On the Death of a Magazine

Wag's Revue
Sep 11, 2015 · 10 min read

The twentieth — and last — issue of the online-0nly literary quarterly Wag’s Revue published today. Editor Sandra Allen featured this essay at the issue’s beginning, looking back at the project’s six and a half years and how literary publishing online has changed in the interim.

In December, 2008, in my third-story studio on the corner of Hope and Williams Streets in Providence, Rhode Island, two friends and I sat up drinking whiskey. The apartment was radiator hot and we were yelling at each other about literary magazines. My friends were both named Will and both from North Carolina and both taller than me by about a foot. One was red-headed; the other had gone strikingly gray. For a couple of years, the three of us had done improv together. We’d gotten it in our heads that we wanted to be writers, or that we were already. Okay, we weren’t sure how that worked, mostly because we were 21.

We were dismayed at what we perceived to be the unassailable fortress that was the infrastructure of publishing, which now was dying, we yelled at one another. Or was already dead; we weren’t sure. We were also dismayed at what we believed to be the relatively unsettled frontier that was literary publishing online. (What were the good online magazines, huh?) At some point one of us opened a Word Doc and started taking notes.

In the ensuing months we made a magazine. Our friend Dave taught himself to code and built us a website. The website was purple. There’s a long, not very interesting story as to why. (tl;dr we fought a lot and one of us is colorblind.) We gave the magazine a weird title and in the six and a half years that have followed, hundreds of people have misspelled it. Our bad. (Though, it did turn out to be a good way to tell whether someone who was writing us — with a submission or a complaint, or a rare compliment — was paying attention.)

In the first issue of the magazine, we published a manifesto. We had heard that this is how magazines were done. In it, we employed the metaphor of the frontier. We weren’t like the folks who were older than us, who lamented or feared or just plain didn’t understand or fucking hated the ‘net. Those who conflated the death of paper with the death of writing — of good, innovative writing. We proclaimed ourselves to be proudly internet native.

Issue 2's cover, with art by Michal Chelbin

Our magazine was funny. Our magazine pushed boundaries. It pushed some boundaries too far. It featured the three genres — poetry, fiction and literary essays — in equal proportion, which was a private victory for me. (The only thing I know anything about is literary nonfiction writing so I’m sort of boobishly pro- the form.) Those three sections took on various and interesting identities: our poetry skewed technical and nerdy; our fiction grotesque and outrageous; our essays formally innovative and strange. We did interviews, too, with people we thought were cool. At the end of nearly every interview, we asked those cool people who their favorite “wag” was and why. (Google #deepdream manipulations of images of some of those answers are featured as the final issue’s art.)

We wanted to preserve the constraint of the printed “page” in the otherwise relatively endless, unspecial-seeming digital space because the fact was, people weren’t yet used to reading this kind of stuff online. The rectangular white book-esque pages of our first issue, though, were JPEGs we uploaded one by one. This turned out to be a bad move; people laughed and shat all over us. (To my total delight, in Rob Dubbin’s interview with Paul Ford for this, the twentieth and final issue of Wag’s Revue, Paul happened to mention that he’d caught notice of us having built our pages this way way back in the spring of 2009 and thought it was clever and this is when he was digitizing Harper’s.)

For our second issue, we rebuilt our website from scratch, effectively relaunching the magazine, though in a way that changed basically nothing from a reader’s standpoint.

Here are the steps that went into the creation of a single page of the magazine’s next ten issues, which ran about 120 pages apiece: We’d lay out each page, run a script through it, convert it to a .php file that was then uploaded onto a server and spot checked for errors. If you messed something up, you did those steps all over again. Mess something up that affected multiple pages, you did all those pages over again. (And all that was after the real work, the thing we were interested in doing, which was finding good writing and making it a bit better and then giving it some readership.)

For its youth, then, this magazine was essentially made by hand. It tried, however imperfectly, to work around the lack of publishing platforms geared toward making the production of good, special-feeling content more easily accessible. This was also before the social web really took hold of us all. We were at a breaking point when a friend of ours met a dad in a coffee shop named John Herr, who rebuilt the site so it had an actual CMS, which meant it took two hours to build an issue as opposed to ten or fifteen. (Bless you, John.)

