By now, all Irreantum subscribers should have received their latest issue, and it’s my hope that the journal is sitting on your bedside table, or next to loveseat in your living room, or in your office atop your stack of favorite magazines. Someplace accessible. Someplace that, if the mood strikes, you can pick up the magazine and read. (And if this place happens to be on top of the toilet in your master bathroom—hey, that spot can be considered a place of honor in some households.)
My copy of Irreantum is sitting next to the chair in the family room, the spot closest to the fireplace, and when I walk past and see its dark blue cover I feel a sense of satisfaction, something akin to the way I feel when I stand in the middle of my freshly-cleaned house before guests come over: pleased at the final result, and glad that the hard work is, at least momentarily, finished. Of course, the guests haven’t quite arrived yet in this scenario—some might walk in the door and notice I didn’t dust the top of the piano, or cast a jaundiced eye at the ubiquitous Wyeth print in the dining room, or glance in the kitchen and wonder why I’m serving Coke to a bunch of Mormons. As editor of Irreantum, I’m aware that the journal’s readers are also making judgments and asking questions, which is as it should be. Literary journals should provoke strong opinions and engender conversation (which is why a blog like this one is such a marvelous tool), and the question, “Why did the editors of Irreantum choose to include this piece?” is a legitimate one. Even a necessary one.
So. Why do the editors of Irreantum choose the pieces they do?
Of course, the answer to that question is rather complicated. Some reasons are practical (we can only publish what we receive) and some are aesthetic (we are a literary journal, dedicated to the promotion of excellence in Mormon art). But I found it somewhat surprising that, in a previous post, a commenter wondered if Irreantum is still interested in publishing speculative fiction. Let me answer that question here with a resounding “yes,” and make it clear that Irreantum is committed to publishing work in any literary genre, by any author (famous or obscure, conservative or liberal, young or old) . . . provided that it’s by, for, or about Mormons, and provided that it’s good.
In the latest issue of Irreantum, we have one short story set in a post-apocalyptic world where the evolutionary pathways of humans and elephants mingle. Another short story takes place completely in the mind of an elderly farm wife as she comes out of a dream in the morning, a stream-of-consciousness rumination on the seemingly capricious choices of the young and the weight and power of family ties. One critical essay delves into the philosophy of paradox; another begins as a humorous look at mission-statement-driven corporate culture and evolves into a stirring challenge for Mormon artists. One personal essay tells the harrowing, heart-wrenching story of a father’s suicide; another depicts the author’s struggle over his religious doubts with honesty and surprising humor.
These pieces—and, in my opinion, each piece we chose to publish in Irreantum’s current issue—earned a place in the journal because they articulated the writer’s personal vision in an honest, compelling, artistically interesting way. As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, “Nothing in the world is inherently interesting—that is, immediately interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. And nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer. . . . Mark Twain, saddled with a cast of characters selected by Henry James, would be quick to maneuver them all into wells. Yet all writers, given adequate technique—technique that communicates—can stir our interest in their special subject matter, since at heart all fiction treats, directly or indirectly, the same thing: our love for people and the world, our aspirations and fears” (42). (I would note that Gardner’s use of the term “fiction” can stand for all the writing we publish in Irreantum.)
A key phrase in Gardner’s quote is “technique that communicates.” Some of the submissions we receive but don’t publish fail to communicate because the literary technique is poor, or at least not as good as the technique found in other submissions. But occasionally we receive submissions where the writing is technically strong, but the piece fails to communicate because it doesn’t ring true. As Gardner says later in the same chapter, “Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are. The writer who can’t distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction”(56).
Anne Lamott also has some wise words on the subject of truth-telling in her book Bird by Bird. “You can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. . . And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it’s wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes” (199).
I would encourage any LDS writer who’s comfortable in his or her own clothes to consider submitting to Irreantum. Irreantum’s annual fiction and creative nonfiction contests are now underway–we’ll accept submissions for these contests until May 31st–and we accept poetry, critical essay, and and review submissions year-round. If you’re a new writer and planning to submit to Irreantum in any genre, I’d suggest that you 1. take the craft of writing seriously (read a lot, practice, revise), and 2. trust the sound of your own voice (be brave, be authentic, write what is most meaningful to you). That’s what I feel the writers in the latest issue have done, and the result is a collection of work that I find funny and moving and compelling and true. I realize that not all readers will agree with my assessment, at least as it applies to each individual piece in the magazine, but it’s my hope that all our readers have been able to find something that resonates in this anniversary double issue.
If you’ve had a change to read the current issue, let me know what you think. If you haven’t received your copy yet, subscribe here! And if you’d like to sound off on the philosophy behind what Irreantum publishes and why, by all means . . .