And Now For Something Completely Different
Ninth Letter is not your father’s literary journal.
You never know what to expect with an issue of Ninth Letter. Readers might receive a car in one issue...a utility bill in the next one...a postcard from Argentina in another...or maybe a microfiche in the next issue.
“There’s always something to surprise and delight the reader in Ninth Letter,” says Philip Graham, LAS professor of creative writing. “We want readers to say, ‘I wonder what they’ve done this time.’”
Ninth Letter, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2013, is a literary journal unlike just about any other in the country. As the Los Angeles Times put it, the journal is “wildly, perfectly beautiful.”
Graham, who serves as Ninth Letter’s creative nonfiction editor, says one of his favorite surprises came in an issue accompanying the story “Man of Steel,” by Bryan Furuness. The story is about the relationship between a father and his young son, and it reaches the climax when the two of them are driving home.
“It’s like I’m in two places at once, in the front seat with my father, and beside the car, too,” says the young narrator of the story. “I’m flying alongside through the soft, gray streets of town, like a superhero, or an angel of memory.”
Inspired by this passage, the journal designers decided to include in the issue a cardboard insert in which the reader can actually assemble the car that the father was driving with his son sitting alongside. The wheels of the cardboard car even move, and when you push it along, the “angel of memory” hovers over the roof of the vehicle.
In another issue of Ninth Letter, a short story focused on a man’s failed relationship as reflected in changes in his water usage. So what did they do? They printed the story on what looked like a utility bill inserted into the middle of the journal. Meanwhile, an essay that dealt with technology falling into obscurity was printed on a microfiche insert, although you could also read it online.
This level of creativity is the result of a unique collaboration between the creative writing program in the College of LAS and the University of Illinois School of Art and Design. The journal comes out twice each year, with creative writing graduate students selecting the content over the span of a semester, as part of a literary editing class. After the content is selected, it is handed over to a class in Art and Design, which designs the issue the following semester.
But as Graham stresses, “The designers are not illustrating the stories. They are interpreting the stories. There is a real energy that very few magazines have because of the interpretative nature of the art. Every issue is a work of art.”
Most literary journals are staid and serious, heavy on text with little to no variation in design. They often come with straightforward names such as Chicago Review, The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, or The Kenyon Review. But the quirky nature of the Illinois journal even comes across through its enigmatic name—Ninth Letter.
Michael Madonick, the journal’s poetry editor, says that when the first issue was taking shape, professors and graduate students kicked around several names, with Flatlands as the frontrunner. This was at a time when the University was first promoting its new “I” logo, so Madonick decided to find out what the dictionary had to say about the letter “I.” He encountered this simple definition:
“The ninth letter of the alphabet.”
Illinois had another literary journal once upon a time— Accent, later changed to Ascent. This prestigious journal started in 1940 and published many acclaimed authors. In fact, Flannery O’Connor published her first story in Ascent. The journal was edited and coordinated by a single professor, Daniel Curley; but when he tragically died in an accident in 1988, the journal eventually disappeared. It wasn’t until U of I started its first master’s program in creative writing in 2002 that calls went out to start a new literary journal.
With initial funding from the chancellor’s office, the journal hired a full-time editor, Jodee Stanley, who had been editor of the New England Review. “Jodee holds the whole thing together,” Graham says. “She not only holds together the 30 to 40 people working on each issue, but those 30 to 40 people change each year. How she does it I don’t know.”
When Stanley came on board in the fall of 2003, the staff didn’t have time to put out a call for submissions, so they relied on their connections to assemble the first issue. Among the contributors to the first issue were Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer, and acclaimed Illinois alumnus Dave Eggers. The issue also included an interview with Yann Martel, author of the best-seller, Life of Pi, now a major motion picture. With writers of such a high caliber in the first issue, the submissions started pouring in, says Stanley, and they now receive about 5,000 per year.
“I was blown away by the initial response to our first issue,” she says. “I think it was because people hadn’t really seen anything like what we were doing with the visual presentation—certainly not from a university journal.”
In fact, since the arrival of Ninth Letter 10 years ago, Madonick says that other university-based journals have changed—“to some degree as a reaction to what we’re doing.”
From the get-go, the journal also started collecting awards, including over 25 national and international awards for design and typography. In 2005, Ninth Letter was named Best New Literary Journal by the Council of Learned Journals.
Every submission is initially read by two people, Stanley says, and both readers have to approve the submission before it can move to the next stage. For fiction, stories move to a committee of graduate students headed up by Stanley, while nonfiction pieces are reviewed by Graham and his student editorial assistants, and poems go to a committee run by Madonick.
“What happens at our weekly meetings is that the students try to keep me quiet, which is not a particularly easy thing to do,” says Madonick. He says he likes to watch the students defend their choices for poems, which can be a messy process. But they usually work their way to a consensus, which he says is much more satisfying than simply taking a majority vote and then moving on.
Looking ahead, Ninth Letter hosted its first literary contest this spring, and Stanley is working with art director Matt Peterson and students in computer design to come up with an app that will enable people to read the journal on an iPad. In addition, Stanley has begun teaching an undergraduate class, which will select original content for an online version of the journal.
Meanwhile, the surprises keep coming in both content and design. For instance: Sheila Schwartz’s story, “Critical Mass,” is told in the voice of cancer, and the accompanying artwork is a “mestasizing blob of black ink that keeps getting bigger and bigger as the story goes on,” Graham says. “It’s a powerful story, and the designer has done something that expresses that power.”
The playful nature also continues to be evident, even in the table of contents, which changes from issue to issue. In one issue, for example, the table of contents appeared on the cover as a series of perforated cards—like baseball cards, except they featured photos of the journals’ contributors and the page numbers of their stories.
“Reading Ninth Letter is a little bit like walking into one of those Fun Houses, where the floors are slanted and the water flows up,” Graham says. “It might look like an ordinary magazine, but once you open the cover you know you have something very different.”
By Doug Peterson