Art by Tara Kelton from Issue 5

The publishing platforms available to literary-minded kids today are much better: there’s Medium. There’s Atavist. It’s now a better era for writers and other artists who don’t have lots of time to waste, as some of us fortunately did. I think it’s no coincidence that there is a greater range of voices now entering literary publication and being heard and I hope things only trend further in that direction.

Our contributors and editors lived across the country and world, but came together on occasion to release yet another issue of this thing. It was hard to tell if anyone was ever actually reading it but we kept plugging along. In the meantime something happened: a lot of people warmed to the idea that there are good things to be read online.

Most artworks at some point die — they either disappear or are no longer relevant — and things made out of code can die especially fast. Something Mark Greif has argued that I find persuasive is that literary magazines should die. This is because literary magazines should be in conversation with their own times. Wag’s Revue has been, in however small and goofy a way, in conversation with its time. My biggest hope is that some of the people we’ve published will get famous because they do good work and someday some nerd will discover this website and get a nerd boner/diamond-hard nerd clit.

Issue 13's cover, with art by Dan Lydersen

We’re going to try to make sure the site stays half-functional and the magazine’s bowels are preserved in their original form for however long that that’s feasible. Because the thing is: we’ve published so much great stuff in here over the years.

I hope that whether you’ve heard of us before or you haven’t, you wander through this archive like a kid in a video store. I intentionally use a metaphor for something that is, in a way, already dead.

If it’s helpful, here are my staff picks:

Will Guzzardi and Will Littons’ interview with Wells Tower; Rob Moor’s essay “On Douchebags”; stories by Brian Evenson; K. Silem Mohamad’s annagram poems made of Shakespearean sonnets; a Google screengrab poetry series “I Am Extremely Terrified of Chinese People” by Mathias Svalina; this one-page essay by Travis Smith; a fucked-up story called “The Recital” by Lauren Lovett; our interview with George Saunders; five Translations of Aurthur Rimbauld’s Voyelles; two “Stir Fry” Translations of Rogelio Saunders; Four Word™ Translations of Paul Verlaine; Louis Wittig’s short story “Linda Crum Wants to Talk”; our interview with David Rakoff; our interview with (arguably) the world’s greatest improvisers, TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi; Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’ essay “After the Colonel”; Ben Rogers’ story about a thirsty bug, “Mayfly”; “Hotel Coover,” a profile of the granddaddy of electric literature Robert Coover, built in the hotel-shaped style of one of his old assignments by Robert Moor; a one-page short story by Steve McClain “The Builder, the Father, and the Son”; “Eyjafjallajökull” by Travis Smith; the best thing we ever published: “From the Unofficial Horso Wiki Project (Pardon Our Progress!)” by Beau Watkins; “A Story Per My Therapist’s Request by Rachel Yoder” by Rachel Yoder; “The Man Who Wasn’t Male” by Tony Tulathimutte; Dylan Nice’s interview with Gary Lutz; a video that alphabetizes the entirety of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech by Lenka Clayton; a weird essay called “Tsunami Story” by Brad Fox; a weird essay called “The House of Lobster” by Miles Fuller; a weird essay called “The Destined” by Jen Percy; our interview with Alison Bechdel; Lucas Mann’s essay on Joaquin Phoenix; an excerpt from Mark Polanzak’s memoir Pop!; Matthew Clark’s essay about his dealings with UFOlogist Dr. Leo Sprinkle; Alvin Greenberg’s short story “The Most Beautiful People in the World”; “The Idiot” by Victor Vazquez of Das Racist; an erasure poetry series by Mary Ruefle, entitled “Eyes for Everything” (she primarily corresponded with poetry editor Travis Smith via snail mail); Andrew Marantz’s essay on Louis C.K.; Brice Petersen’s poems written in response to individual episodes of the The Golden Girls; Jonathan Callahan’s essay on LeBron James; K. Silem Mohamad’s “Crap Bitches”; an essay about thinking about having sex in carwashes by Josh Wheeler; Joe Worthen’s story “The Paint Mob”; Ranjit Bhatnagar’s Pentametron; Ariel Lewiton’s “Conversations with Bros in the Sauna”; Samuel Adler-Bell’s essay on writing on David Foster Wallace; a story by Amelia Gray “On the Teat”; a story by Lindsay Hunter “Uncle Sandy’s Dogs”; Matt Siegel’s fantastic interview with Sandra Bernhard; a story by Jac Jemc “Filch and Rot”; “Cutter Wood Writes About Seven Words”; an essay in memory of Joshua Casteel by Mary Margaret Alvarado; Jonathan Rovner’s story “The Ruler of the Four Corners of the Universe”; Chris Duffy’s interview with Chris Gethard; Alex Ronan’s interview with Chris Kraus; poems by Michael Earl Craig; Mika Taylor’s story “Todd Rogers’ Advanced Seminars in Auto Aviation”; Alex McElroy’s story “How I Came to Love Kelly Sand’s Sister.”

