losing its foundation in high-quality, substantial literature. Somehow, these editors have attracted an audience that wants to read William Carlos Williams and Chekhov on an iPhone.

Over the years, the magazine has published some of the best and best-known writers in the country, including Ann Beattie, T. C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips and Tobias Wolff. In 2009, the editors published a story by Anthony Marra that later became part of his debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” which won extraordinary critical praise. The site currently showcases a story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan.

“When we started the magazine,” Edgarian says, “the thinking about online reading was that readers would not sit still for more than 1,000 words. We set about working against that grain, and from the first, we published long-form work: stories, novellas, novel serializations. One of the great things about digital publication, in our view, is that we can go long.”

But the editors provide plenty of variety, too, such as interviews, videos, podcasts and “7-Minute Reads.” And their new Web site has to handle all that content in a clear, compelling way.

“It’d been about seven years since we updated the design,” Edgarian says. “We wanted a bold, clean look that showcased our tremendous depth and breadth. We publish more than 300 writers and artists a year, and the archive has literally thousands of stories, poems and essays, so we wanted it to be fun and easy for readers to navigate Narrative’s modern, carry-in-your pocket library.”

Jenks is not modest about the magazine’s aims or accomplishments. “In 2003, when we started,” he says, “reading was in sharp decline in lieu of other media, and many writers were, well, depressed. The possibilities for technology to bring readers and writers together, to produce economies of scale, to inspire new forms while sustaining the best were nonethless becoming apparent. So, we created an unprecedented model of publishing. We were the first. We put quality literary work steadily online and demonstrated what traditional literary practices would look like in the new media.”

Amid all the disruption in today’s publishing industry, Jenks predicts another 20 years of experimentation and technological revolution before we get firm standards. But that doesn’t worry him much. “Narrative flourishes as an open space for writers and readers who love literary art  — stories, poems, essays, interviews, audio and video pieces, cartoons — a compendious, well-curated archive, dedicated to excellence.”

Ten staff members work in the San Francisco office, and more than 100 part-timers, freelancers and volunteers help out remotely with reviewing manuscripts, editing, proofing and advising.

Only one aspect of the operation troubles me: Narrative charges a fee for submissions (around $22, depending on the type). Such fees help pay the bills, but they also function as a tax on the least talented and most starry-eyed. On the other hand, that policy probably keeps the editors from being even more overwhelmed by manuscripts that would otherwise come flooding in. And Jenks makes a good argument for his staff’s diligence. “We note all the submissions as they come in,” he says, “and we perform reviews of our readers and editors, and we periodically reread rejected manuscripts to make sure that errors of attention are not occurring. I won’t say that we never miss a piece that we should have recognized, but it would be rare.”

UDPATE: According to Narrative magazine’s 2012 Form 990 filed with the IRS, Jenks makes a healthy salary of $130,000 as executive editor. Carol Edgarian earns $95,000 as executive editor. The next largest salary listed is $15,000 for board member Robert Beatty.

In the early years we funded the magazine ourselves,” Edgarian says, “mostly through freelance work and teaching, and without backing from a university, institution or large benefactor. Gradually, the magazine grew, attracting readers and a dedicated core of volunteers, staff and donors.” Today, the magazine has 180,000 registered readers. (The fact that they don’t call them “users” speaks volumes about their respect for their audience and for literature.) 

Next week, in another sign of the magazine’s flexibility, Narrative opens a new contest for iStories — works of fiction or nonfiction in 150 words or less. First prize is $250, and there is no entry fee. The deadline is Oct. 2.

Ann Beattie will serve as the judge. When I question the potential of such extreme brevity, she admits, “Of course, a 150-word story is just too short. Why not read or write a poem? Yet short stories are usually compressed, and therefore related to poetry. As with any short story, one of 150 words would succeed to the extent it existed off the page — perhaps by allusion, perhaps with meaning extended by motifs or symbols, perhaps because the external world might inherently comment on the story. In stories, so much meaning is found between the lines, regardless of length.”

“Star Trek” fans will remember the Kobayashi Maru and take Beattie’s advice to heart: “There are exceptions to everything,” she notes, “so a 150-word story might succeed just by breaking the rules.”

That sounds like the secret to Narrative’s success, too.