Try this sometime: Say the words "literary magazine" to anyone—your mom, your coworkers, a random librarian—and watch as they try to conceive of some way to end the conversation. Besides the words "self-published autobiography," there are very few other ways to quickly batter to death a discussion with even the most ardent of bookish nerds. There are many reasons for this, but the main thing is that everyone knows the only people who buy literary magazines are aspiring authors who want to be published in literary magazines. The never-ending MFA-program loop disgusts and bores just about everyone who's not related, in one way or another, with the out-of-touch academic literary-fiction machine. The days of short stories published for mass audiences (the Saturday Evening Post used to sell three million copies an issue) seem to have passed into the realm of nostalgic fantasy.
But if more literary magazines were like Monkeybicycle, we might not be in this mess. (It is far better than its annoying, annoying name.) Editor Steven Seighman founded the literary magazine in Seattle in 2003 and curated a popular monthly series of readings. After two issues, he moved to New York City (though, he pines via e-mail, "I miss [Seattle] every day") and has gradually, through deft editorial guidance, transformed his magazine from something that initially resembled a lot of other pointless literary magazines (mysterious, opaque, and aimless) into a solid reading experience. In fact, the latest issue is more than just a litmag: It functions as an anthology of small-press authors doing great work right now.
Monkeybicycle's Seattle roots are still strong, and the newest issue, number 6, presents some quality local talent: Ryan Boudinot contributes a dark fable about a miner; Frayn Masters invents a protagonist who gets jarred to consciousness by an awkward sexual awakening; poet Cody Walker writes a brief, creepy open letter to Dick Cheney; and Martha Clarkson's narrator runs afoul of an odd policeman after absentmindedly littering on Thanksgiving.
Part of the reason Monkeybicycle (ack!) is so enjoyable is that Seighman isn't afraid of using the A-word: He wants to be "accessible," he says. Just about every litmag outside of Granta appears to want to alienate the general reader, but Seighman believes in the big tent. Monkeybicycle's last issue was devoted to humor, with writings by Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Sarah Silverman. The famous contributors helped sell the magazine to a broader audience, but Seighman was pleased to discover that most of the praise from readers was for the more-obscure small-press stalwarts in the issue, like Amy Guth and Elizabeth Ellen.
The new issue isn't marketed as funny, but the stories still are. Jason Jordan's story "Shuttle Cock" is about an independently wealthy young fellow whose penis desperately wants to become an astronaut. Every poem and story in Monkeybicycle 6 is entertaining, and a surprising image is written on nearly every page, as in this passage about a lush forest from Drew Jackson's "After Spaulding":
While I knew that the theory of spontaneous generation had been discredited centuries ago, it seemed that in Spaulding's fertile wood, you could toss away the heel of a Reuben sandwich and return the next day to find a motherless calf in the middle of a cabbage patch, licking itself clean of the 1000 island afterbirth.
The stories and poems here are well-crafted, but they feel spontaneous in their energy and inventiveness. They're the kind of stories that people who don't ordinarily like stories could accidentally fall into and then not come up for air for minutes afterward.
Last year, Monkeybicycle became an imprint of up-and-coming small press Dzanc Books, which means a little more stability. (It "helps us to stay on a two-issue-per-year schedule.") Seighman hopes eventually to publish books under the Monkeybicycle banner, and if he can do that while maintaining his sharp eye for talent and faultless drive for accessibility, I'll overlook the name forever.