Tin House

[24 July 2003]

By Jonathan Messinger

Editor: Rob Spillman
Tin House
Vol. 4, No. 3, Spring 2003, 254 pages, $14.95

Winning Over Readers

It’s possible, ostensibly, to judge a magazine solely on its sex issue—if for no other reason than it’s the most fun for the reviewer.

Sex issues also tend to be when magazines aspire to catch new readers, to be at their best. Truth be told, however, Tin House’s sex issue (its most recent edition) is a great case study of the literary journal’s strengths and weaknesses. As Albert Mobilio says in his piece on New York’s Museum of Sex, “there’s nothing quite so user-friendly as sex.”

The issue, as with Tin House generally, is filled with the type of humor not usually found in literary circles. It’s gleeful. Mario Vargos Llosa writes an endearing ode to Brazilian Carnaval, a 62-year-old man experiencing the festival of flesh for the first time. Denis Johnson pens a short story about a middle-aged man fumbling into adultery. A slew of writers recall their first time experiencing literary erotic moments, the remembrances being both touching and (like all things young and sexual) forgivingly unpolished.

That’s the charm of Tin House, rather than being cynical or condescending, its tone features humor as a welcome mat: the reader is able to share the writers’ insights without shivering.

That seems to be the operating scheme of Tin House; let the writers kick about topics they find fascinating or near to themselves and the writing will always be lively. That principle seems to apply to every piece, whether it’s poetry, fiction or non-fiction. The back-of-the-book puzzle may be exempted.

In 1999 famed publisher Win McCormack, he who sunk a fortune into Mother Jones and The Nation, announced he would begin publishing Tin House, a journal that was as much about the non-fiction features as it was about the fiction and poetry. He hired a relatively big-named editorial staff (husband-and-wife team Rob Spillman and Elissa Schapell write for Details and Vanity Fair respectively) and opened offices in both New York and Portland, determined to avoid being just another magazine pumped from the city of a thousand magazines. Since then, the magazine has been true to its father’s wishes.

In fact, it’s been an enormous success. Editors have chosen intriguing pieces from Nobel Laureates and complete unknowns, featured in each issue’s “New Voices” section. Selections from the magazine have been reprinted in Best American Stories, Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, O’Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. Bestial Noise, the magazine’s fiction collection, was released in April 2003 to great acclaim. Its literary seminars attract experienced and new writers, with particularly strapped writers even awarded scholarships and fellowships for assistance.

Perhaps the most interesting feature in each edition is filed under “Lost and Found.” Here authors explore favorites from their youth or underrated masterpieces. The tone varies from anecdotal to evangelical, as the writers try to convince the reader of their selection’s virtues. At times, it sounds like a one-sided argument in a bar, not surprising for a literary magazine that has published its own cocktail recipes. To that end, Tin House gladly goes against the grain: it is irreverent without pretension. Even its design—elegant, playful and eminently readable—welcomes the reader warmly. It’s a far cry from the academic austerity of many of its peers.

I first got hooked in 2001, when ‘The Only Solution to the Soul Is the Senses’ appeared in its fall issue. David Shields wrote an essay detailing his unabashed idolatry of Bill Murray, the pock-faced comedian. Shields’ passion for his subject was so evident in his language, it would be easy to replace the words “Bill Murray” with, say, “The Louvre” or “Da Vinci” and not skip a beat. Even Shields’ phrasing gives away his affection; the essay was rife with em dashes, lending the impression that the author was fighting a losing battle to catch his breath.

It may seem ridiculous, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s rare that any sort of ode is paid to pop culture in a literary forum, never mind one directed at mid-level pop icons such as Murray. It’s the honesty with which Shields speaks, and it feels like he’s speaking, that disarms the reader. This is the epitome of the lit mag in peak form: the reader gives in to the point where the writer is no longer judged and the reader no longer wary.

If the quirkiness of Tin House is its greatest asset, it could also be seen as a weight around its ankle. While the writing is interesting and the features unique and idiosyncratic, there is little challenging about the magazine. The sex issue, in particular, is somewhat tamer than one would expect and nearly borders on frigid. The magazine’s middle-aged feel extends to its approach to sex, and one gets the feeling that the sophisticates putting together this issue view sex more as a metaphor than a real-life act. Everything is interesting, charming and graceful, but nothing is fiery. Nothing sends sparks the way writing about sex should.

That is not to say, however, this issue doesn’t have its gems. The Johnson story, ‘Xmas in Las Vegas,’ is a slow-moving meditation with characters who live on long past the final sentence. Lynne Sampson’s dissection of the fig as a forbidden fruit is fantastic, the type of essay that combines unique insight with research to produce an engaging piece about an ordinarily mundane thing. Charles Simic has three poems accompanied by Howie Michels line drawings. The two work well together, combining a bit of salacity with an amusing economy of words and pen strokes.

That’s the Tin House dichotomy: it is both amusing and contemplative. It was born with the mixed blessing of receiving more hype than any literary magazine could dream, and its proven that it can still be surprising. Four years after the launching, the magazine and its staff are still generating hype for their rare approach to literature: they have fun.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/tin-house/