By DeWitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor
Monthly link highlights to online resources, magazines, and author sites that seem informative and inspiring for working writers. Most are free. Suggestions are welcomed.
Poet W. C. Williams proclaimed (as if to T.S. Eliot): “no ideas but in things,” and gave us “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Sherwood Anderson might have agreed, although as a member of the Chicago Renaissance he was as excited by ideas as his “Man of Ideas,” Joe Welling. In any case several websites intend to keep writers and readers thinking about the world and thinking about thinking itself. One of the wisest and most delightful is “Brain Pickings,” founded in 2006 by Maria Popova, and presenting excerpts from philosophers, scientists, psychologists, poets, novelists, artists, etc. from ancient times to the present. The result is a living anthology of sorts.
Popova tells the story of her enterprise: “I left Bulgaria for America, lured by the liberal arts education promise of being taught how to live. As the reality fell short of that promise, I began keeping my own record of what I was reading and learning outside the classroom in mapping this academically unaddressed terra incognita of being….All the while, I was working numerous jobs to pay my way through school. What I was learning at night and on weekends, at the library and on the internet—from Plato to pop art—felt too uncontainably interesting to keep to myself, so I decided to begin sharing these private adventures with my colleagues at one of my jobs. On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. Halfway through my senior year of college…, I took a night class to learn coding and turned the short weekly email into a sparse website, which I updated manually every Friday, then, eventually, every weekday….The site grew as I grew—an unfolding record of my intellectual, creative, and spiritual development. At the time, I had no idea that this small labor of love and learning would animate me with a sense of purpose and become both my life and my living, nor that its seven original readers would swell into several million….”
Her intellectual curiosity is inspiring, responsible, creative, and unpretentious. October’s issue features reflections on the number Pi (“my favorite number,” she relates) in “An Ode to the Number Pi by Nobel Prize winning Polish Poet Wistawa Szymborska,” which leads to her discussing other highlights of “The Universe in Verse: the Complete Show.” The second feature is a sampling of the 1991 out-of-print treasure Alphabet, with drawings by David Hockney and written contributions edited by Stephen Spender. “The twenty-nine pieces—essays, poems, micro-memoirs—come from such writers as Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, Martin Amis, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oats, Ted Hughes, Ian McEwan, Erica Jong, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Iris Murdoch.” Scrolling down the column to the left I find earlier features: such “Favorite Reads” as “A Rap on Race by Margaret Mead and James Baldwin,” “Susan Sontag on Storytelling,” and “Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times.” I find no formal archive. I had to Google in order to locate one past feature: “Why Do Men Stupify Themselves: Leo Tolstoy on Why We Drink.”
Reliably thought-provoking and prescient, the digital magazine Aeon was founded in 2012 by Paul and Brigid Hains, who had relocated from Australia to London. For the first three years, the enterprise was funded entirely with Paul’s money; however, last year Aeon became an official charity under Australian law, and now seeks grants and donations. They keep offices in London, Melbourne, and New York. They publish a new essay each day, free to your inbox, with a roundup on weekends. The primary essays are long-form, in-depth, and commissioned from “leading” psychologists, philosophers, scientists, thinkers, and writers. Freelancers may contact them with academic credentials, published writing samples, and proposed topics, and if an editor takes interest they will contact you. The “publication pays its writers at rates comparable to those paid by broadsheet newspapers. (The founders won’t say exactly what that rate is, but Brigid says sixty cents a word is ‘not a bad guess’)”, writes one reviewer. As for exposure, “Some stories do much better than others, with the most-circulated pieces attracting as many as [two thousand] tweets or Facebook likes. But the founders decline to share traffic numbers.”
