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PopMatters Literary Journal Review: One Story

Chris Gage

Where the standard literary journal packs a barrage of punches by amassing a collection of pieces (short stories, poems, art, nonfiction, detritus), One Story strikes quick and hard with its one forceful fist.

Editor: Hannah Tinti

Maribeth Batcha

Published "approximately every three weeks"

Subscriptions: $21 for 18 issues (within the U.S.)

Do One Thing, and Do One Thing Well

The world is cluttered mess with too many options. This statement is no great revelation. It's the lead to the follow-up article written whenever the latest public school standardized tests come back with woefully poor marks. ("Johnny spends more time on first-person shooters than he does on his school work.") There is no doubt that there are a lot of diversions out there to take your mind of what you should be concentrating on.

Even with the serene performance-art of yoga making inroads to the lives of the rich and spoiled (or so I've read), and the rise in weed smoking that is leaving wayward youths zonked out on suburban couches, there is no calm center to the current storm of possible attention-span ruination. PlayStation, cable TV, the Internet, niche magazines, movies, cell phones, pagers, drugs: only a saint could withstand the barrage of images and sounds and . . . well, the sheer amount of stuff.

Into this maelstrom comes the quiet of the literary journal One Story. Its format is direct and minimal. One Story's Web site says, quite succinctly, "One Story is a literary magazine that contains, simply, One Story. Approximately every three weeks, subscribers are sent One Story in the mail. This story will be an amazing read."

Where the standard literary journal packs a barrage of punches by amassing a collection of pieces (short stories, poems, art, nonfiction, detritus), One Story strikes quick and hard with its one forceful fist. With its subscription-only manner, a slim (3,000 to 8,000 words each) volume arrives regularly and begs only a brief audience with your time. In the recent past, the journal has suggested you spend time with excellent stories by Stephen Dixon ("Three Novels"), Darin Strauss ("Smoking Inside"), and Imad Rahman ("Eating, Ohio"). Each has been worthy of your time, no matter how valuable you think it is. And, besides, it is far from hard to admit the journal into your cramped schedule, as each issue of One Story "is lightweight, easy to carry, and ready to entertain on buses, in bed, in subways, in cars, in the park, in the bath, in the waiting rooms of doctors, on the couch in the afternoon or on line at the supermarket."

Traditional literary journals are collections whose voice changes with every piece. For this reason, they can be difficult beasts if done poorly. A good literary journal maintains a voice of its own (clever: McSweeney's; editorial: Ploughshares; "weird": Fence), which a reader can use to navigate the book. Still, ultimately, some of it suits your taste, while some of it does not. A literary journal demands that a reader read slowly and smartly, which is difficult to do when you're staring down the barrel of 200+ pages of content.

It comes down to this: we flip through journals and read mainly those pieces of immediate interest. The others we'll get to if we have time. One Story removes this urge by giving you three weeks to get around to consuming, at most, 8,000 words. (As it says on the site, "Besides, there is always time to read One Story.")

Maribeth Batcha, the publisher of One Story, agrees it can be difficult to tackle an entire journal, where enthusiasm can sometimes getting the better of you. "I think the hole I saw was for a journal in between the glossies and the standard journal, something a little friendlier than a journal, but more intimate than a glossy. I come from a magazine background, and I love the frequency of a glossy. I think people form relationships with magazines that appear more often. I also think that there's something satisfying about reading one short story, and with a collection or a journal, I'm often compelled to rush onto the next one." Tinti, though, makes it clear that One Story is offering simply another delivery method for writers. Literary journals, she says, are "vital to the world of literature. Often they are the only places where new writers have a chance of placing their work. What we wanted to do was simply offer something new and different to the traditional mix."

One Story's approach is an arrow of minimalism. The production values are elegant and understated. The biggest change of each issue is different colored paper for the cover. Otherwise, the designers (Matthew Fetchko and Nora McCartney) have fabricated a 6' X 8' stapled volume with clean, crisp fonts, and few curcliques of adornment. (The professionally printed envelopes and subscription cards tease of a larger budget than the magazine itself suggests.)

