Let's agree that I don't know what I'm talking about; after all I've never done it myself and it's pretty easy to criticize literary journals. Taking into account that I'm lucky enough to work for a publication that pays me to work here—as opposed to people who work for publications that they themselves produce, in which case they almost always lose money—let me ask this, as tactfully as possible: Why aren't there any great literary journals in this town?
If your answer is, Because there are no great writers in this town, well, you're wrong. This town is full of great writers; hell, this newspaper is full of great writers. If your answer is, You're wrong, Frizzelle, there are a lot of great literary journals in this town, why are you so critical?, well, you're wrong again. Not only are there not a lot, there are not any, and in answer to your riposte, because I'm paid to be and because I live in Seattle and I like to read.
Why list them, these Seattle literary journals that aren't any good? They're sitting ducks. Let sitting ducks roost, right? I guess one reason to list them is because most people haven't heard of them, which is a symptom of the problem, which is that none of them are great. Which is why none of them get talked about the way people talk about things they like and want to read. Cranky, Swivel, Rivet, Seattle Review—there are others, but these are the ones that seem to have some life, or at least keep coming out, even though they are, in the schoolyard sense, unpopular.
By which I mean, they all dress up in passed-down ideas about what literary journals are. It's as if they want to be ignored. The best literary journal in the country is McSweeney's. Certainly it's the best dressed and most fun to hang out with; you would think that its success at being something people like and want would be instructive. When McSweeney's came out it was exciting not just because of what it was, which was pretty good—although, frankly, it's possible to do better—but because of everything it was going to inspire. (Remember the throwdown in the first issue? "This journal was typeset using a small group of fonts that you already have on your computer, with software you already own.") The literary journal n+1, out of New York, is doing great things, if you don't mind pretension (and I don't); and the first issue of A Public Space, also from New York, is awesome and promising (more on it next week).
So, New York, 2; San Francisco, 1; Seattle, 0. I know what you will say, and I answer, You're being provincial. Greatness is possible. The local Golden Handcuffs Review aspires toward greatness, if not in its fiction and poetry than in its political daring. But it's not really that daring. I mean, have you read the current Harper's?