By no means are these all the great things we’ve published, not at all. They’re mostly the ones that I know have stuck in my head, for whatever reason. I hope there are different pieces you’ve read in this magazine that you’ve loved. I hope you think my opinions are garbage. Make your own goddamn list.

Issue 17's cover, with art by Shawn Huckins

A magazine is just the people who make it and I’ve had good people working on this magazine for very little to no pay for way too long. I’d like to thank: repeat interviewers Dylan Nice, Chris Duffy and Alex Ronan. Ray Sultan, who edited our ridiculous blog, The Wag (which only lasted a year. Turns out making content every day is hard) and his intern Michael Light. Section editors of past and present: Rachel Yoder, Brice Petersen, Joe Tiefenthaler, and Samuel Adler-Bell. Huge thanks to: Travis Smith and Matthew Clark, who’ve helmed the poetry and essays sections, respectively, for the last several years; Lincoln Thompson, who has basically run the entire project for the last few; and Rob Moor, who has long been this project’s bosom-friend (and did what is I think my favorite interview we’ve run, with John Jeremiah Sullivan). To the Wills: thank you, I love you, and hopefully this rag ruins your careers somehow.

We’ve also published some talented artists, all of whom contributed their beautiful and often disturbing works for free. Thank you to: Ana Teresa Barboza Gubo, Ryan Berkley, Sam Carr-Prindle, Michal Chelbin, Fabian Ciraolo, Brian Dettmer, Ben Frost, Jonathan Haeber, Markus Hartel, Ryan Enn Hughes, Sonny Kay, Daniela Kovacic, Tara Kelton, Jack Lovell, Dan Lydersen, Ben Riddlebarger, and Dimitri Tsykalov. And Google.

This final issue of Wag’s Revue took longer than I would have liked to come together — as they all have. I like it a lot more now than I feared I would — as I have every time. I’ve learned that things taking a little too long but ending up better is always good. That just because you could publish something doesn’t mean you have to. And it’s basically for that reason that it’s time for this to come to a close. I think we’ve done our thing.

Issue 20's cover, picturing Google Deep Dream’d Groucho Marx

During my conversation with Saeed Jones for this issue, we were talking about how literary magazines are born. He’s about to launch one that’s got the money and power of a large media company behind it and that is, at the very least, a sign of the health of digital literary publishing. We were talking about how collaborative art projects like this spring out of real relationships. They come of sitting in your kitchen and yelling with your friends.

“That’s what I love about the literary magazine,” he said. “If there is any kind of cultural object that most consistently has appeared over the course of human history as a result of people having drinks, it’s the literary magazine.”

Thank you for reading.

ttyl,
Sandra Allen

Read all twenty issues of Wag’s Revue here for free.

Wag's Revue

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Wag's Revue is an online-only quarterly of poetry, essays, fiction, and interviews with waggish luminaries of our day.

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