Irreantum, Good Writing, and Telling the Truth

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 . . .

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18 Responses to Irreantum, Good Writing, and Telling the Truth

  1. Angela,

    I remember back when Irreantum was first started, several of us on the editorial board discussed what we hoped for from the magazine. It was my sense (and, I think, the sense of many of those involved at that time) that rather than develop a specific "voice" for the journal, which I think is typically the editorial strategy of small literary magazines, it would be better to print a variety of different types and voices of writing, so as to represent the best of a broad range of Mormon literature. It sounds to me like what you’re saying here aligns pretty well with that original vision.

    I haven’t had a chance to do much reading of the magazine lately, with my own various projects, so I can’t assess how well you’re doing at achieving that goal (which, as you point out, is partly dependent on external factors, such as the submissions you get). However, it’s one of my goals to make more time for reading Mormon literature this coming year.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    I haven’t gotten very deep into the new issue yet, but I will review the fictinooat least when I do.

    Previous reviews:
    http://thmazing.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-irreantum.html
    http://thmazing.blogspot.com/2008/12/irreantum-i-missed-story.html
    http://thmazing.blogspot.com/2009/07/short-fiction-and-because-i-am-feeling.html

    I like Irreantum and I’m glad I resubscribed. I gave up on it about eight or nine years ago, but I’m quite pleased with it now. So pleased, that I’ve shelved my own plans for starting a Mormon literary mag. It’s not needed anymore.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Thank you, Th, for the vote of confidence. I do hope that more of you who may have left for a while come back and give [i]Irreantum[/i] a whirl. And if you have never been a subscriber, please consider it. Angela and Jack aim for diversity. Not every story will speak to every reader, but I feel confident that every issue will have something that pleases every reader. There are some very exciting things happening in the LDS lit community and I know I, for one, am very grateful that [i]Irreantum[/i]‘s fearless editors–Angela Hallstrom and now Jack Harrell–donate as much time and talent as they do to ensuring that Mormon voices and stories have a place to be heard. The journal, however, needs two things: 1) Great submissions, and 2) a bump in subscription numbers.

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’m reluctantly being persuaded to subscribe…

  5. Angela H. says:

    Don’t be reluctant, Moriah. And submit! Th., I’ve always been very interested in your AMV posts on Irr. and appreciate your analysis of each issue. Lisa–you know we couldn’t do it w/o you. And Jonathan, you need to submit, too.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    Irreantum is one of the few rags I’ve subscribed to that I can accept being rejected by because what they do publish is of such a uniformly high quality that I can’t feel slighted. Used to be true of Zoetrope but no more. Now it’s just Irreantum and One Story.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Regarding submissions and rejections, sure, we who work w. the journal want a lot of submissions to choose from because then it is easier to achieve the diversity we seek. And sure, we can’t accept every story–and higher submissions will mean more rejections. But the thing writers need to remember is that one of [i]Irreantum[/i]‘s goals (well, the staffs’ goals) is to encourage and [i]develop[/i] talent. The development of a strong(er) body of Mormon lit is what motivates us. Fortunately, the team editor concept works to the writer’s benefit. What may not float Angela’s boat may float Jack’s.

    I know many who read lit fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry are well-trained to offer sharp, cogent criticism of literary art. We need good critics, good editors, and, first, good writers.

    But sometimes (and I’m speaking from my own experience here) we get so practiced at criticism that we undervalue encouragement. A subscription[i] is[/i] that encouragement. Irreantum’s editors and writers are imperfect people. There is no such thing as perfect art. But we are striving to become as close to perfection as we can become. We invite all to participate in that becoming.

  8. Angela H. says:

    Lisa, excellent point. One of the reasons I’ve been a part of Irreantum for the past five years is because I believe it’s a place to encourage, develop, and show off new Mormon writers. It’s also a place to find work by well-known or very experienced writers–this issue includes work by Terryl Givens, Orson Scott Card, Darin Cozzens–but some of the work in this issue by new(ish) writers will knock your socks off. Jaren Watson’s essay "Of the Drowned," for example, is amazing. One of the things that sets Irreantum apart from other journals, too, is our editors’ willingness to work with all our writers on whatever revision is necessary. Most of our writers come out of the process very pleased with the final result. Lisa is especially committed to guiding writers through the revision process.

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I like that Angela listed Darin Cozzens with the list of "well-known" or "very experienced writers." I’m presently working w. Darin, editing a collection of his work for Zarahemla. I’d dare say that before Darin discovered [i]Irreantum[/i], no one would’ve placed him in the category of "well-known." So all you undiscovered Darin Cozzens out there, come on! Submit! We want to find you. And if you aren’t accepted or don’t end up in the winners’ circle of this year’s contest, stick with it and submit again.

  10. Tyler says:

    Being on a student budget, [i]Irreantum[/i] is the one journal I subscribe to and the one that I will continue to subscribe to, partly because I intend to keep my AML membership up-to-date, partly because—as a poet and critic—I think it’s a good investment to know what Mormon lit others are writing and what others are writing about Mormon lit, and partly because I just enjoy reading the high-quality stories that are coming out of the Mormon tradition.

    I’ve committed myself to submit more work to publications outside of Mormonism, but I’ll always come back and submit to [i]Irreantum[/i] because my publication experience here with such generous editors (including Michael Collings) has helped me grow as a writer.

    And I’m anxious to get my copy, which is (I hope) being forwarded to me from our previous address. I’m chomping at the bit to read the poetry…

  11. FoxyJ says:

    If I subscribe now can I still get this issue? I subscribed for a number of years, then my subscription lapsed and I’ve been trying to work it back into the budget. Recently I was reading some back issues I found on my shelf (like 2002-3) and missing the journal.

  12. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Tyler, unless you’ve told the post office to forward second class mail (which is what I think BYU mailing uses to send Irreantum for us), or unless there is someone there who is actually forwarding things like that for you (besides the post office), the issue may not get to you. Please email me at irreantum@mormonletters.org with your new address, so we can be sure you get a copy of the issue.

    FoxyJ, if you subscribe in two years and ask us to start your subscription with the Spring/Fall 2009 double issue, we can do that. We’d prefer that you subscribe now, though. If you subscribe online (through PayPal), there should be a place for you to give us instructions, and that would be where you say which issue you’d like your subscription to start with.

    Or, you can order just the Spring/Fall 2009 double issue (also through PayPal), and we’ll just send that.

  13. Th. says:

    .

    Angela! How did you not mention "Nightshade"? It’s terrific!

  14. J. Scott Bronson says:

    I guess my subscription’s run out? Bummer.

  15. Moriah Jovan says:

    Angela…me? Submit? ROFLMAO!!! I guarantee I’d never achieve that kind of quality. Or appropriateness.

  16. Angela H. says:

    Th., I couldn’t mention everything . . . but I think all the stuff in this issue of Irreantum is terrific or else I wouldn’t have published it. Nightshade is a cool excerpt though, isn’t it? I hope Warnock finishes and publishes the novel, for sure.

    And Moriah, c’mon now. Didn’t your Mom ever tell you "You’ll never know until you try?" Well, if she didn’t, she should have.

    Scott . . . you know there’s a cure for a lapsed subscription!

  17. c5 says:

    My wife and I are trying to cut items from our budget, and I was considering letting my Irreantum subscription lapse. After reading a little over half of this latest issue, there’s not a chance of that.

    To any of the staff or submitters who read this, thanks for the great work.

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