When asked about the whether they purposely keep the design and production simple or if it was a budget constraint, Batcha replied: "The budget was the main concern. Neither Hannah [Tinti, the editor] nor I earn any money from this. We don't have a backer and we both live in New York, which means we have absolutely no spare money, so our goal was to make this pay for itself in the first year, and we've done that. In order to do it (aside from the hard work) I worked backward. I determined what we could spend per issue, and then we designed the piece around it. We also wanted something that we could produce week after week fairly easily. I think, too, the design makes it clear that the stories are meant to be read. The magazine itself isn't the work of art, the story is."

By continuously choosing superb works, they do, in fact, successfully keep the stories the center of attention. The pieces are moving, appealing, and, most important, whole unto themselves. Issue number 19 contained an odd but wonderful story called "Eating, Ohio," written by Imad Rahman. The story begins, "I was at a low point in Eating, Ohio. My acting career was headed nowhere." To speculate that there are few meaty thespian opportunities in this mid-western burg would be a fairly safe bet. And, as it turns out, the character plays Zima Zoro at a sports bar where he tries to get patrons to buy the malt liquor drink Zima while wearing a ridiculous swashbuckler's costume. If you read the author q & a on One-Story.com, you can see where the idea came from. He explains three or four disparate things he wanted to write about (one being, "I . . . wanted to have two dudes beating up on each other in a funny-but-sad way) but it doesn't begin to explain the deft weaving he does with these ideas. A competitor to Zima Zoro enters the picture, a porn shoot occurs at his house, and he is struggling to choose between his girlfriend and alcohol. Cloaked in the absurd, "Eating, Ohio" unveils itself to show the honest and emotional colors of a man spiraling out of control.

Another issue is devoted to Stephen Dixon, whose works is particularly well suited to the One Story format. Dixon writes in sprawling paragraphs that can continue for pages in a runaway fashion. Often, in novel form, his narratives take on immense proportions, like more personal and uncomfortable Nicholson Baker musings. But Dixon's style can make his work particularly claustrophobic in a longer format. Constrained by the word limit of a short story, Dixon's rapid-fire dialogue and descriptions truly erupt.

Dixon's writing is often seen as difficult -- not your ordinary narrative-based story. His work is challenging and experimental and can be quite daunting. However, most of the pieces One Story publishes are more traditional fare. When asked if they had a theme or trend to the types of stories they chose (experimental over narrative, for example), they replied that they had taken on varied pieces but that was not the sole criterion for inclusion. "As far as a theme," Tinti said, "we try to publish stories that are strong enough to stand alone -- that feel whole and complete. We have published some experimental pieces -- Ben Miller's "The Man in Blue Green," for example, but because of our broad readership, we tend to spread these out among more traditional narratives." Batcha stressed that decisions are also aided by the reality of the submissions they receive: "I think too, that on the whole we see a lot more traditional stories than we do experimental pieces. We'd love to publish more experimental pieces."

Although it shows no signs of veering, the journal has embarked on some complementary endeavors that do nothing to take away from its goal of "allowing the writer to take the spotlight in a way most magazines (even glossies) aren't able to do." The editors launched a reading series in May 2003 with Strauss as the inaugural reader. In addition to giving the reading, authors get to choose a cocktail that will be offered at a reduced price. (Strauss chose the mojito.) In addition, One Story's Web site offers brief interviews with the authors about their intent, history, and advice for others.

In a climate of "mindshare," "clickthroughs," "audience share," and "eyeballs," One Story's restraint is to be admired, applauded, and envied. It is a predictable entity whose power comes from this. Batcha says they have "no temptation at all" in expanding the contents to, for example, two stories or poetry. "We're a bit swamped as is." Tinti agreed, saying, "I think the beauty of One Story is that it is extremely simple, so I don't think we will be expanding the issues. Some day we do hope to publish an anthology, but for now, our next goal is to publish an illustrated story."

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