As a reader, I find about one out of ten Aeon essays worth sharing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, as well as emailing to friends. Some examples: “So You’re Surrounded by Idiots. Guess Who the Real Jerk Is,” by Eric Schwitzgebel; “How Real Magic Happens When the Brain Sees Hidden Things,” by Vebjørn Ekroll; ”Monopoly Was Invented to Demonstrate the Evils of Capitalism,” by Kate Raworth; and “Medicine and Literature: Two Treatments of the Human Condition,” by Gavin Francis. The chance for further discussion between authors and readers is a key feature. In order to post a response, the reader must register/subscribe; and for some essays, the discussion chains are substantial. For instance, the essay, “Can Religion be Based on Ritual Without Belief,” by Christopher Kavanagh, has some eighty-nine responses.
For the most part, the essays wear their expertise lightly, yet without being dumbed down; more PBS than Readers’ Digest in manner. Brigid Hains wants “people to reconsider values and delve behind the news, to have the kind of conversations about ethos and world views that we feel bubbling away in the culture.” And the Haines’ network and editorial imagination concentrate on “ideas that can change the world” in five areas: world news, nature & cosmos, being human, living reaction, and the arts.
A companion site, Aeon Film, reflects the ethos of the magazine, say the Hainses. The films are “a mixture of curated short documentaries and original Aeon productions.” There appears to be no print publishing arm (yet), though an anthology of Aeon Bests would make an excellent text for most analytical thinking and composition courses.
For a recent interview with one of the editors, see here.
Guernica: A Magazine of Global Arts & Politics
Founded in 2004, Guernica seeks to explore “the cross section of global arts and politics.” They boast of “contributors from every continent…award-winning essays, art, poetry, and fiction from emerging and established writers and multimedia producers.” According to novelist (and Boston Review editor) Junot Díaz, “The world, that terrible heaving gorgeous impossibility, is to be found shining in every issue of Guernica.” The editors-in-chief are Hillary Brenhouse and Rachel Riederer, with such prominent guest editors as Claire Messud, George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Francisco Goldman, Ben Marcus, and Nick Flynn, and a sizeable volunteer staff. The magazine is published in affiliation with The Los Angeles Review of Books.
They describe their readers as “media-savvy individuals who identify as avid information-seekers and keen social influencers” and claim impressive circulation details: 200,000 site visitors per month and a newsletter open rate of 20–27 percent. Elsewhere they cite 3.75 million page views; 1.4 million unique users; 50k followers on Facebook, 40k on Twitter, and 16.3k newsletter subscribers. They don’t say what number responded to a survey, but claim that they are “mostly age 25–34 (32.3%), 35–44 (16.2%), and 45–54 (16.2%); are college-educated (72.3%), with many holding master’s and PhD degrees (45.3%); get their news primarily online (85%) and from radio (25.6%); read blogs daily (76.5%)….etc. etc.” Clearly these are demographics that even the print-standby Harper’s would covet.
The site is organized across the top by a dropdown menu of departments: Arts & Culture (features include a brilliant, detailed interview with Chris Kraus by Nicole Miller, summing up the achievement of Kathy Acker); Politics (an interview with the Serbian actress film-maker Mirjana Karanović by Aurora Prelević); Bodies and Nature (“Not That Story” by Nalini Jones, “about what girls must learn and how dangerous it can feel to learn it”); Lives (“Primed for Mysticism and Scared to Death” by Arielle Angel, a writer reckoning “with Judaism, the writing life, and the allure of fundamentalism”); Fiction (“Second Language” by Lidia Yuknavitch); Poetry (“Je Suis Sally” by Chet’la Sebree); Specials (“a deeper extension of our traditional explorations into arts and politics, [aiming] to broaden the range of voices participating in such conversations as ‘The Kiss,’ ‘The Future of the Body,’ etc); and More (random links recycling all areas of the archive).
Given the Age of Trump, the editors seek “writing that both enters and illuminates the fray.” Submissions are welcome from writers and visual artists “at all stages of their careers.” Nonfiction submissions are now open, and poetry and fiction should open this month. Full Guidelines here. They pay “modest honoraria for most poetry, fiction, multimedia and longform nonfiction pieces….The exact amount is determined on a per piece basis.” Upcoming: chapters from a new novel by political satirist Kurt Baumeister (whose website I recommended earlier